Bangladesh was a reality in people’s minds before 1971
It was the sixth anniversary of the death of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy on December 5, 1969. It was also that particular moment in history when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, while paying tributes to his political mentor, formally made it known that, henceforth, East Pakistan -- the eastern province of Pakistan -- would be known as Bangladesh.
His argument in support of his assertion was straightforward: If the four provinces of West Pakistan (and the One Unit system which had merged the four provinces into a single entity would soon be abolished) could be referred to by their historical names, there was reason enough for Bengalis to have their province named after their own collective heart and heritage.
The term “Bangladesh” was not new, of course, for poets and writers and artists had through the generations referred to Bengal as Bangladesh in the historical sense. Of course, no formal reference to Bangladesh was there. What was there was “Bengal” and “Bangla” and “Banga.” Even so, in the psyche of Bengalis on both sides of the political and geographical divide, it had always been Bangladesh in social interaction.
What Bangabandhu was doing in December 1969 was to give the idea a formal shape. As the undisputed leader of the Bengali nation -- and this was even before the general elections of the following year that accorded de jure recognition to his leadership -- Bangabandhu was building on his projections of the future.
It was not the first time that Bangabandhu had referred to Pakistan’s eastern province as Bangladesh.
Indeed, on the day when the proceedings of the Agartala Conspiracy Case got underway in Dhaka cantonment in June 1968, he tried to draw the attention of a journalist whom he knew very closely. The journalist, obviously conscious of the grim nature of the occasion, with military intelligence keeping a watchful eye on everyone in the courtroom, whispered: “Mujib bhai, we can’t talk here.”
That immediately evoked a furious and loud response from the future founder of Bangladesh: “Anyone who wishes to live in Bangladesh will have to talk to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman!”
It was a bold statement from a man who was on trial for sedition. The entire court lapsed into silence and even the three judges constituting the special tribunal looked clearly surprised. Bangabandhu’s exact Bengali statement was: “Bangladesh-e thaakte holey Sheikh Mujibur Rahman-er shathe kotha bolte hobe.”
Note that Bangabandhu did not use “East Pakistan” or “East Bengal” or “Purbo Banga” in his outburst. And from then on, after his release in February 1969 and till the collapse of the political negotiations involving the Awami League, the Pakistan People’s Party and the Yahya Khan regime in Dhaka in March 1971, he always spoke of Bangladesh.
The idea of a politically and historically acknowledged Bangladesh, as history has demonstrated so well, was a seed planted by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, sprouting into a brilliant, healthy plant on his stewardship of the struggle for national liberation.
Two days before the Pakistan army launched its genocide across the province, Bangabandhu instructed his negotiating team to inform the junta that the Awami League had decided to go for a new approach. And it was his suggestion that any constitutional arrangement to be arrived at must be based on the premise of a confederation between West Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Yahya Khan’s team hit the roof. And then the army struck in all its medieval fury.
Following the liberation of Bangladesh, there were quite a few questions raised by some quarters -- and rather naively too -- about future links between the new country and the Indian state of West Bengal. Some even began to speculate if sooner or later West Bengal would opt to link up with Bangladesh and thereby give shape to a greater Bengali republic.
These thoughts were, of course, limited to some particular circles and certainly not taken seriously. It was Bangabandhu who set all such speculations at rest. At his first press conference in Dhaka a few days after his return home from incarceration in Pakistan, he was asked by a journalist if he envisaged a political union of Bangladesh and West Bengal someday.
The Father of the Nation took a puff on his pipe, smiled and then had his message get across: “I am happy with my Bangladesh,” he said in a tone of finality. End of discussion.
On a personal note, yours truly was asked by Bangabandhu in Quetta on a charming July evening in 1970: “Desh-e jaabi na? Bangladesh-e jaabi na?” The nation’s leader, in supreme self-confidence, was letting a schoolboy know that the land he and his mesmerized admirer belonged to was Bangladesh.
At a point in the latter 1990s, yours truly had the pleasure of letting Nirad C Choudhury know, in London, that he belonged to Bangladesh. Choudhury, who had once denigrated our land as a so-called Bangladesh, was visibly happy. He spoke of his fond memories of Bangladesh. No more was there any sign of his earlier misconception. His unambiguous reference was to Bangladesh, our Bangladesh.
A final point: This writer, meeting Edward Heath in London, made it known to him that he, a London-based diplomat, was from Bangladesh. The former British prime minister smiled, that familiar sparkle playing in his eyes: “Ah, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s country,” he said.
It was a moment to savour.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.