In the years that followed independence, questions of national identity arose between East and West Pakistan and were taken up by the Awami League on the behalf of East Pakistan. The Awami League advocated that Bengali, spoken in East Pakistan, be given the status of national language alongside Urdu, which was spoken in West Pakistan and had been declared the national language in 1947.
The league also promoted greater representation of Bengalis in central government, since Bengalis in central civilian services in West Pakistan did not possess a strong base of power within the region, and higher posts in military and government in East Pakistan were often held by West Pakistanis.
During the military rule of General Ayub Khan (1958–69), there had been economic growth in both wings of the country, but the disparity between the wealth of West Pakistan and the poverty of East Pakistan had also been on the rise. Furthermore a war with India in 1965 had left East Pakistan undefended, because the constitution of the country provided for troops to be stationed only in West Pakistan.
Under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Awami League formulated a six-point demand as a means of addressing the disadvantages faced by Bengalis in economic and national affairs. The six-point demand was to become a cornerstone of the nationalist movement for Bangladesh.
Mujibur Rahman’s six-point demand wanted a parliamentary form of government in the country with representation based on population. The federal government was to be in charge of defense and foreign affairs only, and there were to be either two different currencies or one currency, in the event of which federal banks were to prevent the flight of capital from one region to the other. Fiscal policy was to be the responsibility of the federating units, and each unit was to have separate foreign exchange accounts.
Lastly, in the interests of national security, both East and West Pakistan were to have a militia and a paramilitary force. The popularity of the Awami League as the representative of the Bengalis was attested by the results of the 1970 national elections, in which the Awami League captured 160 out of 162 seats in East Pakistan, and 38 percent of the national vote.
Meanwhile, the majority of seats in West Pakistan, and 20 percent of the national vote, went to the Pakistan People’s Party led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. When the time came for the two parties to form a government, tensions between the two wings of the country came to a head.
The Awami League wanted the six points to be part of the new constitution, but met with resistance from Bhutto. General Yahya Khan, the president at the time, encouraged meetings between the two parties. The People’s Party under Bhutto began a campaign to discredit the Awami League by attacking the six-point demand and delaying the meeting of the National Assembly as a means of pressurizing the Awami League into a compromise.
The delays in the meeting of the National Assembly, and Bhutto’s campaign against Mujibur Rahman, were seen as evidence of bad faith by East Pakistanis, and led to widespread public demonstrations and riots. By accepting Bhutto’s postponement of the meeting, Yahya had implicitly accepted Bhutto’s political authority. When Yahya called an all-party conference without consulting the Awami League, the Awami League called a strike and refused to attend the meeting.
In the months between the election and the all-party conference, the Awami League had assumed authority and exercised powers of government in East Pakistan. When the league refused to attend the conference, and successive negotiations between Yahya and Mujibur Rahman failed, General Yahya accused the Awami League of treason and announced military intervention in East Pakistan, along with the arrest of all prominent persons within the league.
During the consequent civil war between East and West Pakistan, the Awami League formed the government-in-exile of the Republic of Bangladesh across the border in India. Repeated Indian insurgency into Pakistani soil and Indian support of the Bangladeshi freedom fighters led to a declaration of war on India by Pakistan. On December 17, 1971, a ceasefire was declared, and Pakistani troops surrendered. Mujibur Rahman was released by the new government of Pakistan under Bhutto and went on to become the first prime minister of Bangladesh.
The Awami League emphasized nationalism, democracy, socialism, and secularism. Reconstruction efforts in a war-torn country, however, proved to be challenging to the new government. In the face of criticism and opposition, Mujibur Rahman declared Bangladesh a one-party state and gave himself the powers of president. Rahman was assassinated by a military officer in 1975, and martial law was imposed by Ziaur Rahman, the chief of army staff.
In the 1980s the Awami League was revitalized by Mujibur Rahman’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajid, who won the elections of 1986 and stayed in power until her term ended in 1990. The Awami League today remains a powerful and vocal opposition party in Bangladesh into the 21st century, and consistently opposes the role of the military in government.