Red Terror or Revolutionary War?

Book Review: Lal Shontrash: Siraj Sikder O Sharbohara Rajneeti (Baatighar, Dhaka, 2021, 430 pages)

Red Terror; Siraj Sikder and Sarbahara Politics” (in Bangla) is about the birth, growth and withering away of a revolutionary organisation about which most Bangladeshis have heard, very many are curious but too few know anything. Given the clandestine character of the Purbo Banglar Sarbahara Party (East Bengal Workers’ Party) and the secretive life of its cadres, its relatively short life and the turbulent times in which it existed, very little information about this organisation had been available until now. What was hitherto known was in bits and patches, as a bewildering mixture of fact, myth and fiction. 

The party’s leader, Siraj Sikder, acquired a cult-status in his lifetime and turned into a mythical figure after his death in police captivity in 1975 at the rather young age of 30. Compounding the curiosity are the circumstances of his death, which are as controversial as his revolutionary life. In light of this, Mohiuddin Ahmad had taken upon himself a very challenging task and it has to be said that he has acquitted himself very well.

An author and Prothom Alo columnist who formerly served as Assistant Editor at the Daily Ganakantha, Ahmad has previously written on the Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, and Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal. Lal Shontrash is a gripping historical account from beginning to end, a real life story of some naïve young men and women barely in their adulthood coming together under Sikder’s leadership to liberate the oppressed and exploited people of Bangladesh through armed struggle.

Ahmad has meticulously collected and compiled in one volume not just all available and scarce published documents relating to the Sarbahara Party but also interviewed many surviving participants. If it wasn’t for his effort, many of the facts revealed in this book, some startling, a few shocking, but all very instructive and interesting, would forever be lost to posterity.

This book consists of two parts, the first is a summary of the Leftist politics, parties and movements in East Bengal (Bangladesh), in general, and of the Sarbahara Party, in particular. In the second part, Ahmad has published the accounts of eleven party activists based on interviews he conducted over many months or they themselves wrote, both published and unpublished. Some of the accounts are in the first person, reproduced verbatim, making them all the more fascinating.

Published for the first time is a written testimony of “Bulu”, who was not only active in the party for many years but also was married to “Taher”, Sikder’s closest comrade and deputy until his assassination in August 1971. As such, she was in a position to observe Sikder from very close quarters in the early stages. The value of Bulu’s testimony lies in the fact that it is a contemporary, first-hand account straight from the heart and never intended for publication. As such, it is of great historical importance and would almost certainly have been lost to posterity but for Ahmad’s commendable investigative effort.

Some of the facts explicitly mentioned or implied in Bulu’s testimony are explosive and certain to invite the wrath of Sikder devotees, particularly his multiple marriages and alleged extra-marital liaisons and advances. But the fact is that these unsavoury truths about Sikder are corroborated elsewhere. The term “debauched” employed by the author in a few questions and comments in relation to Sikder may be both harsh and exaggerated, but they are neither a figment of his imagination nor an effort to vilify the late leader.

But another accusation against Sikder, that of autocratic leadership and a personality cult which brooked no criticism and led to harsh expulsions and even assassinations, are quite well known. It was this tendency that resulted in a murderous rampage within the party after the supremo’s death. Comrades accused fellow comrades of betrayal and some were executed after summary “show trials”, leading to a meltdown of the party.

Ahmad not only asked probing questions of his interlocutors but he interviewed at least one high-ranking leader (“Rana”) multiple times based on new information obtained from other interviews. Although his searching questions and cross-checking efforts sometimes annoyed Rana, the author was surprised and amazed by the openness of all the formerly highly secretive revolutionaries whom he interviewed.

Although most Sarbahara cadres were very well-intentioned, highly motivated intelligent young men and women, the constant hardships, secretiveness, violence and repression cumulatively resulted in dissension and deterioration within the party, aggravated by Sikder’s sudden death in January 1975. Ahmad has provided the best available details of the circumstances of Sikder’s capture and death from four different sources, three published and one based on an interview the author conducted with a then-serving high official of Rakkhi Bahini.

Very helpfully, Ahmad has given a list of names of party activists along with the pseudonyms by which they were known within the party. Although he has provided a list of his sources in an appendix, he has failed to give proper citations in the text, often leaving the reader not only to wonder about the exact source, but also causing some confusion. It might also have been useful to provide a full chronological list of the party congresses, conferences and meetings in an appendix for ready reference.

There are also a few inaccuracies and mistranslations which the author ought to rectify in future editions. For example, he mentions that the party’s magazine “Lal Jhanda” (Red Flag) was first published in September 1974 (p. 160). I am able personally to attest to the fact that the first issue was published sometime in mid to late 1969. It was clandestinely cyclostyled late one evening in an architect’s office on Topkhana Road in Dhaka, where Bulu’s brother Kalam worked. Being a party sympathiser, he had provided party cadres the key to the office. The word “jhanda” was chosen after some deliberation, being preferred (by Sikder himself) over the more authentic Bangla synonym “potaka”. “Jhanda” resonated militancy, whereas “potaka” sounded too gentle!

Many admirers of the party and its leader, among other things, will perhaps protest the title of the book, “Red Terror”, which may well have been chosen by the author and publisher for its flashiness, but it is neither misleading nor inaccurate. Sarbahara Party cadres, like all revolutionaries throughout history, had no scruples against employing terror, including execution, against those they perceived as enemies and traitors, including their own.

After all, Sikder and his followers were self-professed believers and practitioners of “armed struggle, class war, people’s war and revolutionary terror”. Didn’t their revered Chairman Mao Zedong say: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”? It is a different matter, however, that their motley guns proved no match for the heavy guns employed against them by the state.

It is too early to say how history will judge Siraj Sikder and his Sarbahara Party. But this book definitely is a very commendable effort on the part of Mohiuddin Ahmad to preserve the record for future historians to work with.

(Published in Daily Star, Dhaka, 27 May 2021)

by Razi Azmi

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