The Long Road to Freedom

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Published on October 25, 2020
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Pranab Kumar Panday:

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's name is honoured with magnificent titles, such as "Father of the Nation" and "Bangabandhu". This is not amazing, considering his tremendous contribution to the creation of Bangladesh and the people. Now one may wonder why he sacrificed his life for the people of the country. The only answer is that his lifelong battle has led to the War of Independence. Having a deeper look at his struggle, it can be said that he fought for the human rights of the people of Bangladesh.

Sheikh Mujib was born on March 17, 1920 in Gopalganj. After the completion of Matriculation from Gopalganj Missionary School, he obtained Intermediate of Arts (IA) and Bachelors of Arts (BA) degrees from Calcutta Islamia College. He then got admission in law at Dhaka University. Due to his active political involvement, the DU authorities expelled him in 1948. He also went to jail in the same year twice. The first time experience in jail changed the course of his political career by transmuting him as the founder of Bangladesh state and the guardian of the people. It was not an easy task to become the "Father of Nation" or "Bangabandhu". It took a long time instead and he had to sacrifice a lot. The main intention of this write-up is to explicate briefly Bangabandhu's contribution to various phases of our independence and also to recount his lifetime struggle for independence and the wellbeing of the people of Bangladesh.

Beginning of the Formation of a Political Career

During the establishment of the Awami Muslim League in June 1949, Sheikh Mujib played a significant role. He became a known political figure by 1954, owing to his active participation in politics. He transformed into a think tank of Awami Muslim League politics that played an instrumental role in establishing the Jukta Front, which eloquently won the provisional election in March 1954 by defeating the Muslim League, capturing 223 seats out of 237. Out of 223 seats, 143 were won by the AL. Securing Gapalganj's constituency, Sheikh Mujib became the Minister in charge of Agriculture and Forest under the cabinet of Sher-e-Bangla. 

Rejecting the new ministry under section 92-A of the constitution, the central Government of Pakistan arrested Sheikh Mujib at Dhaka airport on his way back from Karachi. He remained in detention until December of the same year. He was subsequently elected as a member of Pakistan's constituent assembly in 1955. He was very vocal against the Pakistan government's attempt to establish a single unit in West Pakistan and to change the name of East Bengal to East Pakistan. He also spoke out for a referendum on this issue. Removing the term "Muslim" from the name of his party, it emerged as the Awami League in the same year. He was also Minister of the provisional government of Ataur Rahman Khan in 1956. But, he resigned from the ministry to strengthen the party's organization. In history, such an instance was also very hard to locate. One must have the bravery and honesty to compromise such a role. On 11 October 1958, Bangabandhu was arrested again shortly after the Martial Law was proclaimed on 7 October and embroiled in several lawsuits. After 14 months of incarceration, he was again detained from the jail gate. In between years, the Pakistan government detailed him several times and sent to jail.

The reorganisation of the AL

In January 1964 after Suharawarddy's demise, Sheikh Mujib began the revival process of the AL. He was primarily intended to prepare the party to serve the interest of the masses of East Bengal. He also travelled throughout the country to seek support for Fatima Jinnah in the 1956 presidential election. Considering the influencing power of Sheikh Mujib, the Pakistani government arrested him just 14 days before the election. However, they were compelled to free him on the High Court's order. 

Six Point Movement

Bengali's extreme vulnerability and uncertainty during the 17-day war of 1956 engendered politicians and youth to hold a different attitude towards East Pakistan's political future. Sheikh Mujib later announced a six-point program at the beginning of February 1966 as the president of AL. This was an extensive list of demands for autonomy or state rights in East Pakistan and was considered as a trigger for Bangladesh’s independence. A few popular demands included the creation of a separate currency, independent trade policy as well as the creation of an East Pakistan militia. 

Agartala Conspiracy Case and 1969 Mass Upsurge

In 1967, having felt the impetus to revolt by the East Pakistan politicians and students, the government of Ayub Khan responded by engaging Sheikh Mujib and 34 of his associates in an alleged ploy to attain East-Pakistan independence through armed rebellion. From 8 May 1966 to 22 January 1969 after the Agartala Conspiracy Case (State vs Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and others) Sheikh Mujib had to spend nearly three years in prison. A widespread mass uprising against both the Agartala Conspiracy Case and the Ayub Khan regime transpired during that time. Ayub Khan was coerced by the growing pressure of the student movement to release Sheikh Mujib and his associates from the Agartala Conspiracy case on 22 January 1969. After his release, he was welcomed by the students with a giant rally at Ramna Race Course in Dhaka, which was presided over by SCSP leader Tofail Ahmed. Tofail Ahmed proposed at the meeting that Sheikh Mujib should be embellished with the title "Bangabandhu", which was approved by the audience, chanting "Joy Bangla" from all corners. From that day, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was called Bangabandhu. A roaring political and student movement gained momentum, whose main objective was to gain full independence of East Pakistan. Ayub Khan was forced to transfer power very hastily to his next army chief Yahya Khan, resigning from his post on 25 March 1969 due to the thriving momentum of the movement and government's inability to accuse Mujib in the Agartala Conspiracy case.

The Election of 1970

Five days after the transition from power, General Yahya Khan laid down the groundwork for a national election and drafting of a new Constitution through the adoption of the Legal Framework Order (LFO) on March 30, 1970. Bangabandhu delivered a speech on 28 October 1970 which was broadcasted by Radio Pakistan following the declaration of the election. The speech addressed not only his proposal for a federal plan but also persuaded Pakistani voters to support him to formulate a Constitution. In the meantime, on November 12, 1970, a major cyclone struck the coastal districts of East Pakistan, where very little to no government assistance was given to the affected people.

Having visited the cyclone-affected areas, Sheikh Mujib at a press conference strategically highlighted the failure of the Pakistan government to provide support to the cyclone survivors. He concluded his speech stressing that East Pakistan would attain its self-rule through the ballot. He also pointed out that, if the situation demands, he might choose to use bullets. This also indicated Bangabandhu's plan for East Pakistan in the latter part of 1970, on its independence from West Pakistan. In the election, Mujib and his party won 167 out of 169 seats from East Pakistan while Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP) won 88 of the 144 seats allotted to West Pakistan.

7th March Speech

The Pakistani military, together with Bhutto, decided, after failing to negotiate with two of the AL's six points, to postpone the first session of the newly elected parliament, set for March 01, 1971. The Pakistani Army's decision instigated Bengali students and young people led by Sheikh Mujib to attain their final goal in the form of independence beyond the demands of the Six-Point movement. Amid uncertainties and the continuing revolt of AL, students, professionals and countrymen, the sequence of Bangladesh's political struggle changed on March 07, 1971. Since Yahya Khan announced that the National Assembly meeting would be conveyed in Dhaka, on March 24, 1971, widespread rebellion continued non-cooperation from all regions. AL's leaders, followers, students and compatriots, therefore, were expecting to receive specific instruction from their leader as to the direction of the continuing struggle.

Thus, on March 7, 1971, millions of people expressed solidarity with AL, and Bangabandhu, chanting "Joy Bangla" as Bangabandhu came on the dais at Ramna Race Course. Sheikh Mujib took up the most important decision of his life that day because an immature decision might have ruined the momentum of the continuing struggle. While it was not a written script, all potential considerations were included in his speech. With his ear-splitting voice, he diplomatically declared the independence of Bangladesh by uttering that "Ebarer Sangram aamader muktir sangram, ebarer sangram swadhinatar Sangram (this battle is for our freedom, this struggle is for our independence)". His voice was so rapturous at the Race Course Maidan that caused an emotional reaction. He spontaneously described his intense emotions to invigorate and prepare people for the fight against the dictator of Pakistan with the dialect and language of ordinary people.

The strength of his speech was so formidable that influenced the international newspaper 'Newsweek" to name Bangabandhu as "the Poet of Politics" in its cover story of the 5th April 1971 issue. The overarching effect of the March 7 speech was that it promoted President Yahya Khan to travel to Dhaka on March 15 to discuss with Bangabandhu to find ways to solve the ongoing political predicament in East Pakistan.

Declaration of Independence

Unfortunately, the debate did not yield any substantial results when Yahya took on the plan to spend some time to train his military for carrying out genocide in East Pakistan. And this occurred finally at midnight on March 25, 1971, when the so-called "Operation Searchlight" killed thousands of Bengalis brutally by the Pakistani army. The incident occurred mainly as a strategy to exploit the people of East Bengal and deny their rights to independence. Consequently, the Pakistani ruler left nothing for Bangabandhu but to declare formal independence. Accordingly, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared Bangladesh's independence by sending the following message to the East Pakistan radio in the early hours of March 26, 1971, before he was arrested by the Pakistani army.

This may be my last message. From today, Bangladesh is independent. I call upon the people of Bangladesh where ever you might be and with whatever you, to resist the army of occupation to the last. Your fight must go on until the last soldier of the Pakistan occupation army is expelled from the soil of Bangladesh and final victory is achieved.

The crackdown of the military on the innocent people of Bangladesh and the declaration of independence led to the citizen's blood involved in the war against Pakistan's dictator. Although Bangabandhu remained in jail, the Bangladeshi people fought the battle following his direction. The Pakistani army carried out a massacre in the form of killing of at least 3 million innocent people and rape of 200,000 women in Bangladesh before handing it over to the allied forces. Later on, as a result of the long-awaited struggle led by Bangabandhu, the independence of Bangladesh was finally attained on December 16, 1971.

His Lifelong Struggle for Independence

The war against Pakistani's political and military leaders was a common feature of Bangabandhu's life. So, in his life, he considered jail as a second home. The ways Bangabandhu faced challenges always motivate our younger generation. In between 1948 and 1972, he spent most golden times of his life in jail. What strikes me most is his non-compromising attitude against the Pakistani junta. He spent only a few years with his family at his residents. His suitcase always remained packed and waited for the police or army to come to take him to jail. To what extent the Pakistani ruler was afraid of Sheikh Mujib was reflected through the declaration of the then Governor Monem, who stated that he would not allow Sheikh Mujib to see the light of the day. Even he had accepted all his deprivation that caused due to staying away from his beloved wife and loving kids with a smile. The independence of Bangladesh and the rights of the people were extremely significant to him.

What Bangabandhu has done for the creation of Bangladesh cannot be explained within a few pages. This will require several months and years to describe. Bangabandhu has become an institution in the history of Bangladesh. Therefore, we should not do anything that may undermine his role in the struggle of our independence. Irrespective of political affiliation we should show our respect to this great man.