The Bangladesh Awami League (AL) (Bengali: বাংলাদেশ আওয়ামী লীগ; translated from FarsiBangladesh People’s League), commonly known as the Awami League, is the mainstream center-left, secular political party in Bangladesh. It is also currently the governing party after winning the 2008 Parliamentary elections in Bangladesh.
The Awami League was founded in Dhaka, the former capital of the Pakistani province ofEast Bengal, in 1949 by Bengali nationalists Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani,Shamsul Huq, and later Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. The Awami League was established as the Bengali alternative to the domination of the Muslim League in Pakistan. The party quickly gained massive popular support in East Bengal, later named East Pakistan, and eventually led the forces of Bengali nationalism in the struggle against West Pakistan‘s military and political establishment. The party under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, would lead the struggle for independence, first through massive populist and civil disobedience movements, such as the Six Point Movement and 1971 Non-Cooperation Movement, and then during the Bangladesh Liberation War. After the emergence of independent Bangladesh, the Awami League would win the first general elections in 1973 but was overthrown in 1975 after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.The party was forced by subsequent military regimes into political wilderness and many of its senior leaders and actvists were executed and jailed. After the restoration of democracy in 1990, the Awami League emerged as one of the principal players of Bangladeshi politics.
Amongst the leaders of the Awami League, five have become the President of Bangladesh, four have become the Prime Minister of Bangladesh and one became the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Since the independence of Bangladesh, the party has been under the control of the family of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. His daughter and also the incumbent Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, have been heading the party since 1981.
The Bangladesh Awami League styles itself as the leader of the “pro-liberation” forces in Bangladesh, pointing towards the secular and social democratic sections of the political establishment in the country which played the leading role during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. The party constitution states, and in two cases defines the reason for, four fundamental principles in guiding its philosophy and policies. They include-
- Bengali nationalism
- Secularism, that is to ensure freedom of religion and non-communal politics
- Socialism, that is to establish an exploitation-free society and social justice
The four principles are similar to those of the original Four State Principles in Bangladesh’s constitution which
Prior to the 2008 general elections in Bangladesh, the Awami League announced in its manifesto, its “Vision 2021” and “Digital Bangladesh” action plans to transform Bangladesh into a fast developing Middle Income Country by 2021. The party also uses the term “Sonar Bangla”, or golden Bengal, to describe its vision for Bangladesh to become a modern developed nation. The term is reminiscent of Bangladesh’s national anthem and a utopian vision in Bengali nationalism.
The history of the Bangladesh Awami League falls into three distinct eras:
- The Early Pakistan Era, when the party championed the rights of the Bengali people in Pakistan;
- The Movement for Independence, when the party led the forces of Bengali nationalism in establishing the sovereign state of Bangladesh;
- The Post Independence Era, when the party is a major player in Bangladeshi politics and often suffered volatile experiences.
Early Pakistan Era
On 14 August 1947, the partition of British India saw the establishment of the Muslim state of Pakistan on the basis of the Two-Nation Theory. The new country compromised of two wings, separated by 1000 miles of Indian Territory, in the Indian Subcontinent. The western wing consisted of the provinces of Punjab, Sindh, North West Frontier Province and Balochistan, while the province of East Bengal constituted the eastern wing. From the onset of independence, Pakistan was led by its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and his Muslim League party.
In 1948, there was rising agitation in East Bengal against the omission of Bengali script from coins, stamps and government exams. Thousands of students, mainly from the University of Dhaka, protested in Dhaka and clashed with security forces. Prominent student leaders including Shamsul Huq, Shawkat Ali, Kazi Golam Mahboob, Oli Ahad, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Abdul Wahed were arrested and the police were accused of excessive brutality while charging protesters. In March, senior Bengali political leaders were attacked whilst leading protests demanding that Bengali be declared an official language in Pakistan. The leaders included the A. K. Fazlul Huq, the former Prime Minister of undivided Bengal. Amidst the rising discontent in East Bengal, Jinnah visited Dhaka and announced that Urdu would be sole state language of Pakistan given its significance to Islamic nationalism in South Asia. The announcement caused uproar in East Bengal, where the native Bengali population resented Jinnah for his attempts to impose a language they hardly understood. The resentment was further fueled by rising discrimination against Bengalis in government, industry, bureaucracy and the armed forces and the dominance of the Muslim League. The Bengalis argued that they were they constituted the ethnic majority of Pakistan’s population and Urdu was remote to the land of Bengal, located in the eastern Indian Subcontinent. Moreover, the rich literary heritage of the Bengali language and the deep rooted secular culture of Bengali society led to a strong sense of linguistic and cultural nationalism amongst the people of East Bengal. Against this backdrop, Bengali nationalism began to take root within the Muslim League and the party’s Bengali members began to rebel.
All Pakistan Awami Muslim League
Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani, founding President of the Awami League
On 23 June 1949, Bengali nationalists from East Bengal broke away from the Muslim League, Pakistan’s dominant political party, and established the All Pakistan Awami Muslim League. The party was founded at the Rose Garden mansion in the old part of Dhaka. Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani and Shamsul Huqwere elected the first President and General Secretary of the party respectively, while Sheikh Mujibur Rahman,Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad and A. K. Rafiqul Hussain were elected the party’s first Joint Secretaries. The party was formed to champion the rights of masses in Pakistan against the powerful feudal establishment led by the Muslim League. However, due to its strength stemming from the discriminated Bengali population of Pakistan’s eastern wing, the party eventually became associated and identified with East Bengal.
Rose Garden in Old Dhaka, the birthplace of the Awami League
In 1952, the Awami Muslim League and its student wing played an instrumental role in the Bengali Language Movement, during which Pakistani security forces fired upon thousands of protesting students demanding Bengali be declared an official language of Pakistan and famously killing a number of students including Abdus Salam, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abul Barkat and Abdul Jabbar. The events of 1952 is widely seen by historians today as a turning point in the history of Pakistan and the Bengali people, as it was the starting point of the Bengali nationalist struggle that eventually culminated in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. In 1953, the party’s council meeting voted to drop the word “Muslim” from its name in order to give it a more secular outlook, owing to need of including the province’s large Hindu population in Pakistani politics.
United Front cabinet of Chief Minister A. K. Fazlul Huq
In the run up to the East Bengal Legislative Assembly Elections in 1954, the Awami League took the lead in negotiations in forming a pan-Bengali political alliance including the Krishak Praja Party, Nizam-e-Islam and Ganatantri Dal. The alliance was termed the Jukta Front or United Front and formulated the Ekush Dafa, or 21-point Charter, to fight the Muslim League. The party also took the historic decision to adopt the traditional Bengali boat, which signified the attachment to rural Bengal, as its election symbol.
The election swept the United Front coalition into power in East Bengal with a massive mandate of 223 seats out of 237 seats. The Awami League itself bagged 143 seats while the Muslim League won only 9 seats. A. K. Fazlul Huq assumed the office of Chief Minister of East Bengal and drew up a cabinet containing many of the prominent student activists that were leading movements against the Pakistani state. They included Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from the Awami League, who served as commerce minister.
Leaders of the new provincial government demanded greater provincial autonomy for East Bengal and eventually succeeded in pressuring Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Bogra, himself a Bengali, to endorse the proposed constitutional recognition of Bengali as an official language of Pakistan. The United Front also passed a landmark order for the establishment of the Bangla Academy in Dhaka. As tensions with the western wing grew due to the demands for greater provincial autonomy in East Bengal, Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad dismissed the United Front government on 29 May 1954 under Article 92/A of the provisional constitution of Pakistan.
Tenure in Central Government
In September 1956, the Awami League formed a coalition with the Republican Party to secure a majority in the new National Assembly of Pakistan and took over the central government. Awami League President Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy became the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Suhrawardy pursued a reform agenda to reduce the long standing economic disparity between East and West Pakistan, greater representation of Bengalis in the Pakistani civil and armed services and he unsuccessfully attempted to alleviate the food shortage in the country. The Awami League also began deepening relations with the United States. The government moved to join the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), the two strategic defense alliances in Asia inspired by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Maulana Bhashani, one of the party’s founders, condemned the decision of the Suhrawardy government and called a conference in February, 1957 at Kagmari in East Bengal. He protested the move and the support lent by the Awami League leadership to the government. Bhashani broke away from the Awami League and then formed the leftist National Awami Party (NAP).
The controversy over One Unit (the division of Pakistan into only two provinces, east and west) and the appropriate electoral system for Pakistan, whether joint or separate, also revived as soon as Suhrawardy became Prime Minster. In West Pakistan, there was strong opposition to the joint electorate by the Muslim League and the religious parties. The Awami League however, strongly supported the joint electorate. These differences over One Unit and the appropriate electorate caused problems for the government.
By early 1957, the movement for the dismemberment of the One Unit had started. Suhrawardy was at the mercy of central bureaucracy fighting to save the One Unit. Many in the business elite in Karachi were lobbying against Suhrawardy’s decision to distribute millions of dollars of American aid to East Pakistan and to set up a national shipping corporation. Supported by these lobbyists, President Iskander Mirza demanded the Prime Minister’s resignation. Suhrawardy requested to seek a vote of confidence in the National Assembly, but this request was turned down. Suhrawardy resigned under threat of dismissal on October 10, 1957.
Ayub Khan coup and martial law
On 7 October 1958, President Iskander Mirza declared martial law and appointed army chief General Ayub Khan as Chief Martial Law Administrator. Ayub Khan eventually deposed Mirza in a bloodless coup. By promulgating the Political Parties Elected Bodies Disqualified Ordinance, Ayub banned all major political parties in Pakistan. Senior politicians, including the entire top leadership of the Awami League, were arrested and most were kept under detention till 1963.
In 1962, Ayub Khan drafted a new constitution, modeled on indirect election, through an electoral college, and termed it ‘Basic Democracy’. Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy joined Nurul Amin, Khwaja Nazimuddin, Maulvi Farid Ahmed and Hamidul Haq Chowdhury in forming National Democratic Front against Ayub Khan’s military-backed rule and to restore elective democracy. However the alliance failed to obtain any concessions. Instead the electoral colleges appointed a new parliament and the President exercised executive authority.
Wide spread discrimination prevailed in Pakistan against Bengalis during the regime of Ayub Khan. Harsh restrictions were imposed on major Bengali cultural symbols, including a ban on the airing of Rabindra Sangeet public. The University of Dhaka became a hotbed for student activism advocating greater rights for Bengalis and the restoration of democracy in Pakistan.
On 5 December 1963, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was found dead in his hotel room in Beirut, Lebanon. His sudden death under mysterious circumstances gave rise to speculation within the Awami League and the general population in East Pakistan that he had been poisoned.
1966 to 1971
he 6-point demands, proposed by Mujib, were widely accepted by the East Pakistani populace, as they proposed greater autonomy for the provinces of Pakistan. After the so-called Agartala Conspiracy Case, and subsequent end of the Ayub Khan regime in Pakistan, the Awami League and its leader Sheikh Mujib reached the peak of their popularity among the East Pakistani Bengali population. In the elections of 1970, the Awami League won 167 of 169 East Pakistan seats in the National Assembly but none of West Pakistan‘s 138 seats. It also won 288 of the 300 provincial assembly seats in East Pakistan. This win gave the Awami League a healthy majority in the 313-seat National Assembly and placed it in a position to establish a national government without a coalition partner. This was not acceptable to the political leaders of West Pakistan and led directly to the events of the Bangladesh Liberation War. The AL leaders, taking refuge in India, successfully led the war against the Pakistani Army throughout 1971.
1975 to 1996
These negative developments led to a widespread dissatisfaction among the people and even inside the Army. On 15 August 1975 some junior members of the armed forces in Dhaka, led by Major Faruk Rahman and Major Rashid, assassinated Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and all his family members. Within months, on November 3, 1975, four more of its top leaders, Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmed, CaptainMuhammad Mansur Ali and A. H. M. Qamaruzzaman were killed inside the Dhaka Central Jail. Only Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana, two daughters of Mujib, survived the massacre as they were in West Germany as a part of a cultural exchange program. They later claimed political asylum in the United Kingdom. Sheikh Rehana, the younger sister, chose to remain in the UK permanently, while Sheikh Hasina moved to India and lived in self imposed exile. Her stays abroad helped her gain important political friends in the West and in India that proved to be a valuable asset for the party in the future.
After 1975, the party remained split into several rival factions, and fared poorly in the 1979 parliamentary elections held under a military government. In 1981 Sheikh Hasina returned after the largest party faction, the “Bangladesh Awami League”, elected her its president, and she proceeded to take over the party leadership and unite the factions. As she was under age at the time she could not take part in the 1981 presidential elections that followed the assassination of then President Ziaur Rahman.
The Awami League emerged as the largest opposition party in parliament in the elections in 1991, following the uprising against Ershad. It made major electoral gains in 1994 as its candidates won mayoral elections in the two largest cities of the country: the capital Dhaka and the commercial capital Chittagong. Demanding electoral reforms the party resigned from the parliament in 1995, boycotted the February 1996 parliamentary polls, and subsequently won 146 out of 300 seats in June 1996 parliamentary polls. Supported by a few smaller parties, the Awami League formed a “Government of National Unity,” and elected a non-partisan head of state, retired Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed.
1996 to 2001
AL’s second term in office had mixed achievements. Apart from sustaining economic stability during the Asian economic crisis, the government successfully settled Bangladesh’s long standing dispute with India over sharing the water of the river Ganga (also known as Padma) in late 1996, and signed a peace treaty with tribal rebels in 1997. In 1998, Bangladesh faced one of the worst floods ever, and the government handled the crisis satisfactorily. It also had significant achievements in containing inflation, and peacefully neutralising a long-running leftist insurgency in south-western districts dating back to the first AL government’s time. However, rampant corruption allegations against party office bearers and ministers as well as a deteriorating law and order situation troubled the government. Its pro poor policies achieved wide microeconomic development but that left the country’s wealthy business class dissatisfied. The AL’s last months in office were marred by sporadic bombing by alleged Islamist militants. Hasina herself escaped several attempts on her life, in one of which two anti-tank mines were planted under her helipad in Gopalganj district. In July 2001, the second AL government stepped down, becoming the first elected government in Bangladesh to serve a full term in office.
The party won only 62 out of 300 parliamentary seats in the elections held in October 2001, despite bagging 40% of the votes, up from 36% in 1996 and 33% in 1991. The BNP and its allies won a two thirds majority in parliament with 46% of the votes cast, with BNP alone winning 41% up from 33% in 1996 and 30% in 1991.
2001 to 2008
In its second term in opposition since 1991, the party suffered the assassination of several key members. Popular young leader Ahsanullah Master, a Member of Parliament from Gazipur, was killed in 2004. This was followed by a grenade attack on Hasina during a public meeting on August 21, 2004, resulting in the death of 22 party supporters, including party women’s secretary Ivy Rahman, though Hasina lived. Finally, the party’s electoral secretary, ex finance minister, and veteran diplomat Shah M S Kibria, a Member of Parliament from Habiganj, was killed in a grenade attack in Sylhet later that year.
In June 2005, the Awami League won an important victory when the AL nominated incumbent mayor A.B.M. Mohiuddin Chowdhury won the important mayoral election in Chittagong, by a huge margin, against BNP nominee State Minister of Aviation Mir Mohammad Nasiruddin. This election was seen as a showdown between the Awami League and the BNP. However, the killing of party leaders continued. In December 2005, the AL supported Mayor of Sylhet narrowly escaped the third attempt on his life as a grenade thrown at him failed to explode.
In September 2006, several of the party’s top leaders, including Saber Hossain Choudhury MP and Asaduzzaman Nur MP, were hospitalized after being critically injured by police beatings while they demonstrated in support of electoral-law reforms. Starting in late October 2006, the Awami League led alliance carried out a series of nationwide demonstrations and blockades centering on the selection of the leader of the interim caretaker administration to oversee the 2007 elections. Although an election was scheduled to take place on January 22, 2007 that the Awami League decided to boycott, the country’s military intervened on January 11, 2007 and installed an interim government composed of retired bureaucrats and military officers.
Throughout 2007 and 2008, the military backed government tried to root out corruption and get rid of the two dynastic leaders of the AL and BNP. While these efforts largely failed, they succeeded in producing a credible voter list that was used in the December 29, 2008 national election.
National election 2008
The Awami league participated in the national election on December 29, 2008 as part of a larger electoral alliance that also included theJatiya Party led by former military ruler General Ershad as well as some leftist parties. According to the Official Results of the 2008 National Elections posted by the Election Commission, Bangladesh Awami League has won 230 out of 299 constituencies, and together with its allies, have a total of 262 seats. The Awami League and its allies received 57% of the total votes cast. The AL alone got 48%, compared to 36% of the other major alliance led by the BNP which by itself got 33% of the votes. Ex-Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as party head, is the Prime Minister-Elect. Her term of office is likely to begin on January 10, 2009. She is expected to head a 30-35 member government that will include cabinet members from the Awami League’s electoral allies.
Wings of Bangladesh Awami League