Interview with Mushtuq Husain: the struggle in Bangladesh

Issue: 121

Mushtuq Husain is a leading member of the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (Socialist Party) of Bangladesh. He spoke to Yuri Prasad about the history of the organisation and the struggle for socialism today.

Can you explain the origins of your political party?

I belong to the Socialist Party of Bangladesh (Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal, JSD), which was established in 1972. Prior to this our group, who were mostly students and workers, were radical members of the Awami League (AL).1 From the end of the 1960s we pushed for the liberation of Bangladesh from the colonial power of Pakistan using armed struggle.2

During the liberation war of March-December 1971 we argued that we should only accept Indian support in the form of training and arms, not the physical presence of the Indian army. But conservatives within the Awami League, who helped form a provisional government with many other forces, were in a hurry. They worried that if there were a protracted liberation war it could become like the Vietnam War and that radical forces might run the newly independent Bangladesh. After Pakistan attacked India in the first week of December 1971 the leaders of the AL accepted Indian military forces to lead the joint command of the Indian Army and Mukti Bahini (liberation fighters of Bangladesh), and won the war of liberation.

After the war even the conservative forces that controlled the AL called themselves socialists, though their socialism was closer to that of the Indian National Congress than to Marxism. When in power it was clear that they wanted to limit the newly formed country to a parliamentary democracy and establish a capitalist system. We, the radical forces within the AL, pushed for a revolutionary government in order to build Bangladesh along socialist lines. We believed that revolution was the way to achieve this. At that point we broke from the AL to form our party.

From 1972 our party was the main opposition to the AL and we fought to build a mass movement which would eventually lead to a mass insurrection. We were distinguished from all the other left parties in Bangladesh at that time because we played a leading role in the fight for liberation—unlike the others we were not passive actors tailing after the events. We were also different because we believed that socialism would come about through the actions of workers and students; it could not be imposed from above. All the other organisations were either pro-China or pro-Russia and effectively backed the idea of a bourgeois revolution in Bangladesh, saying that the country was semi-feudal and semi-colonial. We rejected that approach and argued that although Bangladesh was underdeveloped it was capitalist. Therefore we fought for workers’ revolution. For this the other left parties accused us of Trotskyism! Nowadays, of course, all the Bangladeshi left parties accept that the country is capitalist, but back then it was a different story.

On 15 August 1975 there was a bloody CIA-backed coup modelled on General Pinochet’s coup in Chile. A military government, allied with the US, overthrew the social democrats of the AL. Within a couple of months, on 3 November 1975, there was a counter-coup.

Our group drew the conclusion that our struggle for socialism had to be intensified. We wanted to move quickly to a mass armed insurrection knowing that many soldiers in the armed forces supported us. They too had been radicalised in the war of liberation, and many rank and file soldiers were genuine socialists who realised they were being used as cannon fodder by the generals in the coup and counter-coup. In addition, there was a popular feeling that the coup and counter-coup meant Bangladesh was being manipulated by foreign interests—the governments of India, Saudi Arabia and the US.

On 25 January 1975 the government banned our party and other opposition parties. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman now formed a one-party state. That cut us off from people and made activity difficult. Some of our leaders argued to postpone the insurrection that had been planned for 7 November 1975. But our committees among the soldiers did not agree. They said that if we delayed we would be killed, just as the dictator Suharto had killed the Communists in Indonesia.3

The soldiers’ rising did take place on 7 November and was successful in temporarily overturning the coup and counter-coup. However, under the circumstances it was hard for us to organise the working class to support the soldiers, and the right wing forces quickly regrouped themselves. By the end of November 1975 the generals regained the initiative, with the help of their foreign allies. The leader of the soldiers’ movement, Lt Col (Retd) Abu Taher and hundreds of soldiers were hanged. Abu Taher was a valiant freedom fighter in 1971 and was awarded Bir Uttam4 for his gallantry.

After that all the leaders of the JSD were imprisoned. As a student leader I too was jailed. At the time, and until around the mid-1980s, our organisation had a core of about 20,000 members, with maybe 500,000 connected to us through our “mass organisations”. But as a result of the long years of repression many of our members fell away from revolutionary activity. There were some splits in the organisation and some members became attracted to various forms of mainstream politics. Today we are not as strong as we were. We have about 5,000 members, who are mostly students and trade unionists, and win about 3 percent of the vote in elections.

In recent years there has been a huge increase in the level of industrial militancy in the garment industry in Bangladesh. What form has this action taken?

About two thirds of workers in and around the Dhaka area are in the garment factories, and about one million of them have been involved in some kind of action recently. They are in an increasingly precarious situation. Before the onset of the huge rise in the price of basic goods wages in the garment industry were barely enough to sustain one worker, let alone their families. Over the past year we have faced a rapid increase in inflation, and frustration and anger are widespread.

The workers’ movement in Bangladesh faces incredible levels of repression from both management and the state. An organisation known as the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a militarised police force, is used to attack strikes. Every worker fears for their job when they take action. Because of the level of fear it is often the case that when a struggle breaks out in a particular factory negotiations to end the dispute take place indirectly, using workers’ leaders from another nearby factory as representatives. The bosses hate this and say that they won’t talk to outside agitators, but this is generally what happens.

During the Muslim festival of Eid ul-Fitr in autumn there was a sharp rise in tensions as bosses said that they could not afford to pay the Eid bonus or the arrears that they owed the workers. It is quite common for garment factory bosses to owe several weeks wages to their workers at any one time. They say that this prevents their employees from leaving them to join another factory.

As there are no formal trade union rights, disputes do not take place with the normal notice period and they generally last for one or two days. Strikes are very spontaneous and sudden, with leaders keeping themselves well hidden. The workers’ usual tactic is to block the main road outside the factory, which stops all the traffic. That forces the police to intervene. The police contact the owners and generally try to mediate a settlement.

Sometimes this works because the bosses often cannot deny that their workers have a genuine grievance. At other times it fails, either because the bosses are too powerful or because they can bribe the police and get them to take action against the workers and clear the roads.

One effect of the repression is that workers are forced to seek strength in numbers almost immediately upon taking action. Usually before a factory comes out on strike leaders will visit the surrounding factories and workshops asking workers there to join them in a show of solidarity. This usually spreads to involve even workers who are not in the garment sector and to people who live in the surrounding neighbourhoods. This way of organising can help prevent victimisations. In such a situation tension can mount quickly. Usually the striking workers move to surround the owners in their buildings and if the police are involved they will surround them too.

This type of action has been growing in intensity over the past year. In 2006, following another upsurge in the workers’ movement, the bosses’ organisation, the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Employers Association, signed an agreement that guaranteed certain minimum standards. They quickly reneged on the deal and now workers are more distrustful then ever. This feeling is enhanced by the knowledge that all government workers have been given enhanced rates of pay (dearness allowance) to help offset the growing cost of food.

In addition to the struggle in the garment sector there has also been growing anger among workers in the jute mills. Many of these mills were once government owned but have since been privatised. Unions here are legally recognised and the left leads the best ones. Therefore the struggle takes on a more regimented pattern. Action has stopped the further privatisation of the mills. Yet it is still the case that many of these workers are owed months of back pay. The result is that the workers are forced to take loans from the small shops and the workers’ children are forced to quit school and look for work to sustain their families. One effect of the crisis has been a marked growth in the informal sector in Bangladesh.

Meanwhile the bosses in the privatised jute mills and in the garment sector are making huge profits. They may be under pressure from multinationals in Europe and North America that buy their products, but they make up the difference by trying to exploit their workers even harder. The garment sector is Bangladesh’s second biggest source of foreign exchange earnings (the biggest is the remittances of Bangledeshis working overseas). Workers look at their bosses’ luxury cars, their mansions and their children who are studying abroad at prestigious universities. They ask themselves, “Why should we be making sacrifices for these people when we can’t even afford to feed our families?”

Those feelings are feeding a growing political consciousness among the workers. We’ve been living under a “state of emergency” since January 2007, which was meant to dampen down political feelings. But workers’ anger and the strike movement mean that they are become a formidable force.

The crisis has also hit the agricultural sector. How have workers responded outside of the cities?

Intensive agricultural techniques, including the overuse of fertilisers and other additives, are creating an enormous crisis in the countryside as the land becomes ever less productive. On top of this, climate change has impacted on Bangladesh, increasing the incidence of cyclones and flooding. This devastation of the rural economy makes the long running question of land reform even more important for the mass of agricultural labourers and small peasantry.

Land reform has repeatedly been promised since the end of the liberation war but has barely been implemented. Smallholders are kept in poverty and are forced to take loans before harvesting their crops just to make ends meet. While the movement of peasants and agricultural workers is sporadic and weak, there are regular outbursts of anger—particularly when the corruption of government officials and rural middlemen helps create a steep rise in the price of fertilisers. At these moments it is common to see hundreds of farmers besieging government offices in sometimes quite violent demonstrations. Similar protests regularly erupt over the question of electricity supply. Where there is no supply small farmers are forced to pump water for their crops by hand. It is often the case that corruption among electricity officials is blamed for the deficiency.

Another area of struggle that is opening up is over the question of open-cast mining. Here multinationals, from countries such as Britain, are pushing to start large-scale mining operations that will force the Adivasi5 people in particular from their land. This has led to several uprisings that were ruthlessly put down by militarised police. So far the people’s resistance has been successful but attempts to start open-cast mining continue.

In the rural areas, just like in the cities, the two main parties have not played any role in defending the poor. Instead agricultural labourers, small farmers and Adivasi groups have formed their own organisations to represent them. Left wing parties such as mine have been involved in this process and have a certain amount of influence on the struggles. This raises the possibility that if the political and economic crisis deepens we may see some coordination between the resistance in the rural areas and resistance in the cities.

What political conclusions are workers drawing from the crisis and the waves of struggles that have followed?

When workers take action they generally look to left organisations for support. They trust us more than anyone else to support their fight for wages and for bread. However, when the elections come the workers still overwhelmingly vote for the Awami League or the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. This situation is an unfortunate hangover from the 1980s when the left became increasingly disconnected from the working class. Unfortunately, so far we have been unable to break this cycle. Even where we have very good relations with workers they often tell us that they will not vote for us because we have no chance of winning.

The economic crisis may start to change this. The two main parties have little or nothing to offer workers in the face of inflation.

The government blames the international market for the crisis and says that its hands are tied. The opposition parties demand food and fuel subsidies for the people, but everyone knows that when in power they do nothing to bring this about. There is also a great awareness that the government is subsidising food and fuel for some—for the army and the police who are protecting the state during the emergency. People argue that if you can provide rations and subsidies for them why not for the workers in the factories?

Part of the problem is that many of the leftist parties (including the JSD) still align themselves with the Awami League. There is a lot of debate at the moment about how long this can be sustained. Many people want to see the formation of a genuinely working class party.

So is there a possibility of a greater political explosion?

That partly depends on the result of the elections that are scheduled for the end of this year. If there is a tussle for power between the armed forces around the government and the main political parties this could provide the working class with a great opportunity to put forward its demands. If the political situation remains peaceful and the handover of power to the bourgeois parties passes off without incident, it is possible that workers will feel they have a democratic channel for their anger. That does not mean that strike waves in the factories will die down—on the contrary, people will continue to burst on to the streets with demands over wages and conditions if they are no longer subdued by the brutal force of emergency powers.

The two main parties have shown themselves to be completely cut off from the concerns of workers and the poor, and that has opened up a space that the left is trying hard to fill. Our great hope is that the political and economic crisis will combine to offer us an opportunity to win mass support, much in the way the crisis in 1969 in Pakistan did. The current crisis means that new political forces with a new political agenda can emerge.

Last year there was a significant revolt among the students which demanded an end to the state of emergency. During the struggle, which started when the military moved to occupy a number of universities, workers rallied to the students. What kind of relationship is there between the two groups?

It is not uncommon for left wing student organisations to come to the aid of workers when they are in struggle—particularly when the police and troops are involved in trying to suppress a strike. Certainly, many students think of workers as their allies and natural friends. When the police move to attack workers it is often the case that students will stand up against them. That support was reciprocated during the student struggle. And, ultimately, the students won many of their demands, including the right to organise political activity on campus.

But there is no spontaneous expression of solidarity. The left groups, my own party in particular, play an important role in attempting to organise that solidarity, to give it concrete expression. As soon as we are told of a strike we immediately instruct our student groups to provide assistance, and we also ensure that journalists and lawyers are informed. During the struggle for the Eid bonus the effect of this strategy was to frighten some bosses into paying up as they did not want a very public struggle.

Following the state crackdown on the students last year, and the way workers rallied to their defence against the army, the demand for a new political organisation is also very much alive in the colleges and universities. The major parties did not give the students any backing.

Has the JSD grown among students as a result?

Yes and no. Today most left wing activists are recruited from among the students, though usually the more working class elements among them. We agitate against the privatisation of education and champion the idea of access to education for everyone.

When the military clampdown on the campuses was in full swing, the students successfully fought back and we recruited many of the best activists. But we argued with the students that although they had been able to force the military to retreat from the campuses they had not beaten the government’s state of emergency. To do so, we said, requires making allies of the workers. That has been one of the ways in which we have encouraged the students to see the workers as critical to the current situation.

The level of repression makes it very difficult for us to openly recruit workers in the factories to our organisation, and our members must operate on a clandestine basis. Nevertheless our track record means that we have a relationship to a great many leading figures among the workers and play an important role in their struggles.

We have made some attempts to publish newspapers and bulletins to relate to the strikes, but as the struggles tend to erupt suddenly and then fall away it has been difficult to sustain this. Nevertheless in every struggle we argue with the leading workers for the need for organisation. Usually, at the end of the strikes, they agree with us and start to take the question seriously. They also take us seriously. They know that the revolutionaries are good on tactical questions and that we give good advice. So we are trusted and our student comrades are sometimes able to recruit workers through a process of practical assistance combined with politics.

During peaceful times the students go directly to workers’ houses and explain the basics of Marxism to them, showing how their exploitation is linked to the bosses’ profits. But during strikes the students will address hundreds of workers publicly.

The weakness of official trade union organisation is both a curse and a blessing. The weakness means that our student cadre is able to play a leading role in the workers’ struggles. However, it also means it is easier for the state and the bosses to repress struggles, causing them to rise and fall very quickly, and that it can be very difficult to sustain regular relationships with leading workers. The key weakness of the movement so far has been the inability of the workers to create a leadership among themselves. Resolving this problem may happen more quickly than people think, and the ending of the state of emergency could speed things along. I believe we already have the nucleus of such organisation in most places.

There are key differences between the working class today and that of the last major rebellion of 1975. Today levels of literacy are much higher, consciousness is much higher and improved communications make the possibility of learning from others and coordinating much greater.

How has the rise of radical Islamist groups affected Bangladesh?

The collapse of the Soviet Union created confusion on the left. Leftists were divided and new recruitment to their organisations slowed. A remarkable ideological void was created in anti-imperialist politics. The extreme Islamists sought to fill this void. Resources provided by imperialists and by oil-rich Saudi Arabia and other sheikhdoms facilitated their organisations. A large number of enterprises work as recruiting centres for them.

Most of the recruits are from among the middle class, the unemployed and students. They have little influence among the working class, but their organisational networks are expanding rapidly among middle class women. The extreme Islamists are mainly patronised by pro-Pakistani and anti-Indian sections of the ruling class. An influential section of the army and civil service supports and utilises the extremists. An ultra-extremist section launched attacks on the judiciary in 2006, which briefly caused concern within the state machine. But they quickly captured the bombers, put them on trial and hanged their ringleaders in 2007.

The Islamists pose a practical threat to the left. Almost all of their bomb attacks have been directed against left and secular politicians and cultural activists, or against religious and ethnic minorities. Until the attack on the judiciary in 2006 there was not one incidence of an attack that harmed imperialist interests in Bangladesh.

They are not currently in a position to challenge for state power. But they can influence the state in alliance with one of the major bourgeois parties. If the left do not form a stronger and expanding political base among the working class, students and professionals within the next few years, radical Islamism may find a home among these groups and thus be in a position to challenge for state power.

You mentioned that elections are scheduled. What do you envisage happening in these?

The election to the Jatiyo Sangshad6 was scheduled for 29 December 2008 and Upazila7 elections for 22 January 2009. The parliamentary election was originally meant to take place on 22 January 2007, but it was cancelled in the face of stiff resistance from all the opposition parties. The cancellation was supported by the army. The caretaker government was heavily biased in favour of the previous Bangladesh Nationalist Party government, so the opposition parties, including the Awami League and left parties, boycotted the elections.

The state of emergency was declared when the elections were cancelled and a new caretaker government was sworn in. The army was the real player behind the civilian non-party advisory council (the cabinet). The caretaker government promised to hold the parliamentary elections by December 2008 and started to prepare an updated voters’ list, a process which has now been completed. But the caretaker government also sought to implement a long list of “reforms”, which would actually weaken the democratic process and which echoed the policies pursued by the World Bank, IMF and Asian Development Bank, as well as the US and EU ruling classes. Resistance from students and workers—in the face of military repression, privatisation and price hikes of essential goods—along with the political parties’ stand against depoliticisation, compelled the army-backed caretaker government to suspend their reform agenda and go for elections.

But the emergency has not yet been withdrawn, although the government has promised that it will be before the elections. The caretaker government seems to be serious about holding elections, but a coterie within the military and civil service is uneasy about the emergence of an elected political government. Letters are being sent to Awami League leaders in the name of Islamic extremists, warning them that they should withdraw from elections. One of the candidates from the Awami League led alliance, which is likely to win any elections, was killed by a mysterious fire in his flat. A section of the media is of the opinion that a hawkish and extreme right section within the state machinery is behind the letters and the sabotage. They don’t want to see an elected government, especially if it is led by a party with a clearcut majority. They would prefer a hung parliament so that they could manipulate the formation of a government to push their agenda.


1: The Awami League is one of the two main political parties in Bangladesh, the other being the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

2: When India was partitioned on independence in 1947, present day Bangladesh was initially part of the new state of Pakistan. “East” and “West” Pakistan were separated by 1,000 miles of Indian territory. East Pakistan broke away in 1971.

3: Suharto, a major general in the Indonesian army, took power after a failed coup attempt against his predecessor, President Sukarno, in 1965. The Communist Party, which had backed Sukarno, was blamed for the attempt and outlawed. Hundreds of thousands of its supporters were killed in the repression that followed.

4: An insignia awarded for valour in Bangladesh’s independence struggle.

5: An umbrella term for minority indigenous groups.

6: The Bangladeshi parliament.

7: The Upazilas are the 482 administrative “subdistricts” into which Bangladesh is divided.