In 1995, two reputed constitutional lawyers of Canada while analysing the legalities of the possible separation of Quebec from Canada, observed, “After 1945, Bangladesh was the only country of the world which successfully seceded from Pakistan through armed struggle. However, the principal strength of that struggle came from the unparalleled election victory of Awami League led by its charismatic leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The popular support he enjoyed was unheard of in a Western Democracy”.
The New York Times magazine writer Peggy Durdin, who was in Dhaka since February 28, 1971 wrote an article, 'The Political Tide Wave that Struck East Pakistan' (Published May 2, 1971), where she wrote: “All during March, Sheikh Mujib and his aides seemed to be playing devious games and refusing to be candid about their aims and strategy. In fairness, it must be said that this was the only tactic open to them, since an open stand for independence would have made them immediately liable to charge of treason... Sheikh Mujib never showed the slightest interest in being a national leader of East and West, of taking the position of the Prime Minister of an all Pakistan government that the Assembly majority entitled him to”.
General Rao Forman Ali, however, had different views. He noted, “At last, they (Bangalis) thought of the possibility of ruling Pakistan. Mujib wanted to be the Prime Minister (of Pakistan). (But after the postponement of the National Assembly) He came to the conclusion that the combined forces of the Military and the PPP would not let materialise his desire to be the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Therefore, he decided to be the FATHER of a new nation”.
James J Novak, who lived in Bangladesh for 20 years since 1970, in his beautiful book Bangladesh: Reflections on the Water presented a brilliant depiction of Sheikh Mujib as the politician and the leader of our independence movement. In the words of Novak, “Sheikh Mujib brought an immediacy to the political environment. He never tired the people by sophisticated ploys or half-measures. He had no love for the government office. While he never said so on record, from the time he emerged until the time the Pakistanis arrested him on the day the liberation war began, everyone knew he spoke for independence. Not by proclaiming his end, he scared the Pakistanis. And all the while, Mujib could wink and smile and speak of Bengal, and of Bangladesh, as though it were free to rejoice in green-and-red flags fluttering on rooftops”.
However, the ground for this transition from six-point to one point did not happen in a day or a month. In the words of Novak, “Long before the Liberation War, Mujib assumed for East Bengal the mantle of poor victims of Pakistani aggression thereby giving Bengalis the moral exultation of blameless. Whatever his beliefs, it was his personality that made him the pivotal figure of his era. He represented an elemental force, a comet in politics. Basically, he was an intuitive force, one whose personality and action inspired the pit of Bangladesh mind. His desire for independence radiated as much from the people as it did from his own intellectual outlook. He proved to be a vessel through which the people's desire were to flow”.
As Socrates long ago recognised, poets are really rhetoricians, politicians, who appeal to emotive as well as reasoned positions. In the words of Novak, “Mujib also played up the superiority of Bengali culture compared to that of military and martial Pakistani Punjabis. Thus, he countered Hindu and Muslim Bengali poetry to that of the great poet of Pakistan Mohammad Iqbal, who had been the inspiration of an independent Muslim state, while relying on the verses of the son-of-the-soil Kazi Nazrul Islam. Mujib understood the aural and artistic quality of Bengali mind and the role of poetry in explicating moral positions. As there is a saying, 'Bengalis never believe anything until there is a poet to articulate it'. He emphasised the works of Tagore, the only Bengali poet equal to Iqbal, who was a Bengali native son and much beloved. Ultimately, so effective was Mujib's poet-tactic that the Pakistani government tried to ban as subversive the singing of Tagore songs. Of course, that is what had been intended”.
Referring to his hard work and simplicity, Novak observed, “The Muslim Leaguers, Anglified and Westernised, felt more at home in London than Dhaka, in airplanes than in country boats. As for the Sheikh, hard work shaped his style. Indefatigable, he walked across fields from village to village, and mingled with the people, sharing their tea, rice, dhal, and salt, remembering names, praying at mosques, sweating in fields, visiting flood sites, weeping at funerals and milads. He empathized mightily, instituted sympathetically, and reached out and touched – not golf clubs and club chairs but the people's sweaty hands. He knew what the people believed because he could explain things not only in terms they could understand but in one they respected. Knowing that, they believed he did not need to lie”.
During the nine-months of genocide, amidst armed struggles and untold sufferings, Sheikh Mujib's name glowed ceaselessly in the hearts of millions and he remained a demigod to the people of Bangladesh. In the words of General Rao Forman Ali, “90 percent of the people of Bangladesh were taken in by the magical power of Sheikh Mujib, and they were ready to sacrifice their lives for the creation of Bangladesh”.
In the world-wide survey of BBC Bengali service listeners, while he was voted the greatest Bengali ever born, BBC surmised the opinions of the listeners as follows: “He was the beacon in the darkness that had befallen on the Bengali people during the semi-colonial Pakistani era. His political wisdom, uncompromising leadership for the cause of the Bengalis united the Bengali people, for the first time in history, not only within the geographical boundaries of Bangladesh, but all over the world, and gave them nationhood. Bengalis all over the world, who cherish the citizenship of Bangladesh, owe this nationhood to the leadership of one person and he is no other than Sheikh Mujibur Rahman”.
The tragic hero, Aristotle wrote, suffers a change in fortune because of a mistaken act to which is led by his “error in judgement” or his “tragic flaw”. Such a man moves us to pity because his misfortune is greater than he deserves. Mujib was indeed a tragic hero.
A Turkish saying that Kamal Ataturk was fond of quoting: “History is ruthless to him who is without ruthlessness”. This was echoed in the epitaph of the book, Sheikh Mujib: Triumph and Tragedy where the author S A Karim concluded, “Mujib sought to put the interest of his countrymen before his own. If he failed, it was mainly because he lacked ruthlessness without which a state cannot be governed in difficult times. But his failure as a ruler does not diminish his grandeur as a human being. He will live in the hearts of his countrymen”.
Let me conclude with an excerpt from Novak's book. In the words of Novak, “He was a very simple man with a simple set of beliefs in his nation and people. If he failed, people never betrayed him and only brought out the best in him. Yet he is BANGABANDHU, the FATHER of the NATION—not as a perfect statesman, but as a man who felt deeply about his people. He was man who flew as high as a man can fly. How many of us would have done better”?
The writer is the Convenor of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh. He writes from Toronto, Canada.