Ram Madhav
March 17, 2021

A Citizen of the Subcontinent

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It’s a tribute to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose centenary celebrations conclude today, that India and Bangladesh have forged a very close friendship.

‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s birth centenary celebrations are going on in Bangladesh. Mujib was born on March 17th, 1920, in the Bengal province of undivided India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to visit Bangladesh towards the end of this month to participate in various programmes associated with the Bangabandhu’s birth centenary. Mujib’s life and struggle is incomplete without talking about the role India and Pakistan played in his life as he was a citizen of all the three countries during his lifetime of 55 years.

India is a civilisational state with a history of several millennia. A religious state of Pakistan was carved out of it in 1947. Twenty-four years later, in 1971, the first nation state of South Asia—Bangladesh—was born out of that zealously carved theocratic state of Pakistan. In a radio address from Singapore on July 6th, 1944, Subhas Chandra Bose had called Gandhi ‘The Father of the Nation’ for the first time. Later, the Indian Parliament had recognised this epitaph. After the birth of Pakistan, Jinnah acquired the title Baba-i-Qaum, which is equivalent to the ‘Father of the Nation’ for Pakistan. When Bangladesh was formed in 1971, it was Mujibur Rahman who was conferred the title ‘The Father of the Nation’ by its people.

Like Jinnah, Mujib too was a pipe-smoking modern and secular leader. Jinnah, although not religious himself, used Islam as a political weapon to divide India. He succeeded in convincing a majority of the Muslims that an independent India meant a Hindu India and they would be the subjects of discrimination in such a country. Jinnah’s Muslim League had a good base in pre-Partition Bengal. Mujib, in his twenties, was also influenced by Jinnah’s narrative and became an active participant in the League’s Partition campaign in Bengal. However, Mujib’s concerns were limited to the welfare of Muslims. Beyond that, he didn’t share Jinnah’s pernicious theory of Hindus and Muslims as two separate nations.

Mujib was rather more influenced by leaders like Subhas Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore. In his autobiography titled Unfinished Memoirs, he wrote: ‘When we listened to Subhas Bose addressing us on the radio from Singapore, we used to get excited. It seemed to us then that if he managed to land his troops in Bengal, it would be easy for us to oust the English. But then again, it occurred to us that having him in Bengal would not bring us any nearer to Pakistan. And what would happen to the millions of Muslims of the country then? But then again, I thought that someone who could leave everything in his country to spearhead a movement for its independence could never be parochial in his outlook. In my mind, my respect for Subhas Bose continued to grow.’

The mood in Bengal at the time of the Partition was not in favour of Pakistan as envisaged by Jinnah. Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the premier of Bengal province at that time, together with a few other prominent Bengalis, had approached Sarat Chandra Bose, brother of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and a senior Congress leader of Bengal, and together they opposed the partitioning of Bengal and demanded a third country of a united Bengal and the Northeast. Jinnah was in favour of it, but Congress stoutly opposed it. The country was divided finally, and East Bengal went to Pakistan.

Mujib’s political rise began as soon as the new country was created. Jinnah’s decision in 1948 to make Urdu the official language of Pakistan had sparked widespread protests in East Bengal, and Mujib played an active role in those protests. The seeds for a future Bangladesh were sown in that agitation against imposing Urdu on a predominantly Bengali-speaking population. In 1955, the name of East Bengal was changed to East Pakistan, leading to further resentment among the Bengalis. While most other senior East Bengal leaders like Suhrawardy were co-opted by the West Pakistan leadership—Suhrawardy even became the Prime Minister of Pakistan for less than a year in 1956-57—Mujib had led the campaign for Bengali identity. He became the target of the successive rulers in Lahore like Field Marshal Ayub Khan and General Yahya Khan. Like Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Mujib had spent almost 13 years in prison during his 23-year struggle against the domination of West Pakistan. “Prison is my other home,” he wryly said once.

In 1970, Pakistan had held its first ever genuine general election. Held under the shadow of the martial law, these elections had catapulted Mujib into the most popular leader of Pakistan. Of the 169 seats in East Pakistan, all but two seats were won by his Awami League party. Another flamboyant leader from Sindh in West Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, emerged as a poor second with just half the number of seats that the Awami League had won. This election result had turned out to be the proverbial last straw in the relations between East and West Pakistan. Fear of the rise of the supreme leader of East Pakistan had led to General Yahya Khan joining hands with Bhutto and postponing the convening of the National Assembly indefinitely on March 1st, 1971. The election was sought to be robbed by the defeated duo. The Bengali anger saw no limits. While Mujib was arrested by Yahya’s regime, people started protesting in large numbers throughout East Pakistan.

Yet, the geopolitical scenario in the region at that juncture was not in Mujib’s favour. He had no friends around, except one—Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India. US President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were pandering to Pakistan President General Yahya Khan in those days for his support in winning over Mao Zedong of China. Yahya Khan was midwifing Nixon’s meeting with Mao. The world’s oldest democracy had thus decided to turn a blind eye to the happenings in Yahya’s backyard. China was with its old friend, Pakistan. Even the non-aligned countries and the Islamic bloc were unwilling to go against Pakistan. Yahya was emboldened by the support he received from America and others and unleashed a wave of terror in East Pakistan. The Pakistan Army had gone about unleashing a reign of inhuman terror—killing, raping and marauding of the Bengalis. Millions started running away into the adjoining states in India as refugees resulting in a humanitarian crisis of humongous proportions. Over 10 million refugees had poured into India and the Indian Government had made elaborate arrangements for them. Mujib was in prison with no access even to newspapers to know what was going on.

In India, Indira Gandhi was emerging as a strong leader just around the time that Mujib was waging his final battle for Bangladesh’s autonomy. Indira rose to become the Prime Minister in 1966 after the untimely demise of Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent. She was not even 50 years old, and everybody thought she would be a pushover. But Indira turned out to be a woman of steely resolve. “My father was a saint in politics. I am not,” she once told publicly. She demonstrated her firmness going after the Naxals in West Bengal, and the anti-India forces in Mizoram and Nagaland, and crushing communal clashes elsewhere in the country with firmness. Congress was split in 1969 and Indira became the leader of one faction. When she called for a General Election in early 1971, people endorsed her firm leadership by giving a massive mandate to the utter dismay of the old guard in Congress.

Indira Gandhi decided to throw her weight behind Mujib. But for India’s courageous intervention at that crucial juncture, Yahya would have gotten away with all the atrocities. Determined, India had on one hand unleashed a PR campaign by sending out ministers and diplomats as emissaries to different countries in the world to explain the ground realities in East Pakistan. On the other hand, it did everything to support the freedom fighters in East Pakistan called the Mukti Bahini. When two Kashmiri terrorists hijacked an Indian Airlines flight from Srinagar in January 1971, landed it at Lahore and destroyed it there, India had promptly banned Pakistan from using its airspace, thus effectively cutting off West and East Pakistan. It made airlifting of forces to the East difficult for Yahya. General Yahya used to bitterly complain that the hijacking was a ploy of the Indian agencies.

When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited Washington, DC in 1971, Nixon had threatened her against intervening in Pakistan affairs. In Beijing, Mao’s Communist Party was busy burning the effigies of Indira Gandhi.

India stood like a rock with the Mukti Bahini. When the Pakistan Army started firing into or entering Indian territory in the guise of chasing Bengali freedom fighters away, Indian Army had to retaliate. When the Indian Army launched a major counter-offensive, the Pakistan army was forced to surrender in just two weeks. On December 16th, 1971, a teary-eyed Lieutenant General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, chief martial law administrator of East Pakistan and commander of Pakistan army forces located in East Pakistan, signed the ‘Instrument of Surrender’ in front of Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Arora, the GoC of Eastern Command of the Indian Army. The new nation of Bangladesh was born. When General Sam Manekshaw informed Indira Gandhi about the surrender, she immediately rushed to Parliament in exuberance. “Dhaka is now the free capital of a free country. We hail the people of Bangladesh in their hour of triumph,” she declared amidst cheers.

Mujib was released from a jail in West Pakistan after a nine-month long incarceration. He made a brief stopover at Delhi and addressed a big gathering alongside Indira Gandhi and President VV Giri. “The people of India stood by us in our darkest hour, and we will never forget it,” he told the gathering. The next four years, he stood by his words, supporting India on all forums and issues. When he finally arrived in Dhaka on January 10th, 1972, about half-a-million-strong crowd greeted him in a tumultuous reception. “My life goal has been fulfilled. My Bengal is independent,” Mujib declared in an emotion-filled voice.

Mujib built a secular democratic Bangladesh. Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Amar Shonar Bangla’ became the national anthem of the new country. Mujib built relations with countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and America in the next two years for his newly-born nation state. Bangladesh joined the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1974, but without giving up on its secular credentials. China blocked its entry into the United Nations (UN) through a veto for a few years, but finally relented.

But tragedy struck the budding nation state on August 15th, 1975. Less than four years after the creation of the new nation, a coup by the Bangladesh Army had led to the cold-blooded murder of Mujib and almost his entire family of wife, brother and children. The next fifteen years saw power changing from one army group to the other, until democracy returned to the country in 1990.

When Mujib was murdered, his eldest daughter Sheikh Hasina was in West Germany, where her husband MA Wazed Miah was working as a nuclear scientist. She was one of the survivors in the immediate family. Hasina moved to Delhi and was granted political asylum by the Indian Government. She was allowed to re-enter Bangladesh only in the early 1980s. She became the president of her father’s Awami League party in 1981 at the age of just 34 years, and continues to lead it to this day. Sheikh Hasina is a true torchbearer of Bangabandhu’s legacy. She became the Prime Minister of Bangladesh in 1996, and again, in 2009. She has won three successive mandates since then, and continues to lead Bangladesh into secular, democratic stability and economic prosperity.

Sheikh Hasina’s biggest challenge in upholding her father’s legacy comes from the fundamentalist Islamic forces with tacit support from Pakistan. Despite her best efforts, the radical Islamist groups continue to create unrest in the country. During the centenary year of Bangabandhu, the Government has faced serious protests from these forces even in installing a statue of the great leader in one of Dhaka’s suburbs. In Kolkata’s Maulana Azad College (earlier, Islamia College) hostel premises too, radical students have severely opposed a move to install the bust of Mujib to honour his association with the institution.

“We have a very special relationship. The relationship is the friendliest. Our treaty of ‘friendship’ is in our hearts,” Mujib had said of Bangladesh’s relationship with India. Despite hiccups, the relationship grew stronger over the years. Under the leadership of Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina, the bonds of friendship have touched new heights. Bangladesh is India’s important neighbour. India cherishes its strong bonds with a country in whose liberation it too had a role to play. A secular and democratic Bangladesh, the life-dream of Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman, will be a shining star in the region and a model for many other nation states.

(The article was originally published in OPEN Magazine on 17 March 2021. Views expressed are personal.)

Published by Ram Madhav

Member, Board of Governors, India Foundation

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