Attending the peace summit on the occasion of the 100th birth anniversary of Nelson Mandela in 2018, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina quoted both Nelson Mandela and our Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In the UN Assembly in 1974, Bangabandhu said, "only an environment of peace would enable us to… mobilise and concentrate all our energies and resources in combating the scourges of poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy and unemployment." Bangabandhu seems to be in total harmony with Mandela, who elsewhere said, "as long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, no one can rest in peace." What brings these two leaders together is not only their shared attitude towards peace but also their prison experience including their empathy towards their people.
With everyone joining the Sustainable Development Goals bandwagon, the categories such as hunger, poverty, peace, illiteracy have been reduced to quantifiable figures and development jargon. For Bangabandhu and Mandela, these were life lessons. Going through their personal jottings, shards from diaries, personal snippets, it is easy to see how their prison experiences influenced their understanding of the terms we often take for granted. Bangabandhu's Prison Diaries and Mandela's Conversation with Myself proffer moving accounts of their raw and unmediated thoughts. With outpouring numbers of books and publications, these two great figures have been subjected to a "culture industry". It is often tempting to get carried away with the larger than life aspects of these giant figures. But it is the simple things that they did and the tears they shed for common misery that make them human, and make them one of us.
While reading the Prison Diaries, I was struck by Bangabandhu's attention to the simple things in life. On his death anniversary, I shall reflect on some of the prison anecdotes that he recorded in five of his notebooks written between 1958 and 1969. These notes Karagarer Rojnamcha, have been folded into one volume as Prison Diaries (2018). Bangabandhu spent almost a quarter of his 55 years of life in prison. He became aware of the many jails that exist within a jail. In the first notebook, Bangabandhu writes, "I have been there as a political prisoner, as a prisoner sentenced to hard labour as well as an under-trial prisoner. I can feel the state of the prisoners in my bones. I won't go into detail about the things that happened to me, rather I shall describe what others do while in jail." I find this to be the most selfless statement of the book. True to his claim, seldom does he linger on his personal pain and trauma, yet he takes time to give sympathetic ears to the stories of other inmates. For instance, while describing different segments (dafa) of jail, he describes the Shaitaner Kol (Devil's Engine) where inmates are engaged in producing blankets from cotton. After a day's work in the factory, the prison-workers would look like "devils" covered in clouds of cotton dust. He learns the meaning of the prison lingo from a convict and records it verbatim in his notebook. Yet when he was forced to work in a cotton factory in Faridpur Jail, where he was not given division as a political prisoner, he simply reported: "I was assigned work after being brought to Faridpur Jail. I had to cut cotton threads since I was no longer a political prisoner but a convict serving out his sentence. After I had served three months thus, my sentence of hard labour was done. I became a purely political prisoner once more." Notice the lack of hardship in his account.
This is the very man who listens to others with childlike simplicity. He stands by the water reservoir where the mentally challenged inmates are given a forced bath; he makes sure that the use of convicts in place of bullocks in an oil-seed crusher is topped; he listens to the sweeping chants of the cleaners loaded with insults for the police superiors, or he tries to make sense of the prison lingo. He wonders how could the phrase "case table" (where prisoner's case history is recorded or evaluated) turn into "casetakol". He reflects on the sage looking religious man preaching verses from the holy book who has come to jail convicted of raping a minor. He talks about the doctors who take bribe to place prisoners on a special diet or send to medical centres. He tells us of the sodomy that goes on inside the prison, and how two inmates fought over one juvenile prisoner. He talks about his desire to kiss his wife when she came to visit him in jail; the humourless prying eyes of the prison guards stopped him from doing so, even though, he adds that such an intimate gesture would not have been considered inappropriate in western countries.
The lack of freedom inside a jail is somehow related to his desire for the freedom of the country. Indeed there were many other political prisoners inside the jail, there were many political issues that he had to ponder over. Sometimes he saw his imprisonment as a necessary impetus for the ongoing freedom struggle, a sacrifice needed for the presumed birth of a nation. At other times, he was frustrated over the unjust trials and censored confinement. There were times when he was not even allowed to speak with anyone. One policeman nearly lost his job because he allowed an admirer to pass on a sweet while he was being transported from one jail to another. Prison Diaries tells us how he found comfort in listening to the stories of others.
Towards the end of his first notebook, he details the life of a thief, Ludu of Lutfur Rahman Lane. When Bangabandhu met him inside the jail, he was already the longest-serving prisoner there. The story of Ludu's life is rather ordinary, but it is the extraordinary attention with which Bangabandhu notes down the details that intrigued me the most. Ludu came from a well-to-do family, but his luck changed when his father remarried. Ludu had to learn to take care of his mother at an early age and eventually entered the world of crime. Drinking, pickpocketing, mugging, raiding, burglary—you name it. He even carved a cavity inside his throat ("khokaru") to hide away stolen goods. He climbed up the crime ladder by paying corrupt police officials a portion of his booty.
Bangabandhu knew that such a detailed account of a thief may confuse his readers. He explains, "You may wonder why I took an interest in the life of a simple thief. His life, for me, is a true reflection of our society. Only by musing seriously about the lives of people within our society can we arrive at an understanding of the malaise afflicting it; only then might we be able to work out how some individuals around us end up as pickpockets or dacoits."
This for me is the essential Bangabandhu. A man who is ready to listen. A man who is willing to give voice to the voiceless. A man who knows how circumstances can construct one's destiny. The man who authored the destiny of our nation and made Bangladesh its magnum opus was successful because he paid attention to every word (read, ward) of his text. Ludu is a case study. His case could have been different if he had not had to face hunger while growing up.
Great leaders such as Bangabandhu and Mandela know from their experiences that people are essentially peace-loving. Injustice, inequalities, hunger morph them into things that they are not. They sought peace by ending the cause of human misery, and they factored in people as they believed all lives matter.
It is the simplicity and humility that makes a great leader great; that makes a man a friend. In the case of Bangabandhu—he gave his country all he had, a symbolic tear, his sympathies. In return, we have found a friend in him: Banga Bandhu, a friend of Bangladesh.
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at the University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.