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AWLHistory took a new turn on June 23, 1949. There were some courageous men — Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, Yar Mohammad, Shamsul Haque, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and, of course, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy — whose names are today engraved in the Bengali consciousness. These men, grown acutely aware of the growing authoritarianism of the ruling Muslim League, thought it necessary to break loose of the organisation which had spearheaded the struggle for Pakistan and come forth with the Awami Muslim League. The goal was democracy. The objective was to reassure the people of Pakistan, in both wings of the country, that they had a political alternative to fall back on in their yearning for pluralistic politics.

Today, at this remove in time, it is necessary to remind ourselves that the place of the Awami League in Bangladesh’s history has been an enviable one. As the party observes its founding anniversary today, it is well and proper to look back at the story it has scripted for itself since June 1949. There is pain and then there is pleasure in that story. There is the record of the huge advances made by its leaders over the decades; and there are the demonstrations of pettiness that have prevented a good number of its leading lights from transforming themselves into leaders on a nationwide scale.

In the beginning there were the men who felt early on in Pakistan that the Muslim League was swiftly turning into a feudal, self-serving organisation. And thus was the Awami Muslim League forged into shape, a party of Muslim League dissidents who believed that the genesis of Pakistan was under threat at the hands of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s successors.

But the Awami Muslim League did not or would not replace the Muslim League, in that strictly communal sense of the meaning. The spur that pushed it into taking a new path along the forked road of politics was the growing nature of the language movement in East Bengal. February 1952 was to be a watershed. By the middle of the decade, the party would reach out to all classes and all denominations of citizens, as the Awami League. There was boldness in a jettisoning of the term ‘Muslim’ from its name. Pakistan, after all, was a Muslim state, implicit in whose philosophy was the second class nature of its Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, tribals, and others.

Having shed its communal skin, the Awami League became the force to beat in public opinion at election booths. Its leader Suhrawardy assumed a pre-eminent role at the centre. In the province of East Bengal-turned-East Pakistan, it was to be either the ruling party or a powerful opposition, in the shape and form of men like Ataur Rahman Khan. And yet it would face a major crisis in terms of ideology. Suhrawardy, naively suggesting that the 1956 constitution had given East Pakistan ninety eight percent autonomy, then gave foreign policy a patently pro-Western sheen and substance. An outraged Moulana Bhashani walked out, to reinvent himself as the chief of a new organisation, the National Awami Party (NAP). That was post-Kagmari 1957. The Awami League was in crisis.

The 1960s …

The Awami League was much sinned against in the decade-long period of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan between October 1958 and March 1969. Banned under martial law, it would re-emerge in 1962 but only as part of an alliance of opposition political parties. Placed under arrest and then freed, a shaken Suhrawardy left the country, to die in Beirut in 1963. Earlier, a leading figure of the party, Shamsul Haq, went missing along the way, figuratively speaking. He would die sad and forlorn. Today, not many in the party remember or talk about him, which is a pity. Meanwhile, power in the party clearly was beginning to pass into the hands of a radical group of young leaders headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In early 1964, Mujib revived the Awami League and moved out of the opposition front.

A defining moment for the Awami League came in February 1966, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman placed a Six-Point plan of regional autonomy for Pakistan’s federating provinces at a conference of opposition leaders in Lahore. It left the remnants of the old party leadership, personified by the likes of Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, horrified. It created consternation among the other opposition parties. And it pushed President Ayub Khan into threatening to employ the language of weapons against the party. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s foreign minister, challenged Mujib to a public debate at Dhaka’s Paltan Maidan over the Six Points. The cerebral Tajuddin Ahmad, general secretary of the Awami League, took up the challenge. In the event, an intimidated Bhutto failed to turn up. But that did not stop the regime from going ahead with its plan of eliminating the Awami League. Mujib, along with his young associates, was once again in prison by May 1966. That did not prevent Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury and Amena Begum, two young leaders of the party, from organising an unprecedented general strike in support of the Six Points throughout East Pakistan on June 7, 1966.

By January 1968, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would be the principal accused in the Agartala Conspiracy Case instituted by the regime against him and thirty four Bengali civilian and military personnel. His party was under relentless assault. Increasingly subjected to brutality, the party struggled to hold on. It took the blows patiently. A year later, it was marching back to life in freedom as popular support replenished its energy. A free Mujib, once the conspiracy case was withdrawn, became Bangabandhu. He travelled to Rawalpindi for a round table conference, a leader on the march.

The 1970s …

Bengali support for Bangabandhu and his party came through the electoral triumph of December 1970. A year later, the Pakistan army having murdered three million Bengalis, Bengali constitutional politics having graduated to armed guerrilla warfare, Bangladesh was a free people’s republic. Less than three years later, Tajuddin Ahmad, the man who had organised and led the battlefield struggle for freedom, was shown the door by his leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It was an early sign of the tragedy which awaited the party. Three and a half years after December 1971, Baksal took over where the Awami League had been. A one-party state, militating against the values upheld by the original party, was in place. Disaster struck only months later. Bangabandhu and the four leaders of the Mujibnagar government were shot down, in a military coup led by the rightwing Awami Leaguer Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed.

In the darkness between August 1975 and May 1981, it was back to struggle. Mizan Chowdhury and Dewan Farid Gazi held their factions together. And then it was Zohra Tajuddin who bravely fought on, until Sheikh Hasina took charge in 1981. She took the party back to power twenty one years after 1975. And Hasina has been there since, as the longest surviving leader of the party.

The Awami League then is quite removed from the Awami League now. It was once a politicians’ club. It is now a happy hunting ground of politicians, businessmen, retired military officers and superannuated bureaucrats. Then, its politics was collegial, even if men like Bangabandhu were Olympian in height. Now, the party chief is the recipient of absolute loyalty.

Despite everything, the centre has held for the party. Ayub Khan gave it a hard time. Yahya Khan proscribed it. Ziaur Rahman and Hussein Muhammad Ershad went as far as they could to keep the party from re-emerging into light. And yet things have not fallen apart. It has survived. Yet it must survive better, through returning to its old reputation — that of an inclusive organisation reaching out to all citizens of Bangladesh.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a bdnews24.com columnist.

Syed Badrul Ahsanis a bdnews24.com columnist.

8 Responses to “The Awami League in our history”

  1. mohammad zaman

    An old writing:

    A Brief Political History of Bangladesh

    “In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme” – thus goes Aristotle; but an observer of democracy as it has unfolded in Bangladesh may, for good reason, raise question about the wisdom of the ancient wise man. Maybe his heart was full of goodness and he forgot the goons of Machiavelli and/or Kautilya.

    Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and a consummate democrat was rather pragmatic when he voiced his frustration – “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.” And that’s were comes the constitution and the judiciary to rescue and safe guard the rights of the minority, thus giving a meaning to the affirmation of Abraham Lincoln – “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”

    Abe Lincoln was a wily man but he never lost sight of democratic equality even in the darkest days of his administration. Can we say the same of our leaders? When the going got tough, the first elected leader of our nascent nation decided to scuttle democracy in favor of one party rule reminiscent of Hosne Mubarak of Egypt and/or Asaad of Syria; and that was it for democracy in Bangladesh …

    A bloodbath followed wherein Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and hundreds of others including politicians and military personnel had to lay their lives before democracy was restored by a stone-faced ambitious general (Ziaur Rahman), whose foot prints were awash with non-kosher happenings. Keeping himself personally honest he paved the path-to-politics with money and treachery. He, indeed, was a force of nature only to be perished by another natural happening; he too was slain by his own military – it’s the Karma … one never should let the military taste the power absolute monarchy. An then it was the still-alive chameleon general, the Bishwa-Behaya, whose staying power, I bet, shall survive his own demise.

    And this brings us to the TWO LADIES of present-day Bangladesh. And the story keeps unfolding …


    Both of the ladies are anointed to top of their party hierarchy on the hilt of tragic family misfortune. Both of them are products of one-man-cult and have steered the politics to a perilous cult of clans – the Sheihks and the Rahmans. To be fair, yes – in their early years they were hand-in-hand comrades for the good of the country; they fought together to kill the dictatorship of Ershad. At the same time, both of them leaned on gaudy politics and at times showed evil inclination towards monkish version of politics, thus rehabilitating and rejuvenating the defeated forces of nineteen seventy one.

    Best of their accomplishment came when they showed their pragmatic side by innovating an incredibly suitable system – the erstwhile Care Taker Government (CTG) that is being emulated in other countries with similar political fabric. First few five-year-terms went well. However, the political banditry that was earnestly cultured by Ziaur Rahman and nurtured faithfully by Ershad, by then had developed stout roots, and took a life of its own. Haowa Vabon and it’s likes flourished. Being convinced of one-term nature of political fortune, they began to nibble at the basis of the CTG system. Ensuing melee lead to the two-year-stint of a queer military-backed civilian CTG of 2007-2009. For right or wrong reasons, politicians of the highest order suffered the brunt. “Never again, ” snarled the post-1/11 Prime Minister of Bangladesh. She is a determined lady of exceptional pizzazz and wala … CTG system is gone with the wind; aspiration for pre-election fairness, by now, has retired to its eternal repose.

    Well, it was a great system but was it good for the country? Nope; we kept on voting for the same thugs, albeit of different stripes. I have no intention of belittling Ravana, but the age old adage comes handy – “Whoever goes to Lanka, morphs into a Ravana.”


    The Information & Communication Technology Act of 2014 just asked me to shut up. No further commentary is acceptable and hence my position is: Election or no election … what’s the heck!

    Mohammad Zaman
    Potsdam, NY 13676

  2. Golam Arshad

    Happy Anniversary ! Six Score and Six Years! I salute the Founding Father of Awami Muslim League Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, founding General Secretary Mr.Shamsul Haque of Tangail, Bongo Bandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, scores of founding members which includes my late father Mr.Abdul Awwal of Sonargaon.Narayanganj. The initial convening meeting held at the famous Bhulu Bose cabin in Narayanganj on 23rd or 24th November 1948.Thetefore, Narayanganj is the birth place of Awami Muslim League.The meeting was presided by Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani. The Awami Muslim League formally christened it’s heraldic birth at the Rose Garden hosted by the then Chairman of Dhaka Municipality Late Kazi Muhammad Bashir. One devoted well wisher,who funded the newly formed Party, he was Mr.Kader Sarder, one of the powerful councilor of then Dhaka Municipality and the owner of Star Cinema Hall.Few names must be added in the formation of Awami Muslim League: Khawja Selim cousin of Dhaka Nawab, Mr.Nuruddin of Green and White, Mr.Yar
    Mohammad, Sadruddin Ispahani and Mr. Showkat Hossain of 54 Mogul Tully Lane. 54 Mogul Tully Lane was the founding office of the Awami Muslim League. Each of its founding member including its distinguish President, and the leader who blossomed to be the Father of the Nation Bongo Bondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman were the stalwarts of freedom for a homeland of the Indian Muslims. They were the Stars of Freedom and they vehemently challenged the Punjabi cohorts who denied the legitimate right of the majority. The valiant stars of then East Pakistan never yielded. The birth of Awami Muslim League laid the foundation seed for a separate homeland for the Bengalis of East Bengal.Right from get go The Awami Muslim League pursued a moderate center right Party. Bongo Bondhu inspired the Bengalees with template of moderation targeted towards freedom for today’s Bangladesh. Thank you Badrul for your wonderful write up!

  3. sundar swapan

    may one ask the author what is more important . is it the survival of the party or the achievement of goal promised by its founding fathers? if the goal was to establish a democratic and exploitation free society how far the party has succeeded to do that? would the author give an honest reply to that?

  4. Anwar A. Khan

    Dear Mr. Syed Badrul Ahsan:

    This is a thoroughly readable piece. It is also a fine article. Thank you very much for writing such a good piece on AL.

  5. Jabed Iqbal

    While going into details of the earlier AL, the author seems to have nalysed the current state of the party hastily. The only paragraph dedicated to the current state of AL is very subdued in its criticism. AL requires radical change from the apex to base. In recent years, it has turned into a party of sycophants and babblers.

  6. mithun ahmed

    “These men (the founders of the Awami League), grown acutely aware of the growing authoritarianism of the ruling Muslim League, thought it necessary to break loose of the organisation which had spearheaded the struggle for Pakistan and come forth with the Awami Muslim League. The goal was democracy.”
    If that was the goal, it seems that the Party had failed miserably to uphold that ideal–it has deviated from the principles of democracy both within and without the organization and had sadly followed the path of “growing authoritarianism of the Muslim League” its founding fathers found so abhorring!

  7. Anis Chowdhury

    A nice short history. But as any brief account it misses some important aspects – hope not deliberately. First, Hussain Suhrawardy was not among the leaders who formed the Awami Muslim League (AML). Bhashani was its founding president, Shamsul Haque (General Secretary) and Sheikh Mujib and Khondakar Mustaque (Joint Secretary). Suhrawardy became leader of the parliamentary party later.
    It is important also to say a few words about how AML became AL. When Moulana Bhashani proposed to drop Muslim from the name, it was opposed by Suhrawardy on the ground that the time was not yet right. He was supported by both Bangabandhu and Khondakar Mustaque. Bhashani could not pass it in Council and took his proposal to a mass meeting. Khondakar Mustaque’s opposition to the proposal was a sinister one. He organised Madrassa teachers and students to be at the front and near the pandel so that they could oppose and cause disturbances. Bhashani seeing the plot, asked the crowd and the Madrassa teachers/students, whether Allah is the Lord of the Mankind and all the creations or only of the Muslims. The reply was a roaring “Lord of the Mankind”. Then Bhashani announced “from now Awami League will be a party for ALL, not just for Muslims; so the party will be known as Awami League”. Bhashani understood the core of Islam and the true attributes of Allah – the Rabbul Alameen – the Lord of the Universe [creation]; Rabbin Naas – the Lord of mankind. Islam is inclusive. It is for humanity. So, the party he founded should belong to the people (Awam), Bhashani argued, and not just to Muslims – hence the Awami League.

    Thanks to the author for reminding the readers the Western bias of Suhrawardy and his famous statement (98% autonomy) regarding te 1956 constituion.

    Finally, also thanks to the author for highlighting the roles of Shamsul Haque who is largely forgotten, and the likes of Mizan Chowdhury and Amena Begum, and of course Tajudding Ahmed. Perhaps one more name needed mentioning – Abdul Malek Ukil, who revived the AL after 1975. The author rightly say that the present day AL is different, but it is also not the same party founded by Bhashani-Shamsul Haque-Sheikh Mujib. The current AL is a birth given by Abdul Malek Ukil assisted by General Zia.

    • Golam Arshad

      Mr. Chowdhury: Correction: Bongo Bondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who was then in Jail in Faridpur, proposed at the AML Council session by my late father Janab AbdulAwwal of Sonargaon/Narayanganj to be the Joint Secretary of the Awami Muslim League, Khondokar Mushtaq opposed, it was then proposed and accepted in The AML Council that my late father Janab Abdul Awwal will be the Joint Secretary till Bongo Bandhu is freed from Jail. My late father had the dual responsibility of acting Joint Secretary and Organizing Secretary of AML. Hope this will dispel doubt and put back History of Awami League in its historic perspective. Thank you!

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