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The Balance of Power

Loss of legitimacy did not lead to a mass political formation in Bangladesh, but the series of elite and military coups that followed the famine were powerfully influenced by that possibility. Fear of a mass uprising and the loss of legitimacy of the elected government were threads running through the sequence of events that followed the famine. Fearful for his control of power, Mujib engineered an uncontested constitutional change that paved the way for the establishment of the single-party BAKSAL regime in early 1975, with himself as all-powerful President. A coup by junior army officers in August assassinated Mujib and his family in a gruesome attack, installing a right-leaning Awami League leader who was then displaced by a second and finally a third coup, the last a 'sepoy mutiny' of leftists in the military. By a twist of fate and treachery, this last installed General Zia Rahman (not a leftist) in effective power in November 1975. Political power finally settled for the next fifteen years on a pair of military or civilianized-military regimes that were able to assert some control over the army, hold off political opposition, appease international backers, and offer the prospect of some improvements in security, including of food, and which sowed the seeds for human development.[1]

For contending nationalist and leftist political elites, loss of mass support implied a loss of support for the statist socialist economic model that had been so briefly tested, and by implication for parliamentary democracy as a political system. The international community and the 'comprador' class of domestic business interests read the same signs differently. Both within and beyond the Awami League leadership, it was clear the regime needed to 'pull a rabbit out of an old hat', as Mujib's attempt to install a single-party system with himself as President was described (Lifschultz and Bird 1979, 143).

The 'year of the famine' was the 'real testing time for Mujib and his ideology' (Z. R. Khan 1996, 221):

Mujib would appear to have become receptive to the idea of a radical change [away from multiparty democratic rule] only after the 1974 famine... it was only then that he became convinced of the need for a 'breakthrough' in order to build an 'exploitation-free' society. (Karim 2005, 345)

Ideological conflict was playing out in almost total anarchy within and outside the government: from ministerial resignations and palace plot and counterplot to armed insurgency, repression, and murder (Maniruzzaman 1975a; Maniruzzaman 1976; Maniruzzaman 1975b; Karim 2005; Jahan 2005; Sen 1986). But—in a polarized world, with the left split along Moscow-Maoist lines, the aid pipeline dry, bankrupting the country—which way would Bangladesh go now? A folk song by a member of the leftist Krishak Shamity (peasants' organization) gives a flavour of the popular mood:

It is time We ate them.

Let's eat them, brothers,

They are killers.

It is time We ate them.

We are many.

(Excerpt from Song by Nazu, performed at a pir's mazar (saint's shrine) in December 1974;recorded in Jahangir 1976, 261-2.)

From the local left through to the Cold War power elite, all saw the situation as ripe for revolution. The US and the USSR saw the famine as the main threat to the stability of this 'violent political tinder-box' of a region (Lifschultz and Bird 1979, 108) (Schwarz 1974a). There was little appetite for a social revolution within the political elite, but the crisis of 1974 had made the parties further to the left of essentially bourgeois Awami League a 'much more powerful force than they had been in the former East Pakistan':

[T]he utter failure of the AL government to alleviate the sufferings of the people made it easier than before to believe that in a developing country socialism could not be achieved through western democratic methods and that the salvation lay in a social revolution engineered and led by a party of the proletariat.

(Maniruzzaman 1988, 165)

If the revolution did not arrive it was 'because of betrayal in high places, rather than because conditions were not ripe for radical change' (Hossain 2005, 85). Under the Awami League, tens of thousands of members of underground parties on the left were allegedly killed or arrested, a process that continued into General Zia's regime (Maniruzzaman 1988).[2] Older, less popular parties of the moderate left survived or were co-opted. International and regional powers were universally unsupportive of a strong left, just as they had been of Bengali independence: the Indian government viewed radical groups as potential Naxalites, and the Chinese leadership had no interest in the small Maoist struggle in Bengal, enemies of their allies in Pakistan.

  • [1] The most detailed accounts of the means and motives of these coups remain Lifschultz andBird (1979) and Mascarenhas (1986);but see also Tripathi (2014);Jahan (2005);Maniruzzaman(1988).
  • [2] Including the infamous jail killings of Awami League leaders including Tajuddin Ahmed, thefirst Prime Minister. In a well-known case, Colonel Abu Taher, the JSD former freedom fighter wholed the leftist coup that installed Zia Rahman, was tried in camera and hanged by the man he hadrescued, most likely from the firing squad (Lifschultz and Bird 1979).
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