It is the courage of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman you miss as you go through life. And yet it is something more, something of values that you associate with any remembrance of him.
He embodied some of the finest traditions that self-respecting people anywhere have, throughout the course of 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 round table 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 of the times to come forth with the Six Points in 1966. It was Bengal that mattered to him. Nothing else did, or would. It was all in character for Bangabandhu. He never flinched from doing or saying anything he thought was right, or made good sense. In December 1969, as Bengalis remembered Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy on his death anniversary, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman let them, and by extension the world outside their own parameters, 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 reprimanded him for entertaining such thoughts. Mujib then simply bided his time. When it came, he knew the task he needed to perform. His dedication to the causes he espoused was complete and without ambiguity. 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. There was little room in him for second thoughts.
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. Go into the remote regions of the country and 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 seventy five 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 in the literal sense, was what delighted Castro. And it subdued other men, like Nigeria’s Yakubu Gowon. A hostile King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was quickly shocked into silence by the courage of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Faisal, a man without vision, could not understand why the Bengalis had driven Pakistan out of their lives. 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 judgement 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.
There was always prescience in Mujib’s pronouncements. He calmly told a western journalist at the height of the Agartala conspiracy case trial in 1968: “You know, they can’t keep me here for more than six months.” In the event, he was a free man in the seventh month. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s he went on reassuring Bengalis that freedom would come into their lives. And it did. He 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 that 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 the event of his absence from the political scene. It was these guidelines that Bengalis worked on for nine months. His words, his image, his idealism, all of these served as a metaphor for the armed struggle for freedom.
By the time the state of Pakistan took flight from Bangladesh on December16, 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had evolved further, into a liberator in the mould of Simon Bolivar, in the mould of everyone who had ever traversed a 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. He never forgot names and always remembered faces, even those he had come across in his youth. He surprised the Indian journalist Nikhil Chakravartty when the latter turned up at Bangabandhu’s news conference in late January 1972, in Dhaka. The two men had not met since 1946, and Chakravartty certainly did not expect Mujib to remember him. He was mistaken. As Bangabandhu entered the room, his gaze fell on the journalist. Then came the question, “Aren’t you Nikhil?”
The rest hardly needs to be recounted. 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 guiding spirit who would light their way out of the dark woods. His respect for academics was beyond question, as men like Professor Muzaffar Ahmed Chowdhury, Professor Abdur Razzaque, Dr. A.R. Mallick and Dr. Abdul Matin Chowdhury would know.
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 Abdus 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 United Arab Emirates 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.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of a man who scaled the heights of greatness and yet did not lose touch with the dew on the grass. Here was a Caesar. When comes such another?
Author : Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.