It is the courage of Bangabandhu -- Sheikh Mujibur Rahman you miss as you go through life. And vet it is something more, something of values that you associate with any remembrance of him. He embodied some of the finest traditions that self respecting people anywhere have throughout the course of history upheld in their lives. And among those values is the refusal to compromise, to undermine yourself through a convenient jettisoning of the ideals that;’our have always held dear. Even as the round table conference went on in Kawalpindi in 1969, President Ayub Khan suggested to Mujib that he take charge as Pakistan’s prime minister. The Bengali leader spurned the offer. It was a natural gesture on the part of a man who had defied the winds and_ the trends of the times to come forth with the Six Points in 1966. It was Bengal that mattered to him. Nothing else did, or would.
It was all in character for Bangabandhu. He never flinched from doing or saying anything he thought was right, or made good sense. In December 1969, as Bengalis remembered Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy on his death anniversary Sheikh Mujibur Rahman let them, and by extension the world outside their own parameters, know that thenceforth East Pakistan would be known as Bangladesh. One hardly needed proof that Mujib had come a long way. Back in 1957, he had caused not a little distress to Suhratvardy, then Pakistan’s prime minister, by asking him bluntly if Bengalis could not opt out of the state Jinnah had cobbled into shape. Suhrawardy reprimanded him for entertaining such thoughts. Mujib then simply bided his time. When it came, he knew the task he needed to perform. His dedication to the causes he espoused was complete and without ambiguity. His disillusionment with Pakistan having taken a firm shape by the early 1960s, he knew which pa 4 he needed to take. And he took resolutely. There was little room in him for second thoughts
Bangabandhu was the troubadour who moved through the hamlets and villages of Bengal, disseminating the message that freedom from colonial rule and emancipation from economic exploitation were of the essence. Go into the remote regions of the Country and you will chance upon men who still recall their ‘Mujibor’ and everything he stood for. And what he stood for came alive assertively in 79?1 when seventy five million Bengalis prayed for him even as he languished in solitary confinement in Pakistan~ - All politics, all religion in the~” year of tragedy and decision focused on Bangabandhu. An entire war of national liberation was shaped and waged in his name. It was no mean feat, one that Fidel Castro remarked on when he met Bangladesh’s founder at the Algiers non-aligned summit in 1973. That Bangabandhu was a tall man, and not just in the literal sense, was what delighted Castro. And it subdued other men, like Nigeria’s Yakubu Gowon. A hostile King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was quickly shocked into silence by the courage of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Faisal, a man without vision, could not understand why the Bengalis had driven Pakistan out of their lives. Mujib then lectured him soundly on what Islam signified, and how the Pakistanis had distorted the faith. Principles, then, were what served as Mujib’s fundamental political premise. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came calling in January 1971, clearly to ask for a share of power with the majority Awami League, Bangabandhu made it clear that Bhutto’s People’s Party needed to be where the electoral judgment had placed it, in parliamentary opposition. It was a position he would maintain in the tumultuous season of March 1971, despite the growing pressure on him to relent. The Six Points could not be trifled with. And when the Pakistan army tried to shoot them down, he went for a single point: he declared the nation’s independence before being seized by the army.
There was always prescience in Mujib’s pronouncements. He calmly told a western journalist at the height of the Agartala Conspiracy Case trial in 1968, ‘You know, they can’t keep me here for more than six months.’ In the event, he was a free man in the seventh month. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s he went on reassuring Bengalis that freedom would come into their lives. And it did. He prepared for freedom in the way only a man believing in constitutional politics would. He was not revolutionary, which was why he was not willing to go for a direct confrontation with the Pakistan government. Neither was he an adventurist, for which reason lie warded off all calls for a unilateral declaration of independence on 7 March 1971. And vet the oratory of the day remains part of history, of the Bengali psyche, for everything it pointed to, for the clear set of guidelines he left for his people to follow in the event of his absence from the political scene. It was these guidelines that Bengalis worked on for nine months. His words, his image, his idealism served as a metaphor for the armed struggle for freedom. By the time the state of Pakistan took flight from Bangladesh on 16 December 1977, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had evolved further, into a liberator in the mould of Simon Bolivar, in the mould of everyone who had ever traversed a path to collective freedom. On a January day in 1972, as he spoke to the world on his arrival in London from Pakistani incarceration, he knew he had turned into an embodiment of history. He spoke of the joy of freedom inherent in the epic liberation struggle that the 1977 war had been.
Humility and basic decency defined Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He never forgot names and always remembered faces, even those he had come across in his youth. He surprised the Indian journalist Nikhil Chakravartty when the latter turned up at Bangabandhu’s news conference in late January 1972 in Dhaka. The two men had not met since 1946 and Chakravartty certainly did not expect Mujib to remember him. He was mistaken. As Bangabandhu entered the room, his gaze fell on the journalist. Then came the question, ‘Aren’t you Nikhil?’ The rest hardly needs to be recounted. Bangabandhu remembered the names of simple men, of peasants and labourers inasmuch as he recalled the names of unknown political workers. It was a trait that endeared him to millions, who then spotted in him a guiding spirit who would light their way out of the dark woods. His respect for academics was beyond question, as men like Professor Razzaque and Dr. Abdul Matin Chowdhury would know.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a natural. He laughed uproariously, and deeply. Anecdotes made him double over with laughter. He himself was a purveyor of tales garnered through his travels all across Bengal. A sense of humour, undiminished despite the long years in prison, marked him out from other politicians. When Abdus Samad Achakzai remarked, on meeting him in 1970, that Ayub Khan had turned him into an old man, he riposted, ‘Ayub Khan turn ko bhi buddha bana diva hum ko bhi buddha bana diya’ (Ayub Khan has made you an old man and has made me an old man as well). Welcoming Bangabandhu to his country in 1974, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahiyan of the United Arab Emirates noted that like him Mujib was a sheikh. ‘But there is a difference’, said Bangladesh’s leader. ‘I am a poor sheikh’. Both men burst into laughter.
And that is the story of a man who scaled the heights of greatness and yet did not lose touch with the dew on the grass. Here was a Caesar. When comes such another?
(This article was first published in Dhaka Courier)
What does it mean for a man, or a woman, to have ‘a life led in politics’? Is it one in the midst or at the forefront of great events, fashioning them and in so doing, changing the course of the destiny of nations? Is it one spent embroiled in the chicanery and attendant skulduggery of court intrigue and manoeuvring, striking down opponents while forwarding the cause of allies, both forged largely as a matter of expediency, and with the ultimate aim of arriving at the pinnacle yourself? Or is it one spent privy to history as it unfolds before you, all the time doing your bit to ensure no great harm is done to the natural order of things, but mostly just being along for the ride, with no sway or influence over how the deck of cards was dealt?
Most of history’s great men and women, in particular those who held the privilege of also at the same time being great leaders, would subscribe to one or a combination of those three outcomes. But in assessing the life of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose life was quintessentially political from any angle you look, we find all three of these descriptions falling short in the face of one simple epitaph: he led it for his people.
This is the single-greatest attribute that shines through, right from the start of his political education, that we may date to the visit in 1938 by Prime Minister A.K. Fazlul Huq and Labour Minister H.S. Suhrawardy of Bengal’s provincial government to Gopalganj, during which Bangabandhu, aged hardly 18, first met and then subsequently started a correspondence with the latter that would continue till 1963, the year of Suhrawardy’s death. The relationship they formed over the course of the quarter-century they knew each other would prove of acute significance to the lives of the people whose cause they espoused, the people of Bengal. As the founding father of a nation-state with a population touching 75 million at the hour of Independence (now exceeding 160 million by most estimates), Bangabandhu may well be said to have surpassed his mentor in history’s estimation. But for anyone to undermine the influence Suhrawardy had over the young Mujib would be sadly misguided.
Notably, Suhrawardy’s name is the first to appear, indeed in just the second paragraph, of Bangabandhu’s revelatory ‘Unfinished Memoirs’, that finally came out in 2010, thirty-five years after his cruel and unjust killing at the hands of some disgruntled army officers on August 15, 1975 - a black date if there ever was one. In it, penning the words in the confines of his small room in Dhaka Central Jail, Bangabandhu credits Suhrawardy for having taught him ‘the essentials of political life’. Yet the question remains, can anyone be taught to feel empathy for people you are not related to? Can you bristle with indignation at injustice when its brunt is faced by others? These are instincts that would have to be innate to a person’s self, to exert the kind of influence they did over Bangabandhu’s life and actions, that we saw over the course of the life he led.
It is in the words he himself has written, even though they end up covering such a short period of his life - till 1955 - that we get certain hints of the humanity, that seamless sense of being at one with his fellow men and women, even as he was their leader, that would end up characterising his words and deeds, the choices he made, in becoming Bangabandhu - the Friend of Bengal - as he was proclaimed, upon his release from the jail term he was serving from 1966-69 in connection with the Agartala Conspiracy Case.
Can there be any greater recognition for a leader, than to be conferred with the title of your people’s friend? A nickname itself denotes a kind of transcendent place even within the pages of history, and it can often be grandiose, in which case you know just from hearing it (Suleiman the Magnificent, Ivan the Terrible, the Mahatma), but it can never lie. And in the case of Bangabandhu, in its almost homespun simplicity lies the secret to its time-tested truth: right from the days that the people of Bengal (his maa-e ra, his bhai-ra, pronounced with such sincerity in his speeches) first started making his acquaintance as a strapping, bespectacled youth with a genuine face that encouraged you to open about your problems, their ‘Mojibor’, to the bitter but already triumphant end as the one who gave them their nation, history’s Sheikh Mujib, here was a man who always stood by his people.
In ‘Unfinished Memoirs’, this comes through in an early section on his birth and the house into which he was born in Tungipara of Gopalganj. Now in almost our fifth decade as an independent country, one cannot help but notice how our society still struggles to let go of an unhealthy bondage to regressive conceptions of status and self-worth, that are the definitive leftovers of a feudal and colonised past. We note the unhealthy obsession with ‘obhijaat’ family histories, and to that end people’s efforts to glorify it and exaggerate even the good bits.
Bangabandhu, in describing the fortunes of the Sheikhs of Tungipara since their arrival on the banks of the Modhumati through one Sheikh Borhanuddin ‘many years ago’, almost denigrates it for how it had mismanaged wealth and property to be reduced to living, at the time of his birth, to “tin-roofed houses surrounding these crumbled buildings.” It isn’t self-deprecating as much as it is disarmingly honest. In addressing his people, Sheikh Mujib could never deign to lie to them. I have written elsewhere on the honesty that comes through in his speeches. Speeches, interviews, books and memoirs form the compendium of a leader’s dialogue with his people. And in that dialogue, Bangabandhu never deigned to lie to them. It would rob him of the conviction with which he always pronounced, ‘my people’, in some of his English interviews, such as the one with David Frost, the great British journalist, or at that memorable press conference at Heathrow on 9th January, 1972. And always, ‘amar maa-e ra, amar bhai-ra’.
His people are what you can never take away from him. And his identification with them was, to be sure, innate. You learn this not just from his epochal deeds that feature in history’s timeline, but in also noting some of his most casual ones, from people’s private recollections. I was fortunate to be privy to a few such occasions, and also hearing about them from those belonging to my generation, or older ones. Just from how he would address them to how he would retain minute details relating to the life of people you would think so far removed from him. Little did one know, how he saw it so differently. In assessing Bangabandhu’s leadership, the great lesson on the timeless art of leadership it delivers, is that it stems from those who succeed most, in thinking of themselves as part of the people they represent. In internalising the attachment that a leader must achieve in his relationship with the people. His was perhaps not a bookish sort of democracy, the word itself derived from the Greek demos, meaning people. And there can be no doubting from the life he led in politics, that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was always unquestioningly for, unflinchingly of, and unfailingly by, his people.
(This article was first published in Dhaka Courier)
In the dawn of August 15, 1975, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman made one of his final phone calls to his military secretary, the then Colonel Jamil Uddin Ahmad. He had been attacked, Bangabandhu told Col Jamil, and the residence on Road 32 was surrounded. Then the line went dead.
On a night when conspiracy was afoot and uncertainty gripped the city, and with the country's leadership seemingly paralysed, Col Jamil did not shrink from doing his duty. He called senior officers, including the chief of army staff, Gen Shafiullah, and told them to send in troops. He then ordered the Presidential Guard Regiment (PGR), charged to defend Bangabandhu, and headed for Road 32 immediately.
Calmly holstering his service revolver, Jamil tried to reassure his wife and children: "Bangabandhu is in danger. How can I not go?"
"Look after my daughters," was his final request before he mounted his jeep and headed off into the darkness.
Arriving in front of Sobhanbagh mosque, Col Jamil found that the PGR convoy had halted. He demanded to know the reason, and was told that there were army units ahead and that there was gunfire. He tried to convince the troops to march forward.
Then realising that time was running out, he got into his jeep and prepared to drive into Road 32 himself.
The valiant patriot was shot dead as he sat in his jeep and embraced martyrdom, trying to save the leader whom he had, like many others, sworn to protect. It was the steadfast adherence to his principles that guided Col Jamil in the final moments of his life. On a night when many brave souls hesitated, Jamil did not waver. It was the supreme test of courage and honour - and he passed with flying colours.
It was not until about 2pm on August 16, 1975 that the family of Col Jamil learnt anything definitive about his fate.
A call came from Gen Shafiullah, whom Col Jamil had asked at dawn to send troops to Bangabandhu's rescue. Mrs Jamil answered the phone and the chief of army choked as he broke the news of her husband's death. Bangladesh had lost a true patriot.
A man of extraordinary character, Col Jamil had been held hostage in Pakistan during the Liberation War. But his integrity and professionalism as a career army officer led him to be appointed military secretary to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in an independent Bangladesh.
Gen Shafiullah, who had trained with Jamil at the Pakistan Military Academy, had this to say when remembering his slain comrade many years later: “Jamil Bhai, myself, and the few Bangalee officers who were in Pakistan in those days had a regular liaison among ourselves. That was the time when Bangalee nationalism was at its budding stage.
As members of the majority of the population of Pakistan, we saw it the hard way how small our representations had been in the armed forces. Whenever we met, we used to talk about this. Jamil Bhai's sense of nationalism was the strongest among us, and at times he would burst out in anger and desperation."
In 2010, Jamil was promoted posthumously to the rank of Brig General, and awarded the Bir Uttam in recognition of his valour as he was killed trying to save Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib on the fateful morning of August 15, 1975.
That the recognition was so late in coming is a sign of the polarisation of our country, where even supreme act of courage and sacrifice are seen through the lens of partisanship. For the nation it's a belated reminder of the man's greatness.
And it also is a time to reflect on what the actions of this true hero mean to Bangladesh's history in general.
"Jamil's soul will be in peace and I will also die in peace," Jamil's eldest daughter Tehmina Enayet said. "My father was an honest officer. I'm proud that my father sacrificed his life for such a great leader."
Brig Gen Jamil's deeds outlive his mortal existence. He answered his country's call, and did not hesitate to lay down his life in the line of duty. When the nation stood at a crossroads, Brig Gen Jamil displayed the moral courage that marks a great soldier and a true hero.
Enayetullah Khan is Editor-in-Chief, United News of Bangladesh (UNB) & Dhaka Courier.
If Sheikh Kamal had lived until now he would have been in his seventies, an age which was quite desirable as per the LEB (Life expectancy at birth) in Bangladesh. But that did not happen. His fate was decided by on that fateful August night in 1975. It is so tragic that he died only at the age of 26 just a month after his marriage but it is more than a tragedy and so entirely unexpected that he has been much maligned by the killers and their henchmen in the wake of the seizure of power by the anti-liberation forces after the August tragedy. Maybe, perhaps, he was the heir apparent to the Father of the Nation’s politics. Yes, he is Kamal, Sheikh Kamal, Bangabandhu’s eldest son and the second of the five children. A tragic hero in the history of Bangladesh!
Born on 5 August 1949, in Tungipara under the district of Gopalganj, Kamal’s childhood was spent on the banks of Madhumati and Raghiya playing with the village-boys. That he later became a great champion of sport and its patronage has perhaps, become implanted in his mind in the village life in Tungipara.
What he greatly missed in Tungipara was fatherly affection. As a matter of fact, he could hardly see his father after his birth. Bangabandhu had to remain in jail almost round the year for his rebellion against the Pakistan establishment. Once on his release from imprisonment he came to Tungipara to meet his family. All his children were jumping for joy at getting their father in their midst. The small boy Kamal, however, could not understand the reason for the joy, nor could he recognize the man who was the source of their joy. However, he found it astonishing that his elder sister Hasina was calling him Abba. He leaned over and shyly whispered in her ear, “Hashu Aapa, Hashu Aapa, please let me call your father Abba”. This is what Sheikh Kamal was—a shy and intelligent boy!
From his early life Kamal was very interested in sports. While attending Shaheen School in Dhaka he used to take part in all kinds of sports of which cricket attracted him most. He used to play cricket in first division for Azad Boys Club and Basketball in first division for Spurs Club. He was a robust fast bowler. With high speed and a perfect sense of line and length, he could easily beat the opposition batsman. He was one of the best rising pace bowlers in undivided Pakistan. But due to being a Bangali and the son of Mujib, he gained no recognition for his talent for cricket.
Not only in the field of cricket, Kamal had more strings to his bow. He showed considerable talent for and interest in other cultural and aesthetic activities like music, acting, debate, extempore speech. A student of Dhaka College and of Dhaka University Social Science Department, Kamal tried to represent Bangladesh and Bengali culture overseas. He was also a student of Chhyanot and himself a good actor he established Dhaka Theatre. A resident of Salimullah Muslim Hall, he was the captain of the Hall’s Basketball team and held the championship of his team for the whole of his stay at the hall. During the tumultuous days of the 1969 mass movement, while the Pakistan junta imposed a ban on Rabindranath’s songs in Bangladesh, Sheikh Kamal along with millions of Bengali defied the ban and kept practicing Rabindrasangit (Songs of Rabindranath). On and after the 25 March 1971 when the marauding occupation army went on the rampage in and around the country and Mujib was arrested and kept in the prison of Pakistan, Sheikh Kamal jumped into the freedom fight with hundreds of thousands of freedom fighters with the vow of saving the dignity of motherland. He took training from India and worked as the Aide-de-Camp (ADC) to Commander-in-Chief of Bangladesh Armed Forces, General Ataul Gani Osmani during the War of Liberation. He received wartime commission in Bangladesh Army and played an important role in the freedom fight both as a fighter and an organizer.
In the tempestuous hours of the war, Kamal was not oblivious of his passion for sports. He always raised his hope for the independence of Bangladesh and for the improvement of Bangladesh sports. He expressed his desire to the manager of Swadhin Bangla Football Team, Tanvir Mazhar Tanna that he would bring about radical changes in the sport scene of the country if her independence is gained. And Kamal kept his word. Upon return to newly independent Bangladesh, he established Abahani Social Welfare Organization and in 1972 purchased Iqbal Sporting Football Team and Ispahani Sporting Cricket and Hockey team under the organization. And finally in combination with all these, emerged Abahani Krira Chakra. Sheikh Kamal was the founder-president of this leading sporting club in the country. The history of Abahani Krira Chakra is the history of sports in independent Bangladesh. Kamal dreamed of taking the standards of Bangladesh football, cricket and hockey to international heights and of making Bangladesh a sports super power. He used to collect promising players from every nook and cranny of the country and also hired coaches like Bill Heart from abroad.
His contribution to the establishment of the infrastructure of Bangladesh national sports is of immense importance. Sheikh Kamal is an unsung hero in the history of Bangladesh who was a symbol of the nation’s indomitable youth. His achievements earned over a lifespan of only 26 years would be an abiding source of inspiration for generations to come.
Dr. Rashid Askari is a writer, columnist, fictionist, translator, media personality and vice chancellor of Islamic University, Bangladesh. Email: email@example.com