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An unlikely partnership: Bangabandhu and Suhrawardy

  • Published at 10:58 pm December 6th, 2019
Sheikh Mujib
A most profound and consequential relationship in Bangladeshi politics / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A political relationship that changed the course of Bangladesh’s history

“Now when I think of him in jail, I remember what he had told me then. Even in 20 years, he never veered from what he said that day. Indeed, from that day, every day of my life I was blessed with his love. In all these years, no one could take me away from him and I didn’t let anyone deprive me of his love.” 

-- Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy

Rehman Sobhan reveals a touching anecdote in his memoirs, Untranquil Recollections: The Years of Fulfillment: “On March 17, 1972, when the nation was celebrating Bangabandhu’s first birthday in independent Bangladesh, myriad well-wishers had inundated him with flowers. That evening, when the crowds had departed, Bangabandhu quietly took this mountain of flowers to the national mausoleum and placed them on the grave of his boss.” 

The boss being referred to is Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, and this extraordinarily thoughtful gesture by Sheikh Mujib was highly symbolic. It seemed to suggest that everything he had achieved was due to this one man, his mentor and guide in politics; to him belonged all the adulation, all the flowers.

It all started 34 years prior to this balmy winter day in independent Bangladesh. The year was 1938. The previous year had been a momentous one. For the first time, Bengal had a government dominated by Muslims. Following his victory in the 1937 elections, AK Fazlul Huq had formed a government with Suhrawardy as an influential minister. 

Eighteen-year-old Sheikh Mujib, whose education had been hampered by illness, was still a school student studying at the Mission school in Faridpur. Fazlul Huq and Suhrawardy came visiting one day. Mujib writes about it in his Unfinished Memoirs:

“Mr Huq and Mr Suhrawardy arrived as scheduled and the meeting was finally held. The exhibition was inaugurated formally. Everything took place peacefully. Mr Huq went to the Public Hall while Mr. Suhrawardy went to the Mission School. Since I was a student of the Mission School, I welcomed him. 

“He inspected the school and then walked towards the launch and I followed him all the way. He asked me a few questions haltingly in Bengali that I answered as well as I could. He looked at me and asked me my name and wanted to know about my family. One of the officials told him about my family’s origins. He took me by the arm and asked me affectionately: “Don’t you have the Muslim League in your area?” I told him that there was no such organization and that not even the Muslim Students League was active here. 

“He made no other comment. He wrote down my name and address in his notebook. A few days later, I got a letter from him thanking me and asking me to meet him if I ever went to Kolkata. I replied to his letter. This is how I started to write to him from time to time.”

Thus began one of the most profound and consequential relationships in the politics of Bangladesh, a relationship that lasted a quarter of a century till Suhrawardy’s death in 1962. It is from Suhrawardy, whom the protege always reverently referred to as the Leader or occasionally, as Rehman Sobhan suggests, as the boss, that Mujib learned how to negotiate the political maze of Bengal and later Pakistan -- from the boulevards to the by-lanes, from sophisticated debates in parliament to tumultuous mass mobilization on the streets. 

Mujib was profoundly influenced by Suhrawardy. Kamruddin Ahmed has an insightful assessment of what Mujib learned from his mentor and what he did not. He writes in Banglar Ek Moddhobitter Attokahini:

“From Suhrawardy he learned to appreciate the importance of parliamentary politics, how to make an organization strong and how to position oneself within an organization. But Suhrawardy had spent years in Britain where, exposed to the thoughts of scholars like Jeremy Bentham, he was imbued with a strong belief in individual liberty and liberal democracy. 

“This is not something Mujib was able to fully appreciate and thus unlike his mentor Suhrawardy he never quite learned the importance or art of reaching a broad-minded compromise after hours of vigorous, sometimes acrimonious, debate. Mujib believed in non-compromising struggles, something that endeared him to the youth.”

Sheikh Mujib was undoubtedly non-compromising in many ways, a trait one observes in him throughout his political life. To what extent was this part of his DNA, to what extent was this something acquired during his formative years, and to what extent was this an approach he consciously adopted in the light of his experience in politics? Perhaps it was a blend of all, an illustration of what students of leadership have called the interplay of personality and environment. Mujib’s gracious remembrance of his mentor provides some clues: 

“Mr Suhrawardy was a generous man. There was no meanness in him, and he wasn’t influenced by partisan feelings or prejudices. He did not believe in cliques or coteries and did not try to work through factions. If he found someone eligible he would trust him fully. He had tremendous self-belief. He tried to win men’s hearts through his honesty, principles, energy, and efficiency. But his personality was also the reason he suffered humiliation and defeat, again and again. It is good to be generous but if you are too nice when dealing with mean people, both the country and the people will suffer in the end. […] Initially, Bengalis failed to appreciate Mr Suhrawardy’s greatness. By the time they learned to value him they had run out of time.”   

Mujib too was a generous soul, but he may have learned a lesson or two from observing what happened to his beloved leader. His comment on the naivete of being nice with mean people -- an approach that harms both self and the country -- is very revealing. Thus, hiding behind the sincere benevolence of Mujib’s oft-repeated statement “I love my people dearly and they love me dearly too,” was another personality which measured people carefully, calibrating actions and behaviour to the nature of the person one is dealing with. Such shrewd calculations may have often underpinned the actions of Mujib the tactician. It could also be a clue to his uncompromising nature vis-à-vis foes.  

One may ask why Sheikh Mujib became close to Suhrawardy and not Fazlul Huq. The latter would seem to be a natural mentor for the young Mujib. Both were sons of the soil, Fazlul Huq having been born in Saturia in the southern district of Barisal, next door to Faridpur where Mujib came from, and having received his education in a village Maktob and then in the Barisal district school, much like Mujib who was educated at various schools in his native Gopalganj before proceeding to Kolkata. Unlike Suhrawardy, the native Urdu-speaker whose Bengali was heavily accented, both Fazlul Huq and Mujib not only spoke Bengali but could converse in the colloquial diction of the East Bengalis. 

But Mujib was never close to Fazlul Huq. Why was it so? Was it just a historical fluke? Recollect Mujib’s first encounter with Suhrawardy in 1938. Fazlul Huq was also with Suhrawardy on that trip but after a meeting which they jointly attended, Suhrawardy went to visit the school where Mujib was a student, while Fazlul Huq went to another meeting. What if it was the opposite? Surely, Mujib would have met Fazlul Huq and not Suhrawardy. Would history have been different then? 

One can, of course, engage in some interesting historical speculation, but it is likely more than that. For Mujib, the possibilities of a symbiotic relationship were greater vis-à-vis Suhrawardy than with Fazlul Huq. Mujib, with his capacity of working and mixing with the masses, talking to them in their own language, understanding their inner sensitivities well, offered Suhrawardy something that this urbane, highly educated member of the non-vernacular elite lacked -- the intrinsic ability to strike a chord with the masses.

What was natural to Mujib was something that Suhrawardy had to work hard to learn and acquire. Mujib helped him in that, just as Suhrawardy taught Mujib the skills that he lacked. One may thus conclude that Fazlul Huq was not the natural mentor of Mujib precisely because he was of the same stock; in other words, the scope for a symbiotic relationship that exists between two persons with differing background and skills was less present in this case. 

Sheikh Mujib’s admiration for Suhrawardy was palpable and, as long as he lived, Bangabandhu remembered his leader with great fondness. In his memoirs, after recounting an incident in pre-1947 Kolkata when, in a fit of impetuosity, he had argued with his mentor, Sheikh Mujib writes touchingly:

“Then he called me affectionately to his own room. He said: ‘You are being sentimental. I wouldn’t have said these words to anybody else. Because I care for you and treat you like my own I felt I could say such things to you.’ He then rubbed my forehead affectionately. And that he really meant what he said and loved me and cared for me I knew through all his subsequent actions and in everything he did for me till his dying day. Now when I think of him in jail, I remember what he had told me then. Even in 20 years he never veered from what he said that day. Indeed, from that day, every day of my life, I was blessed with his love. In all these years no one could take me away from him, and I didn’t let anyone deprive me of his love.”

Sheikh Mujib’s partnership with Huseyn Suhrawardy was an unlikely one. Yet, this was a very symbiotic political relationship that forever changed the course of Bangladesh’s history. 

Syed Akhtar Mahmood is an economist, previously with an international development agency. He writes from Maryland, USA.