Bangabandhu—The People’s Protagonist - 14

His ordeal in jail

Dr Atiur Rahman

15th June, 2020 09:56:04 printer

His ordeal in jail

Sheikh Mujib was finally arrested in December 1949 from Dhaka after eluding police for quite some time. He was first taken to Lalbagh police station and next day to Dhaka Central Jail. This was his third visit to the central jail, though he previously stayed for shorter terms as a student leader. This time he went to jail as full-fledged political leader and had to endure the ordeals of jail life for about 26 months. He was arrested under Public Security Act for which he could not get bail easily. Moreover, the government thought he was an emerging leader who could potentially attract many followers.

The Intelligence Branch branded him as a ‘dangerous’ opponent of the government and kept constant watch on him. Mostly, jail life was an ordeal, as the government constantly targeted him. On the other hand, the jail officials and the security staff were mostly sympathetic to him and tried to treat him well. But the condition inside jail was not always conducive to a political prisoner like him. Even then he tried his best to endure with grace. He did gardening to try to remain cheerful. Also he talked to the inmates and made life in jail as bearable as he could.

The first day in Dhaka central jail this time was not at all welcoming. Initially, he was not given the division status. So he had to stay the first night as an ordinary prisoner. Not all political prisoners were given this status either. It was assigned arbitrarily at the sweet will of the government. This meant many political prisoners had to do various kinds of hard labour and share the same food with other convicts. Mujib ate nothing that evening. There were a few more political prisoners who were going through the same ordeal. They were very sympathetic to him and took him away to their corner. He ate some food with them as he was very hungry by that time. He was, however, transferred to Ward 5 in the morning with a divisional status to stay with Maulana Bhasani and Mr. Shamsul Huq, the President and General Secretary of his newly launched Party. Their case was heard in court and a verdict was given in late 1950. His co-accused Maulana Bhasani and Mr. Shamsul Huq were acquitted. But he was given further rigorous imprisonment for three months. While imprisoned in Dhaka jail he was made to weave thread. He actually liked it as he could engage in physical movement for the task. After some days he was sent to Gopalganj jail as there was a case against him there too. When he started for Gopalganj by steamer from Narayanganj, his family left for Dhaka to meet him in jail gate. Unfortunately, this was not to happen. He was taken to the police line as there was no place to keep a political prisoner with a division status in Gopalganj jail. He had to walk a mile to reach the court from the police line with sufficient police escort. He would exchange pleasantries with people on the road as he personally knew most of them. In fact he had his schooling here and his parents used to live here. He also had many relatives who used to send food for him regularly. In police line he was put in a small room which used to house political prisoners during the British period. He was surprised that he was put in such a small room ‘so soon after we had become independent!’, he wrote in his memoir(p.173). The police inspector was kind enough to allow him to stay outdoors after sunset. This was quite unusual according to jail code. He wrote, “I had spent a year in jail by this time and every day the door was locked from outside as the sun set. All I could do then was peep out to catch a glimpse of a moonlit night or the stars in the sky.”(‘The Unfinished Memoirs’, 2019. P.174).

He was pleased to have been allowed to stay outside that night and chat with the police officer who sat next to him and some of his friends who dropped by. However, his case could not be heard on that day as the public prosecutor did not turn up. The hearing was adjourned by a month. And he had to go to Faridpur jail to spend this month. He used to be brought to Gopalganj every month from Faridpur for hearing. This journey between Faridpur and Gopalganj was not at all easy as he had to travel about a day and a half touching Madaripur, Bhanga besides Khulna or Barisal. He used to spend a night in an Irrigation Department’s bungalow in Sidhia Ghat. The people from the neighbouring villages used to flock in to see him and offered food. He was liked by all including the police. They saw him campaigning for Pakistan so earnestly and were surprised to see him under police custody. He himself was astonished to see this happening to him so soon. In his own words, “I kept thinking, ‘How you people are showing your love for me!’ The people with whom I had worked very closely before Pakistan’s independence, people with whom I had been intimate once upon a time and who used to praise me saying ‘there is no one as efficient as you are in party work’ were now conniving to keep me in jail without trial and were doing their best to punish me.”(ibid. p.176)

The environment in Faridpur jail was not bad. But he was in solitary confinement and could not mix with other political prisoners. He wrote, “I was being kept in solitary confinement as part of the punishment. Only those who have endured this form of punishment can imagine how difficult it is to stay all by oneself in a dark room.”(ibid.p.177) He came across many prisoners who had fascinating stories to tell him. He even came across a robber named Rahim who robbed his mother and sister’s jewelry. He was visibly depressed to see ordinary prisoners pressing oil in the jail. He raised his voice against this with the jailer who promised to stop it soon -- and he did.

Since the journey between Faridpur and Gopalganj was so cumbersome and difficult Mujib opted to stay either in Barisal or Khulna jail. He was sent to Khulna jail, the condition of it was so pathetic that there was no space to accommodate a political prisoner of his stature. He was kept in a cell and the jail food was of poor quality. His health started deteriorating and he asked the jail authority to shift him to a decent jail. His room was dark. It had no window and only a door which too was facing a wall. He had an upset stomach, occasional chest pains, and his eyes were in bad shape.

He used to come to Gopalganj for hearing from Khulna and stayed in the police line where he could meet his family members. His daughter Hasina would burst into tears when asked to leave him. He stayed in Khulna jail for more than three months, by which detention period was supposed to be over. But the jailors had no clue about what to do with him. He was then asked to go to Gopalganj to appear before the local court for hearing of another case. The court released him on bail and he went to his house to prepare to go to his village home. Just before he would start for the journey, the police from the detective branch showed up and said the government had ordered them to arrest him again under the Public Security Act. This was extremely depressing news for him and his family as they were all looking forward to his release. He was taken to Faridpur jail, back to square one. He was happy to see Babu Chandra Ghosh and Phani Majumder as his ward mates. He respected these two men from the core of his heart and enjoyed staying with them for some time. His health deteriorated further in Faridpur jail. He got high fever and both Mr. Ghosh and Mr. Majumder cared for him day and night to help him recover. The relationship between Mr. Ghosh and Sheikh Mujib so deep that later in his Faridpur jail life Mr. Ghosh was on his death bed and wanted to see only Mujib as his last wish. The civil surgeon had to consent to his wish and brought Sheikh Mujib out of jail to take him to the district hospital. Mr. Ghosh survived and was finally released but the episode remained in Mujib’s memory. Mujib wrote hundreds of words praising Mr. Ghosh’s humanitarian work. And we all know about his and Mohiuddin’s hunger strike in this Faridpur jail during the tumultuous language movement of February 1952. He almost died during that time and was fortunately released in late February. All this shows the type of ordeals he had to go through even in jail. These trials and tribulations continued even later in his jail days. We will unfold those human sagas as we come to those moments.

The author is Bangabandhu Chair Professor and former Governor of Bangladesh Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]