Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Nigel Harris


(March 1973)

From Notes of the Month, International Socialism (1st series), No.56, March 1973, p.6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Nigel Harris writes: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League should win comfortably the first Bangladesh general elections on March 7th. Yet the Government is taking no chances: violence and corruption are its main instruments in campaigning.

A January demonstration on Vietnam led to the police killing two students and injuring seven others. Bands of pro-Government gangsters are said to have kidnapped 17 opposition candidates to prevent them filing nomination papers, fired on opposition meetings and rallies, and beaten up parry workers. On February 4th, the opposition claims 50 jute workers were killed and 150 injured in a Government attempt to force the workers to vote for its union as main ‘bargaining agent’ (officially, 12 were killed and 31 injured by unidentified ‘miscreants’). The Sheikh has allowed himself to be nominated as candidate in seven constituencies (including the 4 Dacca seats) where the opposition might be strong.

The Awami League is right to be nervous. Conditions for the majority of people have deteriorated remarkably over the first fifteen months of Independence (and things started from a very low point after 9 months looting by the Pakistani army). Inflation in the price of essentials (rice, kerosene, cloth) is biting into consumption. The price for 2 pounds of rice has moved from 0.75 takas (March 1971) to 1.40 (Jan. 1972) to 2.30 last November; meat from 1.50 to 4.00 to 7.00; cotton shirts from 15 to 50 to 70 takas each. Average annual income per head is about 513 takas, and about 190 takas for the poorest fifth of the population.

The failure of the last monsoon harvest – after three years of poor crops – makes prospects even grimmer. Peasants who can afford to (in collaboration with local Awami League politicians) are hoarding grain to push the price up, or smuggling it out of the country to Calcutta where prices are higher (because of the gross over valuation of the taka relative to the Indian rupee). The new ruling class is increasingly seen to be steeped in corruption; dealers now regularly add 5 to 10 per cent to every account to cover bribes all the way up from the clerk to the Minister.

The Sheikh’s response to all this wobbles between rhetoric – the new Constitution lays it down that ‘It shall be a fundamental responsibility of the State to emancipate the toiling masses, the peasants and the workers and backward sections of the people, from all forms of exploitation’ – occasional irritability (he recently ‘dismissed’ 19 AL Assembly members), but basically toleration of the sins of his friends. Towards opponents, however, he is quite unsqueamish. The notorious Collaborators’ Order gives the police local power to gaol for up to 6 months without trial anyone they dislike on the simple charge that the accused collaborated with the Pakistani army in 1971. Local Awami League men have set up a lucrative protection racket on the basic of this order.

However, what the Sheikh loses does not accrue automatically to the opposition. The Left is full of revolutionaries, including four Communist Parties, but none has been able to break out of the sterile rhetoric of lower middle class grievances into serious class politics. The two main electoral opposition forces are a Left coalition, the All Party Action Committee of Maulana Bashani, and a Left-wing breakway from the Awami League, the National Socialist Party (Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal). The APAC combines six groups or parties, including two Communist Parties, but is mainly a vehicle for the revival of Bashani’s fortunes (his group, NAP(B), claims 200 of the 242 candidates being put up by APAC). The NSP, equally full of sound and fury, is the creation of two former AL student leaders and a former Liberation guerilla; it claims to be putting up candidates in all 300 constituencies. In both cases, despite lofty disclaimers, it is clear that the polls are the main raison d’être for the groups concerned. Their mutual rivalry will ensure a much greater victory for the Awami League.

Meanwhile the urban workers are increasingly hostile.

The drift towards dictatorship is inexorable in such circumstances unless the the opposition can break out of the Dacca salons into the jute mills. There are few signs that it will do so.

Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 29.6.2008