Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was no ordinary man, he was a hero, the greatest Bengali in a thousand years. It was only Bangabandhu who managed to establish an independent state for Bengalis in a thousand years. He certainly was a hero of great calibre. He had all the qualities of a statesman to establish an independent identity for the people of the land.
The making of Bangabandhu was a long process. The subcontinent was a British colony. He fought against the British, fought for independence. Such leaders who struggle for independence are set apart from all others. His tireless and unrelenting struggle for the poor and the downtrodden and his tenacity during long terms of imprisonment, had made him a living legend.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s lifestyle was such, that it stretched out from the common rural areas of Gopalganj to the urban settings of Kolkata. He was in connection with the masses, the villages, the village schools, the people of their villages, always inquiring about their welfare, their lives. Thus his leadership evolved.
This sense of leadership was honed further when he dedicated himself to student politics in Kolkata. The qualities he developed among the common people, took on greater proportions in urban settings. That is how he came into leadership standing.
After the 1947 partition, he left Kolkata to come to Dhaka. In Dhaka he took up a stance against the Muslim League rule and exploitation. He fought against communalism. He took up a struggle against the Pakistani communal mindset which was an outcome of feudalism. Bangabandhu said that Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy had told them to make an effort to stop communal riots, killings among the Hindus and the Muslims.
The struggle was basically against these medieval perceptions and religion-based divides. There could be political differences within themselves, but not conflict based on religious differences. This was secularism and communal harmony.
Around 1948-49 Bangabandhu and his associates set up the youth front Jubo League. Their struggle was against communalism. They also took part in the struggle for democracy. Bangabandhu repeatedly had said that the progressive persons of the country had failed to materialise their ideas and concepts, failing to land on ground reality. What he wanted to say was that the contemporary leaders of the day who nurtured progressive ideologies, failed to inspire the people with their slogans and their programmes. Their words and ideas went over the people’s heads. It was those who worked on the ground, among the people, who rose up.
Actually, Bangabandhu understood the pulse of the people. Two issues were effective in the movement against the Muslim League. One was the common people’s sufferings and the other was courage. It required courage to lead the people against autocracy. In this regard Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was way ahead of the others, whether as a student leader, a youth leader or a leader of Awami League. He had the ability to connect with the people.
During the February language movement, Sheikh Mujib was in prison hospital. The Chhatra Sangram Parishad (Students Action Council) on 20 February night had decided to violate section 144, though this decision was opposed by the all-party language movement council. But from the prison hospital, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman supported the movement staunchly, saying that no one should back away from the struggle. If they did, they would lose the confidence of the people. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman never backed away in his life.
Before the 1954 elections, amidst much tensions, the Jukta Front or United Front was about to break up. In those troubled times, Sheikh Mujib lent full support to the united front. Then after the 1954 elections when vested quarters supporting Muslim League created riots in Adamjee, it was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who was the first to come forward to resist the riots. He had always played a pioneering role in people’s struggles. It was this pioneering spirit that transformed him from Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to Bangabandhu.
In 1947 when Pakistan was created, the governor of Bengal told the British government that of the two parts which were Pakistan, the eastern wing would not stay with the western wing for more than 20 years. It eventually became an independent country within 25 years. From the very outset, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had felt that the deprived wing of the East would not be able to remain with the West.
He would often point out that it was difficult for a country to remain united if there was no geographical unison. The unity and solidarity of any country depended on the mobility and communication between the people of the region. Mobility of labour was a particularly important factor. Without this, the drivers of economy would dwindle to nothing. That is why the people at the time would point to two connections between the two Pakistans - PIA and Suhrawardy. There was nothing else.
How does such a huge country like India remain united? It is because the people can travel from one state to the other within the country. There is economic connectivity, which Pakistan had lacked. It was inevitable that the two wings of Pakistan part ways.
Bangabandhu had worked to this end right from the rule of Ayub Khan. He would discuss these matters with the party leaders. He met with communist leaders too, who agreed that this was an inevitable conclusion, but they were not sure if the time was right. Sheikh Mujib was confident that the time was right. He felt even if the time was not right, it would have to be made right. And he proceeded accordingly. His farsighted and strong leadership made him into a great leader.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman upheld democratic values. He devoted himself to this cause. It must also be kept in mind that that country had fought a war of liberation, a war that continued for nine months. According to a UN report, the destruction in Bangladesh at the time was worse than that of World War II. The ports were non-functional as were the railway lines. The bridges were destroyed. It was an uphill task to rebuild the country. There was the inevitable economic slump, famine and crises. Russia and China has faced similar fates. All countries which had carried out revolutions, faced similar circumstances. The outside forces which had backed Pakistan, were determined that Bangladesh be unable to stand on its own two feet. They wanted the famine to continue and took steps accordingly. They stopped vessels carrying food to Bangladesh.
The country had no finance ministry, no central bank, nothing. It hardly had a foreign ministry. Law and order emerged as a problem. Everything depended on one person. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the pivotal factor to protect the country’s law and order. For instance, when the workers front Sramik League had laid siege to WAPDA building, it was Prime Minister Sheikh Mujib himself who went there to resolve the problem.
There was a time when BDR and the army were at loggerheads. Sometimes the army and the air force were in confrontation. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the one to always go personally to sort out the differences. His personal presence had a huge impact.
Much is said about the fourth amendment, particularly about BKSAL. There may be questions in this regard. But we need to keep in mind the context of the country at the time. Bangabandhu had to take the circumstances into consideration. Bangabandhu hadn’t seen BKSAL as a permanent arrangement. He had always maintained that this was temporary and would be withdrawn in due time. When the new cabinet was formed after BKSAL, the faces in the cabinet were all old ones. Sheikh Mujib explained, “Everyone is intelligent. All are great theoreticians. But we have a parliamentary system. I have made the president’s post like the parliamentary system. The parliament remains sovereign. The members of parliament can refuse the president if they want. If I drop the old ones and replace them with new ministers, they may bring a no-confidence motion against me.”
I think 15 August has no direct link with the creation of BKSAL. Those responsible for the 15 August incident had been planning from long before to remove Sheikh Mujib. Pakistan had never wanted Bangladesh to stand tall as an independent sovereign state. Among those involved in this conspiracy, the names of Rashid and Farook are the most discussed. They were not freedom fighters. It is unjustified to call them freedom fighters. They joined the liberation war much later on, in September. In that sense, they can hardly be called freedom fighters. After the formation of BKSAL, they stirred up trouble within the army.
There had been several parties in the democratic system. There had been many newspapers too. Reports were published as they liked. One person wrote that Sheikh Mujib would have to be killed in an armed struggle. Moulana Bhasani would bring out a weekly newspaper. He said there had been arms and ammunition worth Tk 62 crore in the cantonment, all of which India had looted and taken away. He would say baseless things.
The biggest factors in those days, as Sheikh Mujib himself admitted, were financial paucity, poor production and personal level corruption and violence. Bangabandhu would say, “They devour everything I bring. Whoever I give it to, loots everything.” It was then that he said BKSAL was a second revolution. This was based on a few slogans that remain relevant even now. For example, the uprooting of corruption, population control and increased production. It was at this juncture that the 15 August incident occurred.
In May 1973 I came home to hear that there had been two telephone calls from Bangabhaban. I rushed there and was taken to Bangabandhu’s bedroom where he was resting. He said, you have to do something for me. The quicker you do it, the sooner you will get leave. And until it is done, you have to remain here. You have to join now.
I joined. My first task was to write Bangabandhu’s speeches. He told me, come alone and talk. This will be the beginning. I went there from 1973, as an outsider. Then gradually I began to work as one of his very own.
Once at the Islamic conference in Lahore, Bangabandhu said, King Faisal and UAE’s Sheikh Zaid had said you will get as much money as you want. Just release the 93 thousand army personnel of Pakistan.
He returned and issued a clemency order. Those in jail were released. Everyone would have been released in the first draft of the clemency. The bureaucrats were pleased. Even some Awami League leaders were happy. One of them said, Sabur bhai’s telephone should be restored. His house has been taken over. Bangabandhu said, all this can be done. With him at the time were Gaffar Chowdhury, MR Akhter Mukul and myself. Bangabandhu said, “Look, today is a happy day for everyone. Only the three of you are not smiling.”
I said, “Sir, how can we smile? We have to release those who raped our mothers and sisters. Those who burnt down are houses are also being released. Those who killed are also being released.”
After hearing all this, Bangabandhu said to the bureaucrats, “What are you all doing? You were leading me down a dangerous path.” He then amended things. Only Bangabandhu was capable of this. He was the Father of the Nation.
*Toab Khan is is consultant editor of Janakantha and former press secretary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This piece, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir, Consultant at Prothom Alo English Online