In 1964, I was enrolled as a student at the University of Dhaka (DU) and became active in student politics, although my involvement began during the education movement of the early 1960s. It is through this that I first got to know Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The 1969 movement was carried out from the then Iqbal Hall and I was the elected General Secretary of the Hall Union at the time, which give me the opportunity to know many stalwarts of that movement, including then DU Central Student Union Vice President Tofail Ahmed, since we were elected from the same panel.
Sheikh Mujib, as a politician, began to distinguish himself from his peers from the early 1960s. He was then the General Secretary of East Pakistan Awami League and the disciple of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the great proponent of liberal democracy. What distinguished Sheikh Mujib was that he was an ardent proponent of the "Bengali identity" of the people of East Pakistan. For that reason, he was hated by the political establishment of Pakistan.
There is no denying the fact that Pakistan was created on the basis of the "Muslim identity" of the Indian subcontinent. However, for various reasons, the attractiveness of that identity began to fade over time for our people, a milestone of which was the Language Movement. Sheikh Mujib, through his active involvement in that movement, provided leadership in bringing this Bengali identity into prominence.
Even after the Language Movement, Sheikh Mujib's leadership in promoting the Bengali identity continued. In 1956, it was proposed in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly that Pakistan could be divided into two units—East and West Pakistan—in order to make the central government stronger. During this debate, Sheikh Mujib appealed for the recognition of the Bengali identity and language. In his speech, he stated: "You will see that they want to place the word "East Pakistan" instead of "East Bengal". We had demanded so many times that you should use Bengal instead of Pakistan. The word "Bengal" has a history, has a tradition of its own. You can change it only after the people have been consulted. So far as the question of one unit (of Pakistan) is concerned, it can come in the Constitution. Why do you want it to be taken up just now? What about the state language, Bengali? We will be prepared to consider one unit with all these things. So I appeal to my friends on that side to allow the people to give their verdict in any way, in the form of referendum or in the form of plebiscite."
Clearly, in view of the burgeoning disparity between East and West Pakistan, our sense of Bengali identity began to be stronger. In that backdrop, Sheikh Mujib unveiled his six point formula, the goal of which was not only to end the disparity and deprivation, but also to gain the recognition of our Bengali identity. As a result, it caught the imagination of the people of East Pakistan and became included in the students' 11 point formula. I was a small organiser in both of these movements and an eyewitness.
Because of the six point formula's becoming the demand of Bengalis of all walks of life, Sheikh Mujib, a boy born in an unknown village in Tungipara, became Bangabandhu—the symbol of the hopes and aspirations of our people. In recognition, Tofail Ahmed, on behalf of all of us, bestowed on him this title in a mass gathering held in the Paltan ground.
The continuous ignorance of the legitimate demands of the people of East Pakistan, and the repressive measures against Sheikh Mujib and his associates by the Pakistani rulers, turned the demand for autonomy into a demand for self-determination. Sheikh Mujib became the undisputed leader of that movement. Through a bloody War of Liberation carried out in Sheikh Mujib's name, Bangladesh became independent in 1971, and this 51-year old prisoner in a Pakistani jail became the father of independent Bangladesh.
It is clear that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman became Bangabandhu, notwithstanding his lack of a dynastic heritage, by winning the hearts and minds of the people. During his time, there were many other politicians in East Pakistan who were in no way less talented. Many had higher educational qualifications, more family influence and greater financial strength; yet no one could come close to him in terms of achievements.
What did Bangabandhu have that his contemporaries did not?
In my judgment, he had some unique qualities that others lacked. He could feel the pulse of the Bengalis and articulate their hopes and aspirations. It was no wonder then, that many of his fellow politicians were critical of and created hurdles for him. Only for the support of the student community, and later the general public, could he succeed.
Bangabandhu could understand the unexpressed feelings of the people because he loved them dearly. He was also in politics for their wellbeing, not for any personal gains. In his own words, he believed that: "Bangladesh, with its abundance of water and fertile soil, is full of wealth. Very few other countries in the world have such fertile land. Yet they are poor. From time immemorial, they were exploited because of their own shortcomings (the most serious of which is envy). They do not know them and until they know and understand themselves, their liberation will not come".
Bangabandhu not only loved the people and was in politics for them, he was also willing to make any sacrifice for them. He believed that "achieving anything great requires sacrifice and persistence. Those who are not willing to make sacrifices cannot achieve anything worthwhile". Throughout his life, he paid heed to his father's advice to show "sincerity and honesty of purpose" and spent most of his adult life in jail. If there was no mass movement to free him, he would definitely have been given the death penalty in the Agartala Conspiracy case and sacrificed his life for his people.
The quality that separated Bangabandhu from the rest was his indomitable courage. The intimidation and repression of the rulers could not deter him. He took a firm stand against the tyranny of the Pakistani rulers. He believed that "in a democratic country, there should be many political parties and the law is expected to have that provision". He also believed that criticism of the government is an essential feature of a democratic polity and "if opposition party cannot be created, the country will have autocracy". The strength of his courage helped him overcome all the hurdles in his path to reach the height he was able to reach.
Most importantly, Bangabandhu, in his lifetime, could transform himself. When he was growing up, communal politics was the order of the day and his incomplete autobiography, The Unfinished Memoirs, contains many such examples. He himself was a victim of communalism in his early life. In his childhood, when living in Gopalganj, he once heard that his friend Malek had been abducted and was being beaten up. He assembled a group and rescued Malek in the face of resistance. A case was filed and he was subsequently arrested. Even though he grew up in an environment of communal politics, Bangabandhu was able to overcome such a mindset. Instead, he embraced our Bengali identity and included secularism in Bangladesh's constitution. We see such examples of transformation only in the lives of great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
As the leader of my early life, Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was able to make my blood rage and arouse patriotism in me. He was able to instill in me the values of telling the truth, showing courage in the face of adversity and making differences in the lives of others. On the occasion of the centennial of his birth, I offer my heartfelt respect to the memory of this extraordinary human being. I pray for his departed soul. At the same time, I pray so that I can, for the rest of my life, stay true to the principles and ideals he taught me as a young man. I feel that that is the most appropriate way to show respect to him.
Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar is Secretary of SHUJAN: Citizens for Good Governance.