Syed Bodrul Ahsan::
Forty six years after the bloody coup d’état that brought Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s life to a sudden, tragic end, you remember the larger than life man he was. And you would do that because of the fundamental human qualities which defined his being. He inhabits our consciousness in all his largeness of form and substance, and not just in the physical sense of the meaning. Tall for a Bengali, he gave us all to understand that in him subsisted all those traits which underline the making of a political giant. His height mattered. So did his convictions. He was larger than life, in every sense of the meaning.
Think about it, think about all the other significant political figures who in the course of our modern history influenced our evolution into where we happen to be today. Bangabandhu falls within that category. And yet he breaks free of all those earlier stars and forms, within and by himself, a world apart. Of all the historical icons we have had cause to observe in our political ambience, only Bangabandhu stayed steadfast in purpose. That element you call compromise, or a shifting of the ground, was not part of his nature.
And that made all the difference. It became clear to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman towards the end of the 1950s that Bengalis needed to make their way out of Pakistan. And remember that he came of a generation which in the 1940s had gone all the way into making sure that the Lahore Resolution of 1940 was implemented in the interest of the Muslims of India. That Sheikh Mujibur Rahman could break out of the communal mould, that he was beginning to question the very basis of the country in whose creation he, like millions of other young men, had once taken immense interest — in participatory form — was an early hint of the greatness he was destined for.
The path to that greatness was clearly laid out in 1966 when he overrode every other concern to inform the ruling classes of Pakistan as well as his own people that it was time to reinvent the state through his Six Point programme for regional autonomy. There were the grumblers; there were those who saw in the plan a shrewd way of undermining the Muslim state. Men like Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan walked away, in protest, with a big chunk of the Awami League, hoping that Mujib’s faction of the party would simply fizzle out. In the event, it was the Nawabzada who was left dealing with threadbare politics. The Awami League became identified with the future Bangabandhu.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a man of huge self-esteem and an abundance of confidence. At the height of the Agartala conspiracy trial in 1968, he coolly told a western journalist that the Pakistani authorities would not be able to keep him incarcerated for more than six months. Note that he was on trial for sedition, possibly headed toward execution or a very long term in prison. In the event, he was free in a little over seven months. As he flew to Rawalpindi in February 1969 to attend the Round Table Conference called by a shrunken
President Ayub Khan, he quipped, ‘Yesterday a traitor, today a hero.’
In Rawalpindi, he spurned Ayub’s offer of the prime ministership of Pakistan. Always a man who went by the norms of political transparency and constitutional politics, he emphatically told Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in January 1971 that the December 1970 elections had given his party the right to govern Pakistan. The People’s Party had its place marked out: it was to be on the opposition benches. Bangabandhu’s principled stand in national politics was matched by bold demonstrations of his diplomatic convictions abroad.
He took Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal to task over the latter’s negative remarks on Pakistan’s break-up in 1971. He put Yakubu Gowon in his place when the Nigerian lamented the weakening of Muslim Pakistan through the rise of a secular Bangladesh. He asked Indira Gandhi, in blunt fashion, when she planned to take her soldiers back home from Bangladesh.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was Bengal’s very own. The mores and social norms Bengalis have grown up with through the generations were all exemplified beautifully in him. His smile radiated confidence and instilled courage in us. His sense of humour remains unmatched. He never forgot a face and always remembered names. His laughter reverberated across the room and beyond. He was always filling the room with his presence.
When he met complete strangers, he made them feel they had known him all their lives. When he found himself in the company of academics, he did not forget that these were men who deserved his unqualified respect. Alone among the great men we have known, he drew respect from the intellectual classes and the more humble of citizens alike. Across this land men of letters speak of Bangabandhu with reverence. Peasants and rickshaw pullers have always known him as their very own ‘Mozibor’ or as their unforgettable ‘Sheikh’.
For the people of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was their Druid, the high priest trudging through the woods and across villages in search of the beautiful and the sublime. In the hallowed councils of the world, he was a colossus striding across the moments that constituted the embroidered fabric of history.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer