Bhasani, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan

Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani

Bhasani, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan (1880-1976) politician. Popularly known as Maulana Bhasani, Abdul Hamid Khan was self-educated, village-based, a fire-brand, and skeptical about colonial institutions. Though immensely influential throughout his political career and instrumental in winning many general and local government elections since 1946, he consistently stayed away from holding actual power. His leadership was rooted in his relentless and incessant struggle for safeguarding the rights and interests of the peasantry and the labouring classes.

Bhasani was born in 1880 at village Dhanpara of Sirajganj district. His father was Haji Sharafat Ali Khan. Apart from a few years of education at the local school and madrasa, he did not receive much formal education. He began his career as a primary school teacher at Kagmari in Tangail and then worked in a madrasa at village Kala (Haluaghat) in Mymensingh district.

In 1919, Bhasani joined the non-cooperation movement and khilafat movement to mark the launching of his long and colourful political career. He went to Santosh in Tangail to take up the leadership of the oppressed peasants during the Great Depression period. From Tangail he moved to Ghagmara in Assam in the late 1930s to defend the interests of Bangali settlers there. He made his debut as a leader at Bhasan Char on the Brahmaputra where he constructed an embankment with the cooperation of the Bangali settlers, thereby saving the peasants from the scourge of annual inundation. Relieved of the recurring floods the local people fondly started to call him Bhasani Saheb, an epithet by which the Maulana has been known from then on.

The Assam government made a law restricting Bangali settlement beyond a certain geographical line, an arbitrary settlement which severely affected the interests of the Bangali colonisers. Protected by this restrictive law the locals had launched a movement to oust the Bangali settlers across the so-called line. In 1937 Bhasani joined the Muslim League and became president of Assam unit of the party. On the 'line' issue, hostile relations developed between the Maulana and the Assam Chief Minister, Sir Muhammad Sa'dullah. At partition, Maulana Bhasani was in Goalpara district (Assam) organising the farmers against the line system. He was arrested by the government of Assam, and released towards the end of 1947 on condition that he would leave Assam for good.

Early in 1948 Maulana Bhasani came to East Bengal only to find himself brushed aside from the provincial leadership set-up. Disheartened, Bhasani contested and won a seat in the provincial assembly from south Tangail in a by-election defeating Khurram Khan Panni, the Muslim League candidate and zamindar of Karatia. But the provincial governor nullified the results on grounds of foul play in the elections, and disqualified all the candidates from taking part in any election until 1950. Strangely enough, the ban on Panni was lifted in 1949 even though it remained in force on Bhasani. 

In 1949 he went to Assam again, and was arrested and sent to Dhubri prison. On his release he came back to Dhaka. At about this time, the East Pakistan Muslim League was passing through a leadership crisis. The discontented elements of the Muslim League called a workers' convention in Dhaka on June 23 and 24 of 1949. Nearly 300 delegates from different parts of the province attended the convention. On June 24 a new political party, the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League, was launched with Maulana Bhasani as president and Shamsul Hoque of Tangail as general secretary.

On the day of its birth, the party held its first public meeting at Armanitola in Dhaka under the chairmanship of Bhasani. After its second meeting in the same venue on October 11, he and many other leaders of the new party were arrested while heading a procession of hunger strikers moving towards the government secretariat to protest against the famine conditions prevailing in the province. When his life was at risk due to his protracted hunger-strike, Bhasani was released from jail in 1950.

On 21 February 1952, several students taking part in the language movement were killed in a police firing in Dhaka. Bhasani strongly condemned the brutality of the government. He was arrested on February 23 from his village home and sent behind the bar. In the politics of East Bengal in the early 1950s Bhasani emerged as the most vocal and respected politician of the time. As president of the Awami Muslim League, Bhasani played the crucial role in forging a unity among five opposition political parties by forming an alliance called the united front. Other leaders of the front were AK Fazlul Huq, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Haji Mohammad Danesh. In the elections held in March 1954, the United Front won 223 seats as against the Muslim League's 7 seats.

There is reason to believe that frequent contact during prison life with the communists made the Maulana more conscious about socialist ideology with which his personal political outlook and lifestyle were quite in accord. He became president of the Adamjee Jute Mills Mazdoor Union and the East Pakistan Railway Employees League. The Maulana was made to preside over two massive workers's rallies organised by the communists on May Day in 1954 in Dhaka and Narayanganj. The same year he was made president of the East Pakistan Peasants' Association. Soon after, he was made president of the East Pakistan chapter of the communist-dominated International Peace Committee. In that capacity, he went to Stockholm to attend the World Peace Conference in 1954. He visited several countries of Europe, gaining firsthand knowledge of the socialist movements of the world.

At home, the United Front came close to collapsing mainly because of conflicts between the Awami Muslim League and the Krishak Sramik Party over the question of power sharing. The Maulana tried his best to overcome the problems of practical politics. But he was particularly disappointed at the turn of events under which H S Suhrawardy formed the Awami coalition government at the centre with himself as prime minister and with Ataur Rahman Khan as chief minister in East Bengal. Meanwhile, serious differences of opinion arose between the Maulana and Suhrawardy on issues concerning the basic principles of the Pakistan Constitution then being finalised for promulgation. The Maulana opposed the constitution's provision for separate electorate for the minorities which Suhrawardy supported. He also opposed Suhrawardy's pro-American foreign policy and favoured closer relations with China.

In 1957, the Maulana called a conference of the party at Kagmari, and used the occasion to launch a bitter attack on Suhrawardy's foreign policy, thereby signaling an imminent split in the organisation. Things came to a point of no return when Maulana Bhasani called a conference in Dhaka of leftists from all over Pakistan and formed a new party called the national awami party (NAP) with himself as president and Mahmudul Huq Osmani from West Pakistan as secretary general. From then onwards the Maulana followed left-oriented politics openly.

Bhasani was interned once again when Pakistan's army chief General Mohammad Ayub Khan seized power in 1958. After his release from confinement in 1963, the Maulana went on a visit to China and also to Havana in 1964 to attend the World Peace Conference. Bhasani bitterly opposed Ayub Khan's proposal for creating a selective electorate of 'basic democrats' and fought for holding all elections on the basis of universal adult franchise. In 1967 the socialist world split into pro-Soviet and pro-China blocs. The East Pakistan NAP also split with the Maulana leading the pro-China fraction.

Maulana Bhasani branded the Ayub government as a lackey of imperialist forces and launched a movement to dislodge him from power. He organised strong resistance to the Agartala Conspiracy Case against Bangabandhu sheikh mujibur rahman and created pressure for the unconditional withdrawal of the case. In the face of mounting opposition movement, Ayub Khan resigned as President of Pakistan, allowing army chief General Aga Mohammad Yahya Khan to step in. To tide over the deepening political crisis, Yahya Khan arranged for holding parliamentary elections on 7 December 1970. The Maulana boycotted the elections and concentrated on providing relief to the victims of the devastating cyclone that struck the coastal zone of Bangladesh in November 1970. The apathy of the central government towards the cyclone victims made the Maulana call openly for the separation of East Pakistan.

With the beginning of war of liberation in 1971 Maulana Bhasani took refuge in India. One of his first demands after return to Dhaka (22 January 1972) was to withdraw Indian troops from the soil of Bangladesh. On February 25 he started publishing a weekly Haq katha and it soon gained wide circulation. The paper was soon banned. After the Jatiya Sangsad elections in 1973, the Maulana started a hunger strike to protest against the food crisis, rise of price of essential commodities, and deteriorating law and order situation.

In 1974 Bhasani founded Hukumat-e-Rabbania order and declared a zihad or holy war against the Awami League government and Indo-Soviet overlordship. In April 1974, a 6-party united front was formed under the Maulana's leadership. It served an ultimatum on the government to annul the Indo-Bangladesh border agreement, and stop all repressive actions against the opposition. On June 30 the Maulana was arrested and interned at Santosh in Tangail. He considered the Farakka agreement detrimental to the interest of Bangladesh. On 16 May 1976 he led a long march from Rajshahi towards India's Farakka Barrage to protest against plans to deprive Bangladesh of its rightful share of the Ganges waters. On 2 October 1976 he formed a new organisation, Khodai Khidmatgar, and continued to work for his Islamic University at Santosh. He also set up a technical education college, a school for girls and a children's centre at Santosh, Nazrul Islam College at Panchbibi and Maulana Mohammad Ali College at Kagmari. He had earlier set up 30 educational institutions in Assam. He died on 17 November 1976. [Enamul Haq]