He was our Caesar | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 15, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 15, 2011

He was our Caesar

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As he effusively welcomed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to the United Arab Emirates in 1974, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahiyan remarked how wonderful it was for one sheikh to come in contact with another. Bangladesh's leader smiled mischievously as he replied, "But, brother, there is a difference. I am a very poor sheikh."
Both men laughed.
There was forever the human about Bangabandhu, about his dealings with people. He was never a stickler for protocol and often appeared to be saying things out loud which to others might appear blunt. It was in that spirit that he directly asked Indira Gandhi, in Delhi on his way back home from London in early January 1972, when she planned to take Indian soldiers back home from Bangladesh. Mrs Gandhi was equally unequivocal. It would be by his next birthday, in March. She was as good as her word.
There was a thorough political being in Bangabandhu. He had his detractors, but he never looked upon them as his enemies. It was a healthy attitude, one which clearly allowed him to discuss grave political issues with Ayub Khan, ZA Bhutto and Yahya Khan. Ayub offered him Pakistan's prime ministership in 1969, only days after his regime had withdrawn the Agartala case against the Bangalee leader. Mujib predictably declined the offer. It was his moment in the sun. Earlier, arriving in Rawalpindi to attend the Round Table Conference, he mused, "Yesterday a traitor, today a hero." He was, of course, speaking of the vilification he had been put through, which also reminds you of his supreme courage in the face of adversity.
In the course of the Agartala case proceedings in Dhaka, he told stunned western journalists, "You know, they can't keep me here for more than six months." In the event, he was freed in the seventh month. On the first day of the trial, a Bangalee journalist known to Bangabandhu pretended not to hear Mujib calling out to him from the dock. At one point, the newsman whispered that intelligence personnel were around, meaning it was not safe for a conversation. Bangabandhu exploded: "Anyone who wants to live in Bangladesh will have to talk to me." Momentarily, the entire tribunal lapsed into silence.
In January 1972, at his first press conference in Dhaka as prime minister, Bangabandhu spotted Indian journalist Nikhil Chakravartty at the far end of the hall. "Aren't you Nikhil?" he asked loudly. Chakravartty, who had last met Mujib when they were both students in Calcutta in 1946, was surprised that a quarter century later Bangladesh's founder had not failed to recognise him. Having long trekked through muddy village paths in his pursuit of politics, Bangabandhu remembered faces, recalled names, especially those of simple peasants and workers years after he had first come in touch with them.
The father of the nation was never willing to take nonsense from anyone. When Saudi Arabia's King Faisal wondered why Bengalees needed to break away from the Muslim state of Pakistan, Bangabandhu bluntly asked him where the Saudis and other Middle Eastern nations were when Pakistan's Muslim soldiers systematically indulged in murder and rape in occupied Bangladesh in 1971. Faisal said not a word. Neither did Nigeria's Yakubu Gowon when he heard Mujib's response to his own query. Would Pakistan not be a stronger Muslim state had Bangladesh not broken away from it? Bangabandhu's cool, firm response: "Mr president, you are right. Then again, if the subcontinent were not divided, it would be a stronger India for all of us. Asia undivided would be even stronger. Indeed, if the world were not fragmented into myriad states, we would all be stronger than we are. But, Mr president, do we always get what we want out of life?'
In late December 1971, when ZA Bhutto told Bangabandhu that he was now Pakistan's president, the Bangalee leader retorted, "But that position belongs to me. I won the election." Bhutto then went on to give him details of the war that had humbled Pakistan.
On a personal note, Bangabandhu gently reprimanded this writer, who had a habit of wanting to see him go by every day, on a drizzly late evening before the old Gono Bhaban in 1973 thus: "Go home and finish your studies. You don't have to be here to see me every day." Three years earlier, on a warm July evening in Quetta, he had put his signature in this writer's autograph book, patted him on his cheeks, and asked him, "Deshe jaabi na (won't you go to your country)?' He was already referring to a future Bangladesh!
Here was a Caesar, as Shakespeare would have said. When comes such another?

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