In this sad month of August, as the rains of Sravana pelt us with intimations of tragedy, it is time to remember the Liberator. He was our Bangabandhu — “Friend of Bengal”. It is time to celebrate him, that moment in life when past glory and old causes re-energise the collective spirit of the Bengali nation.
It is the courage of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman you miss. And yet it is something more, something about values, that you associate with any remembrance of him. He embodied some of the finest traditions that self-respecting people anywhere have, throughout history, upheld in their lives. And among those values is the refusal to compromise, to undermine yourself through a convenient jettisoning of the ideals that you have always held dear. Even as the roundtable conference went on in Rawalpindi in 1969, President Ayub Khan suggested to Mujib that he take charge as Pakistan’s prime minister. The Bengali leader spurned the offer. It was a natural gesture on the part of a man who had defied the winds and the trends to come forth with the Six Points in 1966. It was Bengal that mattered to him. Nothing else did, or would.
Bangabandhu never flinched from doing or saying anything he thought was right. In December 1969, as Bengalis remembered Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy on his death anniversary, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman let them and by extension the world outside know that thenceforth East Pakistan would be known as Bangladesh. One hardly needed proof that Mujib had come a long way. Back in 1957, he had caused not a little distress to Suhrawardy, then Pakistan’s prime minister, by asking him bluntly if Bengalis could not opt out of the state Jinnah had cobbled into shape. Suhrawardy had reprimanded him. Mujib then bided his time. He knew the task he needed to perform. His disillusionment with Pakistan having taken a firm shape by the early 1960s, he knew which path he needed to take. And he took it resolutely.
Bangabandhu was the troubadour who moved through the hamlets and villages of Bengal, disseminating the message that freedom from colonial rule and emancipation from economic exploitation were of the essence. In the remote regions of the country you will chance upon men who still recall their “Muzibor” and everything he stood for. And what he stood for came alive assertively in 1971 when 75 million Bengalis prayed for him, even as he languished in solitary confinement in Pakistan. All politics, all religion in that year of tragedy and decision focused on Bangabandhu. An entire war of national liberation was shaped and waged in his name.
It was no mean feat, one that Fidel Castro remarked on when he met Bangladesh’s founder at the Algiers non-aligned summit in 1973. That Bangabandhu was a tall man, and not just literally, was what delighted Castro. A hostile King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was quickly shocked into silence by Bangabandhu’s courage. Faisal, a man without vision, could not understand why Bengalis had driven Pakistan out. Mujib then lectured him soundly on what Islam signified, and how the Pakistanis had distorted the faith. Principles, then, were what served as Mujib’s fundamental political premise. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came calling in January 1971, clearly to ask for a share of power with the majority Awami League, Bangabandhu made it clear that Bhutto’s People’s Party needed to be where the electoral verdict had placed it, in parliamentary opposition. It was a position he would maintain in the tumultuous season of March 1971, despite the growing pressure on him to relent. The Six Points could not be trifled with. And when the Pakistan army tried to shoot them down, he went for a single point: he declared the nation’s independence, before being seized by the army.
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Mujib prepared for freedom in the way only a man believing in constitutional politics would. He was not a revolutionary, which was why he was not willing to go for a direct confrontation with the Pakistan government.
Neither was he an adventurist, for which reason he warded off all calls for a unilateral declaration of independence on March 7, 1971. And yet, the oratory of the day remains part of history, of the Bengali psyche, for everything it pointed to, for the clear set of guidelines he left for his people to follow in his absence. It was these guidelines that Bengalis worked on for nine months. His words, his image, his idealism served as a metaphor for the armed struggle. By the time the state of Pakistan took flight from Bangladesh on December 16, 1971, Mujibur Rahman had evolved further, into a liberator in the mould of Simon Bolivar, in the mould of everyone who had traversed the path to collective freedom. On a January day in 1972, as he spoke to the world on his arrival in London from Pakistani incarceration, he knew he had turned into an embodiment of history. He spoke of the joy of freedom inherent in the epic liberation struggle that the 1971 war had been.
Humility and basic decency defined Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Bangabandhu remembered the names of simple men, of peasants and labourers inasmuch as he recalled the names of unknown political workers. It was a trait that endeared him to millions, who then spotted in him a man who would light their way out of the dark woods.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a natural. He laughed uproariously, and deeply. Anecdotes made him double over with laughter. He himself was a purveyor of tales garnered through his travels all across Bengal. A sense of humour, undiminished despite the long years in prison, marked him out from other politicians. When Abdul Samad Achakzai remarked, on meeting him in 1970, that Ayub Khan had turned him into an old man, he riposted, “Ayub Khan ne tum ko bhi buddha bana diya, hum ko bhi buddha bana diya (Ayub Khan has made you an old man and has made me an old man as well)”. Welcoming Bangabandhu to his country in 1974, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahiyan of the UAE noted that, like him, Mujib was a Sheikh. “But there is a difference,” said Bangladesh’s leader. “I am a poor Sheikh.” Both men burst into laughter.
It is this great man, this embodiment of freedom, we lost to the wolves on August 15, 1975. Life was never to be the same again.
Ahsan, executive editor, ‘The Daily Star’, Dhaka, is the author of ‘Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: From Rebel to
Founding Father’, 2014