Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman showed us the path to the future through his seminal Six Point programme in 1966. He was only forty six.
His leadership led the people of Bangladesh to freedom five years later, in 1971. He was nearing fifty two.
At the age of fifty five, in 1975, his life was over, pushed to a brutal end by conspiracy at both the local and global levels.
It was a life lived in the fullness of political excitement. More importantly, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s politics was fundamentally a shaping of the Bengali ethos, all the way from the 1960s to the 1970s. He was a political being unlike any other, in a number of ways. For starters, it was courage he brought into his propagation of ideas. Never one to flinch in the face of danger, he stood his ground. Again, there was in him that spirit of defiance, of the uncompromising as it were. He knew what he needed to do for his people and would not stop or have second thoughts about it. He mapped his path to the future and would brook no opposition or admit any impediments to the achievement of his goals.
In Bangabandhu subsisted a thorough political being. His politics was, from a certain perspective, radical. And yet it was radicalism grounded in his belief in constitutionalism. He was a Bengali nationalist, persuading himself that if the state of Pakistan was to respond to the call of modernity, it would require a transformation of a sweeping kind. But, given the truths that came attached to Pakistan, he was prepared to take his fellow Bengalis out to better, greener pastures. That destination was Bangladesh. He it was who enlightened his people on a winter’s day in 1969 with the thought that East Pakistan would henceforth be Bangladesh.
It was a step forward in his politics. The Six Points, he told those close to him, were a path to the attainment of a single point --- that of national sovereignty. And yet, as his seminal oratory on 7 March 1971 so patently demonstrated, he was averse to secessionism. He was, in that season of intense drama, giving the generals and political classes of Pakistan enough rope to hang themselves. He knew the negotiations with Yahya Khan and Z.A. Bhutto were going nowhere, but he was prepared to go all the way till the end. Nearer the end, he proposed, through his negotiating team, a change in strategy. Pakistan, he said, could survive if it could graduate to a confederation.
When the soldiers struck, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman knew the course he would need to take. Informing the nation that it was a free entity, that Bangladesh was on the way, he courted arrest. He could have left the city; he could have escaped the clutches of the army; he could have gone underground. He did not do any of these things, for a couple of reasons. First, he had never run from the police or the military. Second, he was the elected leader of the majority party in the aborted national assembly and elected leaders did not make themselves physically scarce.
But his sufferings? The years, the thousands of days he spent in prison? For him, as he was wont to tell people, prison was his second home. It was an experience that took away his youth, left him hardly any chance of being with his family. It all began in 1948, within months of the creation of Pakistan, a state for whose establishment he had identified with the Muslim League in the mid-1940s and yet one that was fast turning into a geographical entity sliding from being a dream into a nightmare. Through the 1950s and 1960s, the state made sure that his liberties were curtailed if not proscribed. Every arrest was followed by a bail in court, which again was followed by a fresh new order of detention. Mujib did not expect anything different. His tormentors waited for him to capitulate. He refused to give them that macabre pleasure.
Bangabandhu’s life was always lived in danger. Twice the state of Pakistan went into the sordid business of trying to put him out of life or put him away. The Agartala Conspiracy Case caused fears to grow among his people that the gallows waited for him. But fear was never his, for he told foreign newsmen that he could not be kept a prisoner for more than six months. Agartala came apart, Ayub Khan fell. Mujib emerged free, the de facto spokesman of Pakistan’s Bengalis.
But a far bigger danger awaited him in 1971. Yahya Khan’s bluster of not ‘letting this crime go unpunished’ --- post-March negotiations --- had a single goal: Mujib’s life had to be brought to an end or he needed to be put away in prison for life. Even so, the Bengali leader remained unconcerned. In solitary confinement in distant Mianwali, deprived of access to newspapers, radio and television, he did not cave in. The military court was a contraption he did not recognize, the lawyer the state foisted on him was an arrangement he did not agree to. He would emerge, once again, a free man. Only this time, he was the father of his nation. His Bangladesh waited for him to come home.
As we observe the hundredth anniversary of his birth, it is the symbol of Bengali aspirations that we spot once again in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It is the evolution in the man that we recall. For one who came into politics determined to uphold the communal policy propagated by the Muslim League and then move on into a more liberal world of secular politics, it was an act of unadulterated courage. And that precisely is what Mujib demonstrated. Where Mohammad Ali Jinnah went from secularism to communalism, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman went the other way --- from communalism to secularism. That was his greatness. It was courage. It was a politician rising to being a statesman.
Bangabandhu was our superman. And yet his greatness kept him fastened to our desires. He was one of us, never remote and never arrogant and not at all elitist. He remembered faces. He recalled names. He mingled with the masses as easily as he enjoyed the company of his peers around the globe. He was at home sharing food with a humble peasant and equally comfortable speaking to the world at the United Nations.
And, of course, there was a consistency of confidence in him. He asked Indira Gandhi when she would take her soldiers back home. He was blunt in his responses to global leaders critical of his nation’s struggle for freedom. For him, Bangladesh was the epic tale he narrated everywhere and at every opportunity. It was his poetry, lyrics he had imbibed from Tagore and Nazrul. It was a song that filled his soul with its richness of melody.
In this centenary of his birth, it is Bangabandhu’s ideals that matter. They matter because they speak of the primacy of constitutional governance; because they espouse rule of law; because they adhere to the sanctity that comes with free, fair and transparent elections; because they have at their centre the power of the people as it ought to be in a secular, liberal democracy.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was our collective national presence on Mount Olympus. He showed us the Promised Land . . . and then took us there. His was leadership, moral and political, on the peaks of history.