Only recently we recalled the auspicious day on which Bangabandhu was awarded the Joliot-Curie peace award by the World Peace Council. Mr. Ramesh Chandra, the then Secretary General of the Council, handed over this award to Bangabandhu in a specially organised program at the open plaza of Bangladesh Parliament on May 23, 1973. “From now on he is not only Bangabandhu, but also the Biswabandhu (Friend of the world),” said the Secretary General. Indeed, this was the first global award for him and for Bangladesh after its liberation.
This global award came at a moment when Bangladesh was still not recognised by many countries due to negative diplomacy of the vanquished Pakistan, which was defeated thoroughly by Bangladesh and its allies in 1971.Bangladesh was finding it difficult to get a seat in the UN as well for the same reason. The World Peace Council made an appeal to the UN to admit Bangladesh as a member after handing over the award to Bangabandhu.
This certainly helped in putting a moral pressure on the world body. The award formally recognised Bangabandhu’s lifelong campaign for peace and justice for the disadvantaged people of Bangladesh and the rest of the world.
Peace and justice were the hallmarks of his politics. His passion for equity and justice originated from his experience as a people-centered politician navigating the fallout of the deep divisions in the Bengali community after the creation of Pakistan based on religious agenda and as well as for the state capture by a small elite which led to deeper economic disparity and communal hatred. It may be noted here that he was saddened by the failings of humanity during the great Bengal famine in 1943, which was imposed on the Bengalis by the war-mongering British colonial rulers who prioritised the movement of soldiers and ammunition over that of food during the Second World War. This created an acute food shortage in Bengal. Millions rushed to the cities for food and died on the streets. He and his friends did their best in running the gruel kitchens to help feed the hungry but that was only a drop in the ocean. If one reads his memoirs one can feel how badly he was affected by this manmade disaster called famine.
He was equally shocked to see the abuse of religion in politics during the difficult last days of British rule in India. The intensification of communal politics led to riots in Calcutta and then in Noakhali and other parts of Bengal and Bihar. The communal situation deteriorated so much in Bihar and adjoining areas that Sheikh Mujib and his followers had to rush to Patna to manage the rehabilitation of the victims of the riots. He built several relief camps in Asansol to help the victims survive the post-riot traumas. The refugee camps were well run under his leadership. He opened a makeshift hospital and several ration shops as a part of the disaster management. He worked so hard that he fell sick after his return to Baker hostel and was admitted into the European ward of the Tropical School of Medicine in Calcutta by his mentor Mr. Suhrawardy who was then the Prime Minister of undivided Bengal. He used to regularly call the Principal to know about the progress of treatment of Sheikh Mujib. His commitment to communal harmony cut across the communities and was appreciated by his Hindu teacher Bhabatush Datta in his memoirs.
Despite his desperate attempts at maintaining communal peace, the ugly divisive and opportunistic politics of the mainstream politicians stood in his way. He, therefore, pledged that he would never allow religion or communal feelings to be used in politics in his entire political life. As we can see later, he rushed to the Adamjee Jute Mills immediately after taking his oath as a Minister in 1954 to quell the riot between the Non-Bengali and Bengali workers, which was instigated by the Pakistani establishment to discredit his hugely popular government. Once again, he risked his life in 1964 to quell the communal riots that were prompted by opportunistic Pakistani elites to harm the minority in East Pakistan. He rushed to move the victims of the riots in Wari and other parts of old Dhaka to safer places along with his followers and helped bring peace between the communities. He also led a peace campaign in the streets of Dhaka with a banner titled “East Pakistan to resist the communal hatred” and raised money from the people to help the victims. So deep was his commitment for peace and social stability.
Not surprisingly, as early as 1952 he joined the World Peace Council Conference in Peking (now Beijing) along with other liberal politicians of Pakistan. The establishment spread the rumor that he and his colleagues must be deeply connected with communist politics as they were invited by the revolutionary government of China led by Mao Zedong. In response he wrote in his autobiographical travelogue “New China 1952” published by Bangla Academy (2020), that it was true that they were not communists. He also wrote, "But we were agreeable to the idea of attending a conference organised by anyone in the world that wanted peace. Whether it was Russia, the United States, Britain or China--we were ready to meet whichever country wanted to work for peace at this time and to proclaim in unison with thousands of voices--"Peace is what we want!". This is because we knew and could gauge the extent of the damage done to the world because of wars. In particular, we were aware of the harm it could cause our country-- a land dependent on other lands and on the export of raw goods elsewhere. Ours was a land where people had starved to death and where they had a tough time in even procuring the basic necessities of life. Anyone who recalls the famine of 1943 will remember how much damage a war can cause to a land like ours. While the English would be fighting a war in a distant land four million men and women in our country would die like dogs or foxes because of hunger. And yet you might say, "But you people are free now!" This is certainly the case; we have the name "Pakistan" to display; but if we reflect on our state we will be able to perceive the limits of our freedom."(Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, New China 1952, Bangla Academy, 2021, p.21-22).Indeed, he devoted his whole life to helping Bengalis understand those limits and preparing them step by step to fight for the independence of Bangladesh. First for regional autonomy and then the war of liberation in full swing. He spent nearly half of his political life in prison, only to take his movement for freedom and justice forward. His concept of peace went hand in hand with the deeper meaning of freedom which embraced more choices for his people. We are, therefore, not at all surprised when we see him writing about the reforms undertaken by the revolutionary government of China in the fields of agriculture, industry, education, and societal transformation to give a better taste of freedom to the people of China. Apparently, Bangabandhu took notes of all those changes and carried them with him throughout his political journey, finally translating them into action after achieving independence of Bangladesh.
His commitment to peace was well reflected in the four fundamental state principles on which the constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh was anchored. Besides nationalism and democracy, he focused on secularism and socialism to create a peaceful and exploitation-free equitable society. His understanding of secularism was not negating religion. He wanted to provide access to all religions to his people. Only thing he strongly opposed was the use of religion in politics. He saw for himself how the religion can be misused by opportunists to create disharmony in the community. Similarly, he wanted to implement his brand of socialism where inequality was lessened and there was enough space for people's participation in the economy and society. He also fought to eradicate corruption from society. According to him, only the educated and the rich were engaged in corruption at the cost of the ordinary people.
While Bangabandhu was deeply committed to the preservation and enhancement of national interests, he was equally interested in ensuring peace and justice for all the peoples of the world. As aptly reflected in his historic speech at the UN General Assembly in September,1974, he made it clear to the world body that the very struggle of Bangladesh symbolised the universal struggle for peace and justice. He not only reminded his audience about opposing the legacy of past global injustice but was also very prophetic about the challenges of the future. Deeply conscious about the pitfalls of the cleavages in the global diplomatic landscape, he strongly pledged Bangladesh to non-alignment and better global economic order to fight poverty, hunger and injustice. Then he went to affirm that peace was an imperative for the survival of mankind. To him peace was the deepest aspiration of men and women. He was equally forthright about pursuing national development within the larger context of regional aspiration. Naturally, the bedrock of his foreign policy stated,"friendship towards all, and malice towards none." And this remains the basic contour of our foreign policy. I have focused on this in the last number of this series while talking about the core principle of the foreign policy of Bangabandhu.
Immediately after receiving the Joliot-Curie award, Bangabandhu was quick to say that this was not for an individual but for all the martyred heroes of Bangladesh's liberation struggle. The Joliot-Curie award belonged to all Bengalis. Bangabandhu joined the galaxy of awardees like Jawaharlal Nehru, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende, Yasir Arafat, Ho Chi Minh, Nelson Mandela, Pablo Neruda, and Martin Luther King. The dreams and aspirations of these global leaders have been aligned to those of Bangabandhu and together they form the strongest base for a peaceful and just world.
Unfortunately, both Bengalis and the people of the world at large could not reap the benefits of a peace-loving transformational leader like Bangabandhu for a longer period, as his life was cut short by a group of conspirators. Fortunately, however, Bangladesh has returned to the track of inclusive development under the leadership of his daughter. Sheikh Hasina, too, is committed to peace and freedom for the downtrodden. In addition, she is a 'Champion of the Earth' and leading the campaign for climate justice on behalf of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, consisting of countries which are at the frontier of climate change challenges. While we celebrate the historic occasion of Bangabandhu's acceptance of the Joliot-Curie global peace award, we also hope that his legacy as a leader for peace and justice for the world’s disadvantaged population will be well-preserved under the prudent leadership of his daughter.
The author is Bangabandhu Chair Professor, Dhaka University and former Governor, Bangladesh Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]