Walking with the Legend, the Symbol of National Unity

Dr Atiur Rahman

10 January, 2020 12:00 AM printer

This year’s January 10 is certainly special. It marks the beginning of the countdown of the roadmap to the celebration of the birth centenary of Bangabandhu who symbolizes the Bangladesh for which millions shed their precious blood. Walking with the Father of the Nation along the memory lane can indeed be enlightening as we will be able to touch ground of a war-ravaged newly emerged country which was moving forward confidently making best use of the unprecedented national unity galvanized around him despite so many rough edges in the then socio-economic landscape.

Undoubtedly, both society and economy were badly ruptured. The freedom fighters with sky-rocketing expectations emerged as a very powerful social force. And the communal force and the extreme left who opposed birth of Bangladesh were keeping their heads low but encouraging frustrated youths to protest irrationally against any shortfall in governance. The industrialists from West Pakistan left Bangladesh leaving the sector open for disintegration. Workers were yet to be put into the factories. The urban middle class were still struggling to gain confidence in the new government which was just reorganizing itself. The centre of authority was yet to be consolidated. Both civil and military bureaucracies were in a nascent stage and fighting to maintaining their status quo. And there was a third group comprising of the technocrats engaged in planning apparatus of the country.

These cleavages in the social and state structures did not help much in consolidating the initial state-building efforts of Bangabandhu. Yet, his overwhelming personality, charisma and, of course, deeper aesthetic qualities of inspiring leadership helped the nation move on despite these divisive forces. Bangabandhu moved first in reorganizing both administrative and socio-political forces to make the statecraft active to address short-term relief and rehabilitation needs of a war-torn nation and at the same time planning long-term transformation of the country. He was not only able to give the nation a well-designed pro-people constitution with exemplary vision of promoting equity and human rights just in less than a year but also started building new institutions and infrastructures.

The new Planning Commission started preparing the First Five Year Plan and the economy of the country began to recover pretty fast. The dislocated industrial sector, particularly the foreign exchange earning jute sector began to produce output almost at the pre-independence level. However, the nature and some international forces were unkind to Bangladesh. The multiple droughts and floods made a food-deficit country particularly vulnerable to global food diplomacy. In addition, sudden rise in the price of oil made it extremely difficult for the new government to manage the country’s already precarious balance of payment. 

All these challenges led to undesired famine and external forces, particularly the US, did not come forward to help Bangladesh tide over this food crisis. Yet, Bangabandhu faced these challenges with courage and put the economy back on to the rails. He urged the nation to cultivate each inch of the land and become self-sufficient in food. He imported fertilizer, irrigation machines and seeds to materialize this dream despite meagre foreign exchange reserve. The country was almost back to its normal pace of development following some revolutionary reforms he took in the arenas of governance including corporatization of the rural economy and society. But the conspirators were not sitting idle. They hit him in the middle of an ill-fated August night and physically removed the namesake of Bangladesh. And the country started moving in the opposite direction towards darkness. Thanks to his eldest daughter, Bangladesh is back to its journey towards ‘Sonar Bangla’ (‘Golden Bengal’) as dreamt by Bangabandhu. Bangladesh is now one of the fastest growing economies of the world where poverty has also been decreasing consistently. This has been made possible due to the farsighted leadership of HPM Sheikh Hasina who draws heavily from the deeper philosophies of inclusive and humane Bangabandhu.

It is in this context, we are going to celebrate the birth centenary of Bangabandhu followed by the golden jubilee of Bangladesh. We hope to engage with the nation throughout these two years and touch base with the people, particularly the younger generations with the precious thoughts and actions of Bangabandhu. Bangabandhu is a legend who lives on. He was the product of our creative society and Bangladesh surely can derive strength from it.

Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, could perhaps foresee what was in store for us. While talking about the strength of our society and desired leadership in a penetrating essay titled “SwadeshiSamaj” (‘homeland society’) Tagore said: “We want to see the face of our homeland through a particular human face. We want a person who will be like a deity of our society. We will express our devotion to our SwadeshiSamaj by embracing him/her. We will connect with every one of our society by keeping in touch with him/her.”

We, the Bengalis, had been searching for a representative leader like that for ages. And finally, we got such a leader who could bring otherwise ‘always self-divided and clueless’ Bengalis of all shades under one umbrella. This was, indeed, a momentous time when we all could rise above our self-aggrandizement and proved our strength of unprecedented unity for a defiant nationhood.

He was none other than Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, on whom we bestowed the title Bangabandhu (“Friend of Bengal”) with spontaneous affinity and appreciation for providing the historic leadership for which we were waiting for ages.

Right from his boyhood he mingled with the common masses of this beautiful land of ours which was under heavy pressure of foreign domination for thousands of years.

Back in 1943, when our country was ravaged by severe famine, young Mujibur would mobilize food for the starving people along with his friends. As a student leader he stood by the low-paid workers of Dhaka University in the late 1940s and faced the wrath of the authority. But he never sought mercy from the authority and severed his official chord of studentship in defiance. He started agitating quite early on against the illiberal Pakistan Government which was not prepared to give Bangla, the mother language of the majority, the due recognition as one of the state languages.

The Language Movement gained speed under his leadership and at one point in time he was arrested and put behind the bar. The movement reached its zenith on 21st February, 1952 when he was still in Faridpur district jail, albeit on a hunger strike.

A number of students were killed and subsequently the government had to accept the demand for the state recognition of Bangla. Simultaneously, Sheikh Mujib embarked upon a wider political platform and started leading with other co-leaders.

He outpaced many of his fellow political colleagues because of his excellent organizational capacity and strong linkage with the younger generation, mostly students and, of course, the common masses who simply adored him for his deep commitment for uplifting their well-being.

His passion for improving the lot of the common people was simply ingrained in his way of life. He understood nothing except public good. The 1954 Election under the banner of United Front gave him wider exposure to the teeming millions of our exploited region.

Following the Election which gave the United Front a thumping victory provided an opportunity for him to join the government as a Minister. This gave him closer exposure to how the public policies were made and how these were throttled by the reactionary bureaucracy.

Not surprisingly, he did not continue quite long as a Minister and opted for leading the Party instead standing on the ground. He was, of course, very vocal as a Member of the Parliament and left his mark as a pro-poor advocate for the right cause.

Whenever he took the floor, he always highlighted the issue of injustice done to the farmers, workers, low-paid government employees and ordinary people of the then East Pakistan. As a result, very soon he became the voice of the disadvantaged. Undoubtedly, he was first one to go to jail when the military took over the government of Pakistan. President Ayub, particularly, targeted him as the military and its allied forces could clearly foresee the emerging protagonist of the Bengali nationalist upsurge which was brewing up.

The sudden death of Suhrawardy in the early 60s made Sheikh Mujib the effective organizational head of Awami League. Keeping close contact with his senior colleagues and relying mostly on the young leaders he embarked on the staunchest movement for realizing the inbuilt aspirations of the people of eastern part of Pakistan.

The climax  of this onslaught arrived when he launched the six-point movement anchored on the demand for two-economy for two parts of the then Pakistan, and more focused on the autonomy of administration and mobilization plus use of separate stream of resources for the eastern part of the country. This movement immediately caught the imagination of the ordinary people and emerging Bengali elites mostly originating from the middle class.

Expectedly, the Pakistan government was scared to its bone watching the tide of support for Sheikh Mujib and his party. So he was made the number one accused of the ‘Agartola Conspiracy’ case bringing in the charges of sedition against him.

This, in fact, further ignited the anger already brewing up among the Bengalis and within a very short period of time a nationalist movement was launched by the youth leaders representing all the prevailing progressive forces to release him from this conspiracy case. The movement gained so much force that the so-called iron man Ayub Khan had to release him unconditionally in early 1969.  

 The victorious youths and ordinary people of East Bengal (today's Bangladesh) gave him the title Bangabandhu out of their love and respect for his uncompromising leadership. The Ayub regime collapsed within a few days handing over the power to Army chief General Yahya Khan who promised to give a fair election within a short period of time.

Bangabandhu took the challenge of the upcoming election and went back to the people for an unqualified mandate for the six-point around which there was already a consensus of public opinion. The election campaign focused on the economic and social emancipation of the people of East Bengal.

The pre-election speech of Bangabandhu centred around agrarian reform, modernization of agriculture, speedy industrialization, nationalization of primary education, foreign policy for peaceful co-existence and above all cultural pluralism.

People voted overwhelmingly for his party and he was destined to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He started taking preparation for writing the constitution. Yahya even called for the inaugural constituent assembly in Dhaka in early March 1971. But the military and the elites of Pakistan had something else in mind.

Under heavy pressure from Bhutto who collected majority number of seats in West Pakistan, the President suddenly postponed the pre-set session of the Parliament. Sheikh Mujib was pushed to the wall and he hit back with full support of the fuming millions of Bangladesh (by that time people have started calling this part of the country in this name).

He first called for general strikes for a few days and then launched the historic non-cooperation movement taking the effective leadership of running this region. People responded whole heartedly.

The historic speech he gave on 7th March at the Suhrawardy Udyan was just short of declaring independence for Bangladesh and yet a master stroke keeping a scope of democratic settlement of the crisis.

Throughout this epic speech he repeatedly talked about the plight of the masses under military rule and left enough directions for an all-out guerrilla war against the occupying Pakistani forces if the need be. And that historic moment came at the early hours of 26 March.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib declared independence of Bangladesh through a clandestine wireless messaging system in the early hours of 26 March, 1971 and was arrested by the armed forces immediately after this announcement. He was then taken to West Pakistan and put in jail for nine months during which a nationwide war of liberation gained momentum. The war was virtually led by him as his co-leaders did not make the fighting nation feel that he was not with them. The thousands of freedom fighters, mostly sons and daughters of the farmers and middle class, took arms in his name.

This part of the narration of the blood-ridden history of Bangladesh is well documented. But what is yet to be written is the ordeal through which Bangabandhu had to undergo during those black days of 1971 in Pakistani jails and threatened to be killed any moment. But he could never be cowed down. He kept his head high and remained uncompromising. Thanks to the committed international diplomacy of the then Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi and people’s support from all around the world he was released by the Pakistani Government. He touched the sacred soil of Bangladesh on 10 January 1972 after a brief sojourn in Delhi on his way from London where he was dropped by Pakistani officials.

He did not spare a minute to start his new war of economic and social recovery of a nascent nation which was deeply traumatized and ravaged. Thanks to India, Soviet Union, Japan, Great Britain and many other friendly countries for coming forward to rebuild the war-ravaged Bangladesh.

Despite being overwhelmed by many challenges, Bangabandhu never deviated from his principled mission of removing hunger and poverty of the masses. While addressing to the nation on 15 December 1973 he said, “The Pakistani forces have surrendered. But another force has declared war on us. … This force constitutes hunger, poverty, disease, illiteracy, unemployment and corruption.” He always would remind his audience that the hard-earned independence will be meaningless if ordinary people did not have two square meals.

Even as late as 26 March 1975 while speaking at a mass meeting in Suhrawardy Udyan he said, “My farmers and workers are not involved in corruption.” He, instead, reminded the bureaucrats and other educated groups that the masses paid the expenditure of their public education.

As the time passes by he is becoming more and more relevant to all shades of people of Bangladesh. These days, even his staunchest enemy does not have the moral guts to question his fatherhood of our nation.

The global admirers of Bangabandhu are coming forward to establish chairs in his name to study what was so magical in his thoughts and traits which led to a birth of a nation within such a short period of time. If we really want to keep his legacy high on the moral ground we need to understand his passionate love for ordinary people who had to go through all the ordeals of hunger, poverty and corruption.

Unfortunately, the anti-liberation forces ruled Bangladesh for most of the time since his sudden physical disappearance from the scene and always tried to belittle him and his ideals. But ordinary people never forgot him, nor his pro-poor ideals.

Fortunately for the people of Bangladesh, his able daughter has brought his party into power and implementing his ideals. This is not an easy task. Like her father, she too has been facing similar challenges. I think she has learnt a lot of lessons from her long tenure of governance and is taking the country forward despite these odds.

And this year we will be pledging from our heart to take the country to Bangabandhu’s cherished goal of a developed country (‘Sonar Bangla’) right from this auspicious day of his home-coming.  


The writer is the Bangabandhu Chair Professor of Dhaka University and former Governor of Bangladesh Bank. Email: [email protected]