National Mourning Day, 2019
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: A symbol of freedom
''I have not seen the Himalayas. But I have seen Sheikh Mujib.''
This year 15 August marks his 44th martyrdom, and the mourning day reminds us of his immense contribution to the liberation of the Bengalis from a long subjugation and to the foundation of an independent state. The post-1975 generation, had been oblivious of the undistorted political history of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who is not only the architect of Bangladesh but also "a symbol of freedom".
But unfortunately, Bangabandhu has been limited to the observance of a few national days--7 March, 17 March, 26 March, 15 August and 16 December--in a calendar year. Apart from the formal discussions we hold on these days, what message do our politicians actually give to our young generation? Isn't it a pertinent question? Since Bangabandhu's assassination, the then political regimes tried hard to erase his image from the government's archives/documents and made us oblivious of his historic commitment to the endless struggle for constituting an independent nation throughout his life. Upon hearing the news of his assassination, former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson wrote to a Bengali journalist, "This is surely a supreme national tragedy for you. For me, it is a personal tragedy of immense dimensions."
According to Professor Abdur Razzak, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is considered to be "a symbol of Bangladesh'. He also uttered, "But there have been other symbols in the long freedom struggle in the subcontinent. Between this one, the symbol in 1971, and others before him, there is a qualitative difference." What we know from the history is that Bangabandhu developed a linguistic nationalism--mostly based on language and culture--which turned into Bengali nationalism. Then, he established a nation state with the harmonious unity of different religious communities, especially Hindu-Muslim unity.
Here, I don't want to discuss the conspiracy against Bangabandhu waged by two countries --USA and Pakistan--along with some internal close associates of the then ruling party Awami League. I, rather, intend to revisit his relentless political struggle against the Pakistani autocratic military misrule so that our young generation can be inspired by his charismatic leadership, towering personality, indomitable courage and unconditional love for the nation. Journalist Cyril Dunn once said, "In the thousand-year history of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujib is the only leader who has, in terms of blood, race, language, culture and birth, been a full-blooded Bengali. His physical stature was immense. His voice was redolent of thunder. His charisma worked magic on people. The courage and charm that flowed from him made him a unique superman in these times."
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was born in Tungipara, a village under Gopalganj. In 1942, he passed his matriculation from Gopalganj Missionary School. He completed IA and BA in Islamia College (Calcutta) in 1944 and 1947 respectively. In 1938, Sheikh Mujib happened to meet the great leaders - A. K. Fazlul Huq and Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, who came to visit Gopalganj.
During this visit, H S Suhrawardy discovered Sheikh Mujib as a promising, courageous political talent and turned out to be his political mentor by 1940-41. Sheikh Mujib also got himself admitted into the University of Dhaka to study law but was unable to continue because he was expelled from the university in early 1949 on the charge of "inciting the fourth-class employees" in their agitation against the university authority's indifference towards their just demands.
As a political disciple of Shaheed Suhrawardy, Sheikh Mujib became very active and joined the Bengal Muslim League in 1943. After obtaining BA degree in 1947, he appeared to be one of the Muslim politicians working under Suhrawardy during the communal violence that broke out in Calcutta just before the partition.
After the partition of India, Mujib founded the East Pakistan Muslim Students' League. Following the announcement of Muhammad Ali Jinnah that Urdu would be the only official state language of Pakistan, protest erupted among the Bengali speaking people in 1948. Mujib led the Muslim Students' League in organizing strikes and protests, and was then arrested along with Khaleque Nawaz Khan and Shamsul Haque.
Sheikh Mujib left Muslim League and then joined Suhrawardy, Maulana Bhashani and Yar Mohammad Khan in forming the Awami Muslim League. He was elected joint secretary of its East Bengal unit in 1949 and was made the party's general secretary in 1953. He was elected to East Bengal Legislative Assembly on a United Front coalition ticket in 1954 and served briefly as the Minister for agriculture during A K Fazlul Huq's government.
In 1956, he entered a second coalition government as the Minister of industries, commerce, labour and anti-corruption; and he resigned in 1957 in order to work full-time for the party organization. Following the suspension of the constitution and the imposition of martial law declared by General Ayub Khan in 1958, Mujib was arrested on the charge of waging resistance and imprisoned till 1961. After his release he organized an underground political wing called Swadhin Bangla Biplabi Parishad-comprising of student leaders--to oppose Ayub Khan's military regime. He started working for the independence of East Pakistan and was again arrested in 1962 for the protest.
After the death of Suhrawardy in 1963, Sheikh Mujib came to head the Awami League which turned out to be one of the largest political parties in Pakistan. Later the leaders decided to drop "Muslim" from its name with a view to moving towards secularism and making a broader appeal to non-Muslim communities. He was one of the key leaders who opposed Ayub Khan's "Basic Democracy" model designed for centralising power and merging the provinces.
During the escalation of sectional tensions in 1966, Sheikh Mujib placed a six-point autonomy plan titled "Our Charter of Survival" at a national conference of opposition political parties in Lahore; he demanded self-government and considerable political, economic and defence autonomy for East Pakistan in a Pakistani federation with a weak central government.
Obtaining huge support of Bengalis and other religious communities of East Pakistan, Sheikh Mujib led the Awami League to win the first democratic election of Pakistan in 1970. In spite of having a majority, the party was not invited to form the government. With the mass protest mounting across the East Pakistan and the rising demand for the liberation from the West Pakistan subjugation, Bangabandhu envisioned a struggle for independence during a landmark speech on 7 March 1971. He announced a civil disobedience movement to press home the demand for convening the National Assembly. Defying Bangabandhu's appeal, the Pakistan army launched "Operation Searchlight" to suppress the wave of Bengali nationalism on 25 March 1971.
Hence, Mujib was arrested and detained in military custody in West Pakistan. Then the liberation war started with the leadership of Tajuddin Ahmed - the first Prime Minister of provisional government styled "Mujibnagar Government". With the surrender of Pakistan army to Bangladesh-India Allied Forces, the liberation war ended on 16 December 1971. Eventually, Bangladesh gained independence.
In post-independence Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahamn, being the Prime Minister, was surrounded by some conspirators in his cabinet. It was very unfortunate that Tajuddin Ahmed (the most trusted politician) was removed from the cabinet by Bangabandhu himself on the behest of US (Nixon) administration which had a strong disliking for Tajuddin as he had been very critical of US administration's policy towards the liberation war of Bangladesh and their support for genocide committed by Pakistan army in Bangladesh.
This decision, made by Bangabandhu, led the nation to pay a high price. On the very fateful day of 15th August 1975, Bangabandhu with his family members-except the present Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her sister Sheikh Rehana- was brutally killed by a group of ambitious, disgruntled and wayward army officers with the help of CIA and the party's internal conspirators.
In a war-torn country, just after independence, Bangabandhu had to deal with multifarious problems and simultaneously concentrate on re-building the nation by facing many challenges like unemployment, corruption, famine and severe political opposition by JSD (Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal)-which created an armed underground outfit named "Gonobahini" to carry out subversive activities across the country - and other anti-liberation forces.
Though his move to introduce a one-party rule following the fourth amendment to the constitution of Bangladesh in 1975 was reported to be debatable in political or academic discourse, Bangabandhu wanted to bring all political parties under one umbrella called BKSAL (Bangladesh Krishok Sromik Awami League) in a bid to establish political stability and encounter unrest giving rise to political violence across the country.
The brutal killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman plunged the nation into a political turmoil for many years. The country saw a series of military coups and counter-coups and political assassination which paralysed the country and ultimately banished democracy from Bangladesh until 1990. However, after the inclusion of his life and political struggle in the textbooks, the youths have come to know about him. Now the young generation considers him as an inspirational figure in the wake of any justified socio-political movement.
Since Bangabandhu- who spent more than 12 years in jail-remains one of the all-time greatest nationalist leaders in history, his illustrious political work should be re-studied and re-visited in academic arena. Bangabandhu--an uncompromising nationalist leader--must be bracketed with Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela in the world political history. He should be kept beyond any trifling political controversies, though not beyond historical criticisms as part of the academic research. Otherwise, he will be presented as a one-party leader before the future generations.
In fact, Bangabandhu's ideals should not be limited to the political domain of Awami League as Nelson Mandela is not limited to that of ANC (African National Congress). Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is the epitome of courage, struggle and liberation. His political career as a source of inspiration for the millions - struggling for liberation--has been universal. Hence, all political parties of Bangladesh should reach an undeniable consensus on honouring Bangabandhu, as the Father of the Nation, and observe the day (15 August) as a tragic event in the history of Bangladesh. Let the truth of history prevail over emotion!
The writer is an Associate Professor, Department of English,
Stamford University Bangladesh