Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Sheikh Mujib: Triumph and Tragedy

The Life and Triumph of a Colossus:
Sheikh Mujib Re-visited*

Gowher Rizvi

The liberation of Bangladesh was by any standards a triumph in human history. It is the story of unarmed civilians – women and men, girls and boys, young and old – who stood up against the most brutal and lethally armed Pakistani military and won their freedom against all odds. It was for the first in the history of the post-colonial world that the people of a country had successfully waged a liberation war to create an independent state of their own. The creation of Bangladesh was also a triumph of the democratic spirit and resolve of the people who were prepared to make supreme sacrifices in order to create a homeland in which they could speak their language, embrace their culture, and live in dignity - free from religious bigotry and alien exploitation. And yet that proud history of the people of Bangladesh has been lost in the quagmire of opportunism and revisionist history where even the status and the role of the founder of the country have been contested. It is therefore hardly surprising that after more than three decades of independence there is neither an objective study of the history of Bangladesh nor a biography of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Bangbandhu, who not only successfully led his people to freedom but also instilled in them a pride in their Bangali identity, stirred an irresistible national consciousness and the vision for a socially just, secular and democratic society.

Ambassador Sayyid A. Karim’s recently published book, Sheikh Mujib: Triumph and Tragedy, is an important contribution towards putting in perspective our history and the role of the founding father. The author acknowledges that writing an objective biography of a man larger than life is not easy, and in a society where myths and realities intermingle, and where scribes for hire have done much to distort facts, the task of disentangling the truth from fiction could not have been easy. Nevertheless despite the author’s modesty, this is a landmark publication and will long be celebrated as a triumph of scholarship, judicious and even-handed use of evidence, and a compelling narrative that is marked by peaks of human endeavors and sacrifices, and equally deep troughs of depraved and sacrilegious actions that have sullied the blood of the martyrs. The central thrust of this study is unambiguous – there would have been no Bangladesh without Sheikh Mujib.

Mujib was neither a deep thinker, nor an academic theoretician; still less, he was not an ideologue. He was an instinctive and an intuitive leader, a person who felt deeply and empathized with the sufferings of his people, and was most single minded in his pursuit of his goal of justice for his people. He believed with all his being in the wisdom and the genius of the people and it was that belief that instilled in him a belief and commitment in democracy that remained integral to his every action. Growing up rural Bengal he had experienced from a very early life both the romance and beauty of the countryside and also the poverty, deprivation and the exploitation of the peasants. His childhood experience in Gopalganj had also instilled in him a non-sectarian and secular outlook. He could not fail to understand that the poor Muslim and Hindu peasants suffered equally from the pangs of hunger, deprivation and humiliation; and the Hindu landlord was no less exploitative of the Hindu peasants than he was of the Muslims.

It was therefore not surprising that when Mujib joined the Pakistan movement of the Muslim League, he was less concerned with the creation of a separate homeland for the Muslims but rather viewed the movement as a way to break out of the stranglehold of exploitative relationship between the landlords and the peasants and a way of bringing prosperity to the people. However campaigning for the Muslim League in the 1946 elections was politically his most formative experience. He came in contact with Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, who became his life long political mentor and instilled in him a finer understanding of democratic institutions and processes. And no less importantly Mujib also discovered during the campaign his own instinctive empathy for the people and a belief in the wisdom of the so-called ‘ordinary people’. Democracy became an article of faith – a faith that he kept until his death.

In later life when ever he was asked about his strengths and weaknesses, he invariably replied: ‘My strength is my love for the people; and my weakness is that I love them too much.” These words were not empty rhetoric but were his deeply held creed, an article of faith that he carried to his grave. Even in his last year when he received repeated intelligence of plots to assassinate him, including an unambiguous warning from Mrs. Gandhi, he dismissed the warnings. "My people are my children – I love them and they love me." Never in his life, not even as the prime minister did Mujib seek to protect himself behind a security wall and remained the most accessible leader ever.

Mujib’s disillusionment with Pakistan came predictably and swiftly. It became obvious that not only had the Bangalis merely transposed one set of exploitative rulers with another but also under the new dispensation they would be denied the right to their language and culture, and their right to choose a government through a democratic process. And when Mr. Jinnah declared: ‘let me make it very clear to you that the state language is going to be Urdu and no other language. Anyone who is trying to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan.’ The gauntlet had been thrown at the Bangalis and Mujib’s struggle was defined. He would not only have to liberate the Bangalis from exploitation of the Punjabis but also have to restore democratic governance and safeguard the autonomy of the provinces so that the people could protect their language and culture. It was a struggle for democracy, for social justice and for a way of life.

The new rulers of Pakistan had plenty of reasons to fear democracy and the popular will. In the first place the rulers of Pakistan were mostly migrants from India who lacked both a constituency of their own and a party organization in their new country. And second, in any democratically elected government the people of East Pakistan, who constituted the majority of Pakistan’s population, would dominate government. This ruled out both a popular election and democratic governance. The unrepresentative and unpopular politicians combined forces with the Punjabi-dominated civil-military bureaucracy to prevent a general election. The military intervened in 1958, just months before the general election was scheduled. It was therefore not a coincidence that Pakistan could not frame its constitution for nearly 10 years and then only to abrogate it within two years; it was not circumstances that prevented Pakistan from holding its first election for almost two decades; nor was it surprising that in the first ever general election that the people of Bangladesh should assert their popular sovereignty. And that election produced precisely the results they had feared most – a Bangali majority. The real tragedy is that in trying to resist the will of the people and prevent the inevitable triumph of democracy, the Pakistani rulers lost half of the country and unleashed savage brutalities of the kind until then only associated with the holocaust in Europe; and six decades after independence they continue to be haunted by the ghosts of military dictatorship.

To go back to our story, the military rulers of Pakistan were remarkably successful in co-opting most of the leaders in West Pakistan and also many of the Bangalis. However two leaders – Suhrawardy and Mujib who enjoyed a strong popular base– could neither be bought out nor intimidated. Suhrawardy had a mass following in both wings of Pakistan and was widely respected and admired by politicians of all the parties for his political acumen, parliamentary skills and a capacity for building democratic consensus. At first Ayub tried to bar him from politics through trumped up charges; and when that failed to stick, he locked him up in prison. Suhrawardy’s premature death (in Beirut in circumstances that have not been explained and which points to Ayub’s involvement) brought intense relief to Ayub. He now had only Mujib to reckon with. Mujib had inherited Suhrawardy’s mantle, but unlike his mentor, he had come to the conclusion that the salvation on the Bangalis lay in securing the maximum autonomy for the provinces so as to minimize the interference of the Punjabi dominated civil-military federal bureaucracy. Between 1958 and 1969, Sheikh Mujib spent more time inside Pakistani jails on trumped up charges than outside. But whenever he was bailed out by the order of the courts, he used the opportunity to travel the length and breadth of Bangladesh to mobilize the people in support of his demand for autonomy. Such was his organizing talent that every village in Bangladesh flew the flag of Awami League and his emergence as Bangabandhu was never in doubt again.

The rise of Mujib invariably perturbed Ayub and every means was deployed to put an end to Mujib – both politically and physically. It was this determination that drove the military to implicate Mujib in the most bizarre Agartala conspiracy case. Mr. Karim has provided some unique insights as to what happened. A mid-level Bangali officer in the Pakistan Navy, Lt. Commander Muazzam Hussain, discontented with discriminatory treatment of the Bengalis in the armed forces had planned an armed uprising; and sought to establish contact with Mujib on a number of occasions between 1964 and 1966. Mujib, who was a democrat to the core and deeply distrusted the involvement of the military – Bangali or Pakistani – in politics; and he roundly snubbed the conspirators. The conspirators then tried to secure the help of Mr. Ghaffar Chowdhury, an eminent journalist, a stalwart of the language movement and a close friend of Sheikh Mujib, to act as an intermediary between them and Mujib. Mujib’s response, according to Ghaffar, was unequivocal and one of outrage:
‘I know him [Muazzam]. I also know all about his proposal. He has recently been hobnobbing with Manik Chowdhury. I have told Manik not to have anything to do with this madness. I would advise you not to get involved in it. Our struggle is for the establishment of democracy and the realization of autonomy for the people of Bangladesh. I have always fought against the Pakistani military junta. It is not the purpose of my movement to replace it with a Bengali military junta.’ (Pp141 -42)

Indeed Mujib had long cherished an autonomous or independent Bangladesh but his route was through electoral politics and the mobilization of the people. He had no time for the military, even if they were Bangali, interfering in politics. But ironically the paranoid military rulers had been thinking of what Mujib had refused to contemplate. In 1966 the Muazzam’s conspiracy was discovered and all those involved were arrested and put on trial. Even though there was not an iota of evidence to suggest Mujib’s involvement in the conspiracy, the military rulers nevertheless saw in it a heaven sent opportunity to implicate Mujib. By depicting Mujib as an Indian agent, the military had hoped to discredit Mujib and then execute him for treason. Mujib was named as the primary accused. The farcical trial that followed demonstrated the hollowness of the case and thereby provoked a huge outburst of public support, so much so that there was a real possibility that demonstrators would storm the cantonment (where Mujib was being held) and free him. The trial was abandoned and Mujib came out as the triumphant hero of his people.

However, as Karim points out, there was a sting in the tail. Although Mujib had no role in the conspiracy for which he was implicated –he had in fact tried to dampen the efforts of the rebellious naval officers - but Mujib had in fact undertaken a daring journey to India. In a journey reminiscent of another great Bangali, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose – who had escaped from house arrest and made a daring journey that took him first to Afghanistan and thence to Germany and Japan to mobilize support for India’s struggle against British rule – Mujib had also made a clandestine visit to India. The escapade was fraught with danger and considerable hardships. The purpose of Mujib’s visit to India was to enlist the Indian governments help to set up a radio transmitter to counter the propaganda of the Pakistan radio. Nothing appears to have come out of that visit. The Pakistan intelligence had no inkling of Mujib’s visit to India when they conveniently implicated him in the Agartala conspiracy case!

The events that followed the collapse of the Agartala conspiracy case was like a Greek tragedy. The end could be foreseen but faced with obstinate determination of the Pakistani civil-military bureaucracy, and the ruthless manipulation of the ambitious Bhutto, the tragedy could not be prevented. Faced with a popular uprising that could not be contained by force, Ayub abdicated. But he left the way he came – by breaching the constitution. Instead of handing over the power to the Speaker of the National Assembly, he handed it to the military. His successor, Yahya Khan, was not only a drunk and a bluff but also hopelessly incompetent. He allowed elections but without any desire to transfer the power to the representatives of the people. He unleashed the most savage genocide in which more than a million innocent civilians were killed but failed to prevent the inevitable. The rest is history and is well known.

Karim’s book, however, sheds unflattering light on the role of Ziaur Rahman. Zia was a major in the Pakistan army in 1971 and posted in Chittagong. According to the author he not only remained loyal to the Pakistan regime to the end; but appears to have been indifferent to the Bangali cause. When Captain Rafiqul Islam of East Pakistan Rifles, who under instructions from the local Awami League leader, had started rounding up the Pakistani soldiers, apparently Zia tried to dissuade him by ordering Rafiq to ‘stop [his]r men from taking action’. Zia’s tale of ignominy continued:
‘While Rafique was boldly confronting Pakistani troops, Zia was on his way to the port to unload arms and ammunition from M.V. Swat and bring them to the cantonment. ‘While Zia was loyally doing his duty, Pakistan troops suddenly attacked the Bengali soldiers of the East Bengal Regimental Center’ – taken by surprise most of them were massacred in their bed around midnight including the Commanding Officer M.R. Chowdhury’.

Even when Pakistan army had unleashed its attack on the Bangali soldiers, Zia was apparently at work in the jetty supervising the unloading of the weapons. It was only after he was warned by Capt Khalikuzzaman, that Zia’s own life was in danger that he was stirred into action. But here too he dithered. Rather than taking a stand in Chittagong port and fighting out the Pakistan forces, as suggested by Rafique, Zia decided to move out of the barracks with his troops and fled to Kalurghat across the river. Not only he flee himself but he also ordered the EPR troops to follow him and thus left Rafique to fight the Pakistani’s alone. ‘An opportunity to inflict a crushing defeat on Pakistani troops clinging on their strong points in Chittagong was thus lost.’ (202)

Sadly Zia’s story of does not get any better even after fleeing from Chittagong. On March 26, after the Pakistan army launched its attack on Dhaka, Moinul Alam communicated a message purportedly from Sheikh Mujib to the Awami League leaders in Chittagong:

‘Message to the people of the Bangladesh and to the people of the world. Rajarbagh police camp and Pelham EPR suddenly attacked by Pak arm at 2400 hours. Thousands of people killed. Fierce fighting going on. Appeal to the world for help in freedom struggle. Resist by all means. May Allah with you. Joi Bangla.’

The message was broadcast over Radio Pakistan in Kalurghat and read by M.A. Hannan, the local leader of the Awami League and became the call for the war of liberation. However, on March 27, Zia arrived with his troops in Kalurghat, he went on the air as the self-styled ‘President of Bangladesh’ and called ‘on the people to fight the Pakistan’. However, he was dissuaded from styling himself as the president by the local Awami League leaders as that would give the appearance of a ‘military coup’; and in a second speech Zia corrected himself and spoke ‘on behalf of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’. This episode, innocuous on its own, nevertheless showed that Zia was seething with ambitions and his radio speech in Kalurghat was an ominous indication of things to come. It is not surprising that fours year later in 1975 the would-be-assassins of Sheikh Mujib should seek him out as their leader. Zia gave his blessings to the conspirators but to preserve his deniability he forbade them from contacting him again. As in 1971, so also in 1975, Zia would run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.

Karim has offered some insightful explanations as to Mujib’s motives in launching single party BAKSAL (Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League) to replace the multiparty democracy in Bangladesh. No authoritative account of what motivated Mujib to turn his back on multi-party parliamentary democracy in favor of a single party presidential government is available as yet. Dr. Kamal Hossain, who as the minister for parliamentary affairs, had drafted Bangldesh’s first constitution was abroad on sabbatical and was out of the loop; Mr. Tajuddin Ahmed had left the cabinet and leading a private life; nor does it seem that Mujib had taken any of his cabinet colleagues or close associates into confidence; and it seems even Begum Mujib was taken unaware by her husband’s move. Karim has tried to piece the story from numerous sources and provides by far the most convincing explanation of Sheikh Mujib’s strategy. According to the author, Mujib had watched for some time how the various political parties and groups representing narrow interests were tearing apart the fabric of the society. It was also during this time that Mujib had come into contact with the Tanzanian President Nyerere at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM) and developed a deep friendship and admiration for Nyerere. Mujib was impressed by the Tanzanian model of a single party system and immensely admired Julius Nyerere – his simplicity, devotion to his people, and breadth of vision. Nyerere had replaced the colonial system of administration with a system which he felt would be more in consonance with African tradition. He had introduced a single-party system but as a committed democrat, Nyerere wanted to work his single party government within a democratic framework. Within the one party system he tried to introduce a unique form of election – rival candidates from the same party would be allowed to contest in each constituency. This would facilitate national reconstruction without the divisions inherent in a multi-party system.

Behind Mujib’s decision to create a single party democracy, it may be surmised, was a perceptive analysis of the country’s political situation. Mujib was too shrewd a politician not to realize that the Awami League was fast losing its credibility. His hard won image and charisma might have suffered a bit but on the whole it was still strong and he was the undisputed father of the nation. The introduction of the presidential system with full executive authority in his hands had a dual purpose. First, he would no longer be dependent on the parliamentary members of his party (many of whom had allowed personal interests to cloud their public duty) to push through legislations, particularly the much needed land redistribution program. Second, the direct election of the president meant that he could de-link himself from the liabilities of the party. His popularity would ensure his won election but e would no longer have to carry the other members of his party on his shoulder and then be dragged behind because of their opposition to his reforms. To many in his party this was a betrayal; to Mujib this was the only means to instill responsibility and a sense of public duty among the politicians.

In creating a one party system, Mujib’s motives were complex and have not been fully understood. Mujib was not seeking more power. The general election in 1973 had routed the opposition parties and the opposition had failed to forge a united front against him. The Awami League had already been the de facto single party in the country and by banning the political parties Mujib was not trying to wipe out other parties. In fact far from it. With the creation of BAKSAL, Mujib was offering an olive branch which would have enabled the opposition parties to find a place in the parliament without loss of face. The purpose was to create a genuine national unity government under the umbrella of one party.

Mujib described the changes as the ‘second revolution’. His ultimate objective was the transformation of the society itself – a second revolution and unlike the first (a national revolution), it would be a social revolution and it would be a revolution from above. The administration would be decentralized and the judicial system simplified cooperatives to improve the lot of the villagers, presidential form would replace the parliamentary – signify a break from the past. The country must become self-reliant. “A man who lives by begging has no honor”, Mujib declared in Parliament just before the amendment was voted. “I don’t want to be the leader of a beggar nation. That is why want my country to be self-sufficient.” [p.348] On Jan 25 1975 Fourth Amendment was adopted by Parliament; and on Feb 24 the formation of BAKSAL was announced in which NAP & Communist Party joined; and Bhashani backed it without joining. And on March 26 he announced sweeping reforms: 61 districts with politically appointed governors aided by an Administrative Council comprised of peoples representatives. The Army, Bangladesh Rifles, Rakhi Bahini and the Police in the districts were placed under the control of the governor; courts set up in the thanas, compulsory cooperative societies would be formed in every village but would not disturb the ownership of the land but the produce would be shared. The famine of 1974 had shaken Mujib badly and had spurred him into drastic action. But in acting to protect the poor and the disadvantaged, Mujib had alienated too many interest groups. On August 15, a fortnight before the new scheme would come into effect, the assassins struck brutally massacring the Father of the Nation, the Bangabandhu and almost his entire extended family. It was ironic that Mujib was killed not during the period when bureaucratic mismanagement had caused popular hardship, but precisely when he was attempting to introduce reforms that would shift the political power to the rural areas. Nor was Mujib killed by an uprising of the starved and the disadvantaged but by those who were the beneficiaries of the regime but were now alienated. To the millions of his people, Mujib remained the Bangabandhu and the father of the nation.

A quarter of century has passed since Bangabandhu death. Yet strangely enough, no one has written a scholarly or comprehensive biography of Mujib. Ambassador Karim makes a serious attempt to provide a balanced and judicious study of the founder and father of Bangladesh. But it is by no means a definitive book or a comprehensive biography of Sheikh Mujib. It is probably the best single volume study of the emergence of Bangladesh and the first three years of the independence. Karim writes with simplicity and elegance that is rare and makes the book an irresistible reading. While the author’s admiration for Bangabandhu is manifest, the book is not an uncritical study and certainly not a hagiography. It is both a scholarly, well researched and judiciously balanced study; and it is also a story that is well told. But Karim is not a professional historian and he did not always subject some of his sources to independent and external scrutiny. For example he all too easily accepted Anthony Masceranhas’ claim that Sheikh Mujib had confided to him about preserving ‘some link with Pakistan’; or that he changed his mind after a telephone conversation with Mrs. Gandhi. (pp. 260-61). There is no external evidence to corroborate Masceranhas’s claims; and it is now well known that his book The Legacy of Blood was funded by the military rulers. Similarly the author cites Altaf Gauhar for many of his information. Gauhar it must be remembered was the brain behind Ayub’s dictatorial regime; and when Gauhar wrote the book, he was less concerned about historical accuracy and more about preserving his own legacy.

Nevertheless this book is a fascinating analysis of the creation of Bangladesh and the role of Bangabandhu in the making of the country. Ambassador Karim provides a vivid account of the rise of the Bangali consciousness, a history of unfulfilled dreams of the people who had voted to join Pakistan in order to escape from exploitation and indignity, a saga of their subjugation and humiliation in the hands of their fellow Muslims and military rulers in Pakistan, and a story of missed opportunities, of promises not kept, betrayal of trust, denial of culture and language, and the destruction of democratic rights. But it is also the story of a visionary who inspired his people to rise to great heights, a leader whose love for his people never wavered, a man of magnanimity who gave up everything in the cause of his people, and one who remained defiant in the face of numerous threats of death in captivity; and even when the assassins sprayed him with bullets he literally did not turn his back nor did he forsake the intense love of his people.


Ambassador Karim has pieced the history together the history of Bangladesh with painstaking accuracy and narrated a story that is a must read for any one interested in the history of the creation of Bangladesh. Above all Karim has successfully disentangled history from propaganda, facts from fiction and put on record the triumph and tragedy of the maker of Bangladesh. Albert Einstein had once said of Gandhi: ‘Future generations will scarce believe that such a one as this, in flesh and blood, walked upon this earth.’

Thirty years after the assassination of Bangabandhu many of us look back and ask the same question: did that colossus ever walk the soils of Bangladesh?

* Sayyid A. Karim, Sheikh Mujib. Triumph and Tragedy (The University Press Ltd., Dhak, 2005), pp. xvi, 407. Taka 500

Writer is Harvard University Kennedy School of Government