Friday, 20 May, 2022
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Commentary

Wreath on Bangabandhu’s birthday

Dr. Atiur Rahman

Bangabandhu never celebrated his birthday officially in his lifetime. During the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1971, when journalists made birthday wishes to him, he bewailed that "17th March of 1920 is my birthday. I have never celebrated my birthday. You know the condition of the people of my country; they do not have the security of their lives. They die when no one can even think of dying”. So deep was his bonding with the ordinary people. In this way, he associated himself with the reality of life and death of the mass people of Bengal.

That's why he could be so candid and philosophical about his own life. Hence, he said, "What is my birthday? Or even the day of death? What is my life? Death and birthday are being passed ordinarily. My people are my life.” The people’s protagonist Bangabandhu also said, "Who can be happier than me when 70 million people are united behind me and my party like a mountain?" His people also knew that he was ready to risk his life at any time for the national interest. And, he has done so again and again like a real hero.

Reputed litterateur Professor Hayat Mamud penned a few extraordinary lines on Bangabandhu while writing an introduction of my book ‘Sheikh Mujib Bangladesher Arek Nam’ (Namesake of Bangladesh). In his words, “It must be seriously noted that there was hardly any presence of a commoner in the political landscape of pre-1947 Bengal. …

The social background of Bangabandhu is clearly different. … That he was the son of a peasant never went out of his head. Moreover, he did not let others forget that this identity of him and as well as the identity of peasants must be recognized by all.”

Bangabandhu’s farsighted policies of inclusive development have turned out to be driving forces for a vibrant Bangladesh. Let me, therefore, shed some light on the humane qualities of this compassionate leader on his birthday.  While at school, he formed an organization under the leadership of his home tutor, Kazi Abdul Hamid, to collect fists of rice for the disadvantaged students. He opened gruel kitchens in Kolkata during the famine of 1943. In his ‘The Unfinished Memories’, he expressed his deep concern, especially for the famine-stricken people of Kolkata. He wrote: “…. mothers dying in the streets while their babies still suckled; dogs competing with people for leftovers in garbage dumps; children abandoned by their mothers who had run away or sold them driven by hunger. … What were we to do? We distributed our hostel leftovers among the famished, but how far could that help solve such a massive problem?’’ (See, page 18). So profound was his compassionate eyes. 

He organized a conference in Gopalganj to raise money for saving the lives of the starved people who were almost ‘raw-boned.’ He even fell ill while working heart and soul for the conference. Thus, the distressed people always remained in his heart. In the same way, his love for the downtrodden became evident during the communal riots. Apart from Kolkata, there were riots in Bihar. He and his friends set up camp in Asansol for helping the riot refugees. When he returned to Kolkata after one and a half months, he fell ill with persistent fever. After recovering, he returned to the hostel. But the partition of the country could not be stopped despite some last-minute efforts for United Bengal by Sharat Chandra Bose and Suhrawardy where sheikh Mujib participated closely.

A few days after the partition, Sheikh Mujib returned to Dhaka with a broken heart. He got himself admitted at the law department of the University of Dhaka with a hope to become a lawyer. But to him Pakistan was a "false dawn" as its policies and actions were contrary to the well-being of the peasants and the ordinary people. The state of Pakistan did not safeguard the dignity of the Bengali language either. Hence, the young student leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman started a movement along with his co-leaders to demand Bengali as the state language. Not surprisingly, he was soon arrested.  Later, he was arrested again for supporting the movement of the class-four employees at the University of Dhaka. But this didn’t stop him leading the movement. He kept on interacting with the student leaders from jail to keep up the momentum of the movement.

The East Pakistan Awami Muslim League was formed while he was still in jail. He was made the Joint Secretary. His party also started demanding Bengali as the state language as their prime agenda. Considering the deterioration in his health condition, Mujib was taken to Dhaka Medical College Hospital for some time as a prisoner. He held secret meetings there with student leaders and provided necessary instructions for the strike on 21st February 1952. So, the authorities took him back to the central jail and then transferred him to Faridpur Jail. There he started a hunger strike demanding Bengali as a state language. Then came the day February 21, 1952. Several students and common people embraced martyrdom on that day.

Bangabandhu echoed the voices of the poor in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly at every opportunity he got. He was enraged by the high salary of the provincial governors and said, “What kind of Islamic ideal is it that you are paying 6,000 rupees to the governor while the poor people are starving to death?” (Translated from Bengali, ‘Bangalir Kantho’, edited by Monayem Sarkar, Bangabandhu Parishad, 1998, p.9-10).

His compassion for the disadvantaged was unparallel. This was evident from his attitude towards Ludu (Lutfar Rahman) during his stay at the prison was unprecedented. His empathy towards this pickpocket showed that he hated the crime, not the criminal. He even wrote that people turned to these crimes because of the adversities and mismanagement of the government. None were criminals by birth, he thought. During his stay in the prison, he came close to many representatives of neglected segments of our society. He has written about these people with great care in his ‘Prison Diaries’. Many prisoners believed that their sentences would be reduced at Bangabandhu’s request as the jail staff respected him a lot. These prisoners had a deep trust in Bangabandhu’s abilities. Bangabandhu himself was empathetic towards the prisoners.

Bangabandhu himself spent painful days in prison. As reported in one of the secret documents he wrote, “…I am suffering very badly as there is no arrangement for electric fan. Sometimes I had to pass sleepless nights. Already I am suffering from various diseases, particularly continued stomach troubles. You know the Lock-up time of jail is just at sunset. I had to pass the whole night in a small room. I will be glad if you kindly order the jail authority to provide me with an electric fan…” (SECRET DOCUMENTS OF INTELLIGENCE BRANCH, Volume-5, page-343).

Bangabandhu was always by the struggling people.  Storm-flood-cyclone, nothing could stop him. On 11 May 1965, a terrible cyclone devastated the southern part of Bengal. He was seriously injured on that stormy night. After recovering a little, he devoted himself to helping the victims. On 14 and 15 December of the same year, the greater Chittagong area was severely damaged by catastrophic cyclones and tidal surges. Immediately, he rushed to the disaster spot to see for himself the extent of damage. At the end of his trip, his well-informed statement was published in the Daily Azad. The statement asked for food support and exemption of all taxes for the affected people. He also asked the government to provide the farmers with cows and farming tools and fishermen with boats and nets.

A devastating cyclone had hit the country’s southern region on 12th November 1970. An estimated half a million (or more) people had lost their lives. As soon as Sheikh Mujib heard of this calamity, he stopped the election campaign and rushed to the affected coastal areas on 17th November. He returned on 26th November and gave a press conference where he said that if relief work had begun within 24 hours many lives could have been saved. After this well circulated press conference, a lot of humanitarian aid started flowing towards the affected areas.

He was committed to equal rights for men and women. While visiting China in 1952, he was touched by the women's empowerment in China at that young age. He wrote, “Since men and women have the same kind of rights in New China the males of the species can’t treat its women unfairly.” (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, ‘New China 1952’, Bangla Academy, 2021, p.134). His take on the empowerment of women was visionary indeed. After his comprehensive victory in the 1970s election, he addressed a meeting of 2 million people in Racecourse Maidan on 3rd January 1971. There he said that women will get the same rights and will not be treated as second-class citizens anymore (Sarker, Monayem (editor), ‘Bangalir Kantho’, Bangabandhu Parishad, 1998, p.201). On 26th March 1972, on the first Independence Day of Bangladesh, he delivered a speech at Azimpur Girls High School and said that brothers and sisters in this country will share the same rights. During the same event, he mentioned that he would not have been able to come this far without the support from his wife. He, however, regretted that role of women was not recorded in history like that of men.

The compassionate Bangabandhu was also deeply secular. He fully understood the value of unity irrespective of castes and religions. He demonstrated his commitment to secularism once again in 1964 when there was a communal riot. He ran to the aid of the minority laborers in Narayanganj when the riot took a turn for the worse on 14th January. On 15th January, he was attacked by the rioters when he was moving some Hindus towards safety in Wari (Sarker, Monayem (editor), ‘Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: Jibon o Rajniti’, Bangla Academy, 2008, p.309).

He was uncompromising on the issue of keeping religion out of politics. Therefore, secularism was accepted as a fundamental principle of independent Bangladesh. In his introductory speech on the draft constitution on 12th October 1972, he made it clear that he believed in the freedom of religion but would not allow it to be used in politics.  Therefore, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen called Bangabandhu ‘Biswabandhu’ (Friend of the World) during a seminar organized by the London School of Economics (LSE). Indeed, Bangabandhu has become even more relevant in the current political landscape of the world where religion is being used as a political tool by populist politicians.

Even when he led the country after independence, he put the aspirations of the marginalized at the center of his policy landscape. On 16th January 1972, he addressed a group of the slum dwellers. He said to them, “Those who gave their blood for this independence have not died. Their spirits are alive. They will see, their spirits will see whether the people of Bengal are living in comfort. Whether the people of Bengal can fill their stomachs. Whether the people of Bengal are living in peace. Their souls will only rest when the people will get to eat, be clothed, be sheltered, and be employed…” (Translated from Bengali). Bangabandhu led the country only for three and a half years. He spent day and night working for improving the lot of the people. He used to tell the government officials to treat the people as if as they were their family members. He felt pained to eat when the people were starving during the 1974 famine. It is our misfortune that we lost such a humane statesman because of the traitors. But today on his birthday, we must acknowledge that his blood has made our lands fertile and our futures verdant. No doubt, Bangladesh is now a vibrant country with self-sufficiency in food and moving confidently towards fulfilling its aspirational goal of freeing itself from poverty and hunger.

 

The author is an economist, former central bank Governor and Bangabandhu Chair Professor of Dhaka University