Sheikh Mujibur Rahman went to Kolkata for his higher studies in the year 1942 after passing his secondary educational level. He got admitted to Islamia College in Kolkata and stayed in Baker Hostel. Professor Saydur Rahman, a strong secular intellectual, was the superintendent of the hostel. Gradually he became young Mujib’s mentor which must have influenced his secular transformation.
Once he was in Kolkata his bonding with Suhrawardy further cemented and since then it became routine for him to accompany his leader in all political activities. This can be seen as his introduction into mainstream democratic politics. Mujib became Suhrawardy’s follower when he was working towards strengthening Muslim League in order to attain Pakistan. At that time, entire Bengal was the target of Suhrawardy’s work. In fact, Mujib led a large group of younger party activists to campaign for Pakistan to Karimganj during the Sylhet Referendum in 1946.Mujib experienced the Second World War, famine and the partition of India, all from Kolkata. He experienced first-hand the pains and agonies of hungry common people at that time. In 1943, Bengal was hit by a severe famine. Around 3 million people died from starvation during this famine. Bangabandhu witnessed all these up-front. He has written about the adversity of the situation in his ‘Unfinished Memoirs’. He and his friends used to distribute their left-over foods to the starving people. But he was extremely upset as he felt that they were not doing enough. Later, he opened a couple of gruel-kitchens in his hostel and party office with guidance from Suhrawardy and devoted himself to feeding the famished people without a care for his studies. Later, he also visited Gopalganj for feeding the starving people. He tried to collect relief from the rich by arranging a conference with Suhrawardy as the Chief Guest. This worked quite well and he was able to collect some money and materials. But in the process he fell ill due to hard work and helplessness.
Sheikh Mujib played a significant role in the fields when transforming Muslim League into a ‘democratic’ party for the common people. During his youth, Mujib preferred working in the fields more than remaining attached to the central office of the political party. Theory did not attract him much. He gained much of his political knowledge from common people. He narrated this piece of his mind in his ‘Unfinished Memoirs’ while narrating his encounter with the veteran Muslim League leader Abul Hashim who used to run a study circle for the party workers.
In 1946, a horrific Hindu-Muslim communal riot broke out centering the tensions fumed up preceding partition of India. The riots started in Kolkata on 16 August 1946 when Muslim League declared it as a ‘Day of Action’. The communal tensions flared up during this difficult moments of our history. The environment for peaceful co-existence between the two communities got completely polluted at the heat of these moments. In only four days of this unfortunate turn of the event almost four thousand people died and fifteen thousand got injured. The riots spread to Bombay, Ahmedabad, UP, and many other parts of the subcontinent. But the massacres that took place in Kolkata that year surpassed all others. Sheikh Mujib directly witnessed this tragedy. Suhrawardy was the Prime Minsiter of undivided Bengal then, and Sheikh Mujib was always by his side. He visited many of the sites of massacre with Suhrawardy, and gave speeches to bolster the moral of the minority Muslim communities and simultaneously maintain communal harmony. He went to Patna and Ahmedabad to run relief camps organised under party banner to help the refugees. He was much weaker when he returned to Kolkata and had to be admitted to a hospital for about two weeks.
Mujib soon realised that Pakistan in reality was far different than the Pakistan he dreamt of. The experiences of the riot frustrated him even further. Thus in 1947, he called for a secret meeting among students and other party workers in Sirajuddowla Hall in Islamia College. There he expressed his concerns about the inhumane and undemocratic practices undertaken by Pakistan in the name of a religious stance.
Sheikh Mujib, according to Professor James Manor of SOAS, University of London, unlike many major politicians across the globe, was a true secular leader. According to him, he dropped the word “Muslim” from the name of his party in 1955, and the party from that point on came to be known as “Awami League”. He did this to accommodate minority groups into his political struggle for equity. He knew people of Bengal, regardless of their cast and creed, were being subjected to discrimination by the West Pakistan tyrants. So all of them needed a common platform to voice their discontent. This is undoubtedly a noble move. But it can be considered to be a bold move as well, if we take into account the fact that East Pakistan was a land where the Muslims were the majority, and overwhelming majority of the people were not educated at all.
In addition, Sheikh Mujib witnessed another tragedy of communal violence in 1964, long after the Partition. Starting from 1 January 1964, the Hindu minority households in East Pakistan were targeted for looting, rape, arson and murder. This wave of violence was in response to the theft of a hair of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from Kashmir’s Hazratbal mosque. The Pakistan government declared this incident to be the doing of Hindus, and ultimately the Hindus of East Pakistan found themselves in a precarious situation. The riots began in Khulna and rapidly spread to Dhaka, then Narayanganj, and onwards.Sheikh Mujib hurried over to calm down the rioting public, risking his own life in the process of visiting the injured Hindu victims. On 15 January he faced the rioters head-on as he was relocating the Hindus to a safe space in Wari. On 16 January he established a “Riot Prevention Committee.” He distributed leaflets on the roadside. The leaflets said-
East Pakistan Stand Together
“...On this disastrous day of national misfortune, I am sending my desperate plea to all citizens: come, let us all gather our strength to stand against these criminals. Let us bring back the peace and harmony that we once had.
Remember, the lives and property being lost in Dhaka and other places are our property, and our siblings’ lives being stolen ...The people of East Pakistan will forever live in shame if we are forced to see our mothers and sisters humiliated.
I am inviting everyone in East Bengal to join me.Build a riot prevention committee in every neighborhood.Defeat the criminals, protect our parents’ and siblings’ dignity and also preserve your own future.”
The incidents of riot further bolstered the feeling of secularism in Mujib’s mind. He felt the urge for achieving a secular nation where such riots would not take place and everyone would be tolerant of each other. We see the reflection of this in the constitution where secularism has a lot of significance.
The writer is the Bangabandhu Chair Professor at Dhaka University, and former Governor of Bangladesh Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]