How Mujib became Bangabandhu

Written by Sudipta Datta | Updated: Jul 15 2012, 07:07am hrs
Here at last is a ringside view of the birth of Bangladesh, by its liberator Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. His daughter, Sheikh Hasina, now prime minister of Bangladesh, got four notebooks containing his autobiography in 2004, at a dark moment in her life and political career. A grenade attack on a rally organised by her party, Bangladesh Awami League, killed 24 workersand she knew she was lucky to have escaped the assassination attempt. Four notebooks in my fathers hand...It was as if I had been given a new lease of life, writes Sheikh Hasina in an emotional preface.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 15 members of his family and extended family were gunned down in a military coup on August 15, 1975, four years after Bangladeshs freedom from Pakistan. Sheikh Hasina and sister Sheikh Rehana had survived because they were not at home during the attack. The sisters took it upon themselves to retrieve the material from the already fragile and fraying notebooks, and the autobiography was translated into English by professor Fakrul Alam of Dhaka University. The memoirs give us a glimpse of the movement for Pakistan in the run-up to 1947 in the eastern flanks, and, of course, the language movement, which finally led to the birth of Bangladesh. The memoirs, written while Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was in prison from 1967 to 1969, tells us of tumultuous moments in the history of undivided Bengal, the Bengal famine, Partition, communal riots after 1947, the formation of East Pakistan up to 1955. Since you are idle, write about your life, his wife Fazliatunessa Mujib or Renu told him as they sat talking inside jail one day. With Bangladesh yet to get freedom, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman retorted: I havent been able to achieve anything! I guess all I can say is that I have tried to sacrifice a bit of me for my principles and ideals.

In the end, what moved him to write was his memory of Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy, a stalwart Bengal leader who, along with AK Fazlul Haq, was at the forefront of the formation of East Pakistan and someone who taught a young Mujib the essentials of political life. Early on in the memoirs, Mujib talks about life in the village he was born, Tungipara in Faridpur district, and how he came about to join politics, first in the Muslim League, then in the Awami Muslim League and finally the Awami League, which led the struggle to freedom from Pakistan and the transformation to Bangladesh from East Pakistan. Language was at the heart of the problem, besides other issues.

In 1946, at a convention called by Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Delhi, Suhrawardy, Mujib and other Bengal Muslim League leaders were asked to share the stage with Jinnah. Whenever a slogan was raised in Urdu we responded with one in Bengali, he writes. Then again, We Bengali Muslims have two sides. One is our belief that we are Muslims and the other that we are Bengalis.

In June 1947 when a declaration was made that India would be partitioned, Bengal Muslim League leaders, says Mujib, didnt know that at the central level both the Congress and the Muslim League had accepted the formula that would lead to the break up of Bengal. Except for Sylhet, no part of Assam would be part of East Pakistan. Calcutta and its surrounding regions would be part of India.... Muslim League leaders protested fiercely against the decision to split Bengal. It was all right for us to give up the district of Burdwan but why should we not retain Calcutta... We had no way of knowing that it had already been decided at Delhi a long time back that Calcutta would be given up to India. It was a decision that we could never understand.

When Mujib finally left for Dhakahe had studied in Islamia College for his intermediate degree and was actively involved in Muslim League politicsSuhrawardy, who stayed back, told him: When you go back to your country try to ensure communal harmony. If there is trouble in East Bengal it will be catastrophic. Try to ensure the Hindus dont flee Pakistan. That was not to be, and Hindus soon left East Bengal/Pakistan. It was a traumatic time for India and the world, which had just come out of World War II.

Mujibs memoirs give a candid view of the frenetic political activity in Calcutta and East Bengal in the 30s and 40s, and the gradual deterioration of communal harmony as Partition approached. He writes of the riots in Calcutta and Noakhali and Patna, which stopped only when Gandhiji threatened to go on another hunger strike. Of the Bengal leaders and writers, he mentions Rabindranath Tagore and thanks him for reaching out to the Muslim community. Tagore would write Bangladeshs national anthem too, Amar Shonar Bangla.

But the most gripping part of the unfinished memoirs is Mujibs account of the language movement in Dhaka University in 1948 when he was a law student there. The seeds of separation from Pakistan were being laid, making way for an armed struggle with Pakistan and freedom in 1971. It soon became obvious that a great conspiracy was afoot to make Urdu and not Bengali the state language. We demanded that both Bengali and Urdu should be considered state languages.

Mujib was jailed several times for his opposition to Urdu as the only language of East Pakistan, soon the West and the East would differ on many other issues, leading to the movement for independence.