Reviewed by Haider A. Khan
Lamartine — that mediocre poet but cunning politician in France during the revolutions of 1848 — once remarked that history is a trick that we, the living, play upon the dead. One part of the implied argument in this extraordinary book, Bangabandhu, Epitome of a Nation, is to correct some of those tricks, and mend some of the many contrived passages and cunning corridors that have delivered so many unkind cuts to the father of the young nation of Bangladesh. It is a noble and largely successful effort, one might readily admit.
After the brutal murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family members on the black morning of August 15, 1975, historical mendacity reached a new low in Bangladesh. Volumes were written to delete the contributions of Bangabandhu and his fellow fighters and elevate the previously unknown figures to the status of the makers of our Liberation Movement. At the end it proved futile. Such a large truth as the liberation of millions of people cannot be obliterated by hack writers of history no matter how numerous they happen to be. It does, however, show that Voltaire was at least sadly and partially correct when he defined history as nothing but a record of the crimes and misfortunes of mankind. Yet, beyond the crimes and misfortunes in the sad golden land of Bangladesh there are always the people and some leaders of integrity and courage like Bangabandhu. This can never be erased.
At the very outset it is imperative to remind the potential reader of this timely book that the integral and larger purpose of this project is ultimately the heartfelt plea for Bangladesh historiography’s self-determination that will lead to a genuine history of its own self-determination. It is a project of self-emancipation of Bangladeshis. Our still “colonialist knowledge” is collusive through and through in every field from philology to political economy. Certainly, in my own field — the mainstream political economy echoes songs of praise for the top rulers of the system while ideological justifications, global inequality and unjust social formations obliterate any attempts at an objective inquiry into the real causes of wealth and poverty in our world.
It was Bangabandhu’s and his fellow fighters’ sincere commitment to genuine development that led to his and his most important comrades’ violent murder carried out by a group of plotters in the armed forces supported by a group of unscrupulous politicians who opposed Bangabandhu’s dreams and programs for a just society. The book under review describes graphically Bangabandhu’s lifelong struggle for and with the suffering masses in the then East Pakistan. Many stirring photos and touching vignettes illustrate not just his political leadership but also the suffering of his nearest and dearest- his wife and children. For those of us who were lucky to know him personally, the warm sympathetic Sk. Mujib emerges as he was in life everyday with family and friends beyond the truly larger-than-life founder of a nation. I want to argue in light of the book under review that he was also the harbinger of a new type of tolerant modernity and secularism open to all religions and indigenous cultures as well as internationalism. Although Bangabandhu spent much of his adult life in turbulent politics, he thought carefully about modernity and its problems from people’s perspective all his life. His unfinished autobiography shows this clearly. The present book does this also with graceful competence. Indeed, he was the harbinger of a new type of modernity quite different from those of the so- called 19th century Bengal Renaissance.
In particular, the sections entitled “The Quintessential Bengali” and “He belonged to all Bangladeshis” show the great leader in this light. “The Statesman in Bangabandhu” and several other sections on his politics show him as both a nationalist and internationalist. As a person who was privileged to see his culturally engaged side on several occasions, the present reviewer can attest that Bangabandhu was deeply engaged in the defense of Bangalee culture and values but also profoundly respectful of all cultures of the world- particularly those of the oppressed indigenous peoples and other minorities. In this he was a valiant defender of universal human rights.
Although the main heroic character in the book is Bangabandhu and rightly so, there were many other heroic characters such as Tajuddin Ahmed who are also mentioned. Sadly, on 15 August, 1975 the people who were around Bangabandhu in the corridors of power, were not of the same caliber as Tajuddin and people like him. Many were co-conspirators with the cabal in the armed forces, and none would come to his aid on that black morning except one loyal man. He is indeed another heroic Bangladeshi who gave his life in the hour of need of Bangabandhu and the country. His name is Colonel Jamil. He could not save Bangabandhu or his own self, but his name will be forever written in golden letters as a loyal servant of our new nation.
All in all, the book is a wonderful addition to the growing archive of books on Bangabandhu. It is exceptional in its wide and compact coverage. It even has a section of Bangabandhu as a writer. The photographs themselves are to be treasured with several quite rare reproductions. The cover and binding are exceptional given the weakness of our publishing industry in these areas of physical production. Finally, the portrait by the great Bangladeshi painter Shahabuddin enhances the visual appeal tremendously. This book deserves to belong to the bookshelf and table of every person with interest in Bangabandhu and Bangladesh.
Haider A. Khan is John Evans Professor of Economics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.