The untruths around Bangabandhu

A retired deputy head of the BBC’s Bengali Service last week gave a new twist to Bangladesh’s history through a letter to The Guardian newspaper in London. He was responding to an article by Ian Jack on Bangladesh, which article we will, if we so wish, deal with later. At this point, note what this Bengali gentleman had to say about Bangabandhu’s arrival in London on January 8, 1972 following his release from Pakistani detention by the government of President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

On his arrival at Heathrow, said this long-time BBC broadcaster, Bangladesh’s founding father was received by Apa Panth, the Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. When Panth addressed Bangabandhu as “His Excellency,” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman appeared surprised. To all intents and purposes, he had thought that he had been freed by the Pakistan government after full regional autonomy had been granted to East Pakistan. He had absolutely no idea, implied the veteran broadcaster, that Bangladesh had become a free country. And that was not all. This journalist also peddled the untruth that he was the first Bengali to meet Bangabandhu once the latter had checked in at London’s Claridge’s Hotel.

That letter in The Guardian is proof once again of the persistence with which Bangabandhu’s detractors –and sometimes his followers — have been trying to undermine his place in history through their imaginary tales and concocted stories. Let the record of Bangabandhu’s arrival in London in January 1972 be set straight.

At Heathrow, the Father of the Nation, accompanied by his constitutional advisor Kamal Hossain and Hossain’s family, was received by John Sutherland, a senior official at Britain’s Foreign Office. Also on hand was the senior-most Bengali diplomat in London at the time, M.M. Rezaul Karim. In his account of the day’s events, Karim, now deceased, left behind a clear narrative that no one has questioned till now.

Bangabandhu hopped into Karim’s car (and Karim himself was at the wheels) rather than take the limousine the British government had placed at his disposal and on the way pelted the diplomat with endless questions about the just-concluded War of Liberation. Crowds of Bengalis began to gather before Claridge’s once word began to get around that Mujib had arrived there. Our veteran journalist happened to be one of many who turned up there.

Hours later, Bangladesh’s leader spoke at a crowded news conference at the hotel on the matter of his imprisonment in Pakistan and the manner of his release by the Bhutto administration. Prior to the news conference, he had spoken to Prime Minister Edward Heath and Opposition Leader Harold Wilson, both of whom motored down to Claridge’s to greet Bangladesh’s founder-president. Bangabandhu had also spoken to Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed and his family as well as Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi soon after stepping into Claridge’s.

His performance at the news conference was a clear demonstration of his command of the situation. Besides, his meetings with Bhutto between the end of December 1971 and his release on January 8, 1972 were crucial: Mujib was informed by Bhutto of the new realities in the subcontinent, of the fact that there was a government at work in Bangladesh. The Pakistani leader wanted, though, guarantees from Bangabandhu that Bangladesh would maintain some kind of link, even a loose one, with Pakistan. Bangabandhu made no response.

And that is the story of January 1972. But when you seriously reflect on the many ways in which certain individuals have endlessly tried running Bangabandhu down, you cannot but be appalled at the depths to which they have gone to denigrate him. There are yet Bengalis whose sense of history and understanding of Bangabandhu’s political career come across as pitiably poor. They will raise the question of why Bangabandhu “surrendered” to the Pakistan army in March 1971. It is then that you are compelled to remind them that Bangabandhu’s politics had always been based on constitutionalism, that fear was never a part of his character, that he did not have it in him to run for his life.

In this country, we have had men, some of them well-known freedom fighters, who have gone around screaming their refusal to honour Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as Bangabandhu. When they do that, you ask them a couple of questions: If you do not honour Bangabandhu, why did you join a war that was waged in his name? And, more significantly, when an entire nation calls him Bangabandhu, who gave you the right to deny him his place in our consciousness and in our history?

There are then a few others who have sought to profit through alleged association with Bangabandhu. A veteran journalist, now living overseas, penned a book on his dealings with the Father of the Nation more than two decades ago. You would think, as you go through the work, that this newsman was the only individual in Bangladesh to proffer words of wisdom to Bangladesh’s founder.

He informs us, to our disbelief, that in the late hours of the night and buffeted by crises, Bangabandhu would seek his advice, call him and ask him to come over to 32, Dhanmondi. Of course, nothing of the sort happened. There is then the story of another individual (and he too lives abroad) who has tried convincing people that in the heady days of March 1971, he was press secretary to Bangabandhu. He was not. No one recalls him in that position.

Lord, forgive them, for they know not what they do!

Author : Syed Badrul Ahsan / Daily Star

The writer is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star. E-mail: bahsantareq@yahoo.co.uk

He is our claim on history

On a cold November night in Delhi a little over a decade ago, the respected Indian journalist Nikhil Chakravartty mused on the human qualities in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He and Mujib, Chakravartty told me, had known each other in Calcutta in the dying days of a united India. After August 1947, though, the two had parted ways out of sheer political compulsions, naturally. Mujib was to go on to build his political career in East Pakistan and obviously lost all contact with Chakravartty, who for his part went into journalism and kept trace of what the East Bengali was doing in his new country.

The two men were not to meet again till January 1972, when Mujib, by then the founder of the independent People’ Republic of Bangladesh, called his first news conference after his return from captivity in Pakistan. As Chakravartty related the tale to me, it all sounded familiar, for I had gone through a similar experience with Bangabandhu. Chakravartty was seated at the end of the room, one among a crowd of media people come to interact with the Bengali leader for the first time after his homecoming. Bangabandhu soon entered the room, took in the view and at one point focused his gaze on Chakravartty. “Tumi Nikhil, na (aren’t you Nikhil)?” he asked. Chakravartty was immensely surprised and asked Mujib if he could recognize him after all those years. Mujib laughed and gathered Chakravartty to him in the kind of embrace he always had for friends and admirers.

Here, then, is an insight into the human aspects of the Mujib persona. As a high school student in Quetta, I met Bangabandhu in July 1970, the obvious purpose being to have his signature affixed in my autograph book. In April 1972, when I visited Ganobhavan, the old President’s House at Ramna (some days were open house for citizens to see the Father of the Nation) to tell him about my worries relating to the abolition of English medium education in the country (with English medium education gone, I could not hope to finish school), I was nearly literally stunned to discover that he remembered having met me in distant Baluchistan.

He asked about my parents, wanted to know if they and the rest of the family were alive. It was quintessential Bangabandhu. In subsequent times, through conversations with people of my father’s generation and through the reminiscences of others, I was able to understand the nature of the immeasurably large soul that was in the Father of the Nation. He remembered faces long years after he had come across them in his travels through the hamlets and villages of Bangladesh. More poignantly, he could tick off the names of people he was meeting after years, even decades. Not many individuals you know, and least of all politicians, possess that capacity for remembering. Bangabandhu seemed to know almost everyone in the country. That was the nature of the man. And that was not all. There was a spontaneity of emotions in Mujib that he never sought to paper over with make-believe urbanity. He laughed uproariously and made little effort to foist any diplomatic or political restrictions on his natural way of looking at things.

Watch any of the old photographs of the great leader, observe the twinkle in his eyes and the laughter that has been arrested by the lens of the photographer for posterity. When Abdus Samad Achakzai, meeting him after a long span of years, remarked that the Awami League chief had grown old, Mujib shot back: “Ayub Khan ne tum ko bhi buddha bana diya, hum ko bhi buddha bana diya (Ayub Khan has made you old and he has made me old as well).” Then he broke into a guffaw, laughter that convinced everyone around that here was a national politician to whom protocol was of little consequence. If protocol were important, he would not have lived and died at his Dhanmondi home.

One of the greatest qualities in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the abundance of confidence on which he based his life and politics. In the early days of his trial in the Agartala conspiracy case, he cheerfully told a western journalist in court: “You know, they can’t keep me here for more than six months.” He was proved almost right, arithmetically speaking. He was freed seven months after he had made that statement. It was a time when the full force of the Pakistani establishment had come down on him, but that did little to deter him from speaking his mind.

When a Bengali journalist he knew well studiously tried to avoid being seen talking to him on the first day of the Agartala trial, Mujib exclaimed, loud enough for everyone present in court to hear: “Anyone who wants to live in Bangladesh will have to talk to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.” Note the courage. Note too the use of the term “Bangladesh.” His dream of national freedom was already taking shape in the recesses of his political being. By November 1969, he was telling people that East Pakistan would thenceforth be known as Bangladesh. He was not willing, not under any circumstances, to compromise on the issue.

And that was one of the finest traits in his character. Once he had decided on a course of action, he was not ready to consider any deviation or change or readjustment. Back in 1957, he asked a plainly sleepy Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy if it would not be a reasonably good proposition to take Bengalis out of the state of Pakistan. One can imagine the shock that must have gone through Suhrawardy, the man who had only a year earlier assured Bengalis that the 1956 constitution had guaranteed ninety eight per cent autonomy to East Pakistan. Of course it was no such thing. The point, though, was that Suhrawardy could not conceive of the end of Pakistan in the land of the Bengalis. On the other hand, Mujib was already thinking of a post-Pakistan condition for his people. In the decisive period of early March 1971, it was a nationalistic yet circumspect Mujib who told the media: “Independence? No, not yet.” He was already moving toward his goal, but he was at the same time making sure that his adversaries, in this instance the Yahya Khan junta and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, were given enough rope to hang themselves. In the early moments of 26 March, he had no more illusions about the course Bengalis needed to take. His message of freedom was passed on to M.A. Hannan in Chittagong, minutes before he was taken into custody by the Pakistan army.

Mujib’s resilience was sorely tested in Lyallpur, where he was brought before a military tribunal for trial on charges of waging war against Pakistan. He did not recognize the court and refused to accept the lawyer, A.K. Brohi, appointed for him by the junta. Held incommunicado, with no access to newspapers or radio or visitors, he made sure that his steely individuality did not collapse. He was too strong in his physical and psychological make-up to break down. Throughout his long political career, he wore down his tormentors, every single one of them. His determined politics ended the presidency of Ayub Khan. And it was his undisputed, focused leadership of the Bengali nation which, despite his incarceration a thousand miles away from home, ripped Pakistan apart and left Yahya Khan, Bhutto and everyone else among his enemies biting the dust.

In February 1974, on arrival at Lahore for the Islamic summit, Bangabandhu knew his triumph over the state of Pakistan was complete. When Prime Minister Bhutto introduced him to Tikka Khan, by then chief of staff of the Pakistan army, Mujib had a curious, almost sarcastic smile playing on his lips. As Tikka saluted him, Bangladesh’s founding father remarked, simply: “Hello, Tikka,” and moved on. History had come full circle. In March 1971, when his soldiers had informed Tikka that they had Mujib in the cage and asked him if the Bengali leader should be brought before him, the Butcher of Bengal (and, earlier, Baluchistan) had replied contemptuously: “I don’t want to see his face.” In Lahore barely three years later, the man with that face was before him, and he was paying homage to him in full view of the world.

You can go on speaking of Bangabandhu for an eternity. Yes, he had his foibles. There were the many peccadilloes he could have done without. But there was the big man subsisting in his soul. He bestrode the world as our very own, a colossus. Fidel Castro marvelled at the fact that Bengalis had liberated themselves in his name despite his imprisonment in enemy land. Anwar Sadat referred to him as Brother Mujib. Some years ago, when I chanced upon Edward Heath in London and told him where I was from, he paused, smiled and said softly: “Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s country.” That was a measure of the historical niche Mujib had carved for himself. It was history he created when he spoke before the United Nations General Assembly in his native Bengali. It made the tears run down the cheeks of an Indian diplomat, a Bengali, who ran up to Bangabandhu and hugged him from sheer gratitude.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman remains our authentic claim on history. We went to war in his name, prayed for him in the darkest days of our national life. When he died, the light went out of our lives and the wolves took over. Our failure to save the man who had always been our saviour, our pusillanimity in the face of thuggishness and murder, on August 15, 1975 remains a shame that hangs like an albatross around our necks. We bear the cross, and will do so until we can redeem ourselves through travelling back to the principles Bangabandhu held dear — and which we upheld under his inspirational leadership. Joi Bangla will then be sounded all over the land once more; and the dream of Shonar Bangla will be retrieved from the debris of time, to shape rainbows once again for the huddled masses the Father of the Nation spoke for.

Author : Syed Badrul Ahsan, Executive Editor, Dhaka Courier .

Founding father under siege . . .

Abdul Matin’s persistence in keeping the historical record straight for Bangladesh is admirable. More to the point, it has been a necessary truth in the collective life of the Bengalis. You could suggest that if Matin were not around to keep us focused on the politics of Bangladesh as it was forged and pressed forward in the 1960s and the 1970s, there would be a huge need to go looking for someone of his kind. Obviously, Matin has done his job well. His preoccupation with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman remains, a particular reason being his understanding that the founding father of Bangladesh has, directly as also indirectly, been under unremitting siege since his assassination in August 1975. To be sure, over the years, Bangabandhu’s legacy has regained some of its earlier lustre, thanks principally to the particularly strong niche his daughter Sheikh Hasina occupies in national politics and thanks also to the concerted struggle his party, the Awami League, has waged over more than three decades to restore his reputation as the man behind the creation of Bangladesh.

The work under review is fundamentally an addition to the position Matin has adopted, through his earlier books, on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He believes, and quite rightly too, that the slings and arrows which have been hurled at Bangabandhu are of a nature that ought not to be taken seriously and yet cannot quite be ignored because of the fair degree of consistency with which his detractors have been trying to run him down posthumously. Many have been the instances when Mujib was castigated for the way he administered the country between 1972 and 1975. It is such criticism which Matin counters in this work. And in doing so, he makes sure that his arguments are backed by necessary documentary references. An instance of it relates to the declaration of independence on 26 March 1971 moments into the genocide launched by the Pakistan army in Dhaka. Matin quotes from United States government documents to underscore the point that Bangabandhu made the call for freedom soon after the army fanned out to different locations in the city.

Obviously, a good deal of what the writer presents here is by now the historical truth. The difference between Matin and the others who remain aware of national history as it developed after March 1971 is that the former bases his statements on well-founded recorded material. He never misses giving readers the footnotes that scholarly work demands, something that a large number of Bengali chroniclers of national history have generally failed to do. It is against such a background that the reader is given to understand the circumstances behind Mujib’s release by the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in early 1972 and his subsequent flight to freedom. Matin admires the sagacity in the Bengali leader, a sign of which comes through in the withdrawal of Indian troops from Bangladesh in March 1972. Without saying as much, the writer conveys the impression that the withdrawal could not easily have come to pass had Mujib not been around. In bare terms, the physical presence of Bangabandhu on the Bangladesh scene was to prove pivotal in a good number of ways. The upshot of it all is that Matin appears to be convinced that the troubles Bangabandhu’s government faced in those formative years of Bangladesh’s history were in more ways than one the result of the conspiratorial politics his government could not quite put its finger on. To a very large extent, he is right. But then comes the matter of the rift between Bangabandhu and Tajuddin Ahmed. It is here that Matin appears to be sailing against the wind when he asserts that in quite a number of ways the man who led the wartime Mujibnagar government as prime minister dealt some bad body blows to Mujib even as he served as finance minister in Bangabandhu’s government. Contrary to popular belief that Tajuddin Ahmed found himself increasingly sidelined in Bangabandhu’s government, largely because of his enemies getting better access to the prime minister, Matin is excoriating about what he considers to be the finance minister’s perfidy in finding fault with the way Bangabandhu ran the administration. Matin’s considered opinion is that Bangabandhu’s Second Revolution was essentially what the Father of the Nation said it was: that the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (Baksal) was a platform that brought together the nation’s political parties together in the larger national interest. Tajuddin had a different perspective on the development, of course.

There are some bare truths Matin reveals here. The story of how Serajur Rahman, he of the BBC’s Bengali Service, was thwarted in his attempts to come by a job in Bangabandhu’s government is what the writer relates, no holds barred, in the work.

Read the book. It adds to your understanding of the forces which shaped politics in Bangladesh in the early 1970s.

. . . Symmetry of the grand and the banal
ASAFUDDOWLAH’S has been a vibrant presence on the Bengali social and bureaucratic scene. His is and has always been an articulate voice. As a civil servant, he was known for his sense of independence, to a point where many thought twice about coming across him. Rare was the individual who wished to fall foul of him, for Asafuddowlah did not mince words when it came to offering an opinion on men and matters. It was always strength of character that defined the man. And it is something that continues to underpin his perspectives on things around him. On television chat shows, he offers his own clear assessments of political conditions, some of which may not go down well with his detractors. They may, indeed do, find him abrasive at times.

The point here is that Asafuddowlah remains indifferent to all such expressions of sentiment about him. His outspokenness is all. And with that comes the other side of his personality, that which keeps him riveted to the world of music. Even as he has pursued a career in the civil service, first in Pakistan and then in Bangladesh, he has made sure that songs have remained close to him, or he to them. He has composed music, he has lent his voice to songs and he has discoursed on them. His rendering of ghazals has been remarkable. Anyone who has heard him sing the old Jagmohan number, ik baar muskura do, will know of the artistry he is capable of calling forth. In his wider social ambience, Asafuddowlah is the quintessential conversationalist, with an interplay of serious thought and humour that make him stand out as the star in the crowd.

And this is the background against which Of Pains and Panics must be read. Asafuddowlah falls into the mould of those who came of age in an era of enlightenment and then went on to reshape the era according to their specifications. Like many of his social club, he has believed in approaching life from an intellectual point of view. Just how much of suavity he has brought into his observations of life comes through in this eminently readable compendium of his thoughts on an array of subjects not many would care to spend time on these days. There are clear divisions of the essays into wide-ranging swathes of territory. Begin with music. There is a sense of certainty, for obvious reasons, with which he approaches the many strands of the subject. He takes the BBC to task, for all the right reasons, over its selection of historically notable Bangla songs. It is pretension he slices through here. And then he moves on to pay obeisance to the artistes who have with regularity enhanced the quality of Bengali music. Protima Banerjee is one he reveres. Another is the all-encompassing Kamal Dasgupta. The music director, he informs us, remained self-effacing right till the end. And as the end approached, as he was being wheeled into hospital, the officer on duty had an asinine question: was Dasgupta a class one officer? Ah, artistes lose out, often if not always, to the bureaucracy!

Some of the most touching of articles in this collection connect Asafuddowlah to those he was once close to, until death intervened to take them away. He writes with deep affection on his mother and then reflects on his father. Perhaps a coruscating part of the tribute to Khan Bahadur Moulvi Mohammad Ismail is the praise he showers on his niece Komli (‘…his youngest daughter’s youngest daughter, Komli, who he used to adoringly call ‘Chand di’, nursed him in his fading days with a kind of special devotion I have never witnessed in my life’). It is a vast world of thoughts Asafuddowlah covers in the work. His views on America are a sharp response to Washington’s actual behaviour on the global scene. In Bangladesh, he wonders aloud at the swift decline in the quality of politics, almost to a point where the powerful begin to think of themselves as little gods. There is a symmetry he establishes between the grand and the banal. How else would you observe his tribute to Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and then his consternation at the presence of so many ministers in the government of as small a country as Bangladesh?

Asafuddowlah is combustive by nature. That is his assessment of himself. Just how combustive — and combative — he can be is an exercise you might as well opt for through reading these pieces. He is not being didactic; he carefully avoids scaling the Olympian heights that lesser men always strive for. He gives you the workings of his mind as they happen to be — blunt, irreverent but playing with ideas all the same.

Two reviews from Syed Badrul Ahsan / Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.