The Awami (People's) League was founded by Husain Shaheed Suhrawardy in June 1949 in the East Bengal (renamed East Pakistan in 1955) province of Pakistan. H. S. Suhrawardy gathered senior members of the Muslim League whose power had diminished in their own party and young, ambitious politicians who were opposed to communalism in Pakistan. Both groups, however, were united in the belief that the Muslim League, which spearheaded Pakistan's independence movement, no longer represented the needs of the majority of the populace.
In 1949, though barely two years old, Pakistan was already plagued by economic, political, and social disparities between its two major regional wings. This strife was further complicated by the geographical complexity consisting of the four provinces in the west (Northwest Frontier Province, Baluchistan, Punjab, and Sindh) with East Bengal in the east, which was separated by approximately one thousand miles of India. Some of the first signs of hostilities between East and West Pakistan arose as early as 1948 when Muhammad ˓Ali Jinnah, the central architect of the creation of Pakistan, visited the eastern province and proceeded to criticize Bengalis for not learning Urdu, the lingua franca of West Pakistan. Tensions in the regions continued to escalate and in 1952 student efforts to make Bengali a recognized national language led to violent clashes with the police resulting in the deaths of four Dhaka University students. This tragic event further intensified the cultural divide that haunted this young nation.
The people of West Pakistan generally associated the Bengali language with a Hindu India and, therefore, believed that Bengalis should be obligated to learn Urdu, a language clearly associated with Islam. Furthermore, West Pakistani officials deemed Bengali to be closely aligned with pro-Indian sentiment, which was highly unpopular in West Pakistan. This fear and suspicion of Bengali Muslims contributed to West Pakistan's refusal to cede many of the demands of Bengali Muslims. They therefore resisted efforts to recognize Bengali as a national language until 1954.
The desperate economic situation plaguing East Pakistan fostered the belief among its inhabitants that their province was being treated as a colony instead of as an equal partner in the burgeoning nation. Although East Pakistan experienced significant economic growth, the province reaped little of the pecuniary benefits with most of the national expenditures directed toward West Pakistan. Furthermore, few Bengalis held important positions in the administration with even fewer represented in the military. These escalating tensions precipitated the unprecedented move of a splinter group, consisting of East Pakistani politicians, to create a new political party to achieve the common goals of the Bengali population.
In 1949 Husain Shaheed Suhrawardy, Ataur Rahman, Maulana Bashani, Shamsul Huq, and Shaykh Mujibur Rahman co-founded the Awami Muslim league. It was the first party truly to provide alternate representation for the people of East Pakistan. In the late 1950s it changed its name to the Awami League, welcoming non-Muslims into its fold, thus marking a significant shift toward secularism. By 1956 the Awami League was the most popular party in East Pakistan and became the Muslim League's main contender for power.
From 1958 to 1971 Pakistan was reduced to an administrative state with four years of martial law and a diminished role for its fledgling political parties. In February of 1966 Shaykh Mujibur Rahman, the dominant figure in the Awami League, presented the "Six Point Demand" to the other political parties desiring to work collectively to oust the West Pakistani government of Muhammad Ayub Khan. The demands called for separate but equal federation of powers between East and West Pakistan, governed by a parliament elected on the basis of one person/one vote throughout both parts of Pakistan. Gaining the support of the Awami League was equivalent to gaining the support of East Pakistan, but Mujib was only willing to put the Awami League's support behind the coalition if the coalition from West Pakistan was willing to support his "Six Point Demand" (see Mujibur, Appendix 2, pp. 127–128).
For the Bengalis the "Six Point Demand" clearly and concisely reflected goals that would balance powers between the two regions and place Bengalis on an equal footing with their brethren in the western province. Consequently, this "Six Point Demand" consolidated Bengali support for the Awami League. However, it was simultaneously viewed by those in West Pakistan as a document that would work against the tenets laid out in the creation of a united Pakistan.
In Pakistan's first general election in December 1970 the Awami League won 167 of the 169 National Assembly seats allotted to East Pakistan. This landslide victory was due in part to other parties boycotting the elections. In West Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Khan Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party won 83 of the 131 seats allotted to that province. With this Awami League victory, the National Assembly should have been able to push through the "Six Point Demand" swiftly. Instead, General Yahya Khan (who served as martial law administrator from 25 March 1969 until 20 December 1971) postponed the convening of the National Assembly. This led to an outbreak of violence, the arrest of Shaykh Mujib on charges of treason, and the eventual war for independence resulting in Bangladesh's declaration of independence on 16 December 1971.
Shaykh Mujib, also known as Bangabandhu ("Friend of Bengal"), ruled Bangladesh as its first prime minister until his assassination on 15 August 1975. He is remembered as a great charismatic leader successful in creating the ideological base that united and defined a nation. The constitution of Bangladesh was framed upon Shaykh Mujib's four principles of democracy, socialism, secularism, and nationalism. Yet after independence he was unable to move the country forward economically or democratically. Less than a year after independence, Shaykh Mujib was accused of being ineffectual—a criticism which further contributed to his decision to limit the Bangladeshi multiparty system. Further leading to Mujib's downfall was the famine of 1974. In January 1975 the constitution was amended to make Mujib president for five years, giving him full executive authority. A few months later he created the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL, Bangladesh Farmers, Workers, and People's League) while simultaneously outlawing all other political parties. He then created a paramilitary force called the Rakhi Bahini, which was known for its intimidation tactics.
Under Mujib's rule, the Awami League faltered in meeting its goals and consequently lost its popularity with the people. However, after Mujib's death, Bangladesh experienced a number of military coups and counter-coups, resulting in a resurgence of the Awami League's popularity in the 1980s. Consequently, in June 1996 the League won an overall majority in the Parliament with Shaykh Hasina Wajid, daughter of Shaykh Mujib, sworn in as prime minister. During her tenure in office, Wajid had sought to prosecute her father's killers and attempted to put forward a pro-democracy platform and pro-socialist economy that encouraged a private sector. Consequently, the League's rivals often accused it of being too pro-India and secular.
In 1977 Ziaur Rahman, one of Bangladesh's most-decorated major generals during the war for independence, became Chief Martial Law Administrator and president of Bangladesh from 1977 until his assassination in May 1981. He was also the founder of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP). In his first year in office Ziaur Rahman amended the constitution, created by the Awami League government in 1972, to make Islam, and not secularism, one of its guiding principles, a move that ushered in an era of warmer relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan. Today, there are currently more than twenty political parties in Bangladesh with varying platforms emphasizing communism, secularism, and Islamic interests. However, the Awami League, and its main rival, the BNP, continue to dominate national politics. The BNP, led by Khaleda Zia, widow of Ziaur Rahman, runs on a platform that favors democracy and is more oriented toward Islam. As this young nation strives to develop its political system, the question of whether the state should be secular or Islamic continues to dictate political discourse.
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