Updated: March 26, 2021 10:08:09 pm
Room Number 24 at Baker Hostel in Kolkata remains shut most days. The only time it is opened for visitors is when the Bangladesh High Commission gives exclusive permission to those wanting to pay respect to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, popular as Mujib.
The first prime minister of Bangladesh and the architect of the 1971 war of liberation had spent the prime of his youth in this room while he was a student at Islamia College, now known as the Maulana Azad College. It is here that the seeds of political revolution was sown in a young and resolute Mujib.
Today the narrow, dingy room has been turned into a well-kept museum. Inside, a bust of Mujib greets one, surrounded by several photographs of Bangabandhu, a majority of them being those with the former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi who had played a crucial role in the victory of Bangladesh in 1971. On the left, a smaller room consists of a narrow bed covered with a white bed sheet right next to a large window. A small wooden cabinet and a desk covered with books on Mujib’s life and the Bangladesh war of liberation are some of the other objects in the room. Above the desk is a large portrait of a young Mujib.
“Mainly Bangladeshi citizens visit the room. Last time it was opened was on March 17, the birth anniversary of Mujib, when officials from the Bangladesh High Commission came to offer their respects,” informs a staff at the hostel.
Mujib spent the years between 1942 and 1947 in Calcutta, as a boarder in Baker Hostel. Though a relatively short period of time, it was a crucial phase both in Bangabandhu’s life and in the larger history of the nationalist movement and the Partition of India. In his twenties then, it was during his stay in Calcutta that Mujib was most closely involved in the movement for Pakistan. “At that point in time, Bengali nationalism was not part of the scene for a young Muslim politician like Mujib. What mattered to him was the creation of an independent state for India’s Muslims,” says senior journalist Syed Badrul Ahsan who authored the book, ‘Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: from Rebel to founding father’.
“Calcutta was instrumental in the shaping of Mujib’s politics. In the later stage of his career he would frequently speak about the city and his political associates there with much nostalgia,” he adds.
Mujib’s association with Calcutta as a child
Mujib’s first visit to Calcutta was for medical purposes in 1934, when he was a 14-year-old resident of Tungipara village in Gopalganj district (now in Bangladesh). Suffering from Beriberi disease, he was brought to the city by his father to get treated by the best physicians. Two years later, he had to be in the city once again as he suffered from an eye ailment, glaucoma. He stayed with his sister and brother-in-law in Calcutta then and had to get a major eye surgery done on the advice of his doctor who believed that the disease had afflicted him to the extent of turning him blind.
It was only in 1938 that Mujib went back to Gopalganj and resumed his school education in the Gopalganj missionary school. The same year a significant event happened in his life. The then prime minister of Bengal, A K Fazlul Haq and the labour minister H S Suhrawardy visited Gopalganj. As part of the visit, Suhrawardy visited Rahman’s school. This was the first time that Mujib interacted with Suhrawardy, who would in future become his political mentor.
“In the first meeting itself, Suhrawardy had seen a political acumen hidden in Rahman,” explains Abdus Samad, associate professor of History in Jagannath University in Dhaka. Samad says Suhrawardy was particularly intrigued by the manner in which Mujib pointed out to the local issues existing in his school and the surrounding areas and also by the latter’s interest in knowing more about the Muslim League.
In his autobiography, ‘The unfinished memoirs’, Mujib described this meeting with Suhrawardy: “He took me by the arm and asked me affectionately, ‘dont you have the Muslim League in your area? I told him there was no such organisation and that not even the Muslims’ Students League was active here. He made no other comment but wrote down by name and address in his notebook. A few days later I got a note from him thanking me and asking me to meet him if I ever came to Calcutta. I replied to his letter. This is how I started to write to him from time to time.”
The following year, Mujib went to Calcutta and visited Suhrawardy. He told Suhrawardy that he would form a Muslim Sudents League and a Muslim League in Gopalganj. Rahman became the general secretary of the Muslim Students League. “And so I gradually got drawn into politics. My father did not prevent me from participating in politics, his concern was that I should continue to pursue my studies,” writes Rahman.
Life as a student of Islamia College
Mujib finished his high school in 1942 at the age of 22. By this time he found himself deeply influenced by Jinnah’s political theory and was highly charged by the idea of Pakistan. “I believed that we would have to create Pakistan and without it Muslims had no future in our part of the world,” he writes.
The same year he got admission in Islamia College in Calcutta, where most Muslim families of the time would send their sons for their higher education. In her book, ‘Bangabandhur Kolkata Jibon (Bangabandhu’s life in Kolkata)’, historian Tasnim Alam gives a brief glimpse into his life as a boarder in Baker Hostel. She writes that during his stay in the hostel, his father would give him a monthly allowance of Rs 75, which he would use to support his roommate and childhood friend Saadat Hossain who came from an impoverished family of landless labourers. Mujib’s family too was struggling financially at the time. The year he took admission in Islamia College, his father retired from his job as a court clerk. Later in his student life, in order to avoid being a financial burden on his family, Rahman started a hotel business in Calcutta’s Park Circus area.
“As a student too, Mujib was always keen on taking up leadership roles. He would vociferously convince his fellow students, both Muslims and Hindus, on the need for the Partition,” says Ahsan. He explains that during his student life in Calcutta, it was his political career that took precedence over his studies.
Consequently, most days Mujib would be found campaigning under the directions of his political advisors, particularly Suhrawardy. One of the first such campaigns he got involved in was that of the Muslim League against Huq who had rebelled against Jinnah and formed a coalition government in Bengal with Syama Prasad Mookerjee. “In two bye-elections in Natore and Balurghat, the Muslim League put up candidates against Mr. Huq’s candidates. I took my followers to both these places and campaigned tirelessly under Mr. Suhrawardy’s directive,” writes Mujib.
For Mujib, Suhrawardy was the inspiration for all his political doctrines, including those that guided him in his fight for Bangladesh later. “In Suhrawardy, Mujib saw a politician who firmly believed in the British Parliamentary system. He believed that Suhrawady was one politician who could bring in a fully democratic system in the new state of Pakistan that was about to be created,” says Ahsan.
Apart from Suhrawardy, Mujib was also deeply influenced by another politician, Syed Badrudduja, a spellbinding orator and former mayor of Calcutta. “His home in European Asylum Lane, in Calcutta’s Park Circus region, was often a focal point for young Muslims eager to hear him speak on the issues affecting the country. Mujib was a frequent visitor and always came away quite mesmerised by Badrudduja’s eloquence,” writes Ahsan in his book. Huq was also a figure that Rahman held in high regard, even though he did not agree with his opposition to Jinnah.
During the Bengal famine of 1943, when hundreds of people were dying on the streets of Calcutta, Rahman played a crucial role in organising relief work. In his autobiography, Mujib writes about how he decided to stop studying during this time to join the effort in helping the distressed. “We opened quite a few gruel kitchens. We would try to give the poor at least one meal a day. We opened such kitchens in the Muslim League central office in Calcutta and in the city’s madrasas and other places,” he writes.
During the Calcutta riots of 1946 too, Mujib was right at the forefront in arranging relief for both Muslims and Hindus. Mujib writes how at the Islamia College they were receiving calls by the minute by people pleading them to rescue them and their children. The League office and the Baker Hostel building were turned into refugee camps and the Islamia College gate was kept open for those fleeing attacks. Later, Rahman got the Calcutta Madrasa gate also opened for the same purpose.
Once the Calcutta riots ended, violence broke out in Noakhali and in Dhaka. “Though he was a student leader at that time, he accompanied central leaders like Jinnah and Gandhi to different parts of Calcutta, Dhaka, Noakhali and other parks of Bengal as they made efforts to stop the riots,” says Samad.
In the months leading up to the Partition, Suhrawardy who was then the prime minister of Bengal along with few other politicians from Bengal like Sarat Bose and K S Roy came up with an alternative for the Partition. They argued for a United Bengal, independent from both India and Pakistan. Rahman too became part of the United Bengal movement then. But the plan failed to take off and eventually in August 1947, the province was divided between the east and west.
By that time Mujib had completed his BA degree and decided to leave Calcutta, since a lot of people were being arrested at that time.
“If we were caught we wouldn’t be spared. The best thing to do would be to flee Calcutta,” he writes in his memoir.
Consequently, he took admission in Dhaka University to study law. However, he could not complete it since he was expelled for inciting a labourers agitation.
On March 21, 1948, Jinnah announced that Urdu would have to be taken up as the state language by the people of East Pakistan. Thus began a new political phase in Rahman’s life in which Bengali nationalism took centre stage, leading to the birth of Bangladesh over two decades later.
Ahsan says that in 1947 many Bengali Muslims had hoped that Calcutta would be a part of Pakistan, and Mujib was one of them, although he was not vocal about it. He recollects the first press conference held in an independent Bangladesh in 1972 when a journalist asked Mujib if he wished for a time when East and West Bengal would come together to form a greater united Bengal. “Mujib took a puff on his cigar, thought for a few seconds and then replied: ‘I am happy with my Bangladesh.’”
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: from Rebel to founding father by Syed Badrul Ahsan
The unfinished memoirs by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
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