It is fascinating that Bangabandhu began his Unfinished Memoirs (published in 2012) with an existential characterisation of his birthplace in geographic relationship to a river: the Madhumati river, which divides or connects the two southern districts of Faridpur and Khulna. Nobody in his clan, he wrote, knew how and why its founding patriarch, a pious man named Sheikh Burhanuddin, came to settle on the bank of the Madhumati many years ago, during the Mughal times. Some of Bangabandhu's ancestors were actually river-based entrepreneurs.
During the time of the East India Company, when indigo cultivation became a key conduit of extractive colonial economy in the Bengal delta, Sheikh Kudrotullah's boats used to carry merchandise from Faridpur to Kolkata through meandering rivers, often encountering an extortionist Englishman and his native cohorts. These confrontations led to violence and eventually a much-fabled court case in which Kudrotullah won. The colonial court ordered the insolent Englishman to pay a symbolic fine, although nominal but historically significant, as the case became part of local folklore.
The rivers of Bengal, it seems, were like a familial tapestry that epitomised the triumphs and tragedies of the Sheikh clan. In fact, not just rivers but the stories of Bengal's land were deeply interconnected with the lives of the Sheikhs. In the span of a few generations, during British colonial times, the Sheikhs lost their wealth due to a series of sensational court cases following land disputes with neighbours. The history of the Sheikhs, like those of other clans, was a saga of Bengal's pastoral land and the rivers that serve as its hydrological, social, and commercial membranes.
Bangabandhu's early political life was, in many ways, an epic of Homeric journeys across the Bengal delta, crisscrossed by rivers and canals. Many of these journeys were undertaken by boat, steamer, and railway. Student politics and activism before and after the Partition—before, for a homeland for the subcontinent's Muslims and, after, for the rights of Bengalis, beleaguered by an oppressive Muslim League regime in East Pakistan—took him, many times, from Gopalganj to Kolkata, from Dhaka to Barishal, from Khulna to Faridpur, from Narayanganj to Tangail, and other destinations across Bengal. These political odysseys provided him with a deep understanding of the Bengal delta's hydro-anthropological pulse or its genius loci, the Latin term that denotes the spirit of place.
Gopalganj then didn't have a launch terminal. Bangabandhu sometimes had to arrive there by train, at the modest Haridashpur railway station, a few miles away from his ancestral home in Tungipara. This last stretch on the way home would often be covered by a boat on the Madhumati river. As some of his recollections reveal, during his boat journeys he would not only internalise the essence of riverine Bengal, but also strike a conversation with the boatman, learning from him about the struggles of everyday life in rural Bengal. Once Bangabandhu recalled his experience of a boat odyssey on the Madhumati river: "the people of this riverine country would never find it difficult to fall asleep on a boat." This simple but profound statement encapsulates his perception of an organic, harmonious bonding of Bengal's people with its riverine character, an existential philosophy that would slowly but steadily lay the foundation of his political philosophy of justice, coexistence, and sacrifice.
If, in The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier (1993), Richard Eaton is convincing about his characterisation of East Bengal's mass embrace of the Islamic faith as part of an agro-religious phenomenon—"a religion of the plow," inspired by the holy men who settled in this region and carried on agricultural activities with the service of native labour—Bangabandhu's understanding of the Bengali character as a derivate of Bengal's deltaic geography seems tenable. It was not surprising that in October 1970, before the election to the Pakistan National Assembly, as president of the Awami League Bangabandhu selected the boat as his party's election symbol. For him, nothing could portray the soul of the Bengal delta more earnestly than the boat.
The author of The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh (2002) and American Consul General in Dhaka during 1971 (much denigrated by the Nixon administration for his pro-Bangladesh views during and after the Liberation War), Archer K. Blood marvelled at how Bangabandhu talked of "my people, my land, my forests, my rivers" like a messiah. On the rivers, Bangabandhu often became an effortless personification of a political Jibanananda, seeing "Bengal's face" … "incomparably beautiful and sad," where he yearned to return, not as a shankhachil but as a political saviour to serve the oppressed people of East Pakistan.
Archer Blood described Bangabandhu thus: "Mujib's very appearance suggested raw power, a power drawn from the masses and from his own strong personality. He was taller and broader than most Bengalis, with ruggedly handsome features and intense eyes." Experiencing intense eye pains early on in his life, and bespectacled since the age of sixteen, Bangabandhu learned to see things in life, as well as Bengal's pastoral beauty, with a melancholic gaze, in the process developing an innate faculty to listen. His tortured eyes heightened his ability to hear the sounds of Bengal's rivers, its wind, its verdant land, and, most of all, its people. He could also intensely listen, hour after hour, to the plight of political prisoners who were jailed with him.
Before and after the Partition, when Hindus and Muslims were engaged in communal violence across the subcontinent, he was inspired by his mentor Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy's effort to visit numerous ground zeros of atrocities, himself touring many regions of East Bengal in order to spread the message of religious harmony. In many ways, these journeys throughout Bengal took on a larger meaning for Bangabandhu, inspiring his lifelong empathy for the downtrodden. For him, experiencing Bengal's land and water meant getting invaluable insights into people's everyday struggles, their suffering within the asymmetric economies of the two wings of Pakistan. Bengalis and the delta, for him, shared the same ethos of struggle and survival.
After the Partition, when in East Pakistan the repressive Muslim League government tried to silence the Bengali dissent and suppress popular discontent, Bangabandhu organised mass resistance on behalf of the East Pakistan Muslim Student League. During this campaign, he reprimanded his communist colleagues for their heavy-handed ideology by thundering: "People walk on the ground, and you all fly in airplanes over their heads with your heady ideologies." It was of course a metaphorically coded critique of doing politics from the clouds like gods, masquerading as Karl Marxes. What Bangabandhu meant was that being with the people, on their boats and in their paddy fields, the sources of their livelihood, is to get their sympathetic ears and touch their hearts.
This was his quintessential philosophy of sacrifice. True sacrifice can never be bestowed from above. It occurs when one is within, on the water, on the boat, on the land, on the grass. For him, empathy grew from within, from below, where the survival stories of rivers, canals, lands and peasants intertwine. Real compassion, Bangabandhu believed, never flourished in the sky or by looking down on the little people from the pedestal of gods. Compassion needed getting muddy and wet.
Yet, Bangabandhu was also not afraid to criticise what he saw from the land, from the river, from where people actually lived, as he articulated the tragic fatalism of the Bengal delta's people. In his autobiography, he wondered how a land so fertile, so resourceful, could also be home to perennially poverty-stricken masses, who often unwittingly let outsiders exploit them, who could never take control of their own fate, because of their self-defeating infighting, jealousy, and treachery. This was perhaps a foreboding, haunting commentary on the tragedies of August 1975.
To understand Bangabandhu's activist worldview and his political evolution one needs to understand how he interpreted the Bengal delta's land-water geography and its shaping of a complex and contradictory people. It is not accidental that in Bengal's popular imagination he is memorialised as "rivers": Jotodin robe Padma, Meghna, Jamuna bohoman, tododin robe tomar kirti Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (as long as the rivers Padma, Meghna, Jamuna continue to flow, the legend of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman will not cease to shine).
Adnan Zillur Morshed is an architect, architectural historian, and educator. He lives in Washington, DC, Dhaka, and Chattogram. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sadia Ahmed helped with the research for this article.