16th December is celebrated in Bangladesh as the country’s Victory Day. On this day in 1971 General Abullah Khan Niazi surrendered to the joint command of Bangladeshi freedom fighters and Indian army at Suhrawardy Uddyan (then known as Racecourse Maidan) in front of millions of jubilant Bengalis. The Bengalis won their victory after nine months of brave fighting against the Pakistani army and their local collaborators.
A few days later, on December 22, leaders of the Bangladesh’s government in exile returned to their homeland. However for the Bengalis the joy of victory was not complete. The fate of the undisputed leader of the War of Independence was still uncertain. People were desperate to have their leader in their midst. Finally on January 10, 1972 Banglabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman arrived in Bangladesh. He was accompanied by Dr Kamal Hossain, who was also jailed in Pakistan. Bangabandhu had stopped in London and New Delhi on his way home. Thousands flocked to the airport to see him. His journey to Suhrawardy Udyan took more than an hour. Even on such a happy day a terrorist was caught with a bomb and a knife. He later admitted that he was sent to kill the great Bengali leader.
The handsome well-built man lost as many as forty pounds in jail. He was a worried man there but never a frightened man. He thanked his people for freeing him and expressed his joy that we were a free nation at last. A man, a Bengali and a Muslim die only once, he remarked. He had no fear of death. Now he would try his best to reconstruct his war-ravaged country.
As said earlier the noble War of Independence in the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, our best ever political leader, an orator of the highest order and a giant with the soft heart of a Bengali mother. Our women prayed for his release from jail and our people fought heroically for independence. We Bengalis proved to the whole world that we were a heroic nation and the leader who turned us into a confident and united nation was none else than Bangabandhu himself. Our losses were great but the reward was greater. Our future generations would not be colonial citizens any more. After his arrival Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not promise his people the moon, rather he advised them to be more tolerant and brace for more sacrifice to see better times. He inspired them, urged them on and instilled in them the confidence that was so necessary at that point in time. His life was cut short along with the members of his family after only a little over three years’ time. Tasks remained unfulfilled and history took a different turn. Still, every year, on this historic day, the nation recalls with fondness the momentous homecoming of the great leader.
Bangabandhu was the first Bengali Muslim politician to come into national prominence from a middle-class background. His father was a government employee at the local court. Bangabandhu was sent to Kolkata for his education and got the first taste of politics there. Sheikh Mujib worked actively for the Muslim League’s cause of Pakistan and in 1946 he became general secretary of his alma mater Islamia College’s Students Union. After the partition of India his phenomenal rise in the political arena in East Bengal, later East Pakistan, is quite astonishing. He was a founding member of the Awami League and still in his 30s became a provincial minister. He gave up that lucrative post, an action which was rare then as it is now, to organise Awami League at the grassroots level in his capacity as the party’s general secretary. The fruits of his endeavour are still being enjoyed by Awami League, which has a presence in almost every village of the country. It was his mentor Husayn Shahid Surawardi who was the last political leader to have a support base in both wings of Pakistan. In his memoirs Suhrawardi has written about his Lieutenant Sheikh Mujib’s growing disillusionment with West Pakistani misrule and his determination to do something about it. The genesis of his historic Six-Points Programme in 1966 lies there. He called for a federal state structure for Pakistan and full autonomy for Bangladesh with a parliamentary democratic system. The Six-Points became so popular in a short while that it turned into the Charter of Freedom for the Bengalis or their Magna Carta.
In the meantime he continued his meteoric rise and by the late 1960s became the most popular leader among the Bengalis. It is amazing to think that in his historic 7th March speech he addressed the people of the land as ‘tumi’ and “tomader” (the informal you in Bengali). One has to remember that he was barely 50 at the time. According to the current writer Bangabandhu’s becoming so popular and loved by the people lies primarily with three things –charisma, courage and his genuine devotion to and affection for his people. It is the last factor which is probably the most crucial. Bangabandhu was a genuine people’s leader. It was his love for his people and empathy for his people’s sufferings that made him strive for their freedom. His popularity which reached the stratosphere could not diminish his love for the common people. Till his last breath he never forgot his real source of power – the ordinary man and woman of Bangladesh. It was his tremendous love for the people that made him eschew his official residence and continue to live in his Dhanmondi Road 32 residence. Unfortunately, that made things easier for his killers.
Whether Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the greatest Bengali of the last thousand years can be an interesting subject for debate; however there can’t be an iota of doubt that he was the most charismatic political personality the Bengali nation has ever produced. One did not just meet Bangabandhu, they circumnavigated around the aura the man exuded. Taller and bigger than the average Bengali, possessing a supremely confident visage and the manner in which he carried himself contributed towards making him a man among men. Alongside towering international personalities like Fidel Castro, Marshal Tito, Henry Kissinger, Andre Marlaux, Kurt Waldheim, Ne Win, Colonel Gaddafi, Motubo, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Bangabandhu never looked out of place or intimidated. In fact, with the ever present pipe in hand it was often Bangabandhu who looked the more impressive. The famous British journalist Sir Mark Tully had the opportunity to meet and observe the Father of the Nation from close quarters. He found him to possess great charisma. “I attended several public meetings addressed by Sheikh Saheb. He had a wonderful voice that could mesmerise the crowd. I could feel that from the reaction of the people when Sheikh Saheb used to address public meetings.”
Ved Marwah, former governor of Manipur and Jharkhand, wrote this while recounting his memory with Bangabandhu “I have met many charismatic personalities during my service career, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and many world leaders, but I must say that among them he (Sheikh Mujib) was the most charismatic personality I had met.” Recalling the time Bangabandhu met Indira Gandhi in Delhi Airport, Marwah writes “Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by nature was a very reserved person. But this occasion was an exception. I had not seen a bigger smile on her face. She was smiling and prancing like a young girl. One could see an immediate personal rapport had developed between the two.” Bangabandhu’s legendary courage was simply extraordinary. Poet and journalist Muhammad Nurul Huda writes “Bangabandhu is incomparable because he was courageous, and it was his moral and physical courage combined that was unprecedented in the annals of our historic political struggle. Come to think of it, the man spent almost the best part of his youth in prison for the liberation of his people.”
There is a school of thought in Bangladesh which propagates the view that after returning home from his captivity in Pakistan Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman should have handed over power to someone else and exercised “moral authority” without holding any government office. Well even if the man entertained this thought for sometime, being a true patriot and the consummate politician that he was, he could foresee what would have happened to the newly born country if he did not agree to become its chief executive. After all, the War was fought in his name and without getting into details of the matter a fierce civil war could have ensued which the nascent nation in its infancy could hardly afford to have.
It should be a matter of great shame for all Bangladeshis that Bangabandhu is yet to get due recognition for the manner in which he managed to influence India to withdraw its troops from Bangladesh within months. He does not get enough appreciation for how he kept Bangladesh between capitalist and communist blocks by promoting a mixed-economy based on socialism; how he made sure that Bangladesh endure post-war natural calamities and international apathy; and how he made sure that the India-Bangladesh treaty was more favourable to Bangladesh than to India.
The way Bangabandhu conducted himself while confronting the overbearing and scheming top Pakistani military brass in Dhaka in March 1971 spoke volumes of his courage and sense of honour. Persons who have seen the transcriptions of those historic meetings bear testimony to Bangabandhu’s bravery and candidness.
The bravery and steadfastness he showed when facing his killers are too well-known to recall here.
Bangabandhu will continue to be remembered for his majesty by successive generations. He will continue to be the source of our inspiration in safeguarding our Bangladesh and to take it forward in all respects.