Bangabandhu is the destiny of Bangladesh. He shaped our aspirations of liberation and remains our point of reference for the present. Also, his thoughts will guide our younger generation in the future journey of national development. Given his paramount presence in our past, present and future, I promised to my students and members of the younger generation as early as December 2019 that I would present Bangabandhu’s thoughts every week through newspaper columns during the entire year of his birth centenary.
In addition, I also committed to do more research on him, leading to many write-ups and public lectures during this exceptional period. Despite the sudden attack by the global pandemic, I remained on course and continued to deliver what I promised. It was not easy. I was confined in my study for nearly a year and a half and did everything online.Thanks to the unflinching support of my students and young colleagues from the research institute Unnayan Shamannay, without whose help I could not have continued this journey.
In particular I must acknowledge the sincere research assistance of Abdullah Nadvi, Kamrul Ahsan, Zahid Rahman, Waliul Islam, Byezid Limon, Rubayet Khundokar, and Arju Afrin Kathy. With their excellent research support, I continued two regular columns in two of our leading dailies. The daily ‘Amader Somoy’ carried the weekly column titled ‘Amader Shopner Samrat’ (‘The Emperor of our dreams’) which is continuing and will be concluded soon. The other is this, which I am concluding today. This was indeed a very rewarding journey. I must, therefore, thank both the editors of these two dailies and two focal persons in their editorial sections, Ranazit Sarker from Amader Somoy and Atiqul Kabir Tuhin from the Daily Sun. Also, many thanks to our daughter Prokriti Shyamolima for her excellent editing of each of the pieces of the series. I am also indebted to many of the readers of this series, including Mr. M. Syeduzzaman who was my best critic as well as a constant source of inspiration for piecing together this narrative on Bangabandhu. Two books based on my write-ups and public lectures have already been published in this auspicious period of Bangabandhu’s birth centenary and a few more are in the offing. I must also thank the Dhaka University authorities for offering me the Bangabandhu Chair, which made it much easier to continue this research. As we dove deep into the life of Bangabandhu over the last year, we found that he was a simple yet extraordinary man who was naturally gifted in the art of politics. He was outspoken and felt the pain and suffering of the people from a very young age. Mujib led the volunteer brigade and welcomed H.S. Suhrawardy to the Mission school in Gopalganj in late 1930s. Mr. Suhrawardy was impressed by his leadership quality and began to exchange letters with him later (The Unfinished Memoirs, p.10). This can be considered the first stepping-stone of Mujib’s political career. And the rest is history.
He passed his entrance exam in 1942 and got himself enrolled in the Islamia College in the same year. He stayed in the Baker Hostel, which also became his major center of student politics under the guidance of both Suhrawardy and Abul Hashim. He was involved in the Pakistan movement, hoping like his mentors that the North-Eastern part of India would have a separate Muslim-majority state. But this did not happen.
In 1948, Sheikh Mujib joined the law department in the University of Dhaka as a graduate student. During this time, he made significant contributions to the initiation of the language movement, Dawwal movement (the movement against cordon policy of the government for restricting movement of food, with huge implication for the seasonal farm laborers) and the movement of class 4 employees of Dhaka University. Sheikh Mujib was expelled from the university as he refused to plead guilty for supporting the low-paid employees. By this time Mujib was arrested a few times. After his expulsion, Mujib decided to devote himself fully to mainstream politics. He wrote, “I was still angry with the Muslim League leaders. What they were doing with Pakistan was contrary to the Pakistan I had dreamt of. Ordinary people depended on us and would direct their questions at us. The country had become independent: why wasn’t anything being done to alleviate their sufferings?” (The Unfinished Memoirs, p.134).
The Awami Muslim League was formed in 1949, with Mujib as the joint secretary while still in jail. This was not surprising given his relentless efforts in laying the building blocks for this party. He had to remain in jail for more than two years during this spell of detention. An arrest warrant was issued against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 30th December, 1949 and on 31st December he was arrested from a house in Lalbag of Old Dhaka (SECRET DOCUMENTS OF INTELLINGENCE BRANCE ON FATHER OF THE NATION BANGABANDHU SHEIKH MUJIBUR RAHMAN Edited by Sheikh Hasina, Hakkani publishers, Volume-1, page-326). He was under an intelligence scanner right from his arrival to East Bengal from Kolkata. He guided the student leaders to organise the 1952 Language Movement while he was confined in Dhaka Medical College Hospital as a detainee. He was sent to Faridpur jail because of his underground connection with the language movement activists. This, however, could not stop his activism. He started a hunger strike to popularise the cause for the movement. Then came the carnage of 21st February, where several students and other activists were martyred by police firing. The whole province protested this killing and he was finally released on 27th February when his physical condition deteriorated significantly. He started reorganising Awami Muslim League after a brief period of recovery. He then went to Karachi to see his mentor Suhrawardy and the Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin, to press his demands for realising the goals of the Language Movement, achieving democratic space for his party, and ending the oppression of the people. He was only 32 at that time. Yet his political gestures were thoughtful and far-sighted. This characteristic of his leadership was also visible when he visited the newly liberated China in the same year. He was at that time neither a Member of the Parliament nor a Minister. Yet his approaches were statesman-like.
Sheikh Mujib was an exceptional political organiser. His active role as the Secretary of Awami Muslim League in forming the United Front and winning the Provincial Assembly overwhelmingly reflected his skills and capabilities as a people-friendly politician. Just to illustrate this quality of his leadership, let me share with the readers an interesting episode. During his campaign Sheikh Mujib came across an old lady who invited him to her hut and 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.” (The Unfinished Memoirs, page- 260). Sheikh Mujib became the minister of Cooperatives and Agricultural department and took oath on 15th May. However, he could serve for only around a fortnight as Minister, since the provincial government was dismissed by the central government on flimsy grounds. Moreover, he was the only Minister who was put in jail.A new Constituent Assembly was formed in 1955 and he was elected as a member. On 17th June 1955 Awami League demanded the autonomy of East Pakistan. As proposed by him, the word ‘Muslim’ was dropped from the party name on 21st October reflecting Sheikh Mujib’s principle of secularism. He had witnessed many communal riots and therefore wanted people of all beliefs to live in peace. Sheikh Mujib became the minister of industries, trade, labor, anti-corruption and village aid in Ataur Rahman Khan’s cabinet in 1956. He made many contributions from his positions as a minister and as the chairman of Tea Board. However, he resigned from his position as minister when Maulana Bhashani questioned Mujib’s position as both a minister and the General Secretary of Awami League and asked him to choose one. He invariably chose the latter.
Following the imposition of Martial Law, Sheikh Mujib was arrested on 12th October 1958 and released after more than a year on 17th December 1959. Ayub was then in power in Pakistan. Sheikh Mujib was under strict surveillance even after his release. In March 1964, the party was formally revived with him as the Secretary. And in June they declared their manifesto, which included measures against the economic disparity between the two regions. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman proposed six points for the emancipation of the disadvantaged people of East Pakistan on 5th February 1966. He traveled around the country to popularise the six-point program which was overwhelmingly supported by the people. However, the government was dead against this program and consequently Mujib was put behind bars many times. He was technically released from the central jail only to be arrested again under the so-called Agartala Conspiracy case in 1968. He was detained in the cantonment and tried in a military court. There was a mass upsurge primarily organised by the students, which led to his release and the subsequent fall of Ayub regime. Following his release, he was given the title of Bangabandhu, the friend of Bengal, by student leaders led by DUCSU Vice President Tofael Ahmed. General Yahya Khan later took power and arranged a general election which proved to be a comprehensive mandate for the six-point program led by Bangabandhu.
Awami League had won 167 out of 169 National Assembly seats and 288 out of 300 Provincial Assembly seats. In 1971, when the Yahya government backed out from handing over power to the elected representatives, Bangabandhu launched the hugely successful non-cooperation movement. On 7th March Bangabandhu delivered his historic speech, which reflected the aspirations that the Bengalis had for generations. Bangabandhu issued formally the declaration of independence of Bangladesh at 12:20am on 26th March following the initiation of genocide in the evening of 25th March by the Pakistan army. Bangabandhu was arrested from his residence soon afterwards and he spent his days in prison expecting his death.
Bangabandhu returned to Bangladesh on 10th January 1972. He took control of the war-devastated country and began to rebuild it. The constitution and the First Five Year Plan were already in action within a year of liberation. The four principles of the constitution had reflected what Bangabandhu and the Bengalis had spent years struggling for: Nationalism, Socialism, Democracy, and Secularism. Taking the reins of a war-torn country was not an easy task. Braving these challenges, he helped rehabilitate millions of refugees and thousands of wounded war veterans including war heroines, rebuild communication system and other physical and social infrastructures, gain recognitions by hundreds of countries, design non-aligned independent foreign policy and pursue farsighted inclusive development policy. It required time to fix all these things.
When speaking on the second revolution, Bangabandhu had said, “Give me three years, if Allah keeps me alive, I will come back to parliamentary democracy. I was unable to do much during the last three years because of domestic and international disasters. This saddens me a lot.” (Syeduzzaman, M, Bangabandhur Smriti O Unnayan Darshan, Uttaran, December 2020, p.49). On 15thAugust 1975 we lost our hope and our leader, and the country became rudderless for years until his able daughter took charge of the party and later the government.
One thing that remained constant through all the years was his devotion towards his people. He never lost touch with them. Indeed, he was an aesthetic leader who was always compassionate to his people. Even his worst enemy will have to agree that he was the embodiment of Bangladesh. As he himself said, he was not an angel. There must have been many limitations in his leadership style. However, on balance the successes overwhelmed his failures. His own narrative of the journey which he pursued is so fascinating that one can hardly match it. Yet, as a mark of respect to the greatest son of our country we revisited his journey in a modest way, to orient the youths about the Himalayan proportions of his contributions in building this nation of ours from the scratch. One cannot learn about Bangladesh without first learning about Bangabandhu’s life in its entirety. Such was his organic relationship with this country and its people. Long live Bangabandhu. Long live Bangladesh.
The author is a Bangabandhu Chair Professor at Dhaka University and a former Governor of Bangladesh Bank.