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Awami League

Rafiuddin Ahmed
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Awami League

As one of Bangladesh 's two major political parties, the Awami (“people 's”) League led the country 's war of independence against Pakistan in 1971, under the charismatic Shaikh Mujībur Raḥmān (1920–1975), affectionately called the Bangabandhu or “Friend of Bengal.” It is a secularly oriented, left-leaning political organization. Its party symbol, the boat, symbolizes the river-based life of the region.

The Awami League, originally called the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League, was founded in Dhaka (Dacca) in 1949. Articulate Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan had become increasingly resentful of the Muslim League leadership because of its failure to transform that party into a representative organization. Bengalis resented the domination by a new political elite composed mostly of expatriate Muslims from India and the civil-military bureaucracy of West Pakistan. The founding of the Awami League thus reflected the growing sense of frustration of the indigenous Bengali elite with central authority in Pakistan. By 1966 the party had emerged as the embodiment of a Bengali political community.

Although widely associated with the name of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy (1893–1963), a former prime minister of united Bengal and Pakistan, the organization owed its origin to Maulānā Bhasanī (1885–1976), a pro-Beijing peasant leader. Dubbed the “Red Maulānā,” Bhasanīʾs goal was to transform the structure of Pakistani politics by radically democratizing political institutions and involving the masses. The leadership of the party was, however, taken over by the centrist leader Suhrawardy, who began molding it as an organization of the nascent Bengali Muslim bourgeoisie. It was renamed the Awami League, dropping the word “Muslim” to emphasize its secular character. Soon Bhasanī and his socialist confidants were pushed out of the party.

The watershed in the Awami League 's development as a mass organization occurred under Shaikh Mujīb. The Language Movement of 1952 that had urged recognition of Bengali as one of Pakistan 's official languages, the dismissal of a popularly elected government in East Pakistan in 1954, and the subsequent imposition of martial law in 1958 that had specifically disadvantaged the Bengali political elite had all been perceived as indications of the rulers’ hostility toward the political, economic, and cultural aspirations of Bengalis. As a consequence, the assertion of Bengali linguistic-cultural identity, in sharp contrast with the closer identification with Islam during the Pakistan movement, became the dominant theme of East Pakistani politics, especially during the 1960s. The Awami League under the leadership of Shaikh Mujīb emerged as the voice of this movement.

Beginning in 1964 Shaikh Mujīb played a dominant role in reorganizing and revitalizing the Awami League, attracting mass support, and gaining control of the political movement in favor of greater regional autonomy. He formulated the famous Six-Point Program in 1966, which demanded, among other things, the formation of a federation in Pakistan with the federate units enjoying a large measure of political and economic power. Mujīb was charged with treason by the government in the same year and imprisoned in the Dhaka army cantonment. An upsurge in popular support soon made him a symbol of Bengali nationalism and forced the government to drop the case.

Elections held in 1970 under a new military regime gave the Awami League 160 of the 162 seats allotted to East Pakistan, ensuring an absolute majority in the 300-seat national parliament. The military junta, however, refused to hand over power to the elected representatives, leading to a popular uprising in the province in February 1971. Shaikh Mujīb launched a noncooperation movement against the central government on March 7, 1971, urging people to fight for freedom and democracy. The independence movement had begun.

Although mass mobilization was central to the Awami League 's political strategy, the control of rural elites severely restricted its ability to initiate meaningful reforms once in power. For example, the Eleven-Point Program of the students (1968) demanded nationalization of banking, insurance, and major industries, reduction of taxes on farmers, and better wages for workers. Although these were incorporated into the League program in order to broaden its base of support, a section of the party hierarchy opposed them.

One of the notable achievements of the Awami League was to enact a constitution for Bangladesh in 1973, less than two years after independence. But this exercise in democracy soon became academic when Mujīb amended the constitution in 1975, introducing a one-party system under the banner of BAKSAL (Bangladesh Peasants and Workers Awami League). Gross mismanagement of the economy, corruption, and the highhandedness of party cadres created mounting problems for the government and eroded its popular support.

Questions were also raised as to the Awami League 's loyalty to Islam, although it is doubtful that the party leadership, despite its ambivalent commitment to secularism and socialism, has ever underrated the strength and appeal of Islam in a predominantly Muslim country. Earlier, in October 1970, Shaikh Mujīb had clearly asserted his “commitment to the constitutional principle that no law should be enacted or imposed … which is repugnant to the injunctions of Islam” (Bangladesh, p. 11). There is no evidence to suggest that his position ever changed. His government imposed a ban on religious parties after independence, basically as a reaction to the excesses they had committed during the war in 1971. Mujīb recognized the need for closer ties with other Muslim countries and became gradually more receptive to Islamic issues. He even attended the summit meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1974.

The Awami League government was overthrown in August 1975 in a coup staged by a group of young army officers, who killed Shaikh Mujīb, most of his immediate family members, and a number of his close associates. The party has since suffered from factionalism and defections. It has equally had to confront its political opponents, backed by the army and the armed cadres of the fundamentalist Jamāʿat-i Islāmī. However, it has successfully consolidated its position in recent years, reemerging as one of the largest political parties in the country. Shaikh Hasīnah Wājid, one of the surviving daughters of Shaikh Mujīb, was made leader of the party in 1979; she was elected to parliament in 1990 and has since led the opposition there.

Although Shaikh Hasīnah Wājid and her party embody the spirit of Bengali nationalism and democratic government popularized by her father, her affiliation with Islam appears more pronounced. The party has moved closer to an Islamic posture despite persistent efforts among its opponents to project it with a secular-socialist image. See also BANGLADESH.


  • Bhuiyan, Md. Abdul Wadud. Emergence of Bangladesh and Role of Awami League. Delhi, 1982. Highly informative account of the rise of the Awami League as a mass political organization and its role in Bangladesh 's War of Independence.
  • Kochanek, Stanley A.“Governance, Patronage Politics, and Democratic Transition in Bangladesh”Asian Survey40, no. 3 (2000): 530–550.
  • Mitra, Subrata Kumar, Mike Enskat, and Clemens Spiess. Political Parties in South Asia. Westport, Conn., 2004.
  • Mujībur Rahman, Sheikh. Bangladesh My Bangladesh. Delhi, 1972. Selection of speeches by Shaykh Mujīb and relevant documents on Bangladesh (compiled by Ramendu Majumder).
  • Nair, M.B. Politics in Bangladesh: A Study of Awami League: 1949-58. South Asia Books, 1990.
  • Umar, Badruddin. The Emergence of Bangladesh. Karachi, 2004.
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