For a political leader who spent almost his entire youth in incarceration, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not let his family slip into the background. Family was all for him. There was the strong presence of his wife, Begum Fazilatunnesa Mujib, upon whose shoulders devolved the responsibility -- during almost the entirety of Bangabandhu’s career -- of ensuring the welfare of the family. If any political spouse has suffered enormously at the hands of her husband’s tormentors, it was Begum Mujib. Day after day and month after month, stretching to year after year, she was engaged in a constant struggle to ensure that her children could go to school, that she and the children could find decent accommodation.
Bangabandhu knew of all these happenings. He was acutely aware of the travails, his family was going through at the hands of the ruling coterie of Pakistan, and yet he had full confidence in his wife, who he knew was made of strong stuff and who would not be overwhelmed or intimidated by the looming shadow of the regime as she went about her business.
There were the times when Begum Mujib visited him in prison, though in the initial stages of the Agartala Case there was no news of his whereabouts. But that did not break Begum Mujib’s spirit, for she knew her husband was one politician who would not bend, let alone break, through the persecution let loose upon him by the ruling circles. During the entire course of the nine-month War of Liberation in 1971, Bangabandhu’s family, like the rest of the country, had absolutely no news of where he was being detained in the then West Pakistan or even if he was alive. Yet, it was Bangabandhu’s courage, made manifest throughout his career, which convinced his family that he could be and was strong and resilient on his own, even in his solitary captivity.
A father, a son, and a husband
Bangabandhu’s love for his children was grounded on the traditions upon which Bengali society had through the ages carried itself. His spells in prison kept him away from them for a very long time, but it was sheer pleasure for him when the children, especially his eldest child Sheikh Hasina and his eldest son Sheikh Kamal -- the others were too young to comprehend the situation -- sometimes visited him in prison along with their mother.
Of course, the decision on whether the family could visit him and for how long was dependent on the whims of the military regime which had placed him in detention. But those meetings, rare though they were, were celebrations for Bangabandhu and his family. The brevity of the moment was for him an eternity.
A visible sign of Bangabandhu’s love for his children was noticed on the day of his release from the Agartala Case in February 1969. Newspapers across the two wings of Pakistan flashed, on their front pages, pictures of him hugging his daughter Hasina, which in itself was at once a sign of parental love and an upholding of Bengali tradition. You could also say it was a sign of human nature, of a father being reunited with his daughter and thereby with his family and his clan.
All his life, Mujib was acutely aware of the need to make his children feel that, for all his political struggles in defense of Bengali rights, he was there for them, always. A story which Sheikh Hasina is fond of relating has to do with the time when Bangabandhu, in one of his brief spells out of prison, happened to have Hasina before him.
Every member of his clan was proud of Bangabandhu and his unrelenting, lonely struggle in trying to secure for his people the rights they were entitled to
Nearby was little Kamal, who watched with a child’s sadness the scene of his sister playing with the man she called Abba -- father. At one point, Kamal asked Hasina: “Can I play for a little while with your Abba?” It was a hint that the little boy was unaware that Mujib was Hasina’s father as much as he was his. An emotional Bangabandhu, touched deeply by his son’s words, quickly gathered him to his bosom.
Bangabandhu expected his family to be dedicated to the cause of the nation in line with the struggle he was waging against the Pakistani regime. And indeed the family upheld his trust. He sent his second son Jamal off to Sandhurst. At home, it was younger daughter Rehana who was the apple of his eye. But then, every one of his children was the apple of his eye.
Little Russell, who perhaps suffered most from the absence of his father in the family -- his young life was essentially a time when Mujib was embroiled in the Agartala Case and then spent, following the decisive period of March 1971, in solitary confinement in Pakistan -- was constantly by his father’s side once the latter returned home from Pakistan in January 1972.
Visitors to Road 32 Dhanmondi noticed the happiness in which Russell moved around on his tricycle at home and on the grassy knoll before Dhanmondi Lake facing Bangabandhu’s residence.
To his clan -- his parents, brothers, and sisters -- Bangabandhu was always the quintessential elder son on whom fell the responsibility, despite his tortuous political career, of looking to their welfare. The Pakistanis made his clan suffer because of their hatred of Mujib and his politics.
But it remains an unvarnished truth that no one in the clan could be made to genuflect by the regime. Every member of his clan was proud of Bangabandhu and his unrelenting, lonely struggle in trying to secure for his people the rights they were entitled to.
With his parents, Bangabandhu enjoyed a relationship that was typical of the relationships Bengalis have historically brought into their dealings with their parents. His parents suffered in his absences, but they consistently held fast to the idea that their son was destined for greatness.
And they were proven right.
Little did Bangabandhu realise that they would see their lives coming to an end only months before conspirators would take his own life.
In the end, Bangabandhu and his family, except for his daughters (who happened to be abroad at the time), were gunned down by the conspirators. The point can be argued here that in death, as in life, Bangabandhu’s links to his family remained strong and enduring.
He is the Father of the Nation. To his family, he was the devoted husband and the wonderful father who served as the underpinning of its joys and sorrows. His family was his world inasmuch as Bangladesh was his universe.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Asian Age.