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The mark of greatness

  • Published at 12:02 am August 15th, 2019
A truly remarkable man Mehedi Hasan

Bangladesh will always be Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s country

He was the boatman on our river of destiny.

That is the way I conceive of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s place in history. That is how I remember him. He remains, and is destined to remain, the most powerful and vital presence in our lives, an enduring part of our collective national existence. On National Mourning Day, the truth is certainly one of our missing him. But it is also one of reminding ourselves that he has never been away from us.

That is the mark of greatness. As a school student, I spotted the great man that was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as he alighted from the Bolan Mail which had carried him from Karachi to Quetta in July 1970. The crowd, with not a single Bengali in it apart from myself, burst into loud cheers. Pathans, Baluchis, Punjabis, Mohajirs, and Sindhis rushed forward to grab his hand on that bright summer morning.

He was on his way to greater heights, if that crowd was any indication.

Our Bangabandhu, if one may put it that way, demonstrated on that evening the mettle he was made of, in that brilliance of political and intellectual ambience. He shook hands with everyone standing in a line to pay him their respects, inquiring about their welfare.

He laughed and joked with Abdus Samad Achakzai, the long-suffering Baluch nationalist. He put Yahya Bakhtiar, the lawyer who was later to serve the Bhutto government as attorney general, in his place when the latter wondered if the Six Points would not lead to the disintegration of Pakistan. “You have sucked our blood for 23 years,” he told Bakhtiar. “Now you must face the music.”

A most incredible meeting

I had dinner with Bangabandhu that night, even as the smell of roses suffused the lawn brimming with all that presence of the eminent and the powerful. I was in the happy presence of politicians I had earlier read about, or heard about.

The future Father of the Nation placed his hands on my cheeks and asked about my parents. He wanted to know what school I was going to. And then he affixed his signature in my little autograph book. I have relished the memory.

And I have relished too the many instances of the courage he displayed in his moments of suffering. He told a foreign journalist, as the Agartala conspiracy trial got underway in June 1968, that the Ayub regime would not be able to keep him in prison for more than six months. He was out in slightly over seven months.

The self-confidence in him was all, at once infectious and inspirational. When a Bengali journalist he knew was too frightened to respond to him in that court, he let everyone know, loud and clear, that anyone who wished to live in Bangladesh would have to speak to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He spoke in the third person. It was confidence that left the three judges on the tribunal shaken.

My memories of Bangabandhu, at a personal level, are not many but they are poignant. In April 1972, he reassured me that my education, its background being English, was not in jeopardy with schools shifting to the Bengali medium. “Go home,” said he, “and study.” I did. 

On a rain-dripping monsoon evening, outside the gates of the old Gonobhaban, he spotted me and had his car come to a stop -- he was going home -- beckoned me over, wanted to know why I was there every evening. 

“To see you,” I told him. He gave me a quizzical look, and then an affectionate reprimand, and told me to spend my time better at home by focusing on my studies. I was at Notre Dame College at the time.

He was part of us, the Father we looked to for guidance. He was the liberator and yet he was Sheikh Shaheb and Mujib Bhai and “Muzibor” to Bengalis across the spectrum. My brother and I saw his car come to a stop at the traffic lights on Elephant Road. He was reading a newspaper, an unassuming Bengali like any other adult middle-class Bengali. Everyone on the sidewalks watched him in delight. We loved him then, as we have loved him always. 

On a summer’s day, walking into Gonobhaban with my little brother in the hope of a glimpse of him, I was horrified when my sibling broke away from the crowd at the gate and softly made his way to the building housing the Prime Minister’s Office. He went in. A couple of minutes later, he and Bangabandhu walked out together. I loved my brother then.

When time stood still

On August 15, 1975, prepared to walk down to Dhaka University to hear Bangabandhu speak at the convocation, I sipped tea at home. And then time came to a halt. No one saw Bangabandhu that day, for foul conspiracy had done him in.

No one would ever see him again. Ayub Khan’s conspiracy would not kill him in the Agartala case. Intrigues by Yahya Khan and Tikka Khan could not put an end to his life in his lonely incarceration in 1971. But conspiracy took him away from us in 1975. His very own Bengalis took his life. With him went our moments of glory.

It was that glory I shared in January 10, 1972 as I hung on to the rear of the truck carrying Bangabandhu to the Race Course (today’s Suhrawardy Udyan) from Tejgaon airport moments after his return home to a Bangladesh freed on the strength of his leadership.

And glory was embodied in him as he, a free man once again, spoke to the world at Claridges in London two days earlier.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a colossus bestriding the world in times he had been instrumental in the making of. He instilled pride in us through his retort to Saudi King Faisal’s understanding of Bangladesh. He cheered us when he exposed the naiveté in Nigeria’s Yakubu Gowon, when the latter lamented the break-up of Pakistan. It was a supremely confident Bangabandhu with Gerald Ford at the White House. I was thrilled beyond measure when in 1997 Edward Heath, having known from me of my being from Bangladesh, smiled and said softly: “Ah, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s country.”

I have prayed at Bangabandhu’s grave. I have experienced the profusion of lunar light shining on his resting place in the depths of the night. I have washed, in loving emotion, the rough coffin which on a dark, macabre day carried his remains to Tungipara.

Across the rivers of this ancient land resting on heritage, I have missed the boatman who once led us safely to the tranquility of shores through turbulent Baishakh storms. I have missed the thunder in his voice, the loud laughter which reverberated across our world.Bangabandhu was a child of history even as he was a maker of it. In his story are laid out, page after page, the chronicles of our past and the pointers to our future. He was our universe.