It is a day when we remember Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But, then again, we reflect on him every moment of our lives. Forty five years after he came back home from incarceration and forty one years after his life was put to a sudden, tragic end, he remains the Druid in our lives, the troubadour who led us down the road to freedom, to self-expression. There was grandeur about him, but with that grandeur came the rather earthy, that sure common touch which marked him out from other politicians of his generation. That link with ordinary life came through his conversations, through his sense of humour, through his loud, spontaneous laughter.
Bangabandhu was a supremely confident individual, one who had a sure sense of destiny. Asked by a foreign journalist at the beginning of the Agartala case trial in June 1968 how he thought things would turn out for him — and remember Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was on trial for treason punishable by death — Bangabandhu had this simple response: “You know, they can’t keep me here for more than six months.” His prediction approximated precision. Seven months after the trial commenced, he and his co-accused were free on the strength of a mass upsurge against the Ayub regime.
At the same trial, Bangabandhu spotted the journalist Faiz Ahmed, whom he knew, seated with other media people in front and in the space reserved for the accused. He called out to the journalist, who made no response. He did it a second time. Still there was no response. At the third call, Faiz Ahmed whispered, “Mujib bhai, we can’t talk here. Intelligence people are all around.” At that, Bangabandhu roared, “Anyone who wishes to live in Bangladesh will have to talk to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.” Everyone in the room, including the three judges presiding over the proceedings, was stunned by this demonstration of a political leader’s courage in the midst of personal adversity.
On arriving at Rawalpindi’s Chaklala airport, following his release in February 1969, to attend the Round Table Conference called by his tormentor Ayub Khan, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman quipped to the newsmen pelting him with questions, “Yesterday a traitor, today a hero.” That was his character, of the kind where there was hardly any room for ambiguity. The only Bengali politician in Pakistan unwilling to compromise on principles, he firmly told off Ayub Khan, who at a private dinner organized by him for Bangabandhu asked him to join him so that together the two of them could save Pakistan from collapsing. Ayub offered the prime minister’s office to Bangabandhu, who let the President know that he had no desire to go to power through undemocratic means.
In the heady days of the non-cooperation movement in March 1971, yet another foreign newsman asked Bangabandhu if he was not actually challenging the authority of the established government of Pakistan by his movement. The elected leader of the Bengali nation quickly put the man in his place. “What government? I am the government.” When newsmen wanted to know if he was willing to receive President Yahya Khan in Dhaka for talks with him, he made it clear, in so many words, that he was in charge but that the leader of the junta was welcome to visit Bangladesh. “He will be our guest,” said he. One did not need much imagination to understand that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had already begun to consider Pakistan’s eastern province as the independent republic of Bangladesh. Indeed, it was at a discussion on the sixth anniversary of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy’s death in December 1969 that Bangabandhu had decreed that thenceforth East Pakistan would be known as Bangladesh. In March 1971, asked if he was ready to go for a declaration of independence, he told his questioner, “Independence? No, not yet.”
That statement shows the pragmatism which Bangabandhu brought into his politics. He would not do anything that would be construed by the Pakistani junta as secession. He was careful, as he addressed the million-strong crowd at the Race Course in Dhaka on 7 March 1971, not to go for a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI). He clearly had America’s Confederates and Rhodesia’s Ian Smith and Biafra’s Odumegwu Ojukwu and their mistakes in mind and would not add his own one to the list. But his oratory, in the end, was a very clear independence declaration of its own. He was giving a long rope to the junta to hang itself and at the same time was telling his nation that freedom was up ahead, down the tortuous road.
Bangabandhu could be blunt when the moment called for it. When at a meeting with him Nigeria’s military ruler Yakubu Gowon lamented the break-up of Pakistan, wondering if a united Pakistan could not have been a powerful Muslim state, the Father of the Nation agreed with him, tongue-in-cheek. And then he did more, telling Gowon that a united India would be even better, that indeed the entirety of Asia as a single state would be a symbol of great power. And then the hammer fell: “But, Mr. President, do we get everything we want out of life?” Bangabandhu was scathing in his response to Saudi King Faisal’s grievance against the break-up of the Muslim state of Pakistan. He asked the monarch, in clear irritation, where he and his government were when Pakistan’s Muslim soldiers were murdering Muslim Bengali men and raping Muslim Bengali women? Faisal was put in his place.
You could go on and on speaking of Bangabandhu. His is an epic tale we read over and over again.