Sheikh Fazilatunnesa Mujib (Renu), popularly revered as Bangamata (Mother of Bengal), was a constant companion of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman both in life and death. Today is her 91st birthday. I am writing this homage to her to let the younger generation know what a great contribution she made to the freedom of Bangladesh. Besides being an exceptionally composed wife to the greatest Bengali and Father of the Nation, she was also a caring mother of five children who she raised to be good citizens. She was also a mother to her husband’s wider political family, which too needed her guidance and support. In addition, she was the favourite daughter-in-law of Bangabandhu’s parents and remained the centrepiece of the extended family. Always accustomed to simple living with no luxuries, she was a courageous, painstaking, cool and determined companion to Bangabandhu, without whose selfless and strategic support it would have been difficult for him to become what he was and lead the nation to freedom. He derived strength from her throughout his entire life. Let me try my best to present Bangamata as seen by Bangabandhu from his own writings and words.
We would have known very little about the struggles of Bangabandhu had she not been insistent on him writing his memoirs. She would even pass the notebooks to Bangabandhu when they met at the jail gate. These notebooks were fortunately recovered by their eldest daughter when she came back to Dhaka after a few years of political asylum following the martyrdom of their parents. It was sheer luck that she could recover this ‘goldmine’ of Bangabandhu’s precious words. Otherwise, the nation would have been deprived of an authentic account of Bangladesh history. To quote Bangabandhu, “My wife told me one day while sitting with me in a room within the jail gate, ‘Since you are idle, write about your life now.’ I told her, ‘I can’t write, and in any case what have I done that is worth writing? Will the public benefit from the stories of my life? I haven’t been able to achieve anything! I guess all I can say is that I have tried to sacrifice a bit of me for my principles and ideals.’ (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, The Unfinished Memoirs, UPL, Fourth Impression, 2019, p.1). Her words, however, stayed in his head and he later started writing his own narrative of his eventful and turbulent political journey.
Just before the partition of India there was a series of communal riots. As instructed by Suhrawardy, the then Prime Minister of Bengal, Mujib rushed to Patna and Asansol to run relief camps for the victims. He worked hard and fell ill for which he was hospitalized in Calcutta. After getting well, he promised to his teachers that he would study seriously and sit for his BA exam. He left the Baker hostel and went to his sister’s house where Renu came to encourage him to prepare well for the examination. He passed his BA examination successfully. Later, he came to Dhaka to study law at Dhaka University. He started his courses as planned but soon got involved with the Language Movement and as well as the movement of Class IV employees. He was jailed on both occasions. And for the latter he was expelled from the University for not signing a bond with apology. Subsequently, he got more involved into the mainstream politics and started organizing the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League as a credible opposition party. His superb organizational skills were noted by the intelligence branch of the police and he was, therefore, put behind bars. But he continued his close links with both student and other political leaders to mobilize support for the Language Movement and the political party which formally emerged while he was still in jail. He was made the joint secretary. After his prolonged hunger strike for popularizing Language Movement in Faridpur jail he was released on 26th February 1952. He was very frail and stayed a few days with his family. Then he went to West Pakistan to see Mr. Suhrawardy.
He returned home via Calcutta in the middle of the night, alluding the intelligence branch. He was confident that his wife would be happy to see him even in the dead of the night. In his words, “Certainly, Renu would be staying awake for me. She always endured hardship and never protested. Because she kept quiet and never complained I felt even sadder.” (ibid. p,156) The police were chasing him all the time and his wife continued to support him with money. He was arrested again and put in Faridpur jail. But he had to go to Gopalganj to appear at the court. In between he was kept in a government bungalow where he met his wife who was obviously very upset to see her ailing husband. Bangabandhu wrote, “When Renu got me to herself she said, ‘I have no problem with your staying in jail but make sure that you have enough to eat. The sight of you has depressed me immensely. You should know that I have no one else in the world except you.’” (ibid., p.189-90). On another occasion, after leaving studies on law he went home. His father was very annoyed and reluctant to pay any money to him. At that stage, “Renu would say nothing and endured all hardships silently. Whenever I went to our village home, she knew I would be needing money and she tried to raise whatever amount she could.” (ibid., p.221).
After winning the 1954 election Bangabandhu became a Minister only for a few days. His family thought his financial ordeal would be over. But unfortunately, that government did not last long. Bangamata came to Dhaka with the children but could not even start organizing the house when Bangabandhu was taken to jail. He told his wife to retreat to the village home if it was difficult her to stay in Dhaka. But she did not break down. She continued to stay in Dhaka for the sake of her children’s education. This struggle with her destiny continued. Bangabandhu came out of jail and became Secretary of the Party and was also elected a Member of the Constituent Assembly. Later he joined the cabinet of Ataur Rahman Khan but again not for the long haul. He left the cabinet to concentrate on organizational activities as Secretary of the party. But he was not spared by the Military Government and was put behind bars. Begum Mujib stood like a rock beside him and fought out the case in the court. He was released later. He returned to politics with new vigour after a short break and united the Bengalis with the historic Six-Point Program. As expected, he was put to jail repeatedly. This ordeal was extended to the Agartala conspiracy case. The students and party activists relied on Bangamata’s guidance and were successful in developing broader unity with other student organizations and political parties. Finally, they were able to mobilize a people’s upsurge in 1969. She was instrumental in foiling a last-minute attempt at compromise by the ruling elites and some senior leaders known to Bangabandhu to participate in a round table talk called by President Ayub. The autocratic regime collapsed under the people’s pressure to make way for Mujib to come out of jail as a real hero and to be adored as Bangabandhu. The rest is history.
Bangamata continued to provide support and moral courage to Bangabandhu in the days of turbulence when he was denied access to power despite being the elected majority leader. He protested and gave a magnificent speech on 7th March 1971 which is now a global treasure. She encouraged Bangabandhu to speak out from his heart, which became the magna carta of our independence. She endured the pains of house arrest in 1971 when Bangabandhu was taken to Pakistani jail to be tried for declaring independence of Bangladesh. She never lost hope and was happy to see her husband return to independent Bangladesh. She continued to support him in rebuilding a war-torn Bangladesh, particularly in rehabilitating the war heroines. Bangabandhu recalled her contribution in strengthening his leadership on 26th March 1972 when he went to Azimpur Girls High School to inaugurate a women’s sports program. He said, “I have seen in my own life how a husband could go forward with the support from his wife…My wife never stopped me even if I was approaching a firing spot. I spent ten to twelve years in jail. Never ever she was annoyed with me. I didn’t hear a word of grumbling from her. I could not leave any money for her. But she somehow managed the family. Her contribution in making me what I am is immense. Yet, the history only talks about men, not women.”
And she joined him even on the black night when both were martyred along with most other members of their family. Only two daughters survived as they were abroad. Hats off to her for her sacrifice for Bangabandhu and the nation. May her soul live in peace.
The author is Bangabandhu Chair Professor, Dhaka University and former Governor, Bangladesh Bank. E-mail: [email protected]