Revolutionary Wave engulfs Bangladesh

Peace has broken down completely in the country of Muhammad Younis, the Nobel Peace prize-winner for the year 2006. The New Year started in Bangladesh with riots, strikes, political unrest, turmoil, confusion and disorder. After weeks of street violence, which has taken 40 lives, the President of Bangladesh, Iajuddin Ahmed, has been forced to step down from his post appointing Fakhruddin as the head of a state in total disarray.

Bangladesh is now the third country in South Asia with a former employee of the World Bank as head of state, after India's Manmohan Singh and Pakistan's Shaukat Aziz. Fakhruddin received a PhD in economics at Princeton University and held senior positions in the World Bank from 1978 until 2001 before joining the Bank of Bangladesh as its governor.

Before the finalization of Fakhruddin's appointment, some behind the scenes actors had approached Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Younis and the head of another NGO, BRAC, Fazle Hossain Abed, to take the responsibility. Both of them had political ambitions but the ferocity of the mass movement terrified them into submission. The upheaval of the oppressed also exposed their false claims of "alleviating poverty" through so-called microfinance and other NGO-type reformist methods. Poverty and deprivation have struck back with a vengeance against the gimmickry of right-reformism.

The swearing-in ceremony of Fakhurddin Ahmed was attended by Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the opposition Awami League and the 19-party Alliance, which was protesting against the appointment of party officials to hold elections which were scheduled for 22 January. Begum Khaleda Zia, the ousted prime minister and widow of former president Zia ur Rehman, and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) abstained from the swearing-in ceremony.

The increasing violence began after an expected but decisive announcement by the Awami League and its allies on 3 January stating that they would boycott the general elections. The candidates of the Bangladesh Communist Party, the JSD and other left parties also withdrew their nomination papers. To press their point, the opposition parties organized massive protests in recent days and threatened more unrest before the vote. The protests were accompanied by clashes of workers with the police. The police baton charged and fired tear gas on workers calling for the appointment of an impartial provisional government. More than 40 people have been killed in these acts of state brutality and hundreds have been injured.

At first Iajuddin was adamant that the elections would be held on 22 January according to the schedule. However, in the face of increasing mass defiance he had to call out the army in the main cities on 11 January, enforcing a state of emergency and a curfew. Within hours of the declaration of a state of emergency, President Iajuddin announced his resignation as president, as well as the postponement of the scheduled elections. The dramatic announcements by President Iajuddin Ahmed were the latest twist in a tumultuous few months marked by increasing strife between rival political camps that has disrupted the country since October and has repeatedly paralysed the country. Ahmed did not say when the elections, originally scheduled for January 22, would be held, and fears remained of further turmoil in a country with a history of military rule and violently bitter democratic politics.

Sheikh Hasina, who served a five-year term as the prime minister from 1996 to 2001, is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the first prime minister and founding father of Bangladesh. In the 2001 general elections Khaleda Zia was elected prime minister for a second term, which came to an end in October 2006. Before leaving office in an atmosphere of escalating turbulence she appointed the "caretaker government" which was severely criticized by the opposition. This ultimately culminated in the resignation of president Iajuddin, who was also the chief of the caretaker government.

The deepening political crisis is a reflection of the growing poverty, misery and suffering in the country. More than half the population live below the poverty line and a large part of the other half live just above or on the poverty line. None of the political parties have been able to solve the growing economic disparity and destitution in the country. In fact, all the governments in Bangladesh over the last two decades implemented the policies of the World Bank and the IMF, which further aggravated the miserable conditions of the masses. The inability of the leading political parties to solve the crisis has given fundamentalists a chance to grow and gain some influence in the echelons of power. The Awami League was founded on the slogans of secularism and Mujib declared secularism as one of the pillars upon which the structure of Bangladesh would rest. Now under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina, a pact has been signed with Bangladesh Khilafat Majlish, a fundamentalist organisation. The pact recognized the principles of fatwa (religious law and judgment) and promises to bar any enactment which goes against the values of the Koran.

Similarly Khaleda Zia is also in alliance with Islamic and fundamentalist parties including the vicious Jamat e Islami. This resorting to obsolete ideologies of fundamentalism shows the historical bankruptcy and rottenness of the Bangladeshi bourgeoisie, represented in both parties, and how they are unable to offer any programme capable of solving the misery of masses.

The real causes of the upheaval

The political battle, which is a farce, is being played out on the stage of economic chaos and social upheaval. The garment industry of Bangladesh has been in serious crisis since last year and a revolt of garment workers in May and June 2006 shattered the dreams of stability and peace in the country. It also exposed the extreme exploitation and repression the workers have been subjected to by successive regimes.

The garment industry is responsible for 75 percent of the total exports of Bangladesh ($8 billion) employing nearly 1.8 million workers, of which 90% are women. The shift of the industry from developed countries to developing countries in search of cheap labour brought the multinational companies to the shores of Bangladesh. This shift increased the workers employed in the garment industry from 582,000 in 1991 to 1,404,000 in 2000. The use of cheap labour increased the profits of these companies who were paying an average of $10.12 an hour to workers in the USA, but here in Dhaka they can employ a women for 1900 Taka or $14 per month!

But starvation wages are not the only expression of brutal exploitation. A few years ago the legal working week was extended to 72 hours; the actual working day is often up to or above 16 hours. There is no weekly time off in the garment sector. There are no public holidays, no annual leave. Also the bosses "show a reckless disregard for safety at workplace as deaths of 4000 workers in industrial accidents such as fire and building collapse point to." (New Age, 24th May 2006). Not only this, there have been cases of beatings and killing of workers. "Intelligence sources said some senior staffers of the factory killed two female workers at Dhaka Export Processing Zone (...) about one and a half years ago but workers could not protest at the time for fear", (Daily Independent, 2nd June 2006, Dhaka).

The cruel exploitation of labour by the capitalists who are extracting huge profits is throwing the workers into the abyss of deprivation and misery. In a recent survey it was disclosed that 75% of the workers had good health before joining the garment factory. Long working hours, low wages, forced labour accompanied with occasional beatings is the usual life of a garment worker in Bangladesh. Many workers have died or been disabled due to inhuman working conditions. In an interview with a women garment worker, "Fazila explained that the machine used for making sweaters has to be paddled with the right leg continuously for 12 hours with a short lunch break of only 30 minutes. Because of this her entire right side is under constant movement while the entire left side remains idle. This led to her disability." (Quoted from Paul-Majumdar, 2001)

The lack of trade unions in the garment industry was also helpful for capitalists in abusing the workers. However, this advantage was turned into a disadvantage when the inhuman working conditions forced the workers to raise their voices demanding better conditions. The workers united and held sit-ins in front of factories in May last year. The capitalists used brutal measures to curb the voice of the workers and also used the state machinery. Police not only baton charged the workers, but seeing their determination opened fire upon demonstrators and killed many workers. Instead of retreating, the workers gathered in huge numbers in different areas. Such was their fury that they burned factories and other installations from which they had been locked out. The revolt of the workers from 20 May to 6 June 2006 was a reflection of the changing mood of the proletariat, of which women are a big part and are playing a leading role.

The first week of October was also a chaotic week for the garment manufacturers in Bangladesh. More than 200 factories were occupied by the workers in their quest for the fulfilment of their demands for better working conditions and pay increases. They were demanding a minimum wage of 3000 Taka.

Below the current political crisis lies massive economic unrest and a growing workers' movement. On 10 January 2007 dozens of workers were injured at a garment factory when over 200 goons, hired by the factory authorities, attacked the workers who were protesting against the beating of two of their leaders by the bosses.

The Bangladesh Daily Star reported that the attackers, led by police informant and local hoodlum Mobarak, beat up the workers, mostly women, and also confined five workers to the office of an executive on the third floor of the seven-storey Padma Poly Cotton Knit Fabrics Ltd. The workers alleged that the hired thugs also molested the women workers during the two-hour attack.

This incident is one of the many that occur on a routine basis in Bangladesh. The lack of trade unions and the absence of political leadership have left the workers with no option but to resort to the tactics of burning and destroying factories. A trade union leader, Mishu, explained that, "if there had been trade unions in factories... the situation would not have turned violent." (New Age 3rd June 2006). In a letter from the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers' Federation to Prime Minister Khalida Zia it was stated that, "The absence of trade unions is more dangerous than the presence of active unions". Now there has even been talk of getting assistance from the International Labour Organization in setting up tame and collaborative trade unions.

On the other hand the consciousness of proletariat in these garment factories is developing by leaps and bounds. The lack of revolutionary leadership is the main hindrance in taking this class war to its revolutionary conclusion.

Disarray in the garment industry is compounded by the depleted energy sector of Bangladesh. The World Bank recently estimated that Bangladesh needs 10 billion dollars in investment over the next 10 years to fix the average daily power shortfalls of 700 to 800 megawatts. Total daily demand is estimated at around 4,900 megawatts, compared with a supply of only 3,065 megawatts. Only 25 percent of the country's 140 million people have access to electricity. Many rural areas have power for only four hours a day, if at all.

Other sectors of the country's infrastructure are also in dismal conditions. There is a rapidly aggravating crisis in the agricultural sector and the impoverishment in the rural areas has increased massively. The peasants who try to escape from the crumbling rural economy and come to the cities are jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The leadership of the dominant parties and the media try to manipulate the present upsurge as a movement for free and fair elections. Although this is partially true, the main force behind this fierce resistance of the workers are the socio-economic grievances which have been accumulating for several years and which have now exploded in the class struggle.

Historical background

Present day Bangladesh emerged as East Pakistan at the time of the partition of the Indian Subcontinent in 1947 when the British colonialists left the region. In this reactionary division of the Subcontinent, the two main nationalities that were divided in the name of religion by the British in connivance with the local bourgeoisie were the Punjabi and Bengali. The main reason being that in the two hundred years of colonial rule the main revolts and fierce revolutionary resistance movements that rattled the Raj were from these two provinces. After independence the main ruling elite was mainly from West Pakistan and the masses of East Pakistan faced socio-economic deprivation and there prevailed a strong feeling of national oppression.

In 1968-69 there was a revolutionary upsurge on a class basis both in East and West Pakistan. This revolt took on a socialist and revolutionary consciousness at lightening speed.

The period of 1967-72 was one of enormous upheaval and social explosions. The whole of the Indian subcontinent was engulfed in a revolutionary storm. The unevenness of socio-economic development had now burst forth in the shape of a mass revolt against the Ayub dictatorship. The masses had been subjected to an orgy of violence by the state. Throughout East Pakistan the police killed demonstrators and attacked workers. There was also a complete strike in the industrial areas around Dhaka. Workers and peasants from outside Dhaka came to the city to take part in demonstrations and protests. Some of them carried ploughs and sticks with them. Later pickets went to government and semi-government offices, calling on the employees of the state to join the strike. The state was hanging in mid air as a revolutionary wave swept across the country.

On 14 February, 1969 The Times reported, "with the entry of the working class into the revolt, hitherto limited to students and political parties, observers are beginning to doubt whether the government or the opposition can control the forces unleashed in Pakistan".

A revolutionary leadership organized throughout the country could have used this opportunity to seize power and to wage an armed struggle in Dhaka itself to defeat the oppressors. The gherao (besieging of landed estates) movement was also in full swing in the countryside. Workers laid siege to factories and the management were virtually imprisoned inside.

The occupation of factories by the workers, the seizure of land by the poor peasants, the awakening of women and the valour of the students and youth had created a revolutionary situation. Bhashani, the Maoist leader of the Awami Peoples' National Party (ANP), who initially became the main leader of the movement in East Pakistan, really had no idea what to do next. The delay in the revolution and the ebbing of the tide diverted the movement along national lines in East Bengal and war hysteria was whipped up. This led to a ferocious civil war and the separation of Bangladesh in 1971. The Pakistan army suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Bengali masses. The Pakistan army inflicted gruesome atrocities during the civil war. Hundreds of thousand of people were brutally killed and women raped. In the aftermath of the surrender of the Pakistani army in December 1971, a new conflict arose in Bangladesh. During the national liberation struggle a form of soviets had grown up in the areas liberated from the Pakistani army in East Bengal. These had to be crushed by the invading Indian army in connivance with the Islamic fundamentalists and the reactionary bourgeois nationalist forces of East Bengal. The seventh fleet of the US Navy was anchored offshore in the Bay of Bengal with marines on board ready to intervene. The national struggle once again developed along class lines: these soviets comprised students, workers and peasants. It was threatening the system once again. US imperialism feared that the Indian Army might fail to crush the soviets which were mainly controlled by the Mukti Bahini and the JSD, the left wing of the national liberation movement. It is a historical fact that the Pakistani army was defeated even before the invasion by Indian troops. To a certain degree they had entered Bangladesh to save the Pakistani army and to quell the new rising tide of the revolution.

Had the social revolution been successful in East Bengal then it would have been almost impossible to prevent it from spreading to West Bengal where the left was already strong and society was radicalised. A red Bengal with its historic traditions of uprisings and resistance movements, in the midst of a postwar crisis-ridden subcontinent would have meant a real revolutionary possibility throughout the whole region. It would not only have threatened the rule of capital in the Subcontinent, but its impact would have had devastating repercussion for the US and western imperialism on a world scale.

The class movement in East Bengal was betrayed by the pro-Chinese leadership of the left on the direct instructions of Mao, who was on very cordial terms with the Pakistani dictator of the time, Field Marshal Ayub Khan. The Bengali bourgeois nationalist leadership was supported by the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow as it was serving the strategic interests of the Indian bourgeoisie led by Indra Gandhi, who was Moscow's main ally in the region. Such was the narrowness of the nationalist leadership in East Pakistan that it even refused to incorporate the masses of West Bengal as it was under Indian hegemony, even though they were as much Bengalis as those in the East.


The flame of Bangladeshi nationalism has since flickered and been extinguished. In the short span of its existence, some 35 years, Bangaldesh has been under military dictatorships for more than 16 years and experienced 19 coups and attempted coups. The democratic interlude has not meant any respite for the impoverished masses. The experience of Bangladesh is a glaring example of the fact that national liberation on a capitalist basis solves nothing. In reality the living standards and conditions of the masses have further deteriorated since independence in 1971. Today Bangladesh stands at the crossroads and faces a reactionary dictatorship or a socialist revolution. There have been more general strikes in Bangladesh than in any other country of South Asia. The two mainstream parties, the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) represent the main sections of the Bangladeshi bourgeoisie. Their mutual conflict represents the intense contradictions that have developed among the different sections of Bangladeshi capitalism. The crisis is so intense that it seems to be impossible to resolve on a bourgeois basis. The democratic farce has decayed and disintegrated; military intervention is too risky to be imposed upon the masses in revolt. Indian intervention would further provoke the movement. The imperialists are worried, but there is not much that they can do in this situation, and they are trying desperately to bring about a compromise between the warring factions of the bourgeoisie. Even if they manage to do this, it would only be a temporary patch, which would be very short lived, fragile and chaotic. Its demise will usher in greater conflict and perhaps even a ferocious and more radical movement of the masses. In spite of the vacuum on the left and the pathetic capitulation of both the BNP and the Awami League to Islamic fundamentalism, the obscurantists are not strong enough to sway the movement in their direction. The trade unions are weak (less than 1% of workers are unionised). Now the task mainly rests on the shoulders of the Communist Party, the Workers' Party and the JSD (Jatya Samajtantrik Dal - Socialist National Party) to break asunder the myth of this farcical bourgeois democracy and present a clear revolutionary program to the masses.

Capitalism has utterly failed to solve any of the problems facing the masses. In fact it has brought them only further misery. In 2004 a Bangladeshi female textile worker said in an interview to a British journalist, "We women textile workers envy those women who can get into prostitution as they are much more privileged than us".

This is the disgrace that bourgeois independence has subjected the masses to in this unfortunate land. The JSD has a certain tradition of mass struggle. They had a strong position as a left current in the national liberation struggle. They failed because they did not offer a clear revolutionary class alternative and the Awami League leadership captured the movement with support of Indian and world imperialism. Again after the bloody coup that ousted Mujib-ur-Rehman, and after the coup in 1982 they had the opportunity to capture power but they hesitated and lost the opportunity.

One of the main setbacks for a society under military rule is that it diminishes the political consciousness of the masses and fosters illusions in bourgeois democracy. This is what happened in the initial periods of Bangladesh's formation with successive bloody coups and brutal military dictatorships that ravaged society. But after 1990, the 16 years of "bourgeois democracy" have shattered these illusions of the masses and obliterated this myth of freedom under a democracy in the clutches of the oligarchy of finance capital. Hence the present movement is politically much more advanced and could embark upon the path of revolution more rapidly than ever before.

At this critical juncture the left parties face a classical explosion of the class struggle with the proletariat leading the way. The bourgeois leadership is trying to lure it back onto the corrupt and discredited electoral field. The state is weak and teetering on the edge. At this historical juncture the left parties and trade union activists should unite around the Bolshevik Leninist programme of socialist revolution. Appealing to the workers of South Asia and the world for support they could move forward and overthrow this rotten system. A socialist victory in Bangladesh would spark a revolutionary flame that would light up the whole of South Asia and lay the foundations for a Socialist Federation of the entire South Asian Subcontinent. 

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