Sheikh Mujib: The evolution of a great leader
Intro to S M Ali's piece
On the occasion of the 48th Anniversary of Independence, we reprint below a segment of a piece written by an eminent journalist and the founding editor of The Daily Star, the late S M Ali. The article was published in a book titled, “After the Dark Night”, in 1974. The article narrates the blossoming of a young student leader from a forlorn part of East Bengal before the participation of India in 1947, to a full-fledged politician, and eventually the leader who was to carve out a separate country for the Bengali nation to became the Father of the Nation. The article narrates Bangabandhu's rise from the ranks of the party to the Joint Secretary of the Awami League, the birth of which he was intimately involved, and eventually the stewardship of the party and the people of the then East Pakistan during the tumultuous days of the late 1950s and 60s, precipitating in the fateful day of 26 March, 1971.
It merits mentioning that the author and Bangabandhu were contemporaneous personalities, whose careers developed in tandem, one as a politician and the other as a journalist. We hope that while reading the piece the readers would put it in the context of the time it was written -- 1974. It was a time when the country had just emerged from a traumatic war of liberation, and Bangabandhu, after his nine-month long incarceration in a Pakistani jail, arrived in Bangladesh, only to find a country that was recovering from both psychological trauma and physical devastation. During such a time was the piece written, when on one occasion during the stopover of the author in Dhaka, on his way to Hong Kong where was working as the managing editor of the Hong Kong Standard, that he interviewed Bangabandhu for the last time.
While a great deal has been written, inside Bangladesh and outside, about Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman 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 eminence in pre-partition Bengal, Mujib 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 close to their group. Mujib 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 of 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 Mujib, 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, Mujib was seeking adjustment in economic and political relations between Dhaka and Karachi through constitutional means.
Yet, the fire within Mujib was burning. As a minister in the provincial cabinet, he was never particularly happy. 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 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 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 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.
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.
After all, when the people of Bangladesh are no longer swept off their feet merely by the charisma of their great leader, they may 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 contribute to the success of Mujib, the man and the politician.
This article, which is slightly edited,is taken from his book "After the Dark Night" written in 1974 and published by Thompson Press (India)
The writer was the Founding Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star.