Before Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman emerged in Bangladesh’s political arena, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose was the most beloved leader of the Bengalis. He dreamt of independence and spread his dream to others. He inspired the people of the British-colonised India to lay down their lives to fulfil this dream of freedom. Netaji couldn’t see his country freed in his lifetime. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman could.
Bangabandhu can be compared with another great leader of the 20th century, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. Both of them spent much of their lives behind bars, and never for a moment wavered in their resolve. And in their lifetime they saw the materialisation of their dreams for a free and independent country.
I assume Bangabandhu never came face-to-face Subhas Chandra Bose, who was 23 years older than him. He went to Kolkata in 1942 to study at Islamia College. Just a year before that, Netaji had left India to lead the Azad Hind Fauj. Bangabandhu was still a child when Netaji was politically active as the mayor of Kolkata and a leader of the Congress in the thirties.
Bangabandhu hadn’t met Mandela either. They were both around the same age, Mandela having been born in 1918 and Bangabandhu in 1920. They probably knew about each other but their paths never crossed. When Bangabandhu was assassinated in 1975 along with his family, Mandela was in prison.
The three may not have ever met, but Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib and Nelson Mandela seem to have been connected by an invisible thread. All three of them were the architects of their respective countries’ independence. They have come to be symbols of hope for all downtrodden people the world over. Freedom does not come easily. It calls for personal sacrifice. The three of them proved that sacrifice did not go in vain.
I recently received a book, Bangabandhu, Epitome of a Nation. Edited by Enayetullah Khan and published by Cosmos Books, this pictorial book is dedicated to Bangabandhu. It contains a message written by Bangabandhu in his own handwriting: “Great things are achieved through great sacrifices.” Mandela had said the same thing when released from prison: “Only through hardship, sacrifice and militant action can freedom be won.” About half a century before Mandela uttered those words, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose said, “We will achieve freedom through sacrifice and protect it with our own power.”
Subhas Chandra Bose and Nelson Mandela were both from well-to-do families. Bose’s father was a renowned lawyer and Mandela’s father was the chief of their community. They received inspiration from their families to achieve great things in life. Bangabandhu came from a middle class background, lower class in today’s standards, and his father was a serestadar, a simple officer in charge of record-keeping at the court. As the son of a government employee, it would be natural for him to be imbibed with loyalty towards the government. Instead Bangabandhu chose Subhas Chandra Bose as his role model. Bose had scorned government service to risk his life in his determination to drive out the British from India.
Bangabandhu was only 16 when he was inducted into politics. He was in Madaripur at his father’s workplace at the time. On the spur of the moment he joined the swadesi movement, inspired by Subhas Bose.
In his Unfinished Memoirs, Bangabandhu wrote it was his anger with the English that made him an admirer of Subash Chandra Bose. He learnt more about Bose and his Azad Hind Fauj while studying at college in Kolkata. He firmly believed that Bose was doing the right thing. Bose had created the Indian liberation force with both Hindus and Muslims. He was a true non-communal leader. Bangabandhu wrote, “The leader who leaves the country and gives his all for the independence of the nation, can never be communal. That is why I respected Subhas babu.”
Undoubtedly Bangabandhu was inspired by Subhas Chandra’s spirit of sacrifice. But it was through his own struggle that he earned the belief that, in politics, ideals were much more important than personal interests. He bears similarity with Mandela in this regard.
The apartheid government of South Africa repeatedly offered Mandela freedom on condition that he give up his political opposition. Mandela refused. In 1985 when Mandela was still in prison, the South African Prime Minister Botha sent him an offer again. In a secret letter sent through his daughter, Mandela wrote that his freedom was very important to him, but more important than that was the freedom of his people.
Mandela had to wait another five years for actual freedom. Had he chosen the path of compromise, neither would Bangabandhu have to spend so much time in prison. He could easily have had a share in the power. In 1953 Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy joined the Pakistan central government as law minister. Sheikh Mujib was then the general secretary of the newly formed Awami League. Suhrawardy was the president of the party. While in jail, Mujib heard of his leader becoming minister. He was displeased. In his memoirs he wrote, “From within the jail we were pained. I could not support his becoming law minister. I was annoyed.”
Netaji, Bangabandhu and Mandela, none of them are among us anymore. Their vision for freedom still is our inspiration. It is up to us how we commemorate their lives. On Mandela’s birthday, the people of South Africa devote themselves to civic welfare. They construct school buildings, repair roads, clear away garbage, tend to parks and do other tasks that benefit all. Mandela Day is observed in such a manner in other countries too.
Can we not do similar public welfare work to commemorate the birthday of Bangabandhu?
This article has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir, first published in Prothom Alo