Remembering Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on his 100th birth anniversary
History offers no relief, and exhibits no mercy to the people who become its integral part. Often it is brutal, as men of substance have reminded us that we are all condemned to repeat history, sooner or later. And human memory is so short-lived that we tend to forget everything, like the mellow rustle of the leaves.
Those us who lived through the days of anguish, war, and genocide had certainly craved better days. A lot of us who are alive today, may have been fortunate in life to have shared a glimpse of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or, greater still, met this statesman -- who had influenced history, by shaping a deltaic land into a nation-state in this part of our planet. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman created his magic while he lived and struggled -- the impacts were felt even more profoundly after his martyrdom.
I remember the cloudy morning of January 10, 1972 -- the day he returned home to his admirers, in the aftermath of a year-long imprisonment in Pakistan. The RAF Comet aircraft, carrying a special passenger, had dived beneath the cloud cover, flying low from the southern skies of Dhaka, north-east towards the airport. Our city was in the global limelight of existence, and had erupted, like the ancient Colosseum -- moving all witnesses into a domain of total, incessant enchantment. Loud were the echoes. Only one voice and one nation, had reminded us of the presence of Sheikh Mujibur. There was incessant roar of “Joy Bangla” -- joyous, and full of resounding melody. People had hugged each other and cried. God had spared the founder, and the Father of the Nation, to be with his people.
What was obvious that morning, was a simple fact -- Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had received a tumultuous, triumphant welcome from a crowd of half a million Bangalis -- perhaps one of the largest ever welcomes that had been accorded to a leader.
The exultant crowd had showered Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with flowers and chanted “Joy Bangla” as their leader stepped out from the British Royal Air Force jet that had brought him home.
Sheikh Mujib, looking tired but elated by this gigantic reception, later had stated at an enormous rally at the Dacca Race Course: “My life’s goal has been fulfilled. My Bengal is independent.” His voice had broken up with emotion.
I remember with all clarity -- a half million admirers had chanted in one voice, in Bangla: “A new nation has come upon the earth -- Bangladesh! Bangladesh! A new “ism” has been gifted to the world: Mujibism.
That moment in time had epitomized the ecstatic finale of a bitter nine-month-long Liberation War for autonomy in the eastern wing of Pakistan, and also had marked the end of a large scale and bitterly fought two-week war between India and Pakistan.
I can visualize another special day in history, when the beleaguered 51-year-old Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would initiate another of his popular struggles to lead a nation, two years in the future, when he realized his people were caught in the mire of political violence, hunger, and bankruptcy. And, beyond a doubt, his vision of Bangladesh had solidified his already broad powers, to enable him after the next three years, to shed the office of Prime Minister and step into the new office of the President of Bangladesh -- hurriedly made possible under a constitutional amendment.
He was known in history, and to everyone’s joy, as someone who had called himself the Father of the Nation. To a few international journalists covering the historic event, perhaps this move was taken with a mixed response that had underlined a possible “crisis” in Bangladesh after its birth. A country of 75 million people would soon be hyphenated, then echoed together by a few nations, as the most underfed and overcrowded country on the planet.
Obviously, the handicapped nation of Bangladesh was born in the flames of war, liberation struggle, missing essential infrastructure, and of course had then been broken down with burdens, with little or no help. One could also feel in the air, the noiseless and moving counter-energy waves, that would gather into a powerful storm sometime in the nation’s future.
Born on March 17, 1920, in Tungipara, a village about 60 miles southwest of Dhaka, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was one of six children of a middle-class Muslim family. He was particularly brilliant in his school, and eventually developed an interest in politics and a powerful antipathy to British rule. As a teenager he was jailed for six days for agitating in favour of India’s independence.
His bout with beriberi had affected his eyesight, which again had interrupted his studies. His teachers said that he did not finish high school until he was 22. He then went on to earn a BA in history and political science at Calcutta’s Islamia College, where he had developed a taste for Bernard Shaw and Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet.
The 1947 partition of the subcontinent saw the creation of the Muslim nation of Pakistan -- a unique entity which found itself divided into two wings, each separated by 1,000 miles of Indian territory. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had rapidly emerged as an advocate of Bengali rights, a role that earned him the enmity of the authorities. He would spend more than 10 of the next 23 years in prison because of his restless activities that denounced what he termed West Pakistan’s exploitation of the eastern wing. “Prison is my other home,” he once reminded his admirers.
The emerging Bengali leader had helped organize the Awami League, the East Pakistani political party, and briefly served as a provincial minister twice -- in the 1954 and 1956 governments. As a member of the constituent assembly of Pakistan in 1955, he was the chairman of the Pakistan Tea Board from June in 1957 to October in 1958.
The advent of the military dictatorship of Muhammad Ayub Khan in 1958, had been coupled with disenchantment over the India-Pakistan of 1965 -- which obviously had catalyzed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He was appalled to discover that the West Pakistani central leadership had left the country’s eastern sector virtually undefended, spurring demands for domestic autonomy for East Pakistan.
The six-point program advanced by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his followers in 1966 had led to his imprisonment for three years, including 13 months in solitary confinement. When he was released in 1969, more than a million people had turned out to greet him at a homecoming rally at Dacca’s racecourse. By then, both East and West Pakistan had found themselves drifting further apart.
Tall for a Bengali -- nearly six feet in height, Sheik Mujibur Rahman had developed graying hair and a carefully groomed mustache that his fingers would unconsciously touch while talking to visitors. The “Sheikh” in his name was not a title, but an honorific word meaning that his father was a landowner in the predominant rural settings.
As was traditional in East Bengal villages, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was pledged to his wife in an arranged marriage when they were both at a relatively young age. They had five children. His eldest child, Hasina Wajed, would become the Prime Minister of Bangladesh many years later.
Wiping flower petals from his head, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, on that historic day of his return, had inspected an honour guard of the army, navy, and air force of Bangladesh, the nation proclaimed by his followers the previous month after India had helped them wrest the “province” from Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had greeted the members of the Dhaka diplomatic corps, though only India and Bhutan had officially recognized Bangladesh having an official representative office at that point.
The serving American consul general, Herbert D Spivack, had bowed slightly as he shook hands with the Bengali leader, saying, “Welcome back to Dacca.” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman smiled broadly and replied: “Thank you very much.”
Mr Spivack broke the ice by informing him that he had been invited in his individual capacity, therefore, his attendance would not have any political significance. Bengali-American relations had obviously been lacking warmth because of US President Nixon’s support to Pakistan during the long War of Liberation.
Sheikh Mujibur’s wife did not attend that day’s ceremonies, reportedly because she was on the point of nervous exhaustion and was barely able to speak. Until his release, her husband had been under detention in West Pakistan, where he had been charged with treason.
Standing in the bright sunlight that day, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had fervently appealed to his vast audience not to seek revenge for the countless Bangalis that had been murdered by the Pakistani Army during their nine-month drive to suppress the Bengali secession movement he led.
“Forgive them!” he had shouted to the crowd. “Today I do not want revenge from anybody! There should not be any more killing!”
Many excited spectators had tried to touch their leader and some who managed to break through police lines hugged him in long embraces.
Sheikh Mujib had long been the overwhelming favourite of 75 million Bangalis. The Awami League, the party of which he was the president, won 167 of the 169 seats allotted to East Pakistan in the National Assembly elections held in December, 1970.
When the Bangali leader had demanded autonomy for the eastern region, President Yahya Khan of Pakistan first postponed the assembly session and then, on March 25, 1971, had moved with his army full force, to crush the movement. Guerrilla-type warfare was the natural response that broke out, and out of fear for life, as many as 10 million Bangalis reportedly had fled to India.
At the race course, Sheikh Mujibur had shared with his mammoth audience the last words of the then-Pakistani President, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, spoken to him before he was released: “Try to keep Pakistan together if there is any way.”
“I said nothing,” Sheikh Mujib recalled. “But now I say to you, Bengal is independent, and let the people of Pakistan and the people of Bangladesh live happily. The unity of that country has ended.”
Without a doubt Sheik Mujib’s popularity was so great that his word had virtually become law with many Bangalis. None of his followers in the cabinet had even a fraction of his prestige or popularity. They had all postponed the most critical decisions, pending his return to his country.
Among the questions awaiting Sheik Mujib included the most prominent one -- how to disarm the 100,000 or more men who had been fighting as freedom fighters (guerrillas) and also to protect the two million Biharis who remained in the country. He would also be expected to help Bangladesh gain international recognition and find large amounts of foreign aid to rebuild the nation’s shattered economy.
It had been officially estimated that the newly independent nation had needed at least $3 billion for reconstruction, which was three-quarters of the region’s total annual production of $4bn. In addition, he would also need to decide whether to allow any room in his government for members of the small opposition parties, the National Awami party and the Communist Party. Moscow was instrumental in providing crucial political and military aid to India and Bangladesh. That was expected to bring heavy pressure on the Bangalis to permit representation for the two leftist groups, existing at the time.
Since 1969, I have maintained a daily diary of the tumultuous days of our history, as the nation bounced from one crisis to another. Bangladesh is one nation that was conceived and delivered in the ashes of war. I preserved my notes, because I always believed my diaries would help me in the future to determine whether, as a nation, Bangladesh would be able to defend itself against opposing forces and enemies, who would perhaps collaborate again to undo everything after the great leader Bangabandhu was gone.
I am proud that the nation survived, to rise up to the occasion. May Allah bless Bangladesh.
Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.