We know Sheikh Mujib now as the man who led Bangladesh to independence. But long before that, he was a leader worth talking about
Outside of Bangladesh, enough people have not yet heard of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He was the Father of his nation, and he stood out among fathers of several other nations.
We know Sheikh Mujib now as the man who led Bangladesh to independence. But long before that, he was a leader worth talking about.
A determined campaigner from a young age
While still a student, he founded the Muslim Students League which sought the creation of Pakistan, but also the use of Bangla within it. That got him arrested twice in late 1947.
Unlike some other fathers of new nations, he also consistently stressed social justice. After leaving prison in 1949, he led a strike by menial employees of Dhaka University. That triggered another arrest which gained him greater notoriety. While he was in jail, a new political party was formed to seek justice for the Bangali majority, the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League. Sheikh Mujib was made a party secretary while he was still behind bars.
After his release, he led a movement protesting the food crisis in East Pakistan. The authorities arrested him again. In fact, they jailed him five times in 1949 alone.
Throughout his political career, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was willing to make great personal sacrifices. He was arrested at least 22 times in his life. He was also prepared to risk death. That became clear when he was released in 1952, after a hunger strike endangered his health.
In 1953, he was elected general secretary of his party which, with its allies, won almost every seat in a provincial election. It then sought autonomy for east Bengal. He became a provincial minister – aged only 34.
Three more of his commitments soon became apparent.
First, in 1955, to stress its commitment to secularism, his party dropped the word “Muslim” from its name – becoming the Awami League.
Then he resigned as minister to build the party’s organisation. Unlike the fathers of some other new nations, he knew the importance of a strong organisation which went beyond one-man rule. Thus the Awami League – then and after his death – has had a solid organisation.
Third, while he was a defiant firebrand, he was also a flexible, subtle leader. When opportunities emerged to make progress by negotiation, he responded. As early as 1957, he moderated his tone, to see if progress was possible. He had a fine, flexible sense of timing – which is important in politics.
It soon became obvious that the West Pakistani elite would not compromise with the Bangali majority by reducing their dominance of the armed forces, the higher civil service and the main business houses in East Pakistan. So Sheikh Mujib turned to defiance.
In 1958, a new martial law regime jailed him on phoney charges. In 1961, he was released, began building an underground party organisation, and in January 1962, he was imprisoned again.
In 1968, in the Agartala Conspiracy case, Sheikh Mujib and others were falsely accused of plotting with India to split Pakistan. The charges carried the death penalty and he was the main accused. The Pakistanis caused him great suffering, but they also, unintentionally, did him a favour. By making him their leading target, they confirmed him as east Bengal’s top leader.
After that inept military regime collapsed amid protests from East and West Pakistan, he was released in 1969. He immediately made a defiant speech at a mass rally where he was named “Bangabadhu” – “friend of the Bangalis”.
March 7 – a political masterstroke
In December 1970, at Pakistan’s first national election, his Awami League party won all but two of the 169 seats in East Pakistan - a majority in the new National Assembly.
He should have become prime minister, but the West Pakistanis put off meetings of the Assembly. He launched a non-violent non-cooperation movement and became de facto head of government in East Pakistan. Civil servants, the police, businesses, banks and the labour force followed his lead.
The army remained in their barracks – preparing to seize power by force. In response, Sheikh Mujib made a historic speech on March 7 1971 before a vast crowd.
He carefully spoke ambiguously. He said “…the struggle this time is for our independence”, and ended the speech by repeating that line twice. However, flexible as ever, he did not declare independence, for two reasons. First, he knew that if he did that, the Pakistani air force had orders to bomb the meeting – where hundreds of thousands had gathered – and the Pakistani army would intervene militarily. Second, he wanted to pursue talks about a compromise, to avoid violence.
The speech was a master stroke precisely because it was ambiguous – to prevent massive bloodshed.
Over the next 17 days, he negotiated with West Pakistani leaders, but they acted in bad faith. On March 24, they even announced an agreement. They were lying. The next day, they launched a military crackdown.
Sheikh Mujib knew it was coming. He urged senior colleagues to go underground. But when the army attacked, he offered himself for arrest. He calculated that the military would not subdue the Bangalis. If that happened, West Pakistani leaders would need someone to negotiate with. But he was risking his life.
He was arrested at his home and flown to West Pakistan where he was jailed, tried for treason and sentenced to death.
The army massacred Bangali police and soldiers, students, intellectuals and others. Many see this as an act of genocide. But in that bloody conflict, Bangali insurgents held their own. On December 3, 1971, the Indian army joined in. Thirteen days later, the Pakistani army surrendered to Bangladeshi and Indian forces.
Sheikh Mujib’s life was spared and he was released. He soon arrived in Dhaka to take up the leadership of a new nation. He introduced a new democratic constitution, and in 1973 his party won a landslide election victory.
But Bangladesh had been devastated. Many who might have helped rebuild the nation had been slaughtered. There were huge problems reviving the economy, and restoring law and order. On 15 August 1975, discontented soldiers staged a coup and murdered Sheikh Mujib with 16 members of his family. Only two of his children were absent – one of whom, Sheikh Hasina, is prime minister today. It was a sad end to a remarkable struggle, led by a remarkable man.
The author is a Professor in the School of Advanced Study, University of London