Only Sheikh Mujib could deliver
The month of March is a turning point in our history for this is the time when we achieved our independence from colonial Pakistani rule. Incidentally, this is also the month in which (on March 17) was born the father of the Bengali nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Perhaps equally important for the Bengali nation is the month of February, especially February 21, which in 1952 was stained with the blood of our brothers who sacrificed their lives for the recognition of Bengali as our state language.
Writer-researcher Mohiuddin Ahmed in a column appropriately defined March as a combination of “death and destruction on the one hand, and the advent of a new life on the other—all these mixed is the month of March.” He also rightly said, “In this month of March, we are reminiscent, we recollect the past and have the balance sheet of the days left behind, and even after that we go for hopes and expectations.”
Today is the all-important March 26, the auspicious day of our independence which we earned through great sacrifice. This is why we hold it so dear. This should be a day of remembrance of those who died in conflict with the enemies so we all could live in peace and prosperity. We often remember those heroic sons and daughters of Bengal whom we adore for bringing freedom for us in exchange for “a sea of blood”. But I often wonder if we are true to our pledge with them. If we claim to have not forgotten our brothers and sisters, who made such supreme sacrifices for us, we are pledge-bound to be faithful to the country and the nation.
Our independence from the Pakistani rulers of those days came, when on December 16, the Pakistani Army was vanquished and they surrendered to their Bengali victors and their Indian friends.
The shameful and ignominious defeat and surrender of our enemies, in the hands of our brave and courageous Mukti Fauj, is of little consolation for the loss of our manpower and resources in the Liberation War. These days, with the approach of March 26, we often chant that we will not forget our war heroes. I wonder if we are sincere in our lamentation for those who sacrificed their lives for our wellbeing, since we could not have behaved as well as we did in the past years of independence. Have we been able to remain committed to our people and the country we freed from foreign occupation after supreme sacrifices of many who died so we could live well?
In one of his recent columns, writer-researcher Mohiuddin Ahmed said, “I can swear that we would not have fought (for freedom) had we known that the provision of “state religion” would find place in Bangladesh constitution and millions of people would be hostage to some new class and families in place of 22 families (in Pakistan time). If these were to happen then why did we create Bangladesh breaking the Islamic Republic of Pakistan risking our lives? Even after all, with the approach of the month of March there is a lilt in the blood”.
However, so far as I am concerned, I can bear with the ineffective constitutional provision of a state religion. But I tend to share the censure by my young freedom-fighter-friend Mohiuddin of the rulers responsible for concentration of the country's wealth and resources in the hands of a few families in prosperity, leaving most of the people in poverty and adversity.
It was sometime before the 1970 general elections when there was some kind of an election fever in the capital Dhaka and elsewhere in the country. Most people had a hunch regarding the possible outcome of the general elections to the National Assembly. It was a time when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Awami League and other political parties had started campaigning of sorts for the approaching polls. The election was to be decisive for the future inter-wing relation
in the turbulent political situation between the two wings of Pakistan. It was more an issue between the West-wing ruling circle and the people of East Bengal, mainly mobilised by Sheikh Mujib and his Awami League with their six-point programme for East Bengal autonomy.
It was precisely at that time that, after the day's work one day, I was on my way back home in a three-wheeler rickshaw; its driver was a middle-aged man with an interest in political developments and the coming elections.
In Dhaka, the city-dwellers, especially the rickshaw pullers and other transport workers, small pavement shopkeepers and vendors through their interaction with various people kept abreast with the latest political development. And they had their own understanding of the prevailing political situation so they were usually quick to make their assessment that often proved to be close to the real-life political situation. Normally, their predictions were not very far from reality.
Out of my curiosity to assess the feeling and views of the common man about the political developments and the coming elections, I asked a rickshaw-puller about his view on the then prevailing election-based politics.
I asked him about whom he or his people were going to vote for in the coming elections to parliament. While still on the paddle driving his three-wheeler, he turned back and said he would vote for one who could “oust the westerners” (meaning Urdu-speaking non-Bengalis) from the soil of Bengal. I asked him, who do you think would be able to do it? His ready answer was, “Who else! It is Mujibar (alone who could do the job).”
After hearing the less educated but politically conscious rickshaw-puller, my instant reaction was that the mass of the Bengali people had by then taken their resolve to vote for Sheikh Mujib and his party Awami League in the coming elections.
Though I could not endorse or admire all the words and actions or views of Sheikh Mujib, I had respect for him as a person and admiration for his political leadership dedicated to interest of his people. Sheikh Mujib's commitment to the East Bengal's independence from the non-Bengali rule and exploitation had aroused in his fellow Bengalis, especially the commoners, an indomitable spirit of freedom and liberty that finally led to Bangladesh's liberation and independence.
The independence of East Pakistan, it's cessation from the West, was an obvious choice as the 1970 election results showed that the Bengalis of East Pakistan voted for Awami League and West Pakistan for Pakistan People's Party (PPP).
An American journalist, Arnold Zeitlin, Associated Press (AP) Bureau Chief in Rawalpindi, who was in Dhaka during those critical days, in one of his interviews published in a local journal said, “Some Punjabis did not consider Bengalis as true Muslims and their mistrust and hatred of the former gained ground from this belief”.
Zeitlin had come to Bangladesh when in December the country was in emergency as Beharis and Bengalis were rioting on the streets. On the night of March 25, 1971, most of the foreign journalists were sent to Karachi but Zeitlin managed to live behind and stayed in the city's Gulshan area with an acquaintance. Zeitlin claimed that he was the first foreign journalist who could send out news of the March 25 army crackdown.
In his comment on the surrender ceremony, Zeitlin said, “One thing I would like to ask is that why there was no senior leader from Bangladesh present at the occasion? Symbolically, this undermines the struggle for freedom of the Bengalis.” Zeitlin said the Bengalis' struggle for freedom goes back to the British rule. The Bengalis' struggle for independence started after the division of Bengal in 1905. And then it was a continuous process: the Lahore Resolution in 1940, the partition in 1947, the language movement in 1952, all led to the freedom of Bengalis.
Zeitlin further said that if he was to write a book on this subject, he would name it “Liberation betrayed”. Giving his reasons for this view, the eminent journalist said, “The people of Bangladesh have not achieved the fruits of freedom. There is no institution developed for the people. Dhaka city has become a city of black money. A certain class takes the role of Pakistan's economic exploitation on the Bengalis in the free Bangladesh.”
I had a fairly long association with Sheikh Mujib from my student days to the time he rose to eminence and Olympian height of popular leadership. And throughout the pinnacle of fame and glory and the grandeur and magnificence of political and state power, the great leader remained great.
During the days I travelled in his company, he as a political leader, and I as a journalist, covering his historic 1970 election campaign and many of his other political meetings, press conferences and parleys all over the country, I had found him amiable and loving. I have in my memory many major and minor stories of that time and many more episodes or interesting episodical stories. Some of those are of somewhat personal. They are reminiscences of a past not very distant, from only a few decades before when I was still young and he was not so old.
So far I remember it was possibly on Mujib's election campaign tour of south-west region in Khulna or Satkhira when we had stopped for a respite. We were driving in a landrover driven by a Mujib loyalist, Haji Morshed. While still driving from one place to another, the leader was trying to assess the possible outcome of the impending polls and how his party Awami League would fare in that.
We three journalists were with him covering that part of his poll campaign. He wanted to have our assessment about the possible election results. Syed Nazmul Huq of the then PPI said, “Mujib Bahi, I think, except for a few seats, you and your party are going to bag most of the 300 seats”.
Sheikh Mujib seemed to be pleased with Nazmul's assessment, and remarked, “I need at least two thirds of the 300 seats. I can't do without it.” I noticed that my conservative estimate did not dampen his robust optimism. And finally, the outcome of the polls was more than his expectation and was beyond my cautious conservative estimate.
I had one interesting experience of Sheikh Mujib's electioneering tactics used in his campaign in his hometown Gopalganj in Faridpur. By then, Sher-e-Bangla Fazlul Huq's only son AK Faizul Huq had joined Mujib's Awami League and was a parliamentary candidate from his home constituency. However, Faizul Huq with his father Fazlul Huq's extraordinary popular image no doubt, was an asset in Sheikh Mujib's election campaign.
Sheikh Sahib knew my father BD Habibullah, a close political associate of Sher-e-Bangla, and his son as a journalist then in his Press Corps in his entourage. Faizul Huq, Mujib knew would be good for his campaign, especially to his father's one-time supporters and admirers. Therefore, Sheikh Mujib felt he could expect the support of the old still influential politician and former Municipal Chairman. Sheikh Mujib as a wizard politician knew the ins and outs in politics and election campaigning. In Gopalganj, he along with his political entourage and Press Corps went to visit a former Municipal Chairman and one time staunch follower of Sher-e-Bangla Fazlul Huq.
Mujib while meeting the old, bearded former chairman had with him Faizul Huq and also called for me to be there. And he put his hands on our shoulders and told the senior local leader that he had with him his leader's son and also the son of his staunch follower BD Habibullah. So he told the old politician he could reasonably expect his support for him and his party Awami League.
Sheikh Mujib through his unarmed constitutional and parliamentary politics had virtually waged a war against the then President General Md Ayub Khan and his martial law regime. On the other hand, Sheikh Mujib was fighting against Ayub unarmed, and his troops were his fellow Bengalis who he said were also his fire-power.
Once while on a campaign tour, in a lighter mood he was gossiping with a few of us, journalists Syed Nazmul Huq, Hassan Sayeed and myself. Our conversation mainly centred on the possible outcome of the 70 elections. It was because on the results of the election depended the fate of the Bengalis.
In the course of our conversation, Sheikh Saheb jokingly referred to one of his private conversations with his wife, Fazilatunnessa Begum. And in his lighter he mood shared the joke with us. “Do you know what your Bhabi once remarked about my fight with and struggle against Ayub Khan's military government? She said, 'You are going to fight Ayub Khan's military regime. But there is no bullet in your gun. You have no fire-power.'” With a laugh he said, “I told her, my fellow Bengalis are the bullets in my gun.'” He again had a laughter and we enjoyed the joke and could appreciate the implied meaning of his remarks.
Sometimes when in between hectic election campaigns Bangabandhu was in a lighter mood, he would gossip with some of us, his journalist companions, and also some of his party workers. There were quite a few occasions when he would open up his mind, to share with a few of us his private and lighter conversations with his family. I recall at times he used to be in playful mood, especially with myself, Hassan Saeed of ENA, Giash Kamal Chowdhury of the Dawn, Karachi, and Syed Nazmul Huq of the then PPI news agency. I felt that among half a dozen journalists who usually used to accompany him in his campaign tour he used to be free with only a few of us.
The writer is former Chief Editor and Managing Director, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS), and former Director General, Press Institute of Bangladesh (PIB).