Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian to receive Nobel Prize for literature, could perhaps foresee what was in store for us. While talking about the strength of our society and desired leadership in a penetrating essay titled Swadeshi Samaj(' homeland society') Tagore said: “We want to see the face of our homeland through a particular human face. We want a person who will be like a deity of our society. We will express our devotion to our Swadeshi Samaj by embracing him/her. We will connect with every one of our society by keeping in touch with him/her.”
We, the Bengalis, had been searching for a representative leader like him/her for ages. We were looking for someone who could epitomize our inner hope and aspiration. We were looking for someone who could bind us all through a fine string of dream. We struggled for ages in search of a leader of that stature. And finally, we got such a leader who could bring otherwise 'always self-divided and clueless' Bengalis of all shades under one umbrella. This was, indeed, a momentous time when we all could rise above our self-aggrandizement and proved our strength of unprecedented unity for a defiant nationhood emerging against all odds. He was none other than Sheikh Mujibur Rahman,the Father of the Nation, on whom we bestowed the title Bangabandhu ('Friend of Bengal') with spontaneous affinity and appreciation for providing the historic leadership for which we were waiting for ages. Of course, there were many respectable leaders who gave their best for building the blocks of our Bengali nationhood.
But he was different. He stood on those building blocks and yet touched all of their aspirations and skillfully blended this with his ones to form the formidable urge for a nationhood at any cost. Right from his boyhood he mingled with the common masses of this beautiful land of ours which was under heavy pressure of foreign domination for thousands of years. Back in 1943, when our country was ravaged by severe famine, young Mujibur would mobilize food for the starving people along with his friends. As a student leader he stood by the low-paid workers of Dhaka University and faced the wrath of the University authority. He was temporarily thrown out of the University. He started agitating quite early on against the illiberal Pakistan Government which was not prepared to give Bangla, the mother language of the majority, the due recognition as one of the state languages. The Language Movement gained speed under his leadership and at one point in time he was arrested and put behind the bar.
The movement reached its zenith on 21st February, 1952 when he was still in jail. A number of students were killed and subsequently the government had to accept the demand for the state recognition of Bangla. Since then Sheikh Mujib embarked upon a wider political platform and started leading with other co-leaders Awami League (initially Awami Muslim League). He outpaced many of his fellow political colleagues because of his excellent organizational capacity and strong linkage with the younger generation, mostly students and, of course, the common masses who simply adored him for his deep commitment for uplifting their well-being. If you have read his Unfinished Autobiography you must have sensed how down to earth he was. His passion for improving the lot of the common people was simply ingrained in his way of life. He understood nothing except public good. He believed in continuous societal interaction which led to his clear perception of how to provide benefit to the downtrodden.
The 1954 Election under the banner of United Front gave him wider exposure to the teeming millions of our exploited region which was yearning for justice and equity. Following the Election which gave the United Front a thumping victory provided an opportunity for him to join the government as a Minister. This gave him closer exposure to how the public policies were made and how these were throttled by the reactionary bureaucracy. Not surprisingly, he did not continue quite long as a Minister and opted for leading the Party instead standing on the ground. He was, of course, very vocal as a Member of the Parliament and left his mark as a pro-poor advocate for the right cause. Back in 1955 on 28 September he asked the then Government of Pakistan in the Parliament," when a Peon gets only Rupees fifty as his monthly salary how dare you propose rupees six thousand as monthly salary for the Provincial Governor?"
He again repeated the same sentiment on February 6, 1956 in the same Parliament," the proposed constitution should make an explicit commitment for food, clothes,housing,education,health and employment". Whenever he took the floor he always picked the issue of injustice done to the farmers, workers, low-paid government employees and ordinary people of the then East Pakistan. As a result, very soon he became the voice of the disadvantaged and continued his advocacy for equality and justice in all spheres of public life. No doubt, he was first one to go to jail when the military took over the government of Pakistan. President Ayoob, particularly, targeted him as the military and its allied forces could clearly foresee the emerging protagonist of the Bengali nationalist upsurge which was brewing up, particularly among the young minds and their families in the eastern part of Pakistan.
The peasants and workers, the most exploited of the classes, were also linked strategically by the youths to stand by them for political emancipation of their homeland under the leadership of Sheikh Mujib and his close co-leaders, almost all of whom originating from the middleclass springing up from the surplus generated from jute cultivated by most of their peasant households. These were the young leaders of the Language Movement and now matured enough to lead the impending nationalist movement. Sheikh Mujib emerged as the natural leader from this social class who spent most of the time in jail. He came out of jail off and on but was put back to the confinement by the hyperactive police and intelligence forces.
The sudden death of Saharowardy in the early 60s provided a greater political space for him as he became the effective organizational head of Awami League. Keeping close contact with his senior colleagues and relying mostly on the young leaders he embarked on the staunchest movement for realizing the inbuilt aspirations of the people of eastern part of Pakistan. The climax of this onslaught arrived when he launched the six-point movement anchored on the demand for two-economy for two parts of the then Pakistan and more focused on the autonomy of administration and mobilization plus use of separate stream of resources for the eastern part of the country. This movement immediately caught the imagination of the ordinary people and emerging Bengali elites mostly originating from the middleclass.
Expectedly, the Pakistan government was scared to its bone watching the tide of support for Sheikh Mujib and his party. So he was made the number one accused of the ' Agartola Conspiracy' case bringing in the charges of sedition against him. This, in fact, further ignited the anger already brewing up among the Bengalis and within a very short period of time a nationalist movement was launched by the youth leaders representing all the prevailing progressive forces to release him from this conspiracy case. The movement gained so much force that the so-called ironman Ayoob khan had to release him unconditionally from the special jail in early 1969. The victorious youths and ordinary people of East Bengal ( today's Bangladesh) gave him the title Bangabandhu out of their love and respect for his uncompromising leadership.
The Ayoob regime collapsed within a few days handing over the power to Army chief General Yahiya Khan who promised to give a fair election within a short period of time. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took the challenge of the upcoming election and went back to the people for a unqualified mandate for the six-point around which there was already a consensus of public opinion. The election campaign focused on the economic and social emancipation of the people of East Bengal. The pre-election speech of Bangabandhu centered around agrarian reform, modernization of agriculture, speedy industrialization, nationalization of primary education, foreign policy for peaceful co-existence and above all cultural pluralism. People voted overwhelmingly for his party and he was supposed to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He started taking preparation for writing the constitution based on the mandate he got from the just concluded election.
The President even called for the inaugural constituent assembly in Dhaka in early March 1971. But the military and the elites of Pakistan had something else in mind. Under heavy pressure from Bhutto who collected majority number of seats in West Pakistan, President suddenly postponed the pre-set session of the Parliament. Sheikh Mujib was pushed to the wall and he hit back with full support of the fuming millions of Bangladesh (by that time people have started calling this part of the country in this name). He first called for general strikes for a few days and then launched the historic non-cooperation movement taking the effective leadership of running this region in his own hand.
People responded whole heartedly. He ran the country as if he was the chief executive and simultaneously mobilizing the entire nation for a greater struggle. The historic speech he gave on 7th March at the Saharowardy Udyan ( then known as Race Course Maidan) was just short of declaring independence for Bangladesh and yet a master stroke keeping a scope of democratic settlement of the crisis. He left enough hints for a guerilla warfare for his followers if the Pakistanis failed to come to an understanding with the elected leader of the majority number of seats in the Parliament. But what is significant is his pronouncement of the word freedom more than ones. Throughout this epic speech he repeatedly talked about the plight of the masses under military rule and left enough directions for an all-out guerilla war against the occupying Pakistani forces if the need be. And that historic moment came at the early hours of 26 March when the brutal armed forces of Pakistan launched a war on the unarmed people of Bangladesh.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib declared independence of Bangladesh through a clandestine wireless messaging system and was arrested by the armed forces immediately after this announcement. He was then taken to West Pakistan and put in jail for nine months during which a nationwide war of liberation gained momentum. The war was virtually led by him as his co-leaders did not make the fighting nation feel that he was not with them. The thousands of freedom fighters, mostly sons and daughters of the farmers and middle class, took arms in his name.The songs and poems of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam were also adding moral ammunitions to freedom fighters. The historic role played by India under the courageous leadership of Indira Gandhi during those tumultuous days of 1971 not only helped save the life of Bangabandhu who was tried and given a death sentence while languishing in a Pakistani jail for sedition but also provided all the moral and material support for liberating Bangladesh from the clutches of a brutal occupying Pakistani forces and their collaborators.
Thousands of Indian soldiers shed their blood along with three million Bengali freedom fighters for this heard earned independence of Bangladesh. Thousands of our sisters and mothers were raped and humiliated by this brutal occupying force. This part of the narration of the blood-ridden history of Bangladesh is well documented. But what is yet to be written is the ordeal through which Bangabandhu had to undergo during those black days of 1971 in Pakistani jails and threatened to be killed any moment. But he could never be cowed down. Thanks to the timely steps taken by the Indian Government under Indira Gandhi's strong leadership and supportive global opinions for Bangladesh Bangabandhu could be released from the captivity and finally reached his cherished independent Bangladesh on 10 January,1971. He was frail and weak. Yet he did not spare a minute to start his new war of economic and social recovery of a nascent nation which was deeply traumatized and ravaged. Thanks to India, Soviet Union, Japan, Great Britain and many other friendly countries for coming forward to rebuild the war ravaged Bangladesh.
The challenges were huge. Rebuilding the infrastructures including roads, bridges, ports, airports, schools, hospitals, ferries and providing support to rehabilitation of millions of refugees who were forced to go to neighboring country were not easy tasks particularly at a time when there was not a single dollar in the reserve. But his charismatic leadership helped face these challenges by a resilient nation with smiling faces. Within a short span of a couple of years or so Bangladesh was put back to its rails. The natural calamities, sudden upsurge of ultra-left forces killing political leaders and activists, rise of fundamentalist and anti-Indian forces under the guise of opposing a newly installed government put unprecedented pressures on him. And the conspiracy against Bangladesh led by over-ambitious Khandker Mushtaque in 1971which was smartly handled by the Indian intelligence and the Mujibnagar government resurfaced in independent Bangladesh with support from a section of the army and bureaucracy. Despite being overwhelmed by these challenges, Bangabandhu never deviated from his principled mission of removing hunger and poverty of the masses.
While addressing to the nation on 15 December 1973 he said, “The Pakistani forces have surrendered. But another force has declared war on us. This force constitutes hunger, poverty, disease, illiteracy, unemployment and corruption". Please note his emphasis on the word corruption which repeated many times subsequently. He always would remind his audience that the hard-earned independence will be meaningless if ordinary people did not have two square meals. Even as late as 26 March 1975 while speaking at a mass meeting in Saharowardy Udyan he said," my farmers and workers are not involved in corruption. "He, instead, reminded the bureaucrats and other educated groups that the masses paid the expenditure of their public education. He made it abundantly clear that he was not with the vested interest and corrupt groups. His heart was always with the poor and the disadvantaged. Not surprisingly, he was buried in his village home so that his soul could remain with those of the ordinary people. The heroic journey of this highly committed pro-people leader and an outstanding statesman who was considered to be the 'mirror image of Bangladesh' was suddenly cut short by the bullets of a section of his own army led by the conspirators who opposed the birth of this independent nation.
The question posed by the Financial Times on 16 August 1975," if this tragic death was destined for Mujib then what was the imperative for an independent Bangladesh?" This chilling question remains unanswered even today. Yet many commentators paid deep respect to this greatest of great leaders of a fighting nation. What Bryan Baron, a BBC Reporter wrote on 28 August in The Listener, "Bangabandhu will remain at the same height in the heart of the ordinary people. The bullet hit house of him and his burial ground will be places of pilgrimages for them." What a prophetic statement! Indeed both these places are now regularly visited by thousands of ordinary people of Bangladesh. Gradually he is emerging larger than himself and as one Bengali poet pronounced his body is now spread around fifty-six square miles of Bangladesh. As the time passes by he is becoming more and more a father figure for all shades of people of Bangladesh.
These days, even his staunchest enemy does not have the moral guts to question his fatherhood of our nation. The global admirers of Bangabandhu are coming forward to establish chairs in his name to study what was so magical in his thoughts and traits which led to a birth of a nation within such a short period of time. If we really want to keep his legacy high on the moral ground we need to understand his passionate love for his ordinary people who had to go through all the ordeals of hunger, poverty and corruption. Unfortunately, the anti-liberation forces ruled Bangladesh for most of the time since his sudden physical disappearance from the sceneand always tried to belittle him and his ideals. But ordinary people never forgot him, nor his pro-poor ideals.
Fortunately, for the people of Bangladesh his able daughter has been able to bring his party into power and has been implementing his ideals. This is not an easy task. Like her father, she too has been facing similar challenges. I think she has learnt a lot of lessons from her long tenure of governance and is taking the country forward despite these odds. Only very recently, BMI, a British Research Institute forecasted that Bangladesh will emerge as number one of the ten fastest growing nations of the world within a decade or so deriving the economic strengths from manufacturing and construction sectors.Bangabandhu's daughter's government has already laid the solid foundation for such a transformational change.
The inclusive development strategy of her government and duly complemented by the financial inclusion campaign by a developmental central bank have made this possible. I feel privileged to have played a minor role in setting the inclusive finance agenda for the central bank as its Governor. Let me record my profound gratitude to Honorable Prime Minister for providing me this policy space. We pray she remains steadfast on this strategy of inclusive development as desired by Bangabandhu. We too ought to pledge for playing our part, wherever we may be, as socially responsible citizens to achieve these lofty goals. That, certainly, will be the best way to pay our deepest homage to the soul of Bangabandhu, on this solemn Day.
Thw writer is former Governor, Bangladesh Bank
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