Bangladesh: challenge of the student uprising

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By Lal Khan
The students’ movement that erupted on July 29, following the death of two students in a tragic road accident in Dhaka spread rapidly to almost all the major cities of Bangladesh.
Thousands of outraged school and university students laid siege to the streets of Dhaka for a week. Within days its verve and militancy shook the despotic‘democratic’ regime of Prime Minister Hasina Wajid’s Awami League (AL), the party of Bangladesh’s national bourgeoisie.
This movement yet again demonstrates that the molecular processes gyrating in the womb of society and the seething socioeconomic contradictions can abruptly erupt into a volcanic explosion. Any major event or issue can trigger the outburst of the youth’s accumulated grievances. The issues may or may not be directly linked to the class struggle.
The regime came out with naked brutality to crush the students’ heroic movement. On condition of anonymity a university student told Bangladesh’s Daily Star: “The police and Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL — the youth wing of the AL) vigilantes locked us inside the university campus. The BCL men were carrying machetes, sticks and rods. They entered the cafeteria and threateningly told the students not to join the protests. Several students were severely injured in these attacks. Hospitals refused to admit the injured students”. Although these protests seem to be losing stream due to the movement’s relative isolation, nevertheless it is a glimpse of the stormy events that impend in Bangladesh.
Despite the much-bragged high growth rates and fabricated statistics of poverty reduction, the conditions of the ordinary people of Bangladesh are in an abysmal state. There has been a sharp rise in poverty, inequality and unemployment over the last four decades. Bangladesh still remains one of the least developed countries in the world. An estimated 63 million out of a population of 163 million live in absolute poverty.
There has been rapid urbanisation with more than a third of the population now living in urban areas. According to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook, 2017, labour income shares are now 4.0 percent lower than they were in 1970. The country exports more than $20 billion worth of garments to 30 countries. It is now the second largest apparel producer after China. There are 5,000 factories with three million workers, 80 percent being young women. Most women workers get 37 dollars a month, a contract wage that is further eroded by inflation.
The capitalist exploitation of women’s labour is interwoven with the patriarchal oppression that pervades the entire fabric of Bangladesh’s society. Brand multinationals want their products cheap and fast, and push local contractors on price and lead times. The factory managers squeeze workers’ labour viciously. The bosses are doing their utmost to keep down the value of labour power (wages) and extend the amount of working time in a day for more surplus value.The conditions in twenty-first century Bangladesh are not very dissimilar to the nineteenth century workers described by Marx in Capital:
“The working day contains the full 24 hours, with the deduction of the few hours of repose without which labour power absolutely refuses its services again… in its blind unrestrainable werewolf hunger for surplus labour, capital oversteps not only the moral but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working day. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, and refreshment of the. All that concerns Capital is simply and solely the maximum of labour power that can be rendered fluent in a working day.” (Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, pp. 178, Progress Publishers, Moscow)
Left wing politics played a crucial role in the country’s history. Several left-wing currents organised the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD, National Socialist Party) in the early 1970’s.In November 1975, General Ziaur Rahman was overthrown in a counter-coup. Soon a soldiers’ revolt, which the JSD helped organise, overthrew the Generals. These left-wing young military officers had power in their hands; they could have abolished capitalism instantaneously, with revolutionary repercussions across South Asia. And yet, they squandered this unique historical opportunity.
They released Zia and he got these very socialist leaders captured, sentencing to death Abu Taher, a JSD leader and hero of the liberation war. Other JSD activists received long prison sentences. Years later, Abu Fazal the brother of Abu Tahir, met the British Marxist leader Roger Silverman at a meeting in Calcutta. When Roger asked why they handed power back to General Zia, Fazal replied: “We thought we were not ready for the revolution and needed a transitional ‘Kerensky’ regime period to prepare and carryout the revolution.” This lack of understanding of Marxist politics and strategy has cost millions of the oppressed in Bangladesh and the region to endure atrocious capitalist brutality for generations.
The workers and youth in Bangladesh have militant traditions of social struggles. Some of the strikes of the women workers in the garment and textile industry have flabbergasted the world. They defied the terror of the state and fought for their rights. Today, leftist ideas still resonate with those poised to fight, defeat and overthrow religious oppression, a despotic state and capitalism.
In December, Hasina Wajid faces another election. In the 2014 elections, the AL regime manipulated the polls and managed to secure 280 out of 300 seats. But this time round it will not be the reactionary bourgeois opposition parties that will thwart Hasina Wajid’s evil designs of regaining power in complicity with the army. The simmering discontent below can explode into a militant mass revolt that can cut across this vicious cycle of the rulership of these two reactionary bourgeois women. The present students’ uprising can become a harbinger for such a revolutionary upheaval.
(The writer is Editor of Asian Marxist Review and International Secretary of Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign. He can be reached at ptudc@hotmail.com)