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Memories of Bangabandhu

Syed Badrul Ahsan

Forty nine years after his public announcement of the Six Point programme for regional autonomy in Lahore, forty six years after his release from captivity in the Agartala conspiracy case, forty four years after his clarion call for Bangladesh’s freedom in March 1971, forty three years after his return to a free Bangladesh from incarceration in Pakistan, close to forty years after he was murdered in the country he led to freedom, it is time once more to remember Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Behind or within Bangabandhu, the founder of Bangladesh, was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the man. We will go looking for that man today as we recall him on the anniversary of his homecoming in January 1972. He would be more than ninety four today, a venerable statesman, avuncular to the generation that went to war in 1971 and a grandfather figure to the children of the war generation.

In Mujib there was an abundance of humour. Asked by newsmen in January 1972, on the day he took over as prime minister of a newly free Bangladesh, why he had not given portfolios to some of the new ministers about to take the oath of office, he advised them to wait. But he did mention that the health and family planning office was going to a leading politician who had an emaciated appearance. How so? The minister’s poor state of health would convince donors about the need for aid in the health sector. Besides, who but he would understand the great need for planned families since he had two wives and fourteen children between them?

On a visit to the United Arab Emirates in 1974, Bangabandhu was welcomed by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahiyan. The UAE ruler was happy that he and the Bangladesh prime minister were both sheikhs, to which Bangabandhu replied, “But, Excellency, there is a difference. I am a very poor sheikh.” The two men burst into laughter.

Then, there were all the times when his fury was aroused by the misplaced attitudes of others. When Nigeria’s Yakubu Gowon wondered, at a meeting with him on the sidelines of a Commonwealth summit, if an undivided Pakistan could not have been a symbol of Muslim strength in the world, Mujib had this to say: “Mr. President, you are right. Now, if India had not been partitioned, it would be one strong country. Similarly, if Asia was one whole or the world had not been segmented into different nations, we would all be strong as members of one human race. But, Excellency, do we always get what we want out of life?”

When Saudi King Faisal grumbled that Pakistan’s break-up had weakened Muslims in South Asia, Bangabandhu simply asked him where all that concern for Muslims was when Pakistan’s Muslim soldiers were killing Bangladesh’s Muslim men and raping their women. The Saudi monarch had no reply. In 1954, as Pakistan’s central government prepared to dismiss the newly-elected United Front government in East Bengal, Chief Minister Fazlul Huq and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman flew to Karachi to reason with Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra that such a disastrous step ought not to be taken. Bogra, a Bengali who was later to serve under General Ayub Khan as foreign minister, at one point told Mujib that the government had a big file on him. Mujib shot back, “So what? Our government has a file on you. Remember the time when, upset that you had not been taken into the central cabinet, you secretly contributed money to opposition funds?” You can imagine the loud silence that followed in that room.

There was supreme confidence in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In the heady days of the non-cooperation movement in March 1971, Bangabandhu was asked about the repercussions of his defiance of the Pakistan government. “What government?” He retorted. “I am the government.” And courage was always a hallmark of his personality. Asked by a foreign journalist about the way he felt being on trial in the Agartala conspiracy case, he said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “You know, they can’t keep me here for more than six months.| His arithmetic came close to the reality. He was freed seven months into the trial. On day one of the trial, he noticed the journalist Faiz Ahmed among the media persons covering the proceedings. Faiz Ahmed had his back to the accused. When he noticed the journalist, Bangabandhu softly called out his name. Faiz would not respond. Bangabandhu tried a second time. Faiz Ahmed, aware of Pakistani intelligence personnel in the courtroom, whispered, “Mujib bhai, we can’t talk here.” The Bengali politician exploded, “Anyone who wants to live in Bangladesh will have to talk to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.” Even the judges were shaken by the outburst.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman could be blunt in conversation, often leaving his listeners at a loss for words. He had asked Indira Gandhi directly, somewhat undiplomatically, when she would take her army back home from Bangladesh. In July 1970, on a visit to Quetta, Baluchistan, he told Pakistan’s future attorney general Yahya Bakhtiar, who had asked him if the Six Points were not going to destroy Pakistan, “You have sucked our blood for twenty three years. It’s now time for you to face the music.” With alacrity he rejected an embattled Ayub Khan’s offer to him of the office of Pakistan’s prime minister at a dinner between the two men in March 1969. He refused to oblige ZA Bhuto when the latter suggested, in January 1971, that the Awami League forge a grand coalition with the Pakistan People’s Party. Asked by newsmen in March 1971 if he would agree to talks with Yahya Khan in Dhaka, he said simply and with meaning, “He will be our guest.” He had already decided that Bangladesh was the new reality.

Bangabandhu was a good reader. His collection of books remains testimony to his interest in ideas. An admirer of Bertrand Russell, he was also drawn to George Bernard Shaw. Hours before he was assassinated along with his family, he was reportedly reading Man and Superman.

Bangladesh’s founding father laughed uproariously, in spontaneity; hummed Tagore in his moments of contentment. He never forgot faces even three decades after he had last seen them. And he remembered names too.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was our troubadour, trekking through the villages and hamlets of this land, spreading the message that liberty was all. In his eventual days of glory, he clearly remembered the muddy paths and the monsoon storms that had shaped his politics.

It was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, our Bangabandhu, who decreed on 5 December 1969, the sixth anniversary of the death of his political guru Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, that this land would not anymore be East Bengal, would no more be East Pakistan. Henceforth it would be Bangladesh. And Joi Bangla would be our song.

(Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, arrested by the Pakistan army in late March 1971 and imprisoned in Mianwali, Punjab, returned home to a sovereign Bangladesh on 10 January 1972.)

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