One cannot conceive of India emerging as an independent, modern nation-state without the leadership of Gandhi, who was "Bapu" to the Indian masses; or of South Africa wresting independence from a brutalising apartheid regime without the leadership of Nelson Mandela (or "Madiba" to his adoring people). Neither can one imagine the birth of Bangladesh without Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (endearingly called "Bangabandhu" by his people) and his towering and inspiring leadership that enabled us to triumph in our War of Liberation. All three nations were galvanised to seek independence by a combination, in varying degrees, of the potent mixture of cultural denigration, economic discrimination and deprivation, and political disenfranchisement inflicted upon them by their oppressive colonial or neo-colonial masters. While all of these elements had pre-existed in varying stages of gestation in each of the three countries for some time, and had been fulminating in varying stages of pre-explosion, each needed a leader of towering intellectual and moral stature and all-pervasive charisma to emerge at the right time, to provide the leadership required to give fruition to the raging socio-political process of national metamorphosis.
In Bangladesh, it was unquestionably Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's indomitable spirit, towering personality and larger-than-life charisma that transformed the Awami League party to provide the logical platform for espousing the national aspirations of the Bengalis of East Pakistan and lead the charge for final emancipation and independence. An extraordinary orator, unparalleled in our living memories, his impassioned speech on March 7, 1971 has been recognised by the UNESCO as an important part of world heritage, and rightly so—it was the inspirational spark for the birth of a nation. And so, unquestionably, Bangabandhu is truly and universally hailed as the "Jatir Janak" or "Jatir Pita", the father of the nation that emerged as Bangladesh 49 years ago.
Today, as the nation celebrates his birth centenary, it would behoove us all, leaders and ordinary citizens alike, to revisit his speeches, reflect on his messages, counsel and exhortations, and seek inspiration to renew ourselves afresh. To my mind, after going through a number of Bangabandhu's numerous speeches, his speech of March 7, 1971 and of January 11, 1975 leapt out from the past, larger than life.
On March 7, 1971, recapitulating the long history of perfidy and betrayal by the oppressive military dictatorship and the cabal of self-serving West Pakistani politicians, and exposing their conspiracy in denying the people of Bangladesh their just rights and demands, he was putting the military dictatorship on notice: respect the results of the elections of 1970, or face the consequences. At the same time, quite aware of the imminent danger to him personally and to his closest associates, he was also fearlessly exhorting the Bengali people to be prepared to fight relentlessly to wrest their rights, with or without his direct leadership, with whatever they had, wherever they were situated. In that speech, the target of his wrath and outrage was external: the treacherous West Pakistani military junta. But in that rousing clarion call to his own people, he also had a note of caution that a wise general would impart to his troops before launching them in battle: "The struggle this time is for emancipation! The struggle this time is for independence! Be disciplined. No nation's movement can be victorious without discipline."
On January 11, 1975, however, in his address at the passing out (graduation) ceremony at the Bangladesh Military Academy of the first batch of Bangladeshi army cadet officers recruited after the independence of the country in 1971, his message was first to his fledgling armed forces, then to the civil and military bureaucrats, and then indeed to the entire nation. This was also an impassioned speech that contained a lot of anguish and angst within it, deeply imbedded in his tone, tenor and choice of words. A committed, life-long votary of people's rights and advocate of the Westminster-form of parliamentary democracy, he had two weeks earlier on December 24, 1974, declared a state of emergency and assumed all powers as President of the republic. In that speech, he expressed a sense of gratification that his long-cherished dreams of an independent Bangladesh with its own military academy, to build up and train its army, had materialised after many decades of relentless struggle against successive West Pakistani-dominated totalitarian regimes. He revealed his deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty and a bursting pride that he had lived to witness, in his lifetime, the graduation of the first batch of cadet officers of this new national institution—something that he had not been sure he would have the good fortune to see. Congratulating the cadets on successfully passing their rigorous training regime, he said: the end of training means the beginning of a new task (of nation-building), and a deep sense of responsibility to people and country. He asserted: "We are the owners of this land now, finally. Nothing (nation- building) can happen in a day."
But then, the pent-up anguish within him burst out, spontaneously, palpably, emotionally. He recounted how he, over the three years since his return, had become increasingly distressed by the many signs of a malaise that he witnessed afflicting the new nation: of bribery, corruption, thievery and maladministration by the bureaucracy that all together, hurt the people. He lashed out against black markets, corruption and the shameless cheating that served to keep the ordinary man in deep poverty. Addressing directly the bureaucrats present he said, categorically: "Don't blacken my face… don't blacken the face of the nation… civil servants are not masters, they serve the people, don't be oppressors…. No nation can grow without discipline…. Responsibility to oneself and the country is most important; without responsibility and discipline, no country has been able to achieve anything." He urged all: his own countrymen, military officers and troops, and civilian bureaucrats, to fight against the scourge of corruption, cheating and oppressive administration. He had led the struggle against the Pakistani oppressors; he was now going to relentlessly lead the charge of this new struggle against these scourges. He exhorted: all must "learn to serve, be honest, be righteous, be disciplined, and stay on the right path".
This repetitive and emphatic theme of discipline and responsibility takes us all back to the final words of his speech of March 7, when he was spurring his countrymen to embark on their struggle for liberation from the oppressive Pakistani military junta. The speech on January 11, 1975 completes the thematic circle. Then, the struggle was against the external enemy. Now, the struggle was against the internal enemy, within the nation itself. Nothing happens in a day—the struggle must be relentless, ceaseless, and ever continuing.
Those exhortations of the great man, our Bangabandhu, our "Jatir Janak,", asserted almost fifty years ago are perhaps even more relevant today, when wanton indiscipline and brazen impunity against all sorts of authority, at every conceivable level, seems to have become endemically, pervasively, deep-set and deep-rooted. We won our War of Liberation, yes. But have we progressed anywhere close to winning the war of self-emancipation? Have we imbibed anything, at all, of what we had been called upon to follow and do, by that great man, who we all mechanically, like soulless robots, hail as the nation's father? We have wrested independence, we are all "shadhin", but are we free? We all demand our rights, for this, for that, for everything. Have we developed any sense of responsibility at all, not just to ourselves (in the very selfish sense), but also to our fellow citizens? Do we at all realise, or even comprehend, that one's individual needs, and rights, end where the parameters of one's fellow citizens' rights and needs commence?
Bangabandhu, in his final days, laid a very onerous responsibility on our collective shoulders. It should hang even more heavily on those who inherited and carry his mantle today. I cannot imagine Bangabandhu's soul resting peacefully in his heavenly abode when he looks down upon our many transgressions, at multiple levels, all across the beloved "Shonar Bangla" that he gave his life for.
Tariq Karim is a retired ambassador and currently Senior Fellow at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).