705Published on August 15, 2021
Syed Badrul Ahsan:
There are the Bangabandhu moments that are part of Bangladesh’s history. As we recall the Father of the Nation on the anniversary of his assassination forty six years ago, we remember too some of the defining moments in his career. He was only 55 when his life was brought to a brutal end, but in that brief span of existence, he managed to achieve what others spend whole lifetimes trying to bring about in the lives of their nations or do not somehow attain the goals they set for themselves.
So what are those moments, our Bangabandhu moments, we reflect on today?
Go back to the day, 5 February 1966, in Lahore. In the very city where the resolution for the creation of Pakistan had been adopted by the All-India Muslim League in March 1940, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman spelt out, through the Six Points, the details of a plan that would be a harbinger of the rise of a sovereign Bangladesh in Pakistan’s eastern province.
History was always playing itself out in Bangabandhu’s career, much of it shaped by the powerful nature of the politics he pursued. It was in Lahore again, on 23 February 1974, where Bangladesh’s leader basked in glory as his country’s national anthem was played by a Pakistan army band at Lahore airport. The Father of the Nation, invited to the summit of Islamic leaders, had moments earlier been welcomed by Pakistan’s President Fazle Elahi Chaudhry and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
On that afternoon in Lahore, General Tikka Khan, chief of staff of the Pakistan army, saluted Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the airport. It was a moment rich in irony. Early on 26 March 1971, Bangabandhu had been arrested in Dhaka and subsequently flown to West Pakistan on Tikka’s orders. Asked by his officers if he would like to see his prisoner moments after Bangabandhu had been detained, Tikka had replied in disdain, “I don’t want to see his face.” And now here was the butcher of Bengal saluting the very man he and his army had thought would be put away for good. Bangabandhu had two words for Tikka Khan in Lahore. “Hello, Tikka,” he said, and moved on.
Back in early March 1971, a moment to be relished came when, in response to a foreign journalist’s statement that he was challenging the authority of the government of Pakistan through his non-cooperation movement, Mujib told him sharply, “What do you mean by government? I am the government.” A few days later, asked for his opinion on General Yahya Khan’s probable visit to Dhaka to negotiate with him on a solution to the gathering crisis, Bangabandhu was emphatic in his assertion that Bangladesh was no more Pakistan’s to govern. “He will be our guest.” That was the way he considered Yahya’s visit.
A moment which stands out in Bangabandhu’s career shaped itself on 19 June 1968 as proceedings in the Agartala Conspiracy Case got underway before a special tribunal in Dhaka cantonment. When a Bengali journalist was clearly afraid of speaking to him in the courtroom, the future founder of Bangladesh said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Anyone who wishes to stay in Bangladesh will have to speak to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.” Even the presiding judges were left stunned by that display of confidence.
The idea of Bangladesh sustained Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as his politics began to evolve from 1948 and went all the way to reaching fulfilment in 1971. In August 1955, speaking in the Pakistan constituent assembly in Karachi, he registered his dissent on the issue of East Bengal being renamed East Pakistan without the consent of the people of the province. Historical tradition was at the core of his argument.
It was a moment that would stretch, over a period of years, into another defining moment. On 5 December 1969, speaking at a memorial meeting in Dhaka on the sixth anniversary of the death of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Bangabandhu let it be known that henceforth the province of East Pakistan would be known as Bangladesh. The train to eventual freedom for the country was thus set moving.
An unforgettable Bangabandhu moment was his meeting with British Prime Minister Edward Heath on 8 January 1972 at 10 Downing Street. The image of Heath respectfully bidding farewell to Bangladesh’s leader, who had arrived from Pakistan earlier in the day, was a morale booster for Bengalis around the world. Add to that the image of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Harold Wilson, then leader of Britain’s Labour opposition, both lighting their pipes at Claridge’s Hotel. Wilson had turned up there to welcome Bangabandhu to London.
In diplomacy as in politics, Bangabandhu had a clear sense of where he wished to take the country. Knowing full well that international recognition of Bangladesh depended on how soon Indian troops, part of the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Command in the 1971 war, went back home to their country, he asked Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when she planned to withdraw her soldiers. It was 10 January 1972 and the Bengali leader was on his way home by way of Delhi. Indian troops left Bangladesh before Bangabandhu’s birthday in March.
A distinctive Bangabandhu moment shone on 25 September 1974 when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York a few days after Bangladesh became a member of the world body. Poised and self-esteem personified in him, Bangabandhu spoke of his people’s visions about their presence in the global scheme of things, of their dreams of Golden Bengal. And he spoke in Bangla, the very first time the language had been heard in the cavernous hall of the global organization. An Indian diplomat, a Bengali, was moved and rushed to Bangabandhu after the speech, to give him an emotional embrace.
A moment not to be erased from history rises out of time’s chronicles as it was forged in February 1969. At the Round Table Conference in Rawalpindi, Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, having tormented Sheikh Mujibur Rahman throughout the ten years of his dictatorship, to a point painting the Bengali politician as an enemy of Pakistan, meekly shook hands with Bangabandhu, welcoming him to the RTC. He later arranged a private dinner for him. It was the same Ayub who in 1966 had threatened to employ the language of weapons against the proponents of the Six Points.
And here is the ultimate reality.
Ayub Khan attempted to destroy Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He ended up losing power. Yahya Khan looked forward to sending Bangabandhu to the gallows. In the process, he lost half his country. The conspirators, civilians and soldiers, who put an end to Bangabandhu’s life thought Mujib was gone and forgotten. It is those conspirators, properly shamed, who today lie in their shabby graves, vilified for their treason.
For the people of Bangladesh, every living moment is a Bangabandhu moment.
Writer: Political and History Analyst