Towards a Consensus on Honouring Bangabandhu
Time has come for us to separate the facts and fiction about the achievements of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This task we need to undertake to do justice to the memory of the man who waged a lifelong struggle to promote the political, economic and cultural rights of the people of erstwhile East Pakistan. But a more compelling reason for undertaking such a task is to set the record straight for our own sake, to clear our own understanding of the past, so that we can work together to build a strong and prosperous future. In other words, we need to give Bangabandhu his due place in our history, for our own sake and not for his.
Nations fall into deadly intellectual traps – and we seem to have a special knack for doing so at regular intervals – when they try to judge historical events in accordance with the political convenience of the present. The memory of Bangabandhu is a classic example of how a national hero becomes a victim of politicisation of history. As so much of our politics consists of looking back, rather than forward, distortion of the past – both in a positive and negative manner – becomes an inseparable and indispensable part of the present day politics.
It is my view that if our political parties would have been a little more forward-looking, and would concentrate on giving us a vision of the future, then there would have been far less distortion of the past, especially that of the life and work of the Founder of our State – Sheikh Mujib. The compulsion of the Mostaque clique, and those who benefitted from the violent overthrow of the elected government, to malign and distort the memory of Bangabandhu, is to a large extent, understandable. They cannot establish their raison d'etre, unless the image of Bangabandhu is distorted. But the present BNP government, which came to power through a popular mandate, should have no such compulsion. It is unfortunate, therefore, that Begum Zia's government was unable to rise above petty and narrow partisan view of Sheikh Mujib. However, it is my belief that BNP can still do so if it realises the true significance of its popular mandate. There are millions of Mujib admirers who may not be supporters of the Awami League, and who voted for the ruling party in the last election. In other words, Sheikh Mujib is no longer a partisan figure, but a national one, with his place in history indelibly etched in the hearts and minds of our people for the singular role he played in securing our independence.
Bangabandhu is not the first founder of a state to fall victim to assassins' bullets, within a few years of giving birth to their dream states. The closest analogy is that of Mahatma Gandhi, who was killed within a year of India's birth. Not a similar case, but close to the point, is the case of Liaquat Ali Khan, the founding Prime Minister of Pakistan. He was killed a few years after the birth of Pakistan. However, the tragic difference is that the two leaders mentioned above, both adorn official places of supreme respect in their respective countries. Mujib, on the other hand, remains officially unacknowledged [as of 1993] as the leader of our revolution, and the unrecognised Founder of our State. Why has it come to such a pass? The answer, as I said earlier, is the vulgar politicisation of our history.
In formulating an objective view of Sheikh Mujib's role, it is, first of all necessary to make a very important distinction, between our judgement on his killing, and on the evaluation of his role as our national hero. Bangabandhu's killing should receive universal condemnation both from his supporters and those who are his opponents. In condemning the assassination, we are expressing our opposition to the act which is contrary to all civilised norms. In condemning his killing, we uphold the rule of law, we uphold constitutional government, we uphold representative system of governance. By the same act we condemn the forcible overthrow of elected governments. It is my belief that if Bangabandhu's killers were not allowed to go scot-free, President Zia may not have fallen victim in the hands of another set of assassins. The strongest evidence in support of this view is that, as Zia's killers were punished, there were no further assassination attempts later, and Ershad's power transfer could be without any bloodletting.
On this occasion of the 18th death anniversary of Bangabandhu, can we not expect our two leading parties — BNP and AL— to come to some sort of a consensus on paying respect to our national heroes? Could not the BNP recognise Bangabandhu as the founder of Bangladesh and the leader of our nationalist struggle? In calling for this understanding, I am not asking for any special accommodation by either of the two parties but only for the recognition of the truth. At the moment, neither of these two parties have either the self-confidence, or the vision, and far less the interest of the nation at heart, to do this. But they will be willing to do so, if they both realise that the future politics of both the AL and BNP will depend on the public's evaluation of the contribution of these two parties in national development.
The recognition of Bangabandhu as the Father of the Nation and the Founder of the State of Bangladesh, and officially giving him his due place of honour, will go a long way in unifying the nation. Such a move by the BNP government will not strengthen the hands of its opponents—AL—as it may fear. On the contrary, it will strengthen its own. Just as BNP's adopting the AL election pledge of introducing parliamentary form of government did not give the latter any extra strength, but helped the BNP because it gave evidence of flexibility and willingness to respond to popular will. So also will be the case if the ruling party gives due official honour to Bangabandhu. More importantly, it will help to heal the divisive wound that so severely afflicts our nation at the moment.
The writer was the Executive Editor of The Daily Star at the time of publishing this article.
EXCERPT FROM ARTICLE ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON AUGUST 15, 1993, THE DAILY STAR