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OP-ED: What Greek Philosophy says about Bangabandhu and the birth of Bangladesh

  • Published at 11:57 pm March 25th, 2021
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A different perspective on our own history 

This year, we celebrate the centennial birth anniversary of the greatest Bengali of all time, the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as well as the 50th anniversary of the independence of our country. 

Most of us spend our lifetimes only nominally impacting the world around us. But sometimes, a rare, exceptional figure emerges to shape the lives of others, transforming the world into a better place. Sheikh Mujib’s accomplishments, and the unprecedented times in which he lived, lend themselves to analysis through the lens of Greek philosophy. 

I am fascinated by those classical thinkers living on the shores of the Aegean and Ionian seas, and their role in shaping the spirit of humanity. The great Aristotle (384–322 BCE), in Politics,  speaks of “coming-to-be,” a concept of change involving potentiality (dynamis) and actuality (entelecheia). 

Before 1947, there was the undivided India under British colonial rule. And from 1947 to 1971, our sub-continent was split into India and Pakistan. Sheikh Mujib saw our potentiality and fulfilled it to make sovereign Bangladesh an actuality. 

In the 1940 Lahore Resolution of the All-India Muslim League, the seed was first planted for division on the basis of religion. The resolution was written by Chowdhury Mohammad Zafarullah Khan, a jurist born in Sialkot, and presented by the prime minister of Bengal, AK Fazlul Haq. 

The resolution adopted at the general session demanded independent states “…with such territorial readjustments as may be necessary that the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority as in the North Western and Eastern Zones of India should be grouped to constitute ‘independent states’ in which the constituent units should be autonomous and sovereign.” 

This is potentiality. Something new had the potential to become and was capable of doing so if conditions remained right and constraints were kept at bay. 

The Lahore Resolution clearly called for the creation of independent states for Muslims in North-Western and Eastern British India. Even the constituent units of these states were to be autonomous and sovereign; this encouraged Sind to join the movement later in 1940, a favourable variable supporting the potentiality of the concept. 

What practically happened, the Aristotelian actuality, was the birth of Pakistan. But that’s not all. 

Demands by the Congress for the British to leave India intact forced many Muslim leaders to seek division, even if that meant the creation of Pakistan at the expense of the division of Punjab and Bengal. These divisions were orchestrated by the Indian National Congress and fundamentalist Hindu organizations such as the Hindu Mahashaba. 

Not only Jinnah, but a majority of Muslim League leaders, realized that the Muslims of British India could not live under Hindu rule in an undivided India, particularly after the central government, run by Congress in 1937, unleashed widespread communal discrimination on Indian Muslims. 

But Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy realized that the British might in fact leave India undivided following the Muslim League’s failure to achieve a majority in subsequent Assembly elections in Punjab and other states of the future Pakistan. The only convincing Muslim League majority was here, in Bengal. 

Suhrawardy, after becoming prime minister of Bengal, proposed in his “Delhi declaration” of 1946 that Bengal should either be fully independent, or that Pakistan should consist of Bengal, Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan, the North-West Frontier, and Kashmir -- simultaneously advocating for both Pakistan and an independent Greater Bengal comprising undivided Bengal, Assam, and part of Bihar. This broad Bengali state had the implicit support of Jinnah but was vehemently opposed by the Hindu Mahasabha and the national Congress party. 

However, the proposal had the unreserved support of the Bengal Congress led by Sarat Chandra Bose, the elder brother of Subhash Chandra, and of the British governor general. Bengali Hindus could live in harmony with Bengali Muslims, but this was not the case India-wide. 

Shama Prashad and the Hindu Mahasabha alleged that the 1946 Direct Action Day riots, which killed 4,000 people, were led by Suhrawardy. Though the claim has never been substantiated conclusively, Suhrawardy’s intention was beyond doubt: The British could not leave without ensuring a separate homeland or homelands for Indian Muslims. 

The Aristotelian potentiality was conceived as independent sovereign states in the Muslim dominated North-West and Eastern zones of British India, in contrast to the actuality of the creation of one state, Pakistan, consequent to the adversities acted upon by the Indian leadership of both Hindus and Muslims. 

However, we must also remember that the seed of potentiality was implanted in Lahore in 1940. And, while the single state of Pakistan was the actuality, if there emerged in the strong adversities and potentialities of the subsequent years, a new actuality too could be created. That was the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Here, in addition to Aristotle, let me introduce another of my favourite philosophers, Heraclitus.

Heraclitus (circa 500 BCE) was a pre-Socratic resident of Ephesus, then part of the Persian Empire. Though born wealthy, he chose the reclusive life of a destitute thinker. Heraclitus's famous instructions, the firmness and clarity of his faith, and his conviction that the universe was in constant motion and conflict, earned him a seat among the foremost thinkers of Western philosophy.

This Ionian Greek hypothesized that “everything in the world is created in the context of the conflict of the opposites.” Conflict is the indicator of creation; creation is not stable, but is always moving. In the face of this dynamic and constantly flowing state, existence is ever-changing. 

Heraclitus’ most famous aphorism says that "No man is able to set foot in the same river twice." That is to say, constant flow is a key attribute of our world.

Let’s examine the conflict of opposites immediately after 1947. There was an ocean of difference between the Eastern and Western domains of Pakistan. The leadership of Pakistan’s western wing plunged into deliberate and discriminatory provocation, igniting the authentic conflict and ensuring dramatic change. 

The people of the Eastern Wing genuinely felt their very existence was threatened by the Western Wing, particularly by the Punjabis. They saw a colonial exploitation bent on erasing their national identity. 

The initial attack was on Bangla, the mother tongue then spoken by 56% of all Pakistanis. Urdu, a Persianized version of Hindi, was declared the state language of Pakistan in a desperate attempt at harmonizing an emphatically diverse population. 

Urdu has always been in the forefront of politics; it emerged during the rule of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals. By the time of the creation of Pakistan, Urdu had become the symbol of emancipation for a minority of influential Muslim Leaguers, a concept rejected by the Bengalis. Here we see Heraclitus’ conflict of opposites in bequest, culture, and communiqué. 

Further provocation came on the economic front. East Bengal earned the major share of Pakistan’s domestic product but was allocated crumbs from the national budget. In its inaugural six-year plan, the outlay for East Bengal was contemptuous: East Bengal, with 56% of Pakistan’s population, received less than 23%. 

In agriculture, provision was made for 82 crores; the share for East Bengal was 5.6 crores. Of 45 crores for hydropower, East Bengal got 5 crores. In industrial development, 30 crores were budgeted for textiles in West Pakistan, and 11 crores for jute in East Bengal. We see that the Aristotlean potentiality of the creation of Bangladesh was initiated by Heraclitus’s conflict of opposites. 

Potentiality is achievable if the favourable conditions are acted upon and not prevented by any source. I’m reminded of the famous Bangladeshi journalist Rahat Khan, who sadly passed away last August. 

A year before his death, Rahat wrote in the Bangladesh Protidin that discontent was sown immediately after the independence of Pakistan, when the Muslim League turned into a banal political party detached from the people. Instead of protecting the rights of Bengalis, the League’s mission was to obey the orders of the West Pakistani ruling class and turn East Pakistan into a colony. 

The All-Pakistan Awami League was created in the context of political turmoil in emergent Pakistan and its goal, as articulated by Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani, was to make the country democratic and liberate people from the exploitation of the western ruling class. Among the senior Leaders of Awami League then were Abul Monsur Ahmed, Ataur Rahman Khan, and Salam Khan. 

After the historic 1954 victory of the United Front in the East Pakistan assembly elections, the Awami League split over policy. Following the 1957 Kagmari Conference, the faction under Maulana Bhasani formed the leftist National Awami Party, while the majority supported Pakistan’s alliance with the United States and remained with Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. 

During these critical times, figures such as Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Shamsul Haq, Moshiur Rahman, Abdul Mannan, Syed Nazrul Islam, Sohrab Hossain, and Tajuddin Ahmed took the baton for the next generation. 

The leaders of the Awami League and the NAP were instrumental in organizing the pro-democracy movement in Pakistan and successfully led the mass movement against the Muslim League and Field Marshal Ayub. 

They chose the path of self-sacrifice to establish a popular democracy. The student movement of 1962, the movement for autonomy in 1966, the mass uprising of 1969, winning a majority in the general elections of 1970, the non-cooperation movement in 1971, and the Liberation War were all mainly due to the Awami League.

Another famous journalist, Syed Badrul, recently reflected on the often intriguing moments, personalities, and miraculous coincidences that mark the contemporary history of our region. Badrul too is fascinated with the confluence of historical events in Lahore that determined the fate of the region. 

Ironically, the major events in the creation of Bangladesh took place in the heart of Punjab. After all, it was in Lahore again, in 1966, that Mujib and the Awami League took their first steps toward Bangladesh with the Six-Points demand for autonomy. 

Bangabandhu became the conscience of humanity. He asserted the right of the common people to live with dignity and respect. Mujib declared that the vices of inequality, exploitation, and malfeasance must disappear from a humane society. His exceptional courage, his love for the deprived, was so feared by our oppressors that he remained perpetually imprisoned. He was formidable against the tyrants. 

On the other hand, the common people were mesmerized by Mujib’s charisma; honest and dedicated people were attracted by his compassion. 

These were the ingredients he needed to break the shackle of slavery, turning the potentiality of freedom into actuality, creating a sovereign state from the context of conflicting opposites. In the early 1960s, when the people’s voice was ruthlessly crushed by the military junta, students followed Mujib’s instruction in mass movement, and when he wished to put forward the legitimate demands of his people, Bengali intellectuals such as Rehman Sobhan, Nurul Islam, and others assisted him in drawing up of the historical Six-Points. 

When Mujib broached the secession of East Bengal, Bengali members of the armed forces stood firmly by his side. The ruling junta tried to crush him by inventing the Agartala Conspiracy Case, but the people not only forced the government to release Bangabandhu from prison with an unprecedented uprising, they bestowed on him the mandate for realization of their fundamental rights by an overwhelming majority in the subsequent national election. 

When Bangabandhu was blocked from forming a government in 1971, people en masse rejected the Martial Law Government. On March 7, 1971, Bangabandhu delivered a speech in the presence of a million people, a masterstroke in the context of the conflict of opposites that completely wrong-footed the Pakistani regime and ensured the actuality, the entelecheia, of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

Dr. Raqibul Mohammad Anwar is a surgeon and global health policy expert, and a retired colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps (UK).

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