In the pre-dawn hours of 15 August, before the call went out for the first prayers of the day, uniformed assassins went on a rampage at his 32 Dhanmondi home, with murderous intent
Four decades and a half ago today, darkness descended over the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Mischief was abroad in the land and conspiracy put paid to the life of the nation’s founding father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and to the lives of nearly his entire family. In the pre-dawn hours of 15 August, before the call went out for the first prayers of the day, uniformed assassins went on a rampage at his 32 Dhanmondi home, with murderous intent. Within minutes, the Father of the Nation and his family lay dead in pools of blood. Away at Minto Road and Jhikatola, his close relatives were done to death as well.
It was thus that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the nation’s liberator and its window to the world, saw his life draw to a sudden end. He who could not be eliminated by successive Pakistani military regimes, at the height of the Agartala Case in the 1960s and then through a trial in camera in distant Mianwali in Pakistan in 1971, was finally dispatched by his very own Bengalis, renegades who had over time woven a vast web of conspiracy to overturn the politics, indeed the state, his leadership had brought into fruition. Bangabandhu’s assassination was but the tragic end of yet another nationalist leader at the hands of local conspirators patronized by foreign governments unhappy with his sense of history, with his faith in the ability of nations to shape a future for themselves on the basis of dignity resting on national freedom.
Even as the nation and with it the rest of the world struggles through a debilitating coronavirus pandemic, we recall that moment in time, a century ago, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was born in a humble village called Tungipara. The pandemic has certainly put on hold the celebrations planned by a grateful nation to recall his contributions to history, indeed to his making of it, but it has not held us back from recalling the rise of a man to the heights of moral authority and political power through a gradual transformation of ideas and beliefs and convictions. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was different from many others, be they his contemporaries or men he respected in the world of politics. He did not move with the winds. He veered away from them, to create his own ambience in time and space. Compromise was alien to his character.
Bangabandhu would be a hundred years’ old this year. His life was snuffed out when he was no more than fifty five. But within that brief span of life, he had brought about a gigantic transformation in the lives of his people, thereby stamping, through the rise of Bangladesh, a significant change on the global map. The change was a corollary to the gradual evolution in his politics through the years. And that was his greatness. Having made his entry into politics as a worker of the All-India Muslim League and thus a votary for the creation of Pakistan, Mujib was part of the communal structure of politics that left India partitioned. And yet it is to his credit that where his contemporaries remained transfixed on the idea of communal politics, he saw in clarity the need for a turn away from the morass in which the Bengali nation found itself within months of the division of India.
It takes a man of infinite courage to repudiate the past he has been part of. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman repudiated the past, ascended to the heights of liberal secular politics and showed his Bengalis a Shining City on the Hill. The light unto the future was the Six Points he put forth in February 1966, earning the admiration of his people and the wrath of the entrenched civil-military bureaucratic complex in Rawalpindi. A sense of irony defined the moment. It was in Lahore, the very place where the call for Pakistan had gone out, where he effectively made the clarion call for a future Bangladesh.
The rest is history as he shaped it, brick by brick, despite repression and ceaseless incarceration. The machinations of his tormentors, in the shapes of Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan, did little to deter him. In effect, his courage and forthrightness only weakened their hold on power. On trial for treason in the Agartala Case, he was dismissive of the proceedings. ‘Anyone who wishes to live in Bangladesh will have to speak to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman,’ said he before the special tribunal trying him and thirty four other Bengalis in June 1968. In August 1971, he made it clear he did not recognize the jurisdiction of the military tribunal trying him in camera in Mianwali for waging war against Pakistan. Back home in occupied Bangladesh, his people were indeed battling the soldiers of Pakistan along the directives he had set out for them.
Bangabandhu’s is an epic narrative on the rise of the Bengali nation and its battlefield triumph. There is little question that he is the greatest Bengali of all time, for only he in the thousand-year history of his people could reconfigure their future. Never before in history had Bengalis tasted political freedom, but Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was there to guide them to their Promised Land. Once liberation came, it became Bangabandhu’s onerous responsibility to reconstruct a land ravaged by war and pillaged by a rapacious enemy. Roads, culverts and bridges were restored. Economic policies were set in place.
In a brief span of three and a half years till his enemies silenced him, Bangabandhu had given the nation a constitution; his charisma and his foreign policy opened doors for the country to global organizations; his commitment to non-alignment gave Bangladesh an enormity of respectability around the world. And he did all that even as he battled internal and external forces out to destabilize his government. He did not flinch from the challenges before him. He walked tall. Everyone, in Bangladesh and beyond, talked to him.
This morning we recall in shame the perfidy of those who prevented justice from being done to his assassins for twenty-one years. But the darkness passed, with six of his killers frog-marched to the gallows. With the US Justice Department reopening a case into another of his killers, with our insistence that yet one more murderer hiding away in Canada be handed over to face justice, with other absconding assassins being pursued, the collective hope is that our long nightmare will sooner rather than later be conclusively and definitively behind us.
This morning, a grateful nation is in obeisance to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. From somewhere deep within our souls rises gratitude for the superman who made a difference in our lives.
Thank you, Father of our people, for enlightening us on the meaning of courage, of commitment to ideals, on what it means to be possessed of self-esteem! ***