Sheikh Mujib was a born democrat. His early association with his mentor Suhra-wardy laid the foundation for his democratic politics. His interactions with Abul Hashim and A K Fazlul Huq also strengthened his democratic upbringing. Moreover, his father was a great role model for democratic norms and behaviour. For example, he advised Mujib to not challenge A K Fazlul Huq in public as people in general respected this veteran politician. People rejected any criticism against Mr. Huq because of his immense contribution towards improving the situation of the peasantry in Bengal. Mujib tried once or twice to speak against him but the people rejected his words. He immediately changed his gears and never did that again. In other words he understood the people and they too understood him. According to Professor James Manor who gave a talk on Bangabandhu at SOAS University of London, flexibility was one of the many leadership qualities that made Mujib an outstanding Father of the Nation. He was always open to negotiations and engaged in dialogues with his opponents. He was not at all a “hot headed” agitator as some commentators would like to portray him.We are not surprised when we find that following his release from jail in late February 1952, Mujib spent most of his time organizing the Awami Muslim League. During 1953 Mujib spent most of his time strengthening this opposition party. He had advocated democracy throughout his political life and emphasised the importance of a strong opposition to keep the government in check.
The Muslim League government led by Nazimuddin was also losing its popularity rapidly during this time as the deeds of their corruption were becoming clear to the people. It was, therefore, a favourable environment for Mujib to establish branches of his party in all districts of East Bengal. As a part of this organisational drive, he invited Mr. Suhrawardy to visit East Pakistan and address meetings all across the region. On the other hand, Pir Manki Sharif and some other leaders came together and built the Awami League in West Pakistan as well (‘The Unfinished Memoirs’, page- 238). As they addressed meeting after meeting, they demanded the freedom of all prisoners under the Public Security Act, better economic policies for East Pakistan, Bengali as the state language and food, clothing and shelter of the people of East Pakistan. These were in alignment with people’s aspirations who were deeply disillusioned with the ‘false dawn’ of Pakistan which failed to keep its own pledges for people’s emancipation.
Sheikh Mujib appreciated Mr. Suhrawardy’s visit as it held them build their organisation. He made it a point to hold meetings with local leaders to form a powerful organisation. In particular, said Sheikh Mujib, “Young workers came forward to tackle head on the oppressive tactics employed by the Muslim League government.”(ibid, p. 239) He was very keen on organising the party in the most democratic style to make it a strongly rooted party. Thus he wrote, “Even though the Awami League had been formed in 1949, no council meeting of the party had been held till now since most of its proponents were spending time in jail. I directed all district and subdivisional Awami League offices to hold elections in three months’ time. After this we were going to elect office bearers of the East Pakistan Awami League Council and adopt a constitution and manifesto. I began to work night and day towards attaining these goals.” (ibid, p.239) Sheikh Mujib was committed to the betterment of the country and did not care for positions. When Shamsul Huq was released from the prison he was willing to let go of his position as acting General Secretary, even though Mr. Huq was mentally unwell. Mr. Huq, of course, did not come back to his position and told Mujib to carry on as the General Secretary. As the leaders of Awami League along with Maulana Bhasani were released from prison, they soon started preparations for a council meeting as proposed by Sheikh Mujib.
Many leaders within the party (for example, Abdus Salam Khan, Hashimuddin Ahmed, Khairat Hussein, Almas Ali and few others) did not want Mujib to become the General Secretary in the upcoming term. Sheikh Mujib had to face many hurdles and conspiracies against him while he was working actively for the preparations of the council meeting for building a strong democratic base of the party. However, senior leaders including Maulana Bhasani were supportive of Sheikh Mujib because of his superb organisational skills. Finally, Maulana Bhasani was elected as the President, Ataur Rahman Khan the Vice-President and Sheikh Mujib the General Secretary. The members of the party also came up with their manifesto and constitution as desired by Sheikh Mujib. (ibid,p. 242)
In the meanwhile, Khawaja Nazimuddin was dismissed as Prime Minister and replaced by Mohammad Ali Bogra. Sheikh Mujib was saddened by this anti-democratic development in the ruling party and expressed his dissatisfaction as a courteous opposition political leader. He wrote, “…In any case, the other leaders of the Muslim League did not protest the very undemocratic manner in which Mr Nazimuddin had been dismissed. One by one they abandoned the man who had been their leader and lined up behind Mr Mohammad Ali propelled by their greed for power. Mr Nazimuddin even had to give up his position as president of the Muslim League. Not one voice was raised in protest. Only the East Pakistan Awami League protested against the very undemocratic manner in which Khawaja Nazimuddin had been sacked from his position.” (ibid. p. 246)
After the decision to hold elections for the Provincial Assembly in East Bengal in mid-1953, Awami League began to prepare for it. At first, the leaders of Awami League were against forming a coalition under the proposed United Front which consisted of the Krishak Praja Party, Ganatantrik Dal and Nizam-e-Islam. However, some leaders of the Awami League were all for a coalition as it would ensure more chances of gaining power. This became clear from an exchange Sheikh Mujib had with Mr. Abdus Salam Khan that he recounted in his Unfinished Memoirs. He wrote, “He told me one day, ‘For how long can one stay in opposition? Unless we wield power the public will lose faith in us. We will have to grab power in any which way we can. We will surely be able to form the government if we constitute a United Front.’ In response I had told him, ‘We might attain a position of power one way or the other, but we won’t be able to do anything for the people that way, and in any case power got by expedient means will soon evaporate. Where we are not united on the basis of ideals no alliance will endure.’” (ibid, p. 254) Awami League, however, soon changed its initial position and Maulana Bhasani signed an agreement to form the United Front. Even though Sheikh Mujib was surprised with this development, he worked hard to make the election successful.Sheikh Mujib participated in the election from his own district Gopalganj. During the election campaign, Muslim League leaders tried their best to suppress their opposition and created many hurdles for its candidates. Sheikh Mujib did not have many resources to fight this election. He had only one microphone and two bicycles as opposed to his opponent, a wealthy person with everything required for the campaign. In a press conference held on 26th October 1953 Sheikh Mujib talked about the unethical practices that the Muslim League government was undertaking during the election campaign. He talked about the unfair ban on use of microphones by the opposition, imposing section 144 during the meetings of the opposition, government officials declaring Muslim League the winner of the election beforehand, transfer of officers to make the campaign of Muslim League convenient and intentional mistakes in the voter list (‘SECRET DOCUMENTS OF INTELLIGENCE BRANCH ON THE FATHER OF THE NATION BANGABANDHU SHEIKH MUJIBUR RAHMAN’ SECRET DOCUMENTS OF INTELLIGENCE BRANCH ON THE FATHER OF THE NATION BANGABANDHU SHEIKH MUJIBUR RAHMAN’, Volume-3, page- 432 and 433).
In addition, the Muslim League in Gopalganj got influential religious figures to speak against Sheikh Mujib. They also arrested many people of the United Front under the Public Security Act before the election (‘The Unfinished Memoirs’, p. 261). However, despite all those conspiracies they were not able to stop Sheikh Mujib and the United Front from winning the elections. Sheikh Mujib was immensely popular among the general people and anything that Muslim League plotted against him did not come to fruition because of this grassroots appeal. He was supported by people of all classes.
When he visited different villages during the campaign people would offer him refreshments and money. They wanted him to use it for his campaign. He once came across an old lady who was very poor. She had waited for him for hours when she heard that he would be passing by that area. She invited Mujib inside her hut and asked him to sit there for a while. She offered him a bowl of milk, a betel leaf and some coins. He was very touched by her gesture but returned the coins along with some more money after drinking the milk. The old lady did not take the money and told him that ‘the prayers of the poor will be with him’. Sheikh Mujib wrote, “When I left her hut my eyes were moist with tears. On that day, I promised myself that I would do nothing to betray my people.” (ibid, p. 260) And he kept his words till his last breath.
The author is Bangabandhu Chair Professor, Dhaka University and former Governor, Bangladesh Bank. He can be reached at: [email protected]