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Bangabandhu’s Homecoming and the Dawn of a New Era

Dr. Rashid Askari

Bangabandhu’s Homecoming and the Dawn of a New Era
Dr. Rashid Askari

The historic homecoming of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman marks a new chapter in the history of Bangladesh. January 10, 1972 was not only a day in the Gregorian calendar but also a day that went down in the annals of Bangladesh’s history. On that day, the undisputed leader of the nation and supreme commander of the country’s liberation war set foot on his own soil after the nine-month long imprisonment in Pakistan. None could even think that he would be able to escape alive and come back home.

Defying all the odds he survived and proved that justice prevails over oppression and tyranny.  Immediately after the proclamation of the independence on 26 March 1971, he was taken captive by Pakistani occupation army and flown to West Pakistan. Afterwards the whole gamut of the liberation war of Bangladesh from 26 March 1971 to 16 December 1971 was fought and won by the people of Bangladesh with their supreme commander in Pakistan prison camp. However, Mujib in prison had been of stronger influence on his people actively engaged in the war.

On January 8, 1972 while addressing a press conference at London’s Claridge’s Hotel Mujib said, “Today, I am free to share the unbounded joy of freedom with my fellow countrymen, who have won their freedom in an epic liberation struggle. The ultimate achievement of the struggle is the creation of an independent, sovereign People’s Republic of Bangladesh, of which the people declared me as the president while I was a prisoner in the condemned cell awaiting the execution of a sentence for hanging.” Upon his return, he declared Bangladesh as a completely breakaway republic.

A Rousing Reception:

The New York Times Journalist Fox Butterfield, who had been an eyewitness to Bangabandhu’s homecoming, wrote a gripping narrative of the situation then created with returning home of the supreme leader of the liberation war. The title of his special report reads “Sheikh Mujib Home; 500, 000 Give Him Rousing Welcome”. As he puts it: “Sheikh Mujibur Rahman received a tumultuous, triumphant welcome today (January 10, 1972) from a crowd of half a million Bengalis as he returned to his native land for the first time since he was arrested nine months ago by the Pakistani authorities…the exultant crowd showered Sheikh Mujib with flowers and chanted “Joi Bangla” as their leader stepped from the British Royal Air Force Comet jet that had brought him from New Delhi. Sheikh who was released Saturday, flew to New Delhi from London…looking tired but elated by his reception, [he] later said at an enormous rally at the Dacca Race Course: ‘My life’s goal has been fulfilled. My Bengal is independent.” Describing Bangabandhu’s physical appearance and strong handsome features, the journalist said, “The 51-year-old Sheikh Mujib, who is tall for a Bengali and has a thick moustache and heavy shock of greying hair…was wearing a black suit with a high buttoned collar”.  Fox Butterfield’s assessment is analogous to what Winston Churchill said about German president Hindenburg. To quote: “Hindenburg! The name itself is massive. It harmonizes with the tall, thick-set personage with beetling brows, strong features, and heavy jowl, familiar to the modern world. It is a face that you could magnify tenfold, a hundredfold, a thousand-fold, and it would gain in dignity, nay even in majesty; a face most impressive when gigantic”.

A Stirring Speech:

In a choked voice Bangabandhu said in his Race Course speech, “I have come back to you all. I did not know I was sentenced to death by hanging. A grave was dug for me beside my cell. I prepared myself. I had said, I’m a Bangalee, I’m a man, I’m a Muslim; I can die only once but not twice. I had said, if death awaits me, I will approach it smilingly. I will not dishonour my nation in my death. I will not beg for mercy. While I pass, I will scream: Joi Bangla, Free Bangla, Bangalee is my nation, Bangla is my language, the soil of Bangla is my place.”  He kept his emotions tightly reined in and appealed to his countrymen to do their duty: “My brothers, you know that we have a lot of work to do… I want you all to go back to the fields and cultivate paddy….” (Translated by the author).

The speech was replete with hopes and aspirations, pledges and commitments, faith and confidence essential to the building up of a new nation state. Sheikh Mujib knew it full well that independence would fail if the basic needs of the people were not met. He urged people to involve themselves in nation-building activities. He disseminated the seeds of his long-cherished dream in the hearts and minds of his people. It was his lifelong expectation to build a country where people will be able to breathe easily again, have the bare necessities of life-- a square meal and a roof over their heads. And now he would try his best to translate it into reality as the head of the government.  The people of the country listened to Bangabandhu’s call and promised to respond accordingly.

The Rehabilitation of the War-Ravaged Country:

Two days after the historic homecoming, Bangabandhu was sworn into office as Prime Minister of independent Bangladesh on January 12, 1972.What he saw in the war-ravaged country was nothing but masses of ruins. As a matter of fact, during his nine-month imprisonment in West Pakistan, Bangladesh was reduced to rubble. The Pakistani military and their native accomplices waged indiscriminate killing, rape, arson, looting, destruction and torture which are unprecedented in human history. Standing among the rubble left by the war, Bangabandhu set out to rebuild the nation. When he took charge of the state, there was no reserve money in the bank. There was no reserve of grain in the go downs. The entire infrastructure of the country was ruined. He had the opportunity to run the state for only three and a half years. Within this short period of time, he formulated the outline of development.

Drafting a New Constitution:

The Constitution of Bangladesh was drafted based on the spirit of the Liberation War for preserving independence under his guidance and supervision in less than a year. It is the best document for the formation of a modern and prosperous state. The new government issued ‘Bangladesh Collaborators’ Special Tribunal Order’ in 1972 to bring to justice those who committed crimes such as looting, arson, rape and murder during the war. Bangabandhu took measures to give state honours to freedom fighters, provide medical treatment to war-wounded freedom fighters and rehabilitate them. Arrangements were made to rehabilitate about one crore war displaced refugees returning from India. Because of Bangabandhu’s far-sighted and timely diplomacy, Indian forces were sent back to India from Bangladesh on 12 March 1972.

Adopting Economic Policies:

The new Government attached highest importance to economic policies. A Panning Commission was formed to design the first Five-Year Plan and devise economic policies for the country. The Commission brought out the First Five-Year Plan (1973-78) within an unprecedentedly short period of time of a year and a half. However, it prescribed a broad strategy of development which was heralded as a blueprint for the future development of the country. To ensure an integrated and sustainable development, the Bangabandhu government adopted a comprehensive action plan to implement it. This plan included providing long-term loans, bulk allocation, ensuring the supply of raw materials, the revival of sector-based industries. There were also the establishment of Bangladesh Bank, introduction of currency, the introduction of import-export, industrialization through nationalization of industrial factories, the announcement of industrial investment policy, and huge economic activity including inflation control. In addition, there were exemption of income tax in the agricultural sector, withdrawal of certificate cases and introduction of easy-term bank loan for the poor and marginal farmers, waiver of rent of agricultural land up to 25 bighas, and fixation of maximum ownership of land at the individual level at 100 bighas.  Mujib was a crusader against the landed gentry of West Pakistan and wanted to abolish the system of unlimited ownership of land which infuriated the land barons of West Pakistan like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. So, in independent Bangladesh he emphasized cooperative system in agriculture and revolutionized it.     In spite of numerous challenges arising from natural calamities and resultant food insecurity, he tried to maintain the sustainable economic growth by way of mobilizing domestic resources including human resources.

Carrying out Educational and Cultural Reforms:

The new government was committed to reform. They placed utmost importance on all levels and kinds of education –primary, secondary, tertiary, technical, vocational etc. The principles of his education policy were embodied in the Article 17 of the Constitution of Bangladesh. To quote, “The State shall adopt effective measures for the purpose of – (a) establishing a uniform, mass oriented and universal system of education and extending free and compulsory education to all children to such stage as may be determined by law;(b) relating education to the needs of society and producing properly trained and motivated citizens to serve those needs; (c) removing illiteracy within such time as may be determined by law.”

He considered it imperative to spend 4 percent of the GDP to education. On July 26,1972 a National Education Commission known as ‘Qudrat-e- Khuda Education Commission’ was formed whose aim was “to remove the various defects and deficiencies of our present education system, to indicate a way as to how a wholesome nationhood can be achieved through the medium of education and to strengthen the country in modern knowledge and creative endeavour” (Bangladesh Education commission Report, May 1974).

On May 30, 1974 the Commission published their 309-page report which reflected Bangabandhu’s education reform policies. The nationalization of primary schools, formation of University Grants Commission and the establishment of autonomous government universities and Islamic Foundation were the unique initiatives taken by his government. Eleven thousand new primary schools were established. Over 36 thousand primary schools were nationalized to offer universal and free primary education to all Bangladeshi children where approximately one hundred thousand teachers taught.   Bangabandhu liberated the university education from Pakistani hegemonic control. The Ordinance of 1973 was made by him to give the universities greater autonomy. Six universities—four general and two specialized—were within the purview of the Ordinance.

In addition to the development of the Bangla Academy, he established the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy to help promote people’s artistic, literary and cultural pursuits. On his initiative, the rebel poet Kazi Nazrul Islam was brought to Bangladesh and honoured as the national poet of Bangladesh. Funds were allocated for the construction of ports, development of roads, highways and railways and the initiation of civil aviation activities. Furnace oil, gas corporation and rural electrification board were formed. Cyclone-resistant rehabilitation centres were built to battle the storm and protect the people of the coaster regions of Bangladesh.  These centres were locally known as ‘Mujib Killa’.

Building Armed Forces:

Bangabandhu took the initiative to build up strong armed forces. He overhauled the country’s defence system by restructuring the armed forces-- the Army, Navy and Air Forces. Bangladesh Rifles, the oldest uniformed paramilitary force under the Ministry of Home affairs was also reorganized. The civil law enforcers also took over the charge to restore law and order in the country.                       

Bangabandhu very carefully formulated the new country’s foreign policy with the motto— ‘Friendship with all and malice towards none’, and tried to establish diplomatic relations with all the countries of the world. He pursued a policy of neutrality in establishing relationship with other countries and promoting international friendship.  In light of this foreign policy on March 19, 1972, the ‘25-Year ‘Indo-Bangla Friendship Treaty’ was signed between Bangladesh and India to strengthen friendship, cooperation and peace between the two countries. His government drew up the historic ‘Land Boundary Agreement (LBA)’ with India on May 16, 1974 that paved the way for settling the decades-old border dispute with the neighbouring country. Bangabandhu passed ‘The Territorial Waters and Maritime Zones Act’ to establish Bangladesh’s rights in the sea. The law was enacted in 1974 when there were no similar laws in most of the countries in the world. Mention may be made here that the United Nations passed “The UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS)” in 1982. Thus, Bangabandhu showed farsightedness and sagacity in regard to his statecraft.

International Recognition:

During Sheikh Mujib’s three-and-a-half-year rule, Bangladesh gained international recognition of 116 countries and membership of 27 global organizations as a sovereign state. It became a member of the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the World Bank, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and many other international bodies.  He made a strong impression on his firm leadership by playing an effective role in those international organizations. He was a staunch advocate of non-proliferation of the nuclear weapons. On May 23, 1973, the World Peace Council awarded him the Joliot Curie Peace Medal in recognition of his significant contribution to world peace.

Administrative Reforms:

Bangabandhu took the initiative to transform the long-borne provincial bureaucracy into a pro-people national bureaucracy. To this end he formed the Civil Administration Restoration Committee to explore ways and means of restoring civil administration at various levels. On its recommendations, the provincial secretariat was reshaped into the national secretariat comprised of different ministries, directorates, departments, divisions and corporations. The government also formed two major committees in 1972-- the Administrative and Services Reorganization Committee (ASRC) and the National Pay Commission (NPC) to reorganize central bureaucracy for administrative decentralization and a national pay structure.

However, everything Bangabandhu was doing to build his sought-after nation came to a grinding halt in three and a half years, and the new era fell into a decline after the dastardly killing of Bangabandhu.

 

Dr. Rashid Askari is a Bengali-English writer, columnist, fictionist,

academic, translator, media personality and former vice chancellor

of Islamic University, Kushtia, Bangladesh