Bangabandhu: The making of a great leader

Brigadier General  Saleem Ahmad Khan

Since colonial times, the world has witnessed a number of revolutions and movements that brought enormous change in the social and political dynamics of the world, and above all, in the life of the common people. These revolutions were a response to the particular realities of their time. Bangladesh’s independence struggle was a revolution that had been in the making for roughly 25 years, starting after the partition of Greater India in 1947 which led to the creation of Pakistan split into two wings (east and west). For 25 years, the people of the east wing suffered, without much hope, until they stood up and fought for their independence in 1971 under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Without any doubt, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is the architect of Bangladesh, the Father of the Nation. Mujib showed the first sign of being a people’s leader in 1943 when he distributed rice to the famine-stricken people from his father’s stockpile, without any knowledge of the latter. In the coming years, he grew up to be the leader he was meant to be, and steered his nation to their most glorious moment in history. He was—from that first sign of leadership till the day he died—a people’s leader. Gary J. Bass, while referring to a cable from the US Consulate in Dhaka, mentioned, “Mujib’s very appearance suggested raw power, a power drawn from the masses and from his own strong personality. He was tall and sturdy, with rugged features and intense eyes.”

But the history of the sufferings of the Bengalis goes back even before Pakistan’s creation. They endured suppression and subjugation since the British colonial times. By the end of the Second World War, up to three million Bengalis died of malnutrition and related diseases, which was considered a direct result of the extraction of Indian resources from the Bengal for British war efforts. Pakistan also treated its east wing (now Bangladesh) as a “colony”. Pakistani historian Ayaz Gull argued, “Pakistan did not make serious efforts for the economic uplift of East Pakistan and thus disparities existed.” Hamid Yusaf said, “Exclusion of East Pakistan from a share in political authority contributed to the rise of the movement for regional autonomy.”

In 1948, a revolution against this disparity and discrimination began, through the language movement, of which Sheikh Mujib was a participant. This resulted in the arrest of Mujib, and he was sent to jail for the fourth time. Mujib was no stranger to prison. His thirteen prison experiences came in different periods starting in 1938, followed by 1940, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1954, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1968, and lastly in 1971. An analysis of his prison history indicates that during the 25 years of Pakistani rule, Mujib had to spend 12 years in prison and faced death sentences twice. Gary J Bass argued, “Mujib’s lifelong activism had cast him into jail, making him a hero to the people.”

In 1956, Sheikh Mujib was appointed as a minister when the Awami League formed the Provincial Cabinet. But he left the Cabinet to devote himself to the task of reorganising the party. Upon studying his memoir, it becomes clear that he decided to be with the people as a means to strengthen the party for an effective movement. This strategy paid dividends, which can be understood from the fact that a government-in-exile was formed in his absence in April 1971. Such prompt formation of a government by his followers was a rare episode in world history.

With the “six-point” demand and mass uprising in 1969, Mujib turned into an invincible leader. The 1970 election, in which Awami League won a landslide victory, was a clear indication that the people of West and East Pakistan mandated Mujib to implement the “six-point” programme. Gary Bass termed it as “Pakistan’s first truly free and fair democratic election.” However, the political establishment in West Pakistan did not accept the results. This caused great unrest in East Pakistan which, under Mujib’s leadership, resorted to a “non-cooperation” movement against the Pakistani authority.

Bangabandhu’s historic March 7 speech deserves a special mention here. It was extempore, took only 19 minutes to deliver, but each word conveyed the strategic guidance for the final phase of the revolution and instilled patriotic feelings into the people. David Ludden argued, “This speech inspired a popular revolution.” The speech was rated as one of the world’s best speeches. In his 2013 book, We Shall Fight on the Beaches: The Speeches That Inspired History, Jacob F Field underlined the rationale for the rating through a collection of extracts from the most inspirational speeches of the last 2,500 years, including speeches of leaders like Churchill, Lincoln, Mao, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Pakistan’s well-planned crackdown on the night of March 25, 1971 on unarmed civilians in the east wing marked the beginning of a genocide. On that night, Mujib had dispatched his aides to East Pakistan Radio with a handwritten message declaring independence. Mujib wrote the message in English to draw international attention quickly. He had already conveyed his instructions to the people in Bangla during his public address on March 7. All this goes to show a visionary leader who had realised that he might be arrested and might not get the time to convey his last message to the people.

The first government of Bangladesh was formed in exile on April 10, 1971, declaring Sheikh Mujib as the president in his absence. This speaks of the trust bestowed on a leader by his followers who believed in him and in his ability to deliver. His strategic guidance triggered the formation of the provincial government of Bangladesh to lead the country in his absence during the War of Liberation.

After the war, Bangabandhu returned to Bangladesh from a Pakistan prison on January 10, 1972. It was painful for him to witness what had transpired in his absence, which he described as the “biggest humanitarian disaster in the world.” Unfortunately, this genocide has not yet been properly addressed or recognised by the international community. According to Gary J Bass, “In the dark annals of modern cruelty, it [the genocide] ranks as bloodier than Bosnia. But the Pakistan’s slaughter of its Bengalis in 1971 is starkly different. Pakistan’s crackdown was a colossal and systematic onslaught.”

Four years later, on this day in 1975, a black chapter in the nation’s history was opened when the great leader himself was brutally killed along with most of his family members by a group of junior army officers. After thirty-four years, a verdict on the murders was given, through a detailed procedure of the law of the land. But it’s a tragedy that justice could not be ensured even after all these years as some of the convicted killers, living in different parts of the world, continue to remain outside the law.

The fact is, no country, not even the US and Canada, can and should be a “safe sanctuary” for such murderers. The world must come to a consensus to respect the law of the land and urge the host countries to hand over those killers to Bangladesh. Doing so would set an example before humanity and the next generation. Mujib’s killers must not be given shelter by any nation considering the sentiment of the people of Bangladesh. Bangladeshis living in the US and Canada need to be engaged to create pressure, especially during the national elections of these countries, to hand over the killers to Bangladesh.

Brigadier General Saleem Ahmad Khan is presently doing a PhD in Canada.

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