Sheikh Mujib: The evolution of a great leader
“I am poor, I am empty-handed,
Please take my love
For that is all I have.”
—Poet Rabindranath Tagore, quoted by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in a speech in Calcutta on February 6, 1972
“Man is only truly great when he acts from the passions.”
To most Bengalis, even to those who disapprove of the Awami League, Sheikh Mujib is the real hope for Bangladesh, a hope they do not want to give up. A leader who spent some eleven years in prison, twice came very close to the gallows, first during the infamous Agartala Conspiracy Case staged by Ayub in December 1967; and then by Yahya during the Bangladesh liberation struggle. Mujib is the triumph of survivality, a gift that many believe the leader can now pass on to his nation. That Mujib has won the hearts of millions of his people, inside and outside the country, by his courage, fearlessness and steadfast devotion to the cause of his people is now acknowledged by all, regardless of their opinion of Mujib as a politician. And when the Sheikh fails to win anyone by his courage, he wins him by his charisma and personal charm, or, if he is addressing a meeting, by his powerful oratory and uncanny ability to communicate with the audience, regardless of the size of the crowd. I suspect television and radio, which he has so far seldom used, would hardly do full justice to his appeal for the masses.
Of course, Sheikh Mujib himself is fully conscious—some say, a little overconscious—of his hold over the masses and of his close relationship with his people, which, at times, but now always, transcends political affiliations. The Prime Minister talks about this relationship quite often, in his usual overconfident tone. A good example of this was his short speech on January 10, 1972, at New Delhi's Palam Airport where he had made a stopover after his release from prison in Pakistan. After describing his trip as “a journey from darkness to light,” the Sheikh said, “In these nine months my people have traversed centuries. When I was taken away from my people, they wept; when I was held in captivity, they fought; and now when I go back to them, they are victorious.”
“My people love me,” is an oft-quoted remark of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In foreign press reports, the claim is sometimes treated with a touch of sneer, which is unfortunate, because the Sheikh says this in all sincerity and apparently derives his real strength as a leader from this “love of my people.”
As a man, the leader of his people, Sheikh Mujib represents a phenomenon in Bangladesh, which works against all odds and survives many possible challenges to the personal authority of the 52-year-old architect of the young state.
However, this leader of outstanding personal courage and tremendous charm who has a beautiful love affair going with his people is also a politician, the head of an administration and the prime minister of a country of 75 million people. While he exudes his personal charm and exercises his charisma over his people, he also handles power, runs an administration, formulates policies, issues directives and operates a party machine.
While it would be totally impossible to separate Mujib, the politician, from Mujib, the man, the two can often appear as separate entities. To the critics of the regime, Mujib, the man also sometimes obscures, and shields, the politician Sheikh, especially when some serious blunders committed by the government become topics for serious discussion at home and abroad. While a great deal has been said, inside Bangladesh and outside, about Mujib the man, let us, for a change, look at the politician who is often hiding behind the man, and trace his career.
A student leader of some eminence in pre-partition Bengal, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman plunged into politics soon after the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947. His entry into the student politics in Dhaka University where he was admitted into the Faculty of Law did not create much of a stir. But he was noticed because he was a good orator and because he enjoyed the backing of a small group of Muslim League politicians—including Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the former chief minister of undivided Bengal, who were already mobilising their forces against the autocratic rule of Liaquat Ali Khan, the then prime minister of Pakistan. Those who knew the Sheikh, a tall handsome young man with a trim moustache, could hardly see in him the future Father of the Nation of the Republic of Bangladesh.
Those were the days when, through the Language Movement launched by the students in February, 1948 to demand equal treatment for Bengali and Urdu as official languages of Pakistan, the pro-Communist leftists and their sympathisers had captured the limelight. Men like Mohammad Toaha, Munier Chowdhury, later a professor of Bengali in Dhaka University and killed by the Pakistani army during the liberation struggle; Oli Ahad, an opposition politician in Bangladesh; and Tasadduq Ahmed, now living in London, emerged as radical youth leaders. Tajuddin Ahmad, another Muslim League student leader, later the finance minister of Bangladesh, was certainly closer to the group than Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who probably had already developed his distrust of the left student movement in what was then East Pakistan.
The leftist student leadership in the Dhaka University had its misgivings about the Sheikh and his moderate role. But Mujib probably already knew that he was capable of taking over the leadership of a non-communist, or a thinly-disguised anti-communist, mass movement, provided he completely identified himself with the growing nationalist trends in East Pakistan politics.
While the leftist student leaders who had shunned him in the early-'40s quietly disappeared from the scene—some had gone underground, a few had changed their views and some had quit politics—Sheikh Mujib slowly built up his mass support, established his own credentials as a leader who was not afraid to go to jail and developed a keen awareness of the smouldering sense of revolt among his people. The only other leader who was doing exactly the same was Moulana Bhashani who, as the president of Awami League, was the Sheikh's party chief from 1949 to 1957. Mujib called him Huzur (master), while Bhashani often referred to the Sheikh as “my son”.
However, if any politician was Mujib's guru, he was not Bhashani, but Shaheed Suhrawardy. When Suhrawardy had formed the Awami League in 1949, he made Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then no more than a firebrand student leader, his joint secretary. From then, the two worked very closely and understood each other completely. Suhrawardy valued Mujib's tremendous organising skill, his boundless energy and unqualified devotion to the party; Mujib admired everything about Suhrawardy, his political acumen, his sharp intellect and even his domineering personality. The two also needed each other. Mujib needed an all-Pakistan personality as his mentor, while Suhrawardy could not do without someone like Mujib to help him build up his mass support among the Bengalis. The two retained their close relationship right until 1963 when Suhrawardy, in his early-60s died a frustrated man in Beirut.
The influence that Suhrawardy exercised on Mujib was one of moderation; some would attribute the Sheikh's distrust of communism to the political teachings of this one-time Prime Minister of Pakistan. No wonder when the Awami League split over the pro-American foreign policy of Suhrawardy, the prime minister of Pakistan in 1957, the Sheikh supported Suhrawardy and opposed Bhashani who quit the presidentship of the organisation to form the National Awami Party.
Suhrawady also introduced Mujib to the art of constitutional politics and thus exercised a softening influence on his ardent Bengali revolutionary comrade.
Between 1953 and 1957, Sheikh Mujib came pretty close to becoming a member of the establishment, pursuing rather a soft line in seeking adjustment in economic and political relations between Dhaka and Karachi through constitutional means.
Yet, the fire within Mujib never died out. As a minister in the provincial cabinet, he was never particularly successful. Besides, he did not get on well with the two provincial chief ministers, with Fazlul Huq in 1954 and with Ataur Rahman in 1956. The dissatisfaction among the masses, the growing restiveness among the rank and file of the Awami League and the continuing feud between the provincial administration and the Pakistan central government over financial allocation for East Pakistan made Sheikh Mujib more and more disenchanted with the system.
Between 1956 and 1958, while serving in East Pakistan as the bureau chief of the Lahore daily, the Pakistan Times, I had several conversations with Mujib on the general political situation of the country. During one conversation, probably in late-1957, he had mentioned to me his “firm belief” that the people of Bengal must find their own destiny and make their own future.
We had met at an official reception held in honour of a visiting delegation. Mujib took me aside and started discussing the latest political situation. It was then that he made this observation. But the discussion remained unfinished.
Was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman then already thinking of independence for East Pakistan? Probably yes. In fact, some official propagandists in Bangladesh now claim that the Bengali leader had become convinced that “East Pakistan” should be totally independent as early as in 1948, soon after the Language Movement had rocked the country.
The Sheikh might have thought about an independent Bangladesh in 1957, if not in 1948, but he did not present his now famous Six Point Programme for autonomy before 1966, three years after the death of his political mentor, Suhrawardy.
Between October 1958 when the Sheikh was first arrested by General Ayub and February, 1969 when he was first released from jail, the man who was to create a new nation was either in prison or under house arrest. But there were short periods in between when the Sheikh used his freedom to organise the Awami League along increasingly militant lines.
From February, 1969, onwards, events moved swiftly. The general election in December, 1970 which gave Mujib's Awami League an unprecedented landslide victory was followed by Yahya's postponement of the session of the national parliament, the civil disobedience movement launched by the Sheikh, the abortive Sheikh-Yahya talks in Dhaka, the army crackdown, the arrest of the Sheikh and the war for liberation of Bangladesh.
By any standard, this is a remarkable political career which, through a quarter of a century, has been shaped by powerful events whose sequence belies the anticipation of even the main actors in the drama, including the Sheikh himself.
The obvious distinguishing features of Sheikh Mujib’s career are his indomitable courage, his continuous reliance on his own mass support and his frequent use of agitational politics as an instrument to achieve his objectives.
Right through the decade of the '60s, when Mujib's role was clearly that of an ardent revolutionary Bengali-nationalist leader, we see him dominating the Awami League and, through it, the entire political scene of what was then East Pakistan. There were conflicting tendencies and contradictions within the man's personality, which were often clearly reflected in his political strategy. He was loved and almost adored by the masses and he tried his best to play the role of a democratically elected leader of a political party, fighting for democracy in the country. But he himself had become a domineering personality and had grown markedly impatient of criticisms and a little disdainful of the so-called committee decisions and all forms of collective leadership.
Yet, he developed a power base of his own, especially among young students in the universities, quite independent of the influence of the party. In this sense, he attached much greater importance to personal loyalty which he undoubtedly enjoyed from his followers—and friends who did not even belong to the Awami League—than to old-fashioned ideas about party discipline or democratic cohesiveness within the organisation.
It can of course be argued that if Sheikh Mujib had run the organisation or followed a political strategy strictly according to conventions, there would have been no Bangladesh now and East Pakistan would still be fighting with Islamabad for its rights.
Over the years, Sheikh Mujib mellowed a great deal, perhaps more as a man than as a politician. As one of his close associates says, after all these years in prison, he now so obviously enjoys being back with his family. Once he was a rather strict father to his five children; now he is kind, considerate and even gentle.
To people who know him well, even Mujib, the politician is no longer quite the same. He is still the determined, tough leader who fought his way from one crisis to another, but he no longer has that touch of arrogance which his party colleagues once found rather disconcerting.
A former Awami League leader, Shah Azizur Rahman who supported the army rule was arrested by the Bangladesh police soon after liberation. His wife came to see the Sheikh to plead for her husband. Mujib said plainly that the law should take its own course. Then, taking his private secretary completely by surprise, the Sheikh ordered that Shah Azizur Rahman's wife be paid Tk 500 (approximately USD 65) every month from the Prime Minister's Special Fund for the family's living expenses. “Until when?” the Secretary asked in bewilderment. “Well, until the case against Shah Azizur Rahman has been settled by the court one way or the other,” the Sheikh replied and made it clear that he wanted no further discussion on the subject.
For writing a good “copy”, my last meeting with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which took place in Dhaka, in the first week of October, was somewhat unproductive. I was on my way to Hong Kong after a visit to London and had arrived in Dhaka just when Mujib had begun the clean-up operation. The stage was set for the meeting of Parliament which was scheduled to pass the draft constitution. Politically, Mujib was in good form.
Yet, one strong impression the Sheikh made on me during an hour-long informal discussion was one of defensiveness. It was difficult for me to be quite clear about what it was. He talked on, without even a pause, cataloguing the things he had done for the country since last January and did not give me much of a chance to ask any question. He spoke in his usual confident tone. And he did make some passing references to his difficulties.
At the same time, I felt almost certain that the Sheikh was open to discussion, even to some arguments. For one thing, I could not overlook the fact that he had taken the trouble of spelling out his views to me in a purely informal discussion. I knew that although he had talked on without even a pause, I was free to interrupt him and ask him questions. In fact, a dialogue was possible, provided I could stay in the country and meet him again, and again.
While driving back home after the interview, I recalled a statement made by an old friend of the Sheikh that while he (Mujib) had so many followers, he really had no advisors as such, either inside his party or outside, people who would meet him for serious honest discussion, not to ask for petty personal favours. With the possible exception of two or three ministers the Sheikh's Cabinet colleagues simply wanted to remain on good terms with the boss and would not dare take any risk. It was worse with the average leaders of the Awami League and senior civil servants. To them, Bangabandhu was the great leader who could not be argued with or challenged to a serious debate on any issue.
Like many other strong men before him, including Sukarno and Nkrumah, Sheikh Mujib is very much alone and, therefore, very much vulnerable.
Mujib is vulnerable because the euphoria in Bangladesh about him cannot last forever. One day, sooner rather than later, he may find his policies subjected to a more critical attention, by commentators at home and abroad, than they are today. After all, when the people of Bangladesh are no longer swept off their feet merely by the charisma of their great leader, they may also develop a more realistic understanding of the statesman who controls the destiny of this young nation. It is this intelligent understanding, especially from the politically conscious middle class, that can ensure the success of Mujib, the man and the politician.
The writer was Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star at the time of publishing this article.
This is an excerpt from an article published in the daily star on August 15, 1992, which Was TAKEN, IN PARTS, from After the Dark Night, a book by S. M. Ali published by Thomson Press (India) Ltd in 1974.