Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review: The Unfinished Memoirs: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman



The Unfinished Memoirs: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Publisher: Viking
Indian Rs. 
699 pp 324

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first ruler of Bangladesh, lived an event-filled life, not to speak of creating quite a few of the events, including leading the movement almost single-handed to carve out the nation. His memoirs are therefore not only of interest to his countrymen but a valuable source of history of post-colonial South Asia. Mujibur’s story also stands out in the context of the unique saga of Bangladesh, born first as the eastern wing of Pakistan, the home of Indian Muslims, but tearing itself apart as a separate entity for unbridgeable cultural differences with the communal mother nation’s ‘Punjabi’ core.

But Mujibur’s Memoirs, as it confesses, is “unfinished”, and that’s a sad story. His daughter Sheikh Hasina, the present prime minister of Bangladesh, in her preface, recounts how she got hold of some of his diaries and notebooks after returning to her country in 1981. A decade earlier, when Pakistan army personnel cracked down on East Pakistan and raided Mujibur’s house, they looted everything except his scribbling, which they thought unworthy of making a bonfire. So the papers remained in a chest next to his bedroom. In 1975, after some dissident army officers had assassinated Mujibur with his family members (Hasina and her sister Rehana were miraculously away from the country), the house was sealed by the junta that took over, and the papers remained in the chest until another violent regime change, enabling Hasina to lay hands on her father’s notes. But it took her more than two decades more to discover her father’s autobiography, written in Bengali. Memoirs is its English translation.

The problem is, it is unfinished. Far from taking the story anywhere near its climax of Bangladesh’s birth, the narrative vanishes somewhere in the 1950s. So there are plenty of faces and voices of the Pakistan movement, the partition and the birth of Bangladeshi sub-nationalism, but little on the questions that still puzzle those following Mujibur’s life: what were his so-called linkages with Indira Gandhi’s government in New Delhi prior to the liberation war, and, why, after assuming power, did he fail to keep his personal enemies and covert agents of Pakistan at bay? The late diplomat JN Dixit’s book Liberation and Beyond: Indo-Bangladesh Relations is a treasure trove of unexpected, if not contrarian, ideas, but Mujibur’s own version would have brought us closer to the felt reality.

The book ends, rather abruptly, sometime after the first election in 1954 to the East Pakistan legislative assembly, in which the Awami League trounced the Muslim League. It turned on its head, for the first time perhaps, the League’s crude belief that nationalism could subsist on religion alone. But it does not explore in Mujibur the seed of the independent leader that later developments proved him as. On the other hand, the autobiography shows him as a rather fawning acolyte of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, a shrewd politician remembered by many in West Bengal as the architect of the Great Calcutta Killings in 1946. Suhrawardy was in fact a bundle of contradictions, an avid proponent of liberal parliamentary democracy after he emerged as a top leader in Pakistan (prime minister between 1956 and 1957) but the first person to lead the country onto a path of frenzied military expansion. Educated in Oxford and a successful barrister in Calcutta, he was also a class apart from hick town politician Mujibur in his taste, chasing champagne parties and European blondes. In the book, there is only gushing praise.

What the book has in abundance are the details of a politically intense but clubby life led by the author in Calcutta and Dhaka. In Kolkata’s Maulana Azad College (known as Islamia College before Partition), he struggled to “achieve Pakistan” with millions of coreligionists. But he is at his best in chronicling Dhaka after Partition, when its politics shifted its focus to “achieve” a new Bengal which is a province of Pakistan in name but actually a nation in the making.

Sheikh Hasina has astutely enriched the book with a large collection of old photographs capturing moments that would otherwise have been water under the bridge. In a picture shot with the author standing near the door and the Mahatma in the middle, Suhrawardy by his side, much of their inner calculations find expression — Mujibur the young man insistent on “achieving” the promised land, Suhrawardy open to bargain and the Mahatma eager to let the Muslims feel that they were safe till he was around. The year: 1947.

Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer for Hindustan Times

First published in the Hindustan Times, August 18, 2012