Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani

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Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani

Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani (1880-1976) was a Muslim leader who used non-violent, mass civil disobedience techniques to promote nationalism in Assam, Bengal, and Bangladesh in the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent.

Acatalyst of Muslim nationalism, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani did for the masses of the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent what Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi accomplished for the teeming down-trodden people of north, central, and south India. Unswerving in his belief in God and human dignity, Bhashani crusaded, at times singlehandedly, against the vested interests in Assam, Bengal, and later Bangladesh in favor of the deprived—landless peasants, workers, and hapless migrants.

Like Gandhi, Bhashani succeeded in institutionalizing political dissent and making opposition politics viable and respected. Also like Gandhi, he never accepted any position in government although he was elected to Assam, Bengal, and East Bengal assemblies and was himself the founder of the most effective political parties in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Ideologically, Bhashani was a Marxist and Islamist, at the same time both admiring the People's Republic of China and regretting that the Chinese lacked faith in God. Enigmatic, uncompromising, and candid, Bhashani was a charismatic leader who could motivate ordinary people to join his movement for social and economic justice.

A Life of Protest

Born in 1880 in the village of Dhangara, within the province of Bengal in British India, Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani received his early education in a Madrasa, one of the religious schools for Muslim boys. As a boy of 12 he moved to Tangail, about 60 miles from Dhaka, now the capital of Bangladesh. After completing his religious schooling at Tangail and becoming a Muslim religious mentor, or Maulana, Bhashani enrolled in the Islamic Center in the United Provinces, known as the intellectual seat of militant Islam in British India. Before he could complete the course he joined a politico-religious movement advocating militancy for Islam. A decade and a half later Bhashani became one of the most ardent followers of another politico-religious movement of the Islamic World—the Khalifate movement in 1919. Protesting the dissolution in Turkey of the Khalifate (Caliphate) by Kemal Ataturk landed Bhashani in jail for ten months.

Long before he joined the Khalifate movement Bhashani had been a crusader for peasant rights in Tangail against the oppressive landlords. Following a peasant uprising against the King of Santosh in which Bhashani played the leading role, he was expelled by the British from the Mymensing district which included Tangail. Uprooted but undiscouraged, Bhashani continued to organize peasant movements in northern Bengal.

In 1904, at the age of 24, Bhashani journeyed to Assam, the northeastern frontier province of British India, where he was moved by the suffering of the 2.5 million Bengali Muslim peasants, particularly the new settlers among them. He organized peasants against the prevalent usury system which led to pauperization and economic enslavement. His successful organization of a mammoth protest rally of different peasant groups in Sirajganj, known as All Bengal Kissan Sammelon (All Bengal Peasant Conference), led to the abolition of the much hated usury system.

During this period Bhashani tried to organize another peasant rally at Kagmari village in Tangail to mobilize resistance against oppressive practices of the landlords of Mymensing. With the help of British civil and law enforcement officials, the landlords prevented Bhashani from holding the meeting and, at the same time, forced him to leave Mymensing within six hours.

Return to Assam

In the early 1930s Bhashani again went to Assam with the hope of alleviating the suffering of Bengali Muslim peasantry. Unlike the earlier time, Bhashani was now an astute politician and an effective organizer of reform movements. Mobilizing the Muslim population of Assam, Bhashani established the provincial branch of the Muslim League and was elected its president in 1934.

His historic stand against political injustice made him popularly known as the religious leader of Bhashan Char or, in Bengali, Bhashan Charer Maulana. From that time, the title Bhashani, derived from the word Bhashan, stuck to him. For his uncompromising commitment to the cause of Muslim peasantry, Bhashani was arrested eight times during his 15 years of political leadership in Assam.

From 1934, when he established the Assam branch of Mohammad Ali Jinnah's Muslim League Party, to 1937, Bhashani completely immersed himself in the mass movement. He provided a much needed leadership to the Muslim peasantry, particularly the migrants from the neighboring provinces, for their struggle against repressive measures. His movement politics was perceived as a major threat not only by the Hindu landlords in Assam but by Muslim landlords as well.

In the mid 1940s the new congress government in Assam arrested Bhashani, fearing that he might transform the peasant movement into a political movement for the merger of Assam with the would-be Pakistan. Only after the partition of India in 1947, when most of Assam (with the exception of the district of Sylhet) became a part of India, was Bhashani released by the Assam government on condition that he leave India. Immediately he returned to East Bengal, which comprised the eastern flank of Pakistan.

Campaign for Bengali Language

After his return to East Bengal in 1948, the Maulana became one of the vanguards of the students' language movement demanding that Bengali be accorded equal recognition with Urdu, the language of West Pakistan, as one of the two official languages of the new Muslim nation of Pakistan. The same year, Bhashani dissociated himself from the Muslim League Party and formed a counter party, the Awami (nationalist) Muslim League Party, with himself as president and Shamsul Huq as general secretary. In essence, Bhashani founded the first organized opposition party in Pakistan.

Bhashani's opposition party was further strengthened when Hussain Shahid Suhrawardy, the last chief minister of undivided Bengal, and Sheik Mujibur Rahman, a prominent leader of the language movement who was later to become the charismatic leader of Bangladesh, joined the Awami Muslim League in 1949.

Late 1949 also saw the arrest of Bhashani, his tenth, but the first in Pakistan. He had organized a hunger march in Dhaka demonstrating against the food policies of the government which coincided with the visit to East Bengal of Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister of Pakistan. In jail Bhashani, like Gandhi, went on a hunger strike and was released on health grounds the next year. When the language movement peaked in 1952 Bhashani was arrested once again.

Founds Two New Parties

In 1953, immediately after his release from jail, Bhashani organized a United (Jutka) Front, a coalition of opposition parties, along with A.K. Fazlul Huq, H.S. Suhrawardy, and Sheik Mujibur Rahman to contest the election of 1954. In that election the Jutka Front won a landslide victory over the provincial Muslim League Party, winning 290 of 300 Assembly seats. However, within two months the Front ministry, with Fazlul Huq as chief minister, was dismissed by the central government under pressure from the Muslim League. East Bengal was put under the governor's rule and Huq under house arrest.

In order to make his party appealing to the minority Hindu community, most of whom were peasants, Bhashani dropped the word "Muslim" from the Awami Muslim League. However, at the party's annual conference the following year Bhashani decided to start a new party because of serious disagreement with H.S. Suhrawardy, who was then the prime minister of Pakistan. The new party—the National Awami Party—linked not only antiestablishmentarian associates in East Pakistan but also prominent progressive leaders from West Pakistan.

After the abrogation of the constitution in 1958 by Gen. Iskander Mirza and the subsequent military take over by Gen. Ayub Khan, Bhashani was arrested and held in prison for four years and ten months. He was released from detention only after he went on a hunger strike. In 1963 he led a Pakistani goodwill delegation to the People's Republic of China where he had meetings with Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung) and Chou En-Lai.

In 1964 Bhashani challenged the Ayub regime by engineering the nomination for president of Fatima Jinnah, the sister and confidante of M.A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. But the insurgents were beaten by Ayub Khan.

Bhashani's National Awami Party then split into two factions: a pro-Moscow and a pro-Beijing one, with the former headed by Muzaffar Ahmad and the latter by Bhashani. Bhashani now introduced "Gherao," a form of sit-in designed to encircle the official against whom a protest was directed. This strategy created increasing momentum in his movement politics against the Ayub regime, ultimately contributing to the nation-wide mass movement causing the downfall of Ayub Khan.

Struggle for Justice Continued

Bhashani opposed not only Ayub and his successor, Yahya Khan, but also the charismatic leader of independent Bangladesh, Sheik Mujibur Rahman. His unyielding pursuit of public good was demonstrated when he lent his support during the march movement of 1971 to Sheik Mujib as the elected leader of the Bengalis fighting for state rights. He did this in spite of the fact that he still had reservations about Sheik Mujib, whose party won its first landslide victory in 1970.

During most of the nine-months-long Bengali liberation war in 1971, Bhashani lived in India convalescing from a serious illness. He irked Indira Gandhi and her government by reviving his old demand for uniting the peasantry of Assam, Bengal, and East Pakistan in a continued struggle for social and economic justice.

Toward the middle of November 1971, when India's intention to involve itself directly in the Bengali-Pakistani war became apparent, Bhashani advocated that Bengalis be given the chance to win their own war even if it meant prolonging their guerrilla struggle against the Pakistani military. This stand, along with his known pro-Beijing leanings and coupled with his pre-partition advocacy of a united front of peasantry cutting across national boundaries, made him suspect in the eyes of Indian leaders. After his return to the new nation of Bangladesh in March 1972, he led a hunger strike (1974) against Mujib's presidency and a long hunger march the same year.

After the assassination of Mujib in 1975, the Indian leadership's image of the Maulana worsened, particularly when he attracted world attention by organizing a long march of millions of Bengalis in protest against India's 1976 withdrawal of water from the international river, the Ganges, at Farrakka in West Bengal. As always, the Maulana inevitably took recourse (as did Gandhi) to direct action through non-violent civil disobedience.

On November 17, 1976, at the age of 96, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani died in Dhaka. Millions of Bengalis mourned for him and took pride in the legacies he left behind as a selfless, principled, and courageous leader of the Third World. His "Islamic Socialism" may have been puzzling to many, but his tangible contributions to political, social, economic, and religious reforms were beyond any doubt.

Further Reading

Additional information on Bhashani and his activities can be found in Zillur R. Khan, Leadership in the Least Developed Nation: Bangladesh (1983), and "March Movement of Bangladesh: Bengali Struggle for Political Power," Indian Journal of Political Science (September 1972), as well as Sirajul Hossain Khan, "Champion of Exploited," Holiday (November 21, 1976). □