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A 'Crisis of Legitimacy'

Wholesale social revolution, as in Ethiopia after 1973, is rare after a major famine. But before the June floods, Bangladesh in early 1974 was already ripe with revolutionary ferment, and the political agenda full of hunger, inflation, and corruption. Far-leftists (the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD)) in increasing contention with the ruling Awami League held rallies in January and February 1974, and gheraoed (besieged) the chairman of the notoriously leaky Red Cross, food aid relief committees, and the State Trading Corporation (responsible for foodgrain management) in March. The centre-left also mobilized around food security. In June, the Bhashani-led United Front launched a four-point programme including universal foodgrain rations and tackling corruption, smuggling, and speculation (Maniruzzaman 1975b, 121). The politics of food security in this dependent economy were inevitably internationalized: the economic and food crises were blamed on smuggling to India and the regime was criticized as overly pro-India (Khondker 1985). Hostility to the US meant foreign aid was resisted by the left. By late 1974 all foreign aid had effectively dried up, and the 40 per cent of the budget that depended on external assistance went unfinanced (as did the food gap, as has already been seen). The government took an aggressive stance against the underground far-left parties, for whom national independence was 'an unfinished revolution' (Maniruzzaman 1975a). By late 1974 thousands of Awami League workers had been killed by the regime's opponents, and far-leftists had been jailed, killed, or driven underground, mainly by the regime's paramilitary force, the Rakkhi Bahini (Karim 2005).

For upper- and middle-class idealists who had envisioned an egalitarian 'Golden Bengal', disillusion centred on members of their own class in power. Decades later, the former Planning Commission member (and famine researcher) Anisur Rahman reflected that

The war and its aftermath were painful not only because of what happened, but because of the dream that has been shattered. So many things were promised and so much we have lost. And we lost that dream to a great extent because of the betrayal of the so-called nationalist elites... We ate together, starved together, suffered together and shared our lives. [But after independence] The elite rejected the people. (quoted in Tripathi 2014, 234)

Rahman was among a group of seventy intellectuals that publicly accused the regime of having caused the famine with their tolerance of smuggling and corruption (Weinraub 1974).

The 'lost dream of a shared nation' is a recurrent motif in middle-class memoirs of the period. A freedom fighter who remained in the army in liberated Bangladesh described his experiences with the anti-smuggling and relief effort:

Bangladesh was on the brink of a famine. The euphoria and aspirations engendered by victory and the liberation of Bangladesh had turned into national despair. I returned to Saidpur after the completion of my assignment with the overwhelming thought of how my fallen comrades would have behaved in battle if they knew that the poor people who had helped the Mukti Bahini at great personal risk would starve in an independent Bangladesh. (Q. K. Khan 2013, 231)

Stories of women and children being abandoned by husbands and fathers dramatized the failures to provide minimal protection against death and exposure. A notorious image of a starved young woman, Basanti of Kurigram, draped in a fishing net (because she had no clothes) depicted bare life in a nightmarish echo of the wartime rapes.[1]

The masses write neither political manifestos nor memoirs, but some of their views—more often, middle-class and foreigners' views of their views— have been recorded. That the masses were disillusioned seems probable, but early political history is sensitive and polarized, making it difficult to read the signs with clarity, and there are few firsthand accounts from people who suffered. The international media typically quoted officials, glossing the views of the masses in general statements that veered wildly. A New York Times journalist noted in October 1974 that 'Sheik [sic] Mujib's popularity remains intact... he is still venerated by most people as the father of the nation'. By December, her colleague found the Prime Minister and ruling party were the subject of angry criticism and a common theme was that 'life was better under the Pakistanis' (Rangan 1974; Weinraub 1974). Perhaps popular disillusion had spread; perhaps people held both views at once.

One view is that the Father of the Nation had to date been excluded from the disillusion, and the famine was the turning point: 'the people now cursed not only the government but also Sheikh Mujib himself' (Mascarenhas 1986, 44); '[t]he year of the famine became the pivot of Mujib's decline' (Lifschultz and Bird 1979, 46). The emotional quality reported of public disillusionment suggests his fall was painful precisely because he had been so beloved (and, as Father, symbolically and literally responsible for feeding them). Other politicians were both more obviously to blame and demonstrably cared less. One widely loathed politico, Gazi Golam Mostafa, chairman of the Red Cross and party boss for Dhaka city Awami League, was described by an aid official as 'the most corrupt man in Bangladesh' (Lifschultz and Woollacott 1975), and he was the regular target of leftwing protests and the media. In a fatal connection, Mostafa was also involved in an altercation with a Major Dalim, an army officer who had previously been part of the army's humiliating failed drive to curb foodgrain smuggling and was later part of the plot to assassinate Mujib (Mascarenhas 1986; Lifschultz and Bird 1979).

'Much has been made about the lack of public grieving over Mujib's death' (Tripathi 2014, 250), but how should this be read? Certainly there was disillusion. For the masses, the time of the famine is remembered as a time of great hardship: political violence, authoritarian rule, and blatant corruption outraged the Dhaka upper-middle classes, but across the rest of the society, the memory of hunger lingers.[2] Yet Mujib was still the leader of the victorious liberation struggle. As human rights activist Sultana Kamal points out, despite his failures (highlighted indefatigably until the return to democracy in 1991), Mujib retains broad popular appeal: 'people remembered what it meant to fight for a Bengali nation; what Sheikh Mujib meant for that struggle' (Tripathi 2014, 250). Even at the time, disappointment mingled with respect. In a rare contemporary account of village people's views of Mujib's assassination, Hartmann and Boyce reported mixed emotions on the breaking news:

'My brother died fighting for independence', [one man] said somberly. 'Now they have murdered the Father of our Nation.'

'Mujib was a thief,' [another man] retorted. 'He gave all our wealth to India.'

By afternoon, the villagers' initial anxiety had given way to euphoria. 'No one is crying for Mujib,' [one woman] told us. 'He has got his due.' There was almost an air of celebration in [the village], as groups of villagers gathered to discuss the news.

(1983, 240)

The response to the cold-blooded murders of the entire Rahman family suggests disillusion and betrayal by a beloved hero, but also a traumatized population inured to bloodshed. The extreme nature of the violence against Mujib and his family was deliberate, a tactic to pre-empt protest. Author of the constitution and Mujib-era minister Kamal Hossain explained that '[Mujib's assassins] succeeded in shocking everyone into a state of paralysis... They were worried about how people would react, and they correctly guessed that the more horrific their act, the more afraid the people would be' (Tripathi 2014, 251).

In any case, top leaders are often spared mass disapproval in such times. In China's Great Leap Famine, starving people blamed frontline officials rather than Mao: 'A distant entity called "the government" and a semi-god called "Mao" were on the side of good. If only he knew, everything would be different' (Dikotter 2010, 229). Starving Chinese peasants believed Mao would save them and 'dragged themselves to the top of the nearest mountain, faced the direction of Beijing and called out aloud for Mao to help them' (Becker 1996, 310). It is unlikely that Bangladeshi famine victims would have had quite so much faith in the top leadership: Bangladesh in 1974 was an open, if violently fractious, polity. But there is limited evidence that the poorest blamed the government or Mujib personally. In one report from North Bengal, a starving man is asked what caused the famine. 'Allah', he responds, flatly. But the journalist adds: 'Others blame the Government—some even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman', with no evidence in support (Schwarz 1974b). In another instance, a starving twenty-two-year-old widowed mother-of-three responded to a question about who is to blame: 'I do not know who is responsible. I blame my own destiny'—a response roundly rejected as the ignorant fatalism of a village woman by people (not starving) who witnessed the exchange. 'She should blame the government', the audience pronounced. Middle-class disappointment that the Bengali masses did not rise up against their starvation is an old theme.[3] But starving people may not behave as intellectuals and leftists would have them do, for physiological as well as political reasons: the resources of even the most resilient people would have been depleted after the horrors of the 1970s.

Among the many tragedies of this time is that Mujib appears to have been personally distressed by the famine and aware that it could presage his own end. This was so even though Dacca never displayed a grasp of the severity of the situation and persisted in the view that 'only' tens of thousands of people had died, when the rigorous conservative estimate is more than fifty times that. In 1974 Mujib rarely made public appearances. In August he told a UN official: 'Country is fighting for survival. I am fighting for survival' (Gerlach 2010, 168). Video and witness testimonies of his mood at this time in no way suggest a political leader who was detached from or careless about his people. Unlike Selassie or Mao, for whom famine was an embarrassment or irritant, Mujib made little attempt at concealment. Swallowing his considerable pride, he went cap in hand to the international community. He even hosted Henry Kissinger at the height of the famine in an effort to save 'his people' from starving. This point is not to absolve Mujib for the failures of his administration, but to note that a sense of moral responsibility distinguishes the 1974 famine from others of the modern period: here was a political leadership that could not, politically speaking, afford a famine, and which had powerful historical and social affinities with the starving masses.[4] No such sense of moral responsibility is ever detected among ruling elites in accounts of the Irish, 1943 Bengal, or Ethiopian famines, least of all in the imperial British attitudes to the 'late Victorian holocausts' (Davis 2001). In China, Mao seemed unmoved except by the impact of the famine on his own power, and then-President Liu Shaoqi was reportedly horrified once he witnessed the devastation in his own home village (Jisheng 2012). It is one thing to tolerate famine among peoples who are different and far from the capital. It is quite another when they are your own people, and lie dying before your eyes.

  • [1] The 'Basanti' image appears to have been staged in an effort to attract attention to the famine,although the distress it depicted and Basanti herself were genuine. The image appears to be a matterof some controversy, and (unusually for a controversial image) cannot be found online.
  • [2] In personal communication, the historian Afsan Chowdhury has told me that in a survey hewas conducting about wartime memories he was surprised to find that researching memories of1971, rural people recall the years after the war, not the war itself, as the time of hunger.
  • [3] There is a long discussion of this in Thompson (1991);see also Greenough (1982).
  • [4] These come through in the pained writing by elites about this time. A particularly thoughtfulaccount of 1974 is by former head of the Planning Commission, Nurul Islam (2003).
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