Is it possible to commemorate a happy occasion like a birth anniversary in the month of mourning? Hardly. But Bangladesh is a strange land, where death is veiled with care behind a cascade of memories, which transcends death to inspire the people. August 15 is the death anniversary of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu. Along with him his wife Begum Fazilatunnesa, his three sons, his two daughters in law and many of his close relatives also died on this day. That is why for the people of Bangladesh, August is the new Muharram, a month of mourning.
In this month falls the birth anniversaries of Begum Mujib and her eldest son Sheikh Kamal. Begum Mujib was born on August 8 and Sheikh Kamal on August 5. Thus, on both these days, the people of Bangladesh, put aside sadness, to be inspired by their recollections. Recollecting Muharram, Poet Nazrul had written, ‘The month of Muharram has returned once more / want sacrifice, not the throes of cries anymore! Thus, as August 8 returns, memories of the sorrow, sacrifices and patriotism of a great woman inspires our hearts.
During the anti-British non-cooperation movement, Maulana Mohammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali, two brothers who were leaders of the anti-British Khilafat movement in the then undivided India, had their mother staunchly standing by them. Once her sons went to prison, their mother travelled all over India to call for the people to join in the anti-British movement. To the grateful people of India, she became known as Bi Amman Begum. Maulana Mohammad Ali had said, “Without my mother’s encouragement and inspiration, I could never have withstood the immense tortures and continue to be in the anti-British movement.” Another example is Khalida Adib Khanum of Turkey. She removed her black hijab to inspire the Turkish women to join Ataturk’s movement, while Kamal Ataturk was organising the armed resistance to establish the new Turkey. She led the movement for female education and women’s empowerment. The Turkish people still recall her reverently.
Mahatma Gandhi said about his wife Kasturba Bai, “I could not have remained so steadfast in the face of the hurdles and oppression in pursuit of Swaraj, if Kasturba Bai had not been beside me, encouraging and supporting me. Her sacrifices began way back since our days in South Africa!”
Bangabandhu praised Begum Fazilatunnesa saying, “If Renu had not been beside me, accepting with a smile, all the trials and tribulations, penury and shortages, my repeated imprisonments, living in uncertainty with the children, I could not have become Bangabandhu. Nor could I have remained connected to the movement for independence of Bangladesh! She never failed to attend the court hearings during the Agartala Conspiracy trials. She infused courage and motivation not only in me but in all the others accused in the case too. She even steered the Awami League from behind the scenes while I was in prison.”
It is well-known now, that had the Agartala Conspiracy been proved true, then the highest verdict could have been death penalty. Inspite of that, Begum Mujib did not let her husband compromise with the military dictator nor agree with any of his proposals. In the face of the mass uprising of 1969, President Ayub called for a round-table conference of the political leaders, in which he asked Bangabandhu to participate on parole from the prison. Although many senior leaders of Awami League were agreeing to it, Begum Mujib did not. She did not want the people’s liberation leader to bow down before the military ruler. On her request, Bangabandhu (not yet Bangabandhu then) declined to be released from prison on parole. Later the government was forced to withdraw the Agartala Conspiracy Case in the face of tremendous mass uprising. Thus, all the accused, including Bangabandhu, were honourably released from jail.
Begum Mujib’s contribution in the war of independence of Bangladesh is also noteworthy. During the entire war she was a prisoner of the Pakistani enemy forces. Even during her imprisonment, not fearing the threats and scaring tactics of the aggressors, she did not hesitate to send off both her sons, Sheikh Kamal and Sheikh Jamal, to join the war. For some months during the liberation war, Bangabandhu was imprisoned in Pakistan (the West Pakistan). There was no news of him. But frequent rumours were rife about preparations to hang him following a farce trial by a Kangaroo Court inside the prison. But Begum Mujib never wavered.
I was fortunate enough to have seen her from proximity and I used to address her as Bhabi (sister in law). I have tasted her cooking a lot of times. Even when she became the wife of the Prime Minister and later on the President, she did not wish to live in the Gonobhaban, rather she preferred to continue living in the house at Road 32, living a normal life as an ordinary Bengali woman. Can you imagine, there were no carpets nor any air conditioners in the residence of the President of the country?
I saw another side to her during the 6-Point movement. Most Awami League leaders, including Bangabandhu, were in jail then. Most of the party workers were also either in jail or fugitives. The Ayub-Monem regime was carrying out inhuman vengeance in order to stop the agitation. Publishing of the Daily Ittefaq was banned. The editor Manik Mia was also jailed. Publicity campaign for the 6-Point Programme came to a total halt. Begum Mujib kept in touch with the underground party workers, encouraging and aiding them. Wearing a black burkha, she went from house to house, distributing the 6-Point Programme leaflets, herself.
mention one of my personal experiences of her courage and valour. At that time Bangabandhu was the Prime Minister. One night, Sheikh Kamal was seriously wounded when he was shot by the police at Motijheel. The police shot him mistakenly thinking he was a miscreant. He was taken to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital in critical condition, and there in a cabin, they were struggling to save his life. Begum Mujib remained by his bedside round the clock. At that time, the anti-liberation forces within the country were spreading rumours about Sheikh Kamal getting shot while trying to rob a bank. It was a big lie. Any bank would have given him the money he wanted, there was no need for him to rob a bank.
Anyway, this fictitious propaganda did not last. I went to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital on hearing about Sheikh Kamal being critically wounded. No outsider was permitted to see him. Neither was I allowed in his cabin. But on hearing about me, Begum Mujib came out of the cabin and informed me about Sheikh Kamal’s condition.
While talking she said, “See brother (figure of speech), even in such terrible time of ours, the enemies are not stopping their enmity. They are spreading falsehood that Kamal got shot while robbing a bank. If it were true, then being his mother I would never have prayed to Allah for him, nor be in the hospital day and night. I’d have let him die.” I looked at her amazed. Such brave words could not have come from an ordinary mother.
Chilean President Allende was killed by assassins. But they spared his wife and daughter. In Bangladesh they did not kill Bangabandhu alone, they killed his wife, sons, daughters in law and many of his kinsmen. Why did they do that? The reason is the killers did not feel safe about keeping any member of this family alive. If Begum Mujib was alive, she would have become like a lioness. She would have uplifted the fallen flag of her dead husband’s ideals. Later on, her daughter Sheikh Hasina has done just that.
I believe, once the real history of the liberation struggle of independent Bangladesh is written, that day, the name of Begum Fazilatunnesa will undoubtedly be written in gold beside that of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Today is August 8. With our heads bowed in reverence, we recall her and her contributions.
The writer is a veteran journalist and literator.
(Translated by Farah Naz Sattar)