What did Bangabandhu teach us about politics?
The term “Bangabandhu’s dream” is one you hear not infrequently, especially in August, but what do we mean by it?
Thankfully, there is no need to speculate – his views are all written down by Bangabandhu himself in six of his diaries, now published as Oshomapto Attojiboni and Karagarer Rojnamcha - fascinating reading for anyone interested in learning about the politics and policies of Sheikh Mujib, and the ideologies behind our struggle for liberation.
In a world that continues to promote the ideal, macho “leader” - who no matter what has to be right and continuously creates an 'us v them' narrative – Bangabandhu's evolution into a strong leader who is nevertheless willing to listen, debate and compromise, is a lesson for us all.
'What use is blind faith and belief?'
One of the greatest qualities that Sheikh Mujib possessed was his belief in democracy, free speech, and the right to question everything with logic and reason. He wrote that “if any leader does something which is wrong, people have the right to protest and persuade him to abandon his position.”
He was particularly scathing in his criticism of Liaquat Ali Khan in his early years, writing “he wanted to be the prime minister not of a people but of a party. He had forgotten that a country could not be equated with any one political party.” Even then, he was saddened by the news of his assassination, writing he had “never believed in the politics of conspiracy.”
However, he was not easily moved from a position he believed in either. Even though he founded the East Pakistan Muslim Students' League, he refused his colleagues' pleas to continue to be a part of it indefinitely, saying “I don't have the right to be part of a student organisation since I am no longer a student.”
He was a staunch secularist
When riots broke out in Calcutta after Partition, Bangabandhu worked hard to protect neighbourhoods, and was deeply involved in providing for refugees, regardless of whether they were Muslims or Hindus.
From the very beginning, he wrote he was for “a non-communal party based on a sound manifesto”, and supported the change of name from Awami Muslim League to Awami League in 1953. Throughout his life, he continued to take a strong stance for secularism and against communalism, memorably saying at the AL council in January 1974 - “those of you who are Muslims know that Allah is Rabbul Alameen, not Rabbul Muslemeen. Whether you are Hindu, Christian, Muslim or Buddhist – all are the same to Him.”
He was a socialist who fought for the working classes
Early on his political career, Bangabandhu led protests for dawals (day labourers) against a ban on the transportation of food grain that was punishing many of the poorest workers and forcing them to earn below subsistence wages.
Throughout his political career, he stood in favour of socialism, considering it to be one of the major principles on which to build Bangladesh. He wrote, “Capitalism was a way of holding the masses in bondage to exploit them. Those who believed in socialism could never subscribe to any form of communalism. On the whole, they disapproved of the exploiting class.”
Bangabandhu's sympathy for the working classes is evident from his speeches throughout his life. Even in the last few months of his life, he said in Parliament - “what have we given to the wretched poor of Bengal, those who have nothing to eat? Those without clothes, without belongings, without friends – whose very bones can be seen under their skin, what have you given them?”
In this moving speech, he added, “the farmers of Bengal are not corrupt, neither are our labourers. The educated class – we are the ones who are corrupt.”
He was fed up of in-fighting
In a moment of despair, Bangabandhu wrote, “you will find words such as envy and malice in all languages... but only Bengalis are stricken by grief at another's prosperity. They are never happy to see their brothers do well. That is why Bengalis have been oppressed by other races throughout the ages despite being blessed with so many other qualities.”
Bangabandhu himself was close friends with people who did not belong to his party. He writes a poignant account that demonstrates this in one of his diaries. At a time when Pakistan was using the Public Security Act to constantly keep him in jail without trial, he fell dangerously ill. He was nursed back to health by Chandra Ghosh, a champion of the scheduled castes, and Phani Majumder from the Forward Bloc party. He had a deep bond with these men, and when Chandra Ghosh was on his deathbed, he begged to see Mujib again since he was like a brother to him.
And of course, we are all aware of the close bond that Bangabandhu shared with Maulana Bhashani, despite Bhashani's creation of the National Awami Party and his obvious communist ideals. Even in the case of leaders he did not particulary like, such as Mohiuddin who was against his mentor Suhrwardy, he still tried to involve him in party activities, writing “if we can bring him back to the right path, our country will benefit.”
What probably is the most striking in his writings is Bangabandhu's humble and straightforward nature. He begins his entries with “I haven't been able to achieve anything” and reiterates time and again what the focus of his politics was. While addressing Parliament in 1975, he encapsulated this in what would be one of his last public utterances - “we have to work sincerely and honestly for the emancipation of the poor people of the country.”