What started out as class war on behalf of the proletariat has degenerated into gang war in support of landlords and petty politicians.
Maoism is no longer flagging its little red book in Bangladesh as it did in the late 1960s and mid-1970s. But a militant grassroots vigilante movement, sometimes moonlighting as free-lance heavies for hire in the rural areas, still makes regular news. Mostly active in the southern and north-western regions of the country, the movement is a splintered one. However, the various parts are often lumped together and called the sharbahara (the proletariat) groups. They are symptoms more of peasant rage than politics.
The militancy draws its popular and mythical roots not just from the traditional communist movements of the Beijing variety but from the much more recent Sharbahara Party (SP) which was most active in the 1970 to 1974 period. Founded by Shiraj Shikder, an engineer, SP was only one among the many parties of the left, but it caught popular imagination arguing for a red Bengal at a time when most leftists were confined to just arguing. The party fought both the Pakistan army and the Awami League mainstream regulars in 1971. Afterwards, it battled the government of Sheikh Mujib till his death in 1974, under circumstances never well explained.
The 1971 war created a crisis, fragmenting the already divided Maoist movements of what was till then East Pakistan. Pakistan was supported by China, while India and the Awami League naturally fell into the Soviet camp. Many Maoist groups therefore supported the Pakistan army, which was at that time engaged in a killing spree. This support gave the Maoists a bad image, and the memories linger.
While the Maoist movement in the neighbouring parts of India petered off in the early 1970s, it fared better in Bangladesh as popular opposition to Awami League rule mounted in the early days. Indeed, the Maoist movement grew rapidly during the early era of Sheikh Mujib´s rule, though its factional splits and ideological differences defied all understanding. The movement included the East Pakistan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), which had been endorsed by Mother China herself and which clung to Pakistan even after 1971. (China recognised Bangladesh only in 1975, following Sheikh Mujib´s death.)
The Sharbahara Party suffered a grievous setback in 1974 when its leader Siraj Shikder was killed, following which many of its remaining leaders were eliminated. A visibly victorious Sheikh Mujibur Rahman said in Parliament, “Where is Siraj Shikder now?” That declaration marked simultaneously the peak and last recognition of Maoism in Bangladesh.
An abortive coup attempt led by Col (retd) Taher, a war hero and admirer of Chairman Mao, and supported by a breakaway radical section of the Awami League which called itself the Gono Bahini (People´s Army), was probably the closest the radicals ever got to power. But they were outwitted by Gen Ziaur Rahman, who had Col Taher arrested and later hanged along with many of his followers. Ironically, it was the colonel who had ousted a ruling group on 7 November 1975 and installed Gen Zia in power.
Sheikh Mujib was an enemy of Maoism, and he had been replaced by Gen Zia, who was under threat from the Indians and the Soviets. It was therefore the duty of Maoists to support Gen Zia. So went the logic, and so practically ended whatever there was of Maoism in Bangladesh.
In the years immediately following, police action diminished the Maoist groups and they became marginalised in national politics. But the sharbahara syndrome or movement – not the party with its overtones of rural Maoism – continues to defy peaceful as well as belligerent attempts to finish it off. It exists, albeit without any significant political, theoretical or mass base.
Says Abrar Chowdhury, a professor at Dhaka University, of the sharbahara: “There is really no serious party network or movement. Some people who are in total conflict with mainstream politics are still involved with militant Maoism. What sustains it in the rural areas is class hatred. It is the movement of the disgruntled and dispossessed in the villages, barely operating within political lines.”
Surprisingly, some young people do still join the movement, attracted by the revolutionary promises and what they see as the failure of mainstream politics to provide answers in a terribly impoverished land. But the different Maoist groups survive not as part of a national movement but by relying on local support, a sort of Maoist version of rural factional politics. They are said to be active in local level elections and toll collection, where leaders require muscle and guns for “multi-purpose cooperative activities”.
For many, there is little difference between sharbaharas and bandits. In fact, they are not even willing to call them Maoists. Md. Sohrab joined the movement after dropping out of a local college. He ran away after a year and now says that the party he joined is run by rural politicians of the kind who are removed from reality. He says, “They really live in Mao´s world. They have no sense of the present. They are driven by violence.”
Tasneem Siddiqui, of Dhaka University´s Department of Political Science says that while many young people are drawn to the movement they become rapidly disillusioned. But then those who want to leave the party find themselves prevented. Renegades, it is said, are liquidated if caught. A typical Maoist caucus will include recruits ranging from campus youths, deserters from village feuds, militants without much ideological commitment, and certainly a few with criminal records.
“While it is true that many are guilty of what are called revolutionary crimes, the number of people who use the sharbahara or Maoist banner to practice thuggery is not small,” says Rafique Alam, a senior leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Bhorer Kagoz, a national daily which recently ran a series on the sharbahara phenomenon, reported that many are patronised by local landlords, essentially as hired guns. Politicians of all varieties also have to come to an understanding with these elements in order to survive.
Besides the landowning classes and local politicians, the other category which has links to the Maoists are the non-governmental organisations working in the rural areas. They often hire ex- or present cadres because it ensures both safety and acceptance at the village level. Besides, educated Maoists have a good public image at the village level. “Naxals (Maoists) make good NGO workers, ” concedes Souren Biswas, an NGO organiser. There have been moves to rehabilitate the sharbaharas, but these have floundered, with many returning to the shadow life.
In some cases, remoteness has helped keep the sharbahara movement alive. Take, for example, Barisal division which was also the birthplace of the original Sharbahara Party. The vast badlands of the char (land left behind by a receding river) in the coastal area and low presence of the police means that the groups are able to survive purges.
Though never a threat to the establishment, the sharbahara manage to remain in the spotlight because of the clashes and killing which occur every month. In the Jhenaidah, Jessore Magura and Kushtia belt of the country´s northwest, the influence of the East Pakistan Communist Party (M-L) lingers to this day. Deaths due to clashes with police and rivals factions make regular news. The Maoists of this area maintain contacts with Naxalite groups across the border in West Bengal.
Idealism to Realism
While the sharbaharas survive as renegades, the Maoist phase in Bangla politics is definitely over. Splintered and surviving in isolated pockets, those who call themselves Maoists in Bangladesh today are more of a law and order problem than a political challenge to mainstream politics. The Idealist Seventies which drew the young to politics has been replaced with the Realist Nineties, with individual economic prosperity the driving force for the young. And that has cut off fresh blood supply considerably to the sharbahara movement.
The absence of successful Maoist insurgencies in the rest of South Asia has not provided much inspiration to Bangladesh´s Maoists either. On the other hand, the continuing activism of the sharbaharas such as they are is but a mirror to the frustration of the millions of the rural poor who feel they have little stake in the existing system. The only option, for some of them, is to hit out.