Bangladesh is a country of growing international significance. Its population of 171 million is now the world’s seventh biggest, its current growth rate is the world’s second highest, and it stands strategically between India and China.
It is also a country with strong revolutionary traditions – some very recent. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Bengal (the area covered by the Ganges-Brahmaputra river delta system, including Bangladesh and the West Bengal region of India today) was the center of resistance to the British Raj which led to intensifying attempts by the British to divide Bengal on religious lines between Hindus and Muslims. This ultimately led to partition and the incorporation of East Bengal into Pakistan in 1947.
Bangladesh was created in 1972 in response to Pakistan’s sectarian and dictatorial politics. The liberation war to defend the Bengali language and Bengal’s secular and progressive traditions faced genocidal levels of repression. Support came from India and the Soviet Union and resulted in the creation of the new state.
The first Bangladesh government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman represented a broad political coalition, including socialists, and was committed to high levels of public ownership and nationalization. In 1975, it was overthrown in a military coup and the president assassinated.
Thereafter there was a succession of military-backed governments, most committed to the development of a neoliberal economy and some also to the promotion of Muslim fundamentalism.
These governments encountered high levels of popular resistance led by the left and rooted particularly among the rural poor and the growing trade union movement.
In some areas rural laborers seized land and successfully developed co-operative production.
In 1991, in the face of this growing movement, democracy was finally restored. Since then power has alternated between the centrist Awami League, which has a tendency to compromise with the right, and the reactionary right-wing Bangladesh National Party that also gives cover to religious fundamentalism.
While economic growth has been fast and levels of poverty have decreased, inequality has also soared. There has been large-scale rural depopulation and a massive growth in urban populations available for very cheap labour production – above all, in textiles where Bangladesh is now the second-biggest global producer.
This is the background to the recent Congress of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, the main organized force to the left of the current Awami League government. Starting with a mass rally of 10,000 supporters, the Congress debated a program committed to developing a left democratic alternative.
The objective of this program is to shift the balance of power away from the current governing elite and end the neoliberal policies that are still further increasing inequality and social polarization.
As Professor M.M. Akash of Dhaka University’s school of economics explained to international guests, it is not an immediately revolutionary program. “It aims to build an alliance between workers in industry, the rural poor, and small producers against a system that is wasteful, corrupt, and denies social justice.”
Akash has direct experience of this political corruption. After the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, in which 1,100 textile workers were killed, he was commissioned by the judicial authorities to provide an economic assessment of the compensation due to the families. His findings required an average of $25,000 to be paid to each bereaved family for lifelong loss of earnings. His report was delivered within weeks.
Three years later not a penny has been paid. The Employers Association refused to sign. The government has failed to intervene. Akash noted that 30 members of the Bangladesh parliament have financial interests in textile factories. This, he said, is just one particularly shocking example of how the current system operates.
State welfare programs are systematically robbed. Across most of the textile industry, the government has colluded in the banning of trade unions, and the wealth extracted is increasingly invested abroad. Basic infrastructure needs, such as reliable energy supplies, health, and education, are starved of funds.
The great danger, Akash stressed, is that this provides the social context for the re-emergence of religious fundamentalism. This was used politically by the dictatorial regimes of the 1980s in a period when large numbers of laborers sought work in Saudi Arabia and brought back fundamentalist beliefs.
In recent years there has been growing intolerance of any form of sexual liberation and sporadic terrorist violence. In 2013 the Communist Party’s headquarters were bombed. The Communist Party’s immediate objective is to create a popular alliance directed against a very small, very wealthy elite that can unite workers, rural producers and increasingly marginalized small businesses.
Its economic program demands the development of co-operative production, particularly in high-yielding areas of agriculture, and strong state investment in infrastructure, education, and welfare.
Akash emphasized the importance of co-operative production. It is essential, especially in rural areas, to start reversing the pernicious individualizing effects of bank lending schemes such as that by the Grameen Bank.
“These have benefited only a small minority and are creating a mass base for neoliberal ideas. Instead we need to build on the experience of co-operative production to develop political commitment to further socialist advance. The underlying economic fundamentals of the Bangladesh economy are very strong. So also are our people’s commitment to Bengal’s traditions of secularism and social justice.”
The political resolution adopted at the Congress concluded by emphasizing that “along with the basic task of building the left-democratic alternative, it is important to fight the rising danger of fascist communal forces, defeating them, protecting democracy, and expanding democratic rights.”
It notes the importance of strengthening vigilance against those elements in Bangladesh that still oppose its liberation struggle and for ensuring the prosecution of those guilty of war crimes in 1972.
It ends by calling for the mobilization of a mass alliance to secure these ends without in any way compromising the independent position of the Communist Party.
This article originally appeared in the British Morning Star newspaper.