That year 1971, as we all know by now, threw up a number of dates that will remain forever etched in the history of Bangladesh, and command its people’s reverence. Particularly 26th March and 16th December, commemorated respectively as the dates of Independence and Victory, stand out in the popular consciousness, constitutionally enshrined as indelible landmarks in the emergence of Bangladesh. They are marked on every calendar and appear on the ‘Important Dates’ column of every diary, not to mention the annual holiday sheet. Yet there are many – or at least maybe the 10 lakh or so who made their way to the Racecourse on March 7 that year- who in thinking back, will find it hard to name any other day, or date, or moment, that can take that afternoon’s place as the pinnacle of Bangladeshi nationalism.
I mentioned the million-or-so who came. They came, on that soggy March afternoon, from all corners of the country. And having arrived, spread out again, away from the rudimentary stage that had been erected in vast concentric circles, till as far as the eye could see. I weigh those words today – some 50 years later, and almost shudder at how literally I mean it. It so poignantly contrasts the countless number of times one may utter the same words, with such casual disregard for their meaning. No here were gathered 1 million human beings, and their pulse beat as one. Being the great, natural leader of men that he was, Sheikh Mujib – Bangabandhu after all, with all the instinct for his people’s feelings implied by that name – captures it in an instant, and in maybe 15-20 minutes, delivers it back with such authority and conviction, the truth of his words stinging the air. It is inconceivable to have been there and not come away from it completely convinced of his leadership. That day, he could have said we’d go for parting the sea, and we would have taken turns carrying the staff with which he’d do it.
In light of the unsavoury nature of all the politicking in recent times, I’ve been recalling his leadership, that particular relationship with his people that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman enjoyed, that has never quite been reproduced since on these shores. Ziaur Rahman brought his sense of integrity and great personal fortitude to the position for a while, but that ‘relationship’ I’m talking about is built over many more years. The peoples in Bengal started making a friend, at least his acquaintance as he made his way around the rural heartland in the east on his bicycle, many a year before he became Bangabandhu. They called him Mujibur, a staid spelling that rendered it almost a different name to the endearing call of ‘Mojibor’, which is how they started coming to know this fellow, wiry and bespectacled, with a sincere face that encouraged people to talk to him. Just around the time Suhrawardy spotted his strengths as a trusted organiser of the people. That’s when Mujib started a lifelong conversation with the people he left as Bangladeshis at his death. A leader so in tune with the ebb and flow of his people’s feelings, can never betray that privilege. Only a leader like him could speak his nation’s mind, as he did on 7th March, 1971.
I had made my way there with my friend, the dearly departed Mishuk Munier, and his brilliant father, Prof. Munier Chowdhury, the martyred intellectual, who were our neighbours on the DU campus. I clearly recall how we milled about on the great expanse of the Maidan like ants, the day’s din a cacophony of speculation as to what was to come. Would we hear a categorical declaration? Were the 6-points to stand? What about the violence that had gripped the country in the preceding week, with the military effectively deployed?
To have been there was to have lived a bit of Liberation. Bangabandhu took the stage, and instantly everyone in every corner sat (or stood) transfixed, hanging on every word that poured out of his soul in all directions, washing over this great sea of humanity that had seemingly obliterated the green of the Maidan. He spoke to his people (After “I come to you with a heavy heart”, “You know everything, and you understand everything”). He spoke of them, their miseries, the injustice and cruelty to which they were subjected (“The weapons I paid for to defend the nation, are today turned against my own people” and “How my mothers have been made sonless”). He trusted them (“Bangalira, act using your judgement!”). He confided (“I speak to Yahya Khan on the telephone”). And assuredly, with the cacophony building up, he spoke by them, and they spoke by him.
The honesty in the relationship can be told by how twice, or maybe more, but twice that I recall, he very pointedly broke his chain of thought to remind us all, his fate was uncertain, and so to continue their struggle still (“Even if I’m not there to command you!”). This was after all, this time around, “the struggle for independence”.
Today, we hear the term “crisis of leadership” being used to try and make sense of the political impasse that is gripping Bangladesh. Squeezing it dry of the vitality its young demographic demands to make their mark in the world. With 24 years now since the advent of democracy, the time is ripe for a leader who has a touch with the population, who knows their buttons and soft corners, how to win them over, without resort to deception. Who recognises their troubles. The country needs a period of self-introspection, overseen by a leader they trust. Looking around, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangabandhu’s daughter, represents our best bet to make that happen.
Enayetullah Khan is Editor, Dhaka Courier and Editor in Chief, United News of Bangladesh (UNB).