Bangabandhu: Minstrel singing through time’s passages

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Published on March 17, 2020
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Syed Badrul Ahsan:

As a man, what concerns mankind concerns me. As a Bengalee, I am deeply involved in all that concerns Bengalees. This abiding involvement is born of and nourished by love, enduring love, which gives meaning to my politics and my very being'- Unfinished Memoirs, 3 May 1973

His courage of conviction is what we remember on the centenary of his birth. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was made of stuff uncommon in the lives of men --- and that includes political figures around the globe. He was Bangabandhu, yes. But long before a grateful nation bestowed that honour on him, he had demonstrated by his deeds, by his bold expression of political ideas, that he deserved it all, indeed that he deserved much more.

Consider that incredible moment when, on the opening day of the trial of the Agartala Conspiracy Case accused in June 1968, he let the court and by extension the rest of the world know that he would not and could not be ignored. ‘Anyone who wishes to live in Bangladesh,’ he declaimed, ‘will have to talk to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.’

That was courage. It sprang from his deep association with the land, from his profound belief that for all his personal travails through an increasingly fraught path in politics, it was Bengal --- the half of it of the original --- that mattered. Here he was on trial for his life, the overall sentiment being that the Ayub Khan regime would in the end send him to the gallows or put him away for good. None of this mattered. He informed an inquiring western journalist, ‘You know, they can’t keep me here for more than six months.’ He got his arithmetic almost right. He would be a free man in the eighth month.

But that was quintessential Mujib. Politics was in his bloodstream. And it had been there since the 1940s when he linked up, as a young man in Calcutta, with the All India Muslim League. He was passionate in his belief, like so many others of his generation, that Pakistan was the future for India’s Muslims. And yet this association with communal politics did not lead to a dissipation of his inherent secularism. He was friends with men like the future journalist Nikhil Chakravartty. He admired the oratory of Syed Badrudduja. As the Great Calcutta Killings of August 1946 raged on, he plunged into the job of ensuring, inasmuch as it was humanly possible for him, that Hindus and Muslims looked deeper into their souls before lunging at one another.

In these celebrations of the centenary of his birth, it would be well to recall the gradual but unmistakable evolution of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from a follower of communal politics to a proponent of secular democracy. The Pakistan he had identified with had come into lopsided existence. Early on in 1948, he was quick to note that the dream Mohammad Ali Jinnah and his followers had sought to forge within the Pakistan ambit was beginning to turn into a nightmare. And about to get sucked into that nightmare was his precious East Bengal. He spotted the menials of Dhaka University, noted their grievances, and went ahead with supporting their demands. That was courage again, at a time when politics for others was beginning to get squeezed into the effete comfort of drawing rooms. Mujib was averse to stepping into drawing rooms, for politics was for him, even at that early stage, symbolic of communion with the masses.

As we celebrate Sheikh Mujibur Rahman today, we recall the thousand and one reasons that went into his transformation to Bangabandhu. Principles mattered to him, for politics which constantly shifted ground or which chose to be a matter of fence-sitting was not why he trekked through the villages of East Bengal and crisscrossed its pristine landscape. In the 1950s, his voice rose higher, in Dhaka and in Karachi, in protest against the manifest injustice he perceived being committed against his fellow Bengalis. Pakistan, he reasoned, needed reconfiguring if it was to survive. It was thus that he spoke for Bangla, for democracy, in the Constituent Assembly. And yet he would hear the ominous sounds of footsteps that would drill holes in the country’s fledgling democracy. The story may be apocryphal or it could be based on fact, but the young Mujib alerted his mentor Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy in 1957 to the possibility of Bengalis eventually taking their own distinctive path to the future. He was hinting at freedom, but was cognizant of the truth that the road to liberty would be long and arduous.

For Bangabandhu, politics did not rest on compromise. In the twenty four years in which Bangladesh existed as Pakistan’s eastern province, it was his politics, his only, which remained focused on the eventual goal of Bengali economic emancipation and political liberty. Of course he paid a price for it, through repeated spells in prison. For him, as he so frankly put it, prison was a second home. Through the late 1940s, the 1950s and 1960s, he spent large chunks, indeed almost all of it, in lonely cells. Successive Pakistani rulers and their loyal Bengali followers hated him, but they could not ignore him. He was outsmarting all of them and would in time outshine all of them. And that would be a mark of the elevation his politics would go through, a particularly defining point of which was reached in February 1966. In Lahore, the very city where the idea of Pakistan had been given shape twenty six years earlier, Bangabandhu came forth with the Six Points, that policy plank that would re-invent Bengali politics.

The Six Points were a bold enumeration of political realities. More critically, they were a hint of the fullness of political wisdom Mujib had arrived at in his study of Pakistan. Every point in the Six Points had substance, for they were forethoughts of the economy and the politics he expected to come into a re-definition of the state. In the end, of course, as Bangabandhu often told those close to him, the Six Points were but a path that would lead to a single point, that of Bengali freedom. It did not matter that his fellow opposition politicians saw seeds of Pakistan’s destruction in the Six Points. It was of little consequence that Ayub Khan threatened to apply the language of weapons against him. For him, the Six Points were a vehicle to the future.

Consistency in Bangabandhu well matched his rejection of compromise. If in the 1960s the Six Points were the Magna Carta for Bengalis, by early 1970 he had convinced his people that they were a referendum on their future. They were convinced, voting him into a condition where he stood poised to govern Pakistan as the majority leader in the new National Assembly. But he knew, more than anyone else, that civil-military machinations cobbled into shape in Rawalpindi would not let change come into the politics of the state. He was prepared therefore to deal with the Yahya Khan junta and its political collaborators on his terms. And he did that through adhering to the constitutionalism that had always been his approach to politics. He refused to be drawn into a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) on 7 March 1971 but left no one in any doubt that he was sounding his independence call to the Bengali nation. Between mid and end March, he had little illusion of where the Pakistan army was taking the country and yet he refused to be a secessionist. In the early minutes of 26 March, therefore, he was ready to be a father to his people. He declared Bangladesh’s independence once the Pakistan army had struck the first blows at the roots of Pakistan.

The rest of the story is today part of history. Bangabandhu’s nine-month ordeal in solitary confinement in Mianwali in Pakistan, his sham of a trial before a military tribunal, the handing down of a sentence of death on him are the stuff of legend. He survived it all, through sheer indomitable courage. It was courage he had imbibed from Deshbandhu CR Das, from Mahatma Gandhi, from Nehru, from Subhas Chandra Bose. It was courage which kept him going, eventually leading him to a global reception in London on 8 January 1972 as the founder President of Bangladesh.

In the three and a half years which followed, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s presence on the national stage was pivotal in a solidifying of the national political and economic base. With his illustrious colleagues, men who had conducted the War of Liberation in his name, he laid out the parameters of a modern state, an onerous task given that he was forging, in institutional form, a nation-state out of what had till recently been a province. Despite the odds, coming from extraneous and internal forces, he did the job well. The task of rebuilding a destroyed country, of fashioning its diplomacy, of rehabilitating its entire population through numerous degrees was fundamentally his to perform. He only asked for one favour of his people: they would need to give him three years to raise the country to its feet.

The Bengali nation gave him those three years. And then the wolves lurking in the bushes pounced. The warning sounded by the French philosopher Andre Malraux, to Khan Sarwar Murshid’s query in 1973 of whether Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would be able to fulfill his dreams of creating Shonar Bangla, had turned into a macabre truth. ‘If you don’t kill him,’ Malraux told Murshid.

The wolves killed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But history has ensured that the Father of the Nation lives on. He was and is one of us. He remembered names and recalled faces. His mind was a political encyclopaedia. He hummed Tagore and Nazrul in his moments of deep reflection. His laughter came from within the deep core of his soul. His sense of humour remains enviable.

A hundred years after 1920, it is the visionary on Olympian heights we remember. Bangabandhu’s steadfastness in politics remains a textbook for men and women of generations following his to pursue. His disagreement with his rivals did not mar his respect for them. His interaction with global statesmen revealed the colossus he was, bestriding the councils of the world.

Bangabandhu was our minstrel, singing of our dreams through the arcane passages of time. He was our Druid leading us to the valley of sunshine and good cheer. He was our window to the world.

Source: Dhaka Tribune (16 March 2020)