There are many qualities to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, that we find in short supply in this day and age. Above all, one is struck by those that went towards making him such a leader of men. The conviction to stand up for what he believed in. His boundless empathy for his fellow Bangladeshis. That commanding stature, the booming voice, the unshakeable faith. At a time when we may hardly hope to see any Bangladeshi at the top table of international affairs, we miss most someone with his natural charisma, that was so distinctively Bengali in its disposition and while being so, commanded the full respect of his fellow leaders. The commemoration of Children’s Day to coincide with his birthday is fitting, for at a time when the national stage suffers from an acute leadership crisis, we may well wish for all children to be born with some of the qualities embodied in Bangabandhu.
Who else could have inspired such a ragtag nation of 75 million to set aside all considerations of safety and security and wade into the terrifying waters of a struggle for independence, even as a disciplined occupying force stepped up an operation that brooked no mercy for dissenters? Bangabandhu himself, wasn’t present to lead the war effort but the reason he was able to lead even in absence, was that throughout his entire political career prior to 1971, he had succeeded in convincing people of the courage in his convictions. You knew that if only he wasn’t imprisoned by the Yahya regime in West Pakistan, Bangabandhu would have been on the frontline if needed to lead his ‘brothers’. Everyone knew if only he got the chance, there was nothing else he would rather be doing. The nearly ten months he spent in jail till that triumphant return on January 10, 1972 must have been agonising for him.
But before being taken away, on the historic date of March 7th of that year, at the Racecourse Maidan of Ramna, he had roused in his people the spirit of independence. The 11-minute address he delivered underneath the glare of the sun that afternoon, has justifiably gone down as the greatest speech delivered in Bangladesh’s history, that pronounced independence without proclaiming it, and set the stage for an inevitable victory, over the course of the next 9 months.
That is why the liberated Bangladesh he returned to so readily accepted him as their leader. For anyone else, it would have been difficult to claim that mantle, given his inability to contribute to the war effort itself. Not Bangabandhu though. From the moment he was released, his concern for his people, both in a contemporary and historical sense, is very clear for all to see. And make no mistake, we were all his people, so that when he touched down at Heathrow for that famous press conference before being flown to Dhaka, there is hardly any irony in that baritone as he appeals to the international community, and especially the British in light of their colonial history in the region, to be mindful of the aid “my people”, the citizens of the nascent nation, would require in order for a humanitarian catastrophe to be avoided there.
Needless to say, our failure to repay the debt we owe him constitutes a blight upon our nationhood, that continues to haunt us till today. And regardless of the trial process that saw some of those responsible for the gruesome manner in which this titan was taken away from us brought to justice, my fear is it will continue to haunt us for a long time yet. The most alarming sign of this that I can see, happens to be our singular failure to produce another natural leader of note on the national stage, eventually resulting in the crisis of leadership that weighs us down today. Sure, some of the choices Bangabandhu made in the post-independence period failed to produce the desired results, and may well have been misguided. Although his critics almost always fail to account for the unprecedented difficulties of nation-building faced by newly independent Bangladesh in 1972. The burgeoning population and disaster-prone climate and geography were just two of the most obvious obstacles. The height of the Cold War, and how it would play out in far-flung theatres where most people hardly knew of the Soviet Union or the United States, let alone the cared about them or the ideologies they espoused, proved as much of a stumbling block to the dream of establishing a Golden Bengal as anything else.
Irrespective of the later effort, that dream was worth nurturing, for it was laced with a glory we could never achieve while remaining the wrong half of Pakistan – even though Mujib the tireless campaigner had thrown himself into the effort to realise that nation in 1947. But once he recognised the bitter truth that emancipation for Bengalis lay not in Pakistan but in their own state, he had the magnanimity to come off it, instead of condemning his people to wallow in the wilderness of obduracy. That is why he was, and forever will be the Friend of Bengal, and owing to the belief that all Bengalis – regardless of caste, creed or colour – can collectively repose in his friendship, he will also be forever our leader.
Enayetullah Khan, Editor in Chief UNB & Dhaka Courier