In life, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman truly played out the role of Bangabandhu a grateful Bengali nation conferred on him once he was free of the Agartala conspiracy case in February 1969. In death, he appears to have far exceeded the limits of a posthumous reputation for greatness that was expected to be associated with his memories. The many volumes of reminiscences and reflections on his life and politics published over the years are but a sign yet once again of the magical hold the founding father of Bangladesh holds on people who have either been part of the history he almost single-handedly created in the 1960s and 1970s or have irresistibly been drawn to his legacy through endless discussions of his role in the making of his free nation and his later, problem-ridden stewardship of it.
Despite everything his detractors have been doing since his assassination in August 1975 to undermine his contributions to the Bengali nationalist struggle, Mujib’s reputation has remained almost intact and indeed continues to hold huge political significance in a country that clearly ought to have done more to uphold his principles. The fact of the matter is that with Mujib’s death came along a period which not only was symbolic of medieval darkness in the history of his people but also perhaps a sign of how leadership even from a great man can stumble upon some rather serious and unavoidable impediments. Should Bangabandhu have stayed away from assuming the position of head of government on his return from incarceration in Pakistan?
There were all the pitfalls associated with providing leadership to a damaged country. In early 1972, it was a fractured land that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took charge of. The wounds were all over the place — three million people dead, ten million trekking their way back home from refugee camps in India, tens of thousands of women raped by Pakistan’s soldiers, destroyed bridges, blown up roads, young men with guns, rising prices of food and other consumer items and a general slide in law and order. And there were too the very grave issues of the trial of Pakistani prisoners of war and the repatriation of a hundred thousand Bengalis trapped in Pakistan. Again, there was the legal process initiated in relation to the trial of the local Bengali collaborators of the Pakistan army in 1971.
Bangabandhu promised, on his return from Pakistan in January 1972, to have all Pakistani military personnel accused of genocide put on trial for crimes against humanity in Bangladesh. He got nowhere with it. Eventually whittling down the figures to 195 Pakistan army officers for those who needed to be brought to justice, he reassured the country that those who had raped and killed would not get away with their crimes. But they did, through the tripartite deal reached by Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, one that had the Pakistani POWs going home and the Bengalis in Pakistan making their way to their newly independent country. Bangabandhu, in profound sadness, told Dr. Kamal Hossain of his pain in being unable to keep this one promise made to his people.
Annada Shankar Roy’s plaintive piece, composed days after Bangabandhu’s assassination, speaks of a great man who, in true Greek fashion, thrived in struggle and perished in tragedy. The qualities that made a statesman of Mujib in post-Liberation Bangladesh, a time when he walked tall on the global scene, in a way reminiscent of Gandhi and Nehru, were there despite the impediments he was up against. The venerable Annada Shankar Roy came to Dhaka and watched Bangabandhu put his Baksal political system in place. It was seemingly a negation of all that the foremost Bengali politician of his times had worked for all his life. And yet Bangabandhu is on record as having told Justice A.S.M. Sayem (who through a curious twist of history would one day become Bangladesh’s president amid the chaos engendered by Bangabandhu’s murder) that Baksal was a temporary measure that would be set aside as soon as matters went back to being normal.
Would Bangabandhu, given the exigencies that had propelled him toward Baksal, have actually retraced his steps to parliamentary democracy? Or was he, finally and rather belatedly, responding to the concerns of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Algeria’s Houari Boumeddiene, two men who saw in his pardon of Pakistani military officers accused of war crimes, in his amnesty for a large number of local collaborators of the occupation army, the alacrity with which he had repatriated Bengali civil and military officers from Pakistan join the Bangladesh government without any screening, a recipe for disaster? But disaster already loomed. By the end of 1974, when a state of emergency was imposed on the country, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a marked man. The wolves were beginning to prowl around his tent. Local and international conspiracy was already at work against him.
Such are the questions, these are the sentiments which arise out of a study of some commemorative volumes on Bangabandhu (Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Sharokgrantha, edited by M. Nazrul Islam and published by Jyotsna Publishers Dhaka) some years ago. They are a rich re-creation of the life of a man whose transformation from communal student activist to secular political leader has been a remarkable commentary on the history of a nation. Contrary to what his detractors, and even some admirers, have been saying all along, Mujib’s dreams of a free Bengali republic sprouted first in the late 1950s when his mentor Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy served as Pakistan’s prime minister. And thenceforward, until his exposition of the Six Points in 1966, he worked assiduously and shrewdly towards accelerating the course of Bengali freedom.
After 1966, it was history that took its own course to fulfillment. Within the broad ambience of Mujib’s struggle come the stories of his multifaceted contributions to the growth of Bengali nationalism and, eventually, the rise of the state which he had decided, as early as 1969, would be known as Bangladesh. Amartya Sen, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, Serajul Islam Choudhury, Farooq Chowdhury, Mohammad Farashuddin, Ramendu Majumdar and Rangalal Sen are among the splendid group of intellectuals who pay tribute to the Father of the Nation. Abu Mohammad Delwar Hossain’s essay on the reactions in Pakistan to Bangabandhu’s assassination reflects, once again, the inability of the country’s politicians and general masses to come to terms with the changed realities in the subcontinent.
It is an attitude that comes close to Yakubu Gowon’s. The Nigerian military ruler wondered, as he met Bangabandhu, whether Bangladesh and Pakistan together could not have been a strong country had the Bengalis not gone their separate way. Mujib’s response was classic and close to the philosophical. ‘Mr. President’, he told Gowon, ‘if Pakistan had not come into being, a united India would be a powerful entity. If the whole of South Asia had been a single country, imagine how much more powerful we would all be. But, Mr. President, do we get everything we want out of life?’
At the height of the Agartala conspiracy case in June 1968, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman told a Western journalist present in court, ‘You know, they can’t keep me here for more than six months’. He was almost right in his arithmetic. He was a free man seven months into the trial. Today, as the nation celebrates him through an observance of the anniversary of his birth ninety seven years ago, it is the old courage and the legendary confidence of the man that come alive once again.
Bangabandhu was the Druid who led us out of the darkness of primitive forests to the luminosity of freedom. He was the North Star in our skies. The light of the star has never dimmed.
(Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Father of the Nation) was born on 17 March 1920)