Autobiographies can indeed be touching if written by authors destined to convey the truth. They can be even more attractive if they describe the other people in the author’s life. The autobiographies of leaders like Gandhi, Bangabandhu and Mandela are extremely engaged with the people who they knew in good times and bad times. In particular, the autobiography of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, though unfinished and often based on stray notes that he wrote during his solitary jail life, is soaked in his tribulations and showcases his rendezvous with destiny.
Karagarer Rojnamcha (The Prison Diaries) is a book comprising the prison notes of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. While in solitary confinement, Sheikh Mujib wrote pages and pages about his prison life, day-to-day events, happiness and sufferings of fellow inmates, and his fears and anxieties about Awami League members facing harassment while campaigning for the Six-Point Programme and the release of their leaders. Invariably, ordeals of living all alone in a shabby jail got reflected in his prison notes.The first notebook of The Prison Diaries consists of introductory ideas about jail, which was a completely different world according to Mujib. In my last piece of this column, I tried to cover the first notebook briefly. The second notebook details Bangabandhu’s jail life starting from 2nd June 1966. By reading his diary we get to know that in jail Mujib woke early in the morning and waited for the newspapers. On 2nd June, he wrote that there was a lot of excitement in jail. There was a cleanliness campaign all around. The latrines were being cleaned by the prisoners because the Inspector General (I.G) of jail was coming for inspection. As reflected in the prison notes, Sheikh Mujib was deeply depressed as he came to know that twelve or thirteen of his political workers were arrested and put in jail and that too in Cell Number Ten. He was so upset because he knew that cell was the worst of all cells with no ventilation. He protested this decision to the Deputy Jailer.
On 3rd June 1966, Mujib appeared to be restless to know updates on Awami League members joining the strike on 7th June to campaign for the Six Point charter of demands. He was eagerly waiting for the newspaper to arrive to know more about what was going on outside the walls of the jail. In his words, “I could not concentrate on my reading that day. I kept thinking about what was happening outside and about the condition of our men, for Awami League workers were being tortured and arrested all the time. I kept waiting for the newspaper impatiently; one o’clock went by and so did two o’clock. I was very upset by this time; I then went to Jamadar Sahib and asked him why the newspaper had not been delivered yet?” (The Prison Diaries, p.45-46). He wrote, as the Deputy Jailer Sahib had not signed the newspapers, those were not distributed to the prisoners. Mujib condemned the censorship of the newspaper in his diary as he found out that half of it was smudged with dark ink, making it impossible to read the newspaper in full. Mujib lodged a complaint with the Jailer Sahib and the Deputy Jailer Sahib since they had no right to mess up the newspaper in such a vulgar way.
The diary also highlights the stories of Mujib and other prisoners as expected from a compassionate leader. In his words, “I was not feeling well. Most of the cells had been locked up by now; mine, too, was going to be locked up next. The door was shut. For a while, I sat down silently. Pressed by the mate, I sat down to eat, “Sir, take a little more of fish and a little more of the vegetables.” The man was getting worked up about feeding me. “You are such a big man; how can you survive on only half a poa of rice?” I kept thinking: how will I ever repay such a gesture of affection on his part? My cook, Keramat, is a clever fellow. He said, “Sir, you probably don’t know this but the two or three hundred prisoners who live here pray for you all the time. They say that they wouldn’t have a care if you were in power.” (The Prison Diaries,p.47). In fact, he could sense it. Whenever he went out of the cell, a lot of prisoners would come forward and show respect to him. The older ones would bless him profusely.
On 4th June 1966, Mujib wrote about a sweeper who was sick and was taken to the jail hospital. After returning from hospital, he visited Mujib and requested him to help get him out of jail. The sweeper had a firm belief that a stroke of Mujib’s pen would be enough to free him from jail. Sheikh Mujib tried his best to convince him saying that he was not authorised to free anyone as he himself was a prisoner there. But the man kept coming to him repeatedly for an escape. Later, Sheikh Mujib came to know that the man was slightly traumatised due to his twenty years of imprisonment and the other prisoners, sepoys and jamadars kept assuring him that Sahib (Mujib) could release him for sure.
To pass time, Mujib used to cook and one Friday he fried some vegetables and cooked some fish. He also started reading ‘Sangsaptak’, a book by his friend Shahidullah Kaisar. Besides, by reading the newspaper he got to know that the National Assembly had considered a bill titled ‘Government Secrecy Amendment Bill’. He also saw that the Soviet Union and the East Pakistan government were to sign an agreement for the construction of a power plant in Ghorasal. The Russians would supply all the equipment for the plant, which was good news to him.
On 5th June 1966, Sheikh Mujib wrote about Foni, a prisoner, who could sing Kirtans and mystical songs quite well. Sometimes Sheikh Mujib used to call him to sing a song. According to him, it was impossible to say how many songs Foni had in his stock. The next day, Mujib seemed to be stressed about the general strike that was called on behalf of Awami League. He was sure that the people of East Bengal would spontaneously take part in the general strike and would show their support for the Six Points too. From his diary, we get an idea of how difficult it was for Mujib to live all alone in solitary confinement. Still, he was passing his days full of confidence and was counting the days for the final victory to come. In his words, “I live alone. I am not allowed to socialise with anyone. Those who have not had such an experience will not understand how difficult it is to spend time alone. However, I have faith in myself, God has also given me the strength to endure. I think only about my colleagues here and about how each one of us has been kept in isolation in jail! Such sacrifices cannot go unrewarded and have never been overlooked in the past. I may not enjoy the reward of such a sacrifice and may not even see results, but our descendants will surely enjoy the blessings of freedom. The formidable stone walls of the prison have also made me formidable. The prayers of the millions and millions of mothers and sisters of this country are with us; we will certainly be victorious. Our ideals will be realised through our sacrifices.” (The Prison Diaries, p.57)On 7th June 1966, Mujib learned that the government had used tear gas and lathi charges (assault by stick-wielding policemen) all over Dhaka. He was saddened by the news of the firings and the death of one Awami League worker. Mujib also commented that as the people of Bengal had learned to shed blood while demanding autonomy no earthly power could suppress Bengalis anymore. The victory was thus inevitable.
Reading the newspaper of 8th June 1966 Sheikh Mujib literally broke down. The government press note had acknowledged that ten people had been killed due to police firing on the striking people on 7th June. He was horrified thinking how many more people must have actually died since the government itself had admitted to ten fatalities. The government press release did not even mention how many people had been injured. Mujib was immensely grief-stricken thinking about the families left behind by those who died. He was shattered into pieces and wrote, “What will happen to the parents and children of those who have been killed? The children had been eagerly looking forward to the return of their fathers; the fathers to the time when their children would be home. They looked forward to the money that would be sent to them at the beginning of the month when they got their pay; now they would not return anymore and the money would never ever reach them again. I felt totally down. I could not console myself in any way. Why do people take the lives of others so selfishly?” (The Prison Diaries, p.63). Mujib promised to himself that he would not let their deaths go in vain. He promised to carry on the struggle. He passed a sleepless night and wrote in his diary, “The demands of the people of the land would have to be realised through such sacrifices.” (The Prison Diaries, p.64). And now we can underline how prophetic these words were!
The author is Bangabandhu Chair Professor, University of Dhaka and former Governor, Bangladesh Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]