Sheikh Mujib: The Father of the Nation

Mozammel H. Khan

Published on February 13, 2007

In 1995 two reputed constitutional lawyers of Canada while analyzing the legalities of the possible separation of Quebec from Canada, observed, “after 1945, Bangladesh was the only country of the world which successfully seceded from Pakistan through armed struggle. However, the principal strength of that struggle came from the unparallel election victory of Awami League led by its charismatic leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The popular support he enjoyed was unheard of in a Western Democracy”. The similar views were reverberated in the Capitol Hill, throughout our liberation war, such as “Sheikh Mujib’s only crime was to win a democratic election”.

It could be affirmed in unqualified term that the election of 1970 was the main source of our internal strength, external support and the only legal basis of the proclamation of our independence. Although the election was held under a legal framework, but the people of the then Bangladesh did not really pay any attention to it. Their main preoccupation was to drum up support in favour of the six point program in order to give Sheikh Mujib an absolute mandate in dealing with interest of the Bengaee people. It was not election in its actual sense; it was a magna carta for emancipation. People, by and large, had no illusion that it would be achieved under the framework of Pakistani state as six-point was a formula for quasi-independence (two currencies and para-military force formed the heart of that quasi). Hundreds and thousands of volunteers, including the author of this piece, who moved from village to village, mahalla to mahalla to invoke people to vote for Sheikh Mujib’s candidate never hid the fact that the six-point would be transformed into ONE POINT if the situation demands. Smooth and spontaneous transition from the demand for autonomy to the struggle for independence on March 1, 1971 proved the effectiveness of that calculated groundwork.

By taking part in the election, Sheikh Mujib not only proved the farsightedness of his leadership but also elevated himself from a politician to a statesman. Without taking part in an election there is no other valid and trusted mechanism to prove the popularity of a political party, its leader and the support for its platform. There was a wide spread belief in the military camp and their allies among Bengalees that Sheikh Mujib would not get more than 60% of the national assembly seats allocated to East Pakistan. This was reaffirmed by Yahya Khan to Henry Kissinger, who wrote, “I took the opportunity to ask Yahya what would happen to powers of the President after the election. Yahya could not have been more confident. He expected a multiplicity of the parties to emerge in both West and East Pakistan, which would continually fight each other in each wing of the country and between the two wings; the President would remain arbiter of Pakistan’s politics”. (Ref: Henry Kissinger: The White House Years).

The election results were a big surprise for both the foe’s (including of course Yahya) and to some extent, the friends of the Awami League. In the words General Fazal Muqueem Khan, “the election results have placed the President on the horns of dilemma. The scheme of things he has worked in his mind, with aid and advice of his advisors, has been shattered. He had to make a fresh plan.” (Ref: Pakistan’s Crisis in Leadership).

Following the massive election victory, Mujib did not want to make any compromise with his six-point program. In the words of General Rao Forman Ali, “Mujib asserted publicly that even if the people of Bangladesh (not East Pakistan) have to face bullets, they would achieve the victory of six-points. A few Awami League leaders went as far as saying that if the President does not give consent to the six-point based constitution, they would make unilateral declaration of independence”. (Ref: How Pakistan Got Divided: Rao Forman Ali).

It was mentioned earlier that the six-point was a formula for quasi-independence. Maidul Hasan in his very well documented book (Muldhara: 71) analysed the political options of the Pakistani Ruling Junta in the aftermath of the Awami League’s landslide victory in the election. “They had two options open to them: either to accept six-point program thereby decentralizing the administration in order to resurrect the mutual trust between the two regions or to clamp down naked military actions disregarding the election results to establish direct colonial rule over East Bengal. In 1971, neither of the alternatives was absolutely free from the risk of disintegrating the country. However, the former option could have resulted in relatively lower bloodsheds and lesser loss of lives; likewise it could have prolonged the total separation of the two wings. The Pakistani Junta, because of their professional attitude, chose the later option that accelerated the demise of Pakistan”.

New York Times Magazine writer Peggy Durdin who was in Dhaka since February 28, 1971 wrote an article under the title, ‘The Political Tide Wave that Struck East Pakistan’ (Published May 2, 1971). She narrated, “All during March, Sheikh Mujib and his aides seemed to be playing devious games and refusing to be candid about their aims and strategy. In fairness it must be said that this was only tactic open to them, since an open stand for independence would have made them immediately liable to charge of treason... Sheikh Mujib never showed the slightest interest in being a national leader of East and West, of taking the position of the Prime Minister of an all Pakistan government that the Assembly majority entitled him to.... In any case, he fostered a movement based on separatist attitude and animosity to West Pakistan”.

James J Novak (who lived in Bangladesh for 20 years since 1970) in his beautiful book entitled ‘Bangladesh: Reflections on the Water’ (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1993) presented a brilliant depiction of Sheikh Mujib as the politician and the leader of our independence. In the words of Novak, “Sheikh Mujib brought some type of swiftness in politics. He never tired people by shrewd politics or incomplete or abrupt steps. He had no weakness for the government position. From his inception as a politician until his arrest at the beginning of the independence war, he neither publicly uttered nor wrote about independence, but every one knew and understood that he was talking in favour of the independence. Shurawardy wanted reform within the framework of Pakistan and Sheikh Mujib wanted Independence- that was the difference between Shurawardy and Sheikh Mujib... Without giving the ultimate declaration, he kept the Pakistanis guessing. They neither did find any reason to put him to jail nor did they ever get the opportunity to outweigh his moral superiority. During the whole period, Mujib was blinking his eyes and smiling and telling about Bangla and Bangladesh as if, if he wanted he could have enjoyed the scenario of hoisting the red-green flag on his roof top”.

General Rao Forman, however, had different views. He noted, “at last they (Bengalees) thought of the possibility of ruling Pakistan. Mujib wanted to be the Prime Minister (of Pakistan). (But after the postponement of the National Assembly) He came to the conclusion that the combined forces of the Military and the PPP would not let materialize his desire to be the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Therefore, he decided to be the FATHER of a new nation.”

However, the ground for this transition from six-point to one point did not happen in a day or a month. In the words of Novak, “long before the war of independence, Mujib successfully created the deep feeling among the masses of East Bengal that they are the victims of cruel oppression and aggression of the Pakistanis. As a result, the struggling Bengalees were always morally assured that they are innocent and whatever they were doing was right... He was a known force whose charismatic personality and activities were able to touch the deeper organ of the Bangladesh’s thought. He was a boat on which people’s aspiration could have an easy ride.”

Referring to the election victory of the Awami League, Novak wrote, “He could have been the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Without going into that direction, he remained adamant regarding his six-point. As a whole, this six-point was a formula for autonomy - demand for independence.”

The election results formed the core basis of our formal and legal declaration of independence on April 10, 1971. It read, “Whereas free elections were held in Bangla Desh from 7th December, 1970 to 17th January 1971, to elect representative for the purpose of framing a constitution, and “Whereas at these elections the people of Bangla Desh elected 167 out of 169 representatives belonging to Awami League... “Whereas the Assembly so summoned was arbitrarily and illegally postponed for indefinite period, and “Whereas instead of fulfilling their promise... Pakistan authorities declared an unjust and treacherous war, and “Whereas in the fact and circumstances of such treacherous conduct Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the undisputed leader of 75 millions of people of Bangladesh, duly made declaration of independence at Dhaka on March 26, 1971...” (Ref: Proclamation of Independence Order, Mujib Nagar).

To what extent the election results were used to drum up support by many of the members of the US congress against the hostile policy of the Nixon administration could be understood from a few of the extracts enunciated below (Ref: American Response to Bangladesh Liberation War: AMA Muhith):

Senator Church spoke (May 18, 1971), “What has taken place in East Pakistan since the night of March 25, 1971, when a bloodletting of untold proportion began is hard to comprehend, when the talk between Yahya Khan and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the duly elected leader of the Awami League broke down. This Bengali political party had just won an overwhelming mandate: one hundred sixty seven out of possible 169 seats assigned to East Pakistan.”

Senator Kennedy on November 18, 1971 asserted, “Sheikh Mujib’s only crime was the winning of a free election sponsored by a military regime that later refused to abide by the election mandate”. Senator Church again made a strong statement in the Senate (December 6, 1971), “In those elections the people of East Pakistan had spoken in one voice. They had massively elected the candidates of the Awami League, endorsing a platform, which called for autonomous East Bengal. Bangladesh was the rallying cry in those elections, as it remains the rallying cry today”.

Congressman Gallahar on December 8, 1971 made a strong argument, “Quite simply, in my view, because India is working closely with the legitimate government of Bangladesh. The Awami League won 167 of the 169 seats contested in East Pakistan.... I am somewhat astounded that some of my colleagues in the congress should so casually dismiss an election victory of such an overwhelming magnitude. I am puzzled that those of us who depend on the will of the people can overlook the fantastic impact this win had on the people of East Pakistan”.

Senator Cranston (16 December 1971) accusing the Nixon administration, uttered, “What did the United States do in those 9 months? The administration did not make public peep about the massacre of March 25. It has not made a single public protest about the summary jailing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who is accused of treason but whose real crime against the Pakistani state was to win an election”.

Senator Kennedy pressing the demand for the recognition of Bangladesh on February 1, 1972, argued, “All one has to do is to look back to the election of 1970, where the Awami League Party won 167 out of 169 seats, and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had sufficient votes to be elected Prime Minister of Pakistan. Those elections were held under martial law, at a time when President Yahya Khan was having his agents attend all meetings of the party. Mr. President, there has rarely been such an overwhelming endorsement for a political party as we have seen in Bangladesh, not only at the national level, but at the local levels as well, in carrying some 285 out 300 districts. I do not think we have ever seen in any of the western nations the kind of political support that Sheikh Mujib now has”.

It is only rationale to conclude that in the absence of the election mandate of 1970, our freedom struggle would be absolutely devoid of legal, democratic and moral basis and it would face the same eventuality as experienced by Biafra (of Nigeria). Any one, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leading the nation to that self-inflicting catastrophe would meet the same fate as mated out to Colonel Ojuku of Biafra.

For all its fairness, Sheikh Mujib was the undisputed hero of our struggle for emancipation, which culminated in the war of liberation. He was the main force and spirit of the Bengali nationhood. Any attempt to equate him with any one else is the reflection of the naiveté of astronomical proportion.

Since his threatening speech of ‘Assalamualikum’ in Kagmari conference of 1956, even Moulana Bhasani’s policy towards our autonomy vis-à-vis independence was one of incoherent in nature. His only clear indication about the independence came in his speech of March 9, 1971 (following Sheikh Mujib’s famous 7th March address) given in Paltan Maidan. In his speech Bhasani told, “So, President Yahya, enough is enough. It is needless to aggravate the animosity. Lakumdinukum wa liaddinn. Accept the independence of East Bengal... If you do not concede to the demands of Sheikh Mujib by 25th of March, I will join him (he accepted Mujib’s leadership since he did not ask Mujib to join him) to create a mass movement as was done in 1952". To assure people about Mujib’s leadership, the Moulana went on in an emotional voice, “Mujib is like my son. I know Mujib. He did politics with me. The germ of independence was in his head since then. Unnecessarily, do not mistrust him”. (Ref: Ami Bijoy Dekhechi: M R Akhter Mukul).

On the same day, in front of Baitul Mukarrom, Ataur Rahman Khan of the then Jatio League delivered, “The independence of Bangladesh is the life-long dream of Sheikh Mujib. We started the work at the same time. We lagged behind, but he has advanced ahead. He has declared independence (referring to his 7th March address). I am asking him to form an all party national government”. (ref: Ekaturrer Ashojog Andoloner Dinguli: Najimuddin Manik). On the 23rd of March, Moshiur Rahman, General Secretary of the NAP (Bhasani) admitted that his rival (Awami League) has the full support of 75 million Bengalees (The Times, 24 March 1971).

During the nine-month of genocide, arm struggles and untold sufferings, Sheikh Mujib’s name glowed ceaselessly to the hearts of the millions and he remained a demigod to the people of Bangladesh. In the words of General Rao Forman Ali, “90% of the people of Bangladesh were taken in by the magical power of Sheikh Mujib, and they were ready to sacrifice their lives for the creation of Bangladesh”.

I would like to cite the feeling of one of our illustrious sons, Dr. Mohammed Younus, the then a Ph. D. candidate at Vanderbilt University, about the leadership of Sheikh Mujib in the darkest hours of the 27th of March 1971. In expressing his mind, Dr. Younus wrote, “--while speculating what might have happened to Sheikh Mujib, finally a news came that he has been arrested at Chittagong railway station while he was fleeing from the army. We were in tears after hearing the news. Until then we were making all kind of possibilities of Sheikh guiding the nation at war from some underground bunker. All that the nation needed was his live voice over the radio. Pakistan had no chance with all their sophisticated fire-power against his voice”. (Ref: American Response to Bangladesh Liberation War: AMA Muhith).

Last year, in the world-wide survey of BBC Bengali service listeners, while he was voted the greatest Bengali ever born, one of the listeners observed, “he was the bacon in the darkness that befallen on the Bengalee people during the semi-colonial Pakistani era. His political wisdom, uncompromising leadership for the cause of the Bengalees united the Bengalee people, for the first time in history, not only within the geographical boundaries of Bangladesh, but all over the world, and gave them the nationhood. Bengalees all over then world, who cherish the citizenship of Bangladesh, owe this nationhood to the leadership of one person and he is no other than Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Let me conclude with an excerpt from Novak’s book. In the words of Novak, “he was a very simple-minded human being, who had some simple and straight beliefs and thoughts for his people... But he failed. In spite of that, he is BANGABANDHU, the FATHER of the NATION. These laurels are due to him. Not because he was a skilled statesman, but because of his impeccable love and sympathy for his people... He was elevated to the highest spectrum where a human being could ever reach. How many of us could have done better than this any way”?

Dr. Mozammel H. Khan is the Convenor of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh. He writes from Toronto, Canada.