Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920–1975), the founding president of Bangladesh, leaves behind him immensely valuable experiences of oppositional activism in mainstream politics which remains to be visited and revisited by any political quarters in Bangladesh and beyond genuinely interested in creating a democratic polity in the country. The Sheikh who joined politics in his school days in a sub-divisional town of East Bengal in 1938 eventually became the most important as well as most popular political leader of the country by 1971, obviously surpassing all his contemporary politicians, mostly through oppositional political activism during the Pakistan era. His years of oppositional hard work, along with that of others, substantially contributed to the growth of Bengali ‘national self-consciousness’, which was the driving force behind Bangladesh’s war of national liberation against the neo-colonialist state of Pakistan.
While the Sheikh’s oppositional political activism at the fag end of the British colonial era was dedicated to the independence of India, in general, and the creation of Pakistan as an independent homeland for the Muslims of India, in particular, the objectives of his oppositional politics in the Pakistan era were to establish democratic rights of the people of Pakistan, in general, and the autonomy of the people of East Bengal within Pakistan, in particular. The perpetual refusal of Pakistan’s West-based politico-military oligarchy to introduce democratic governance in Pakistan, in general, and its colonialist denial of autonomy to East Bengal, in particular, forced the politically conscious and far-sighted sections of the Bengalis to think about national independence. Finally, the West’s brutal disregard for the electoral mandate in early 1971, the mandate received by the East-based Awami League to install its government at the centre, resulted in the East’s national liberation war and emergence of Bangladesh as a nation state that year.
Earlier, in the 1950s and the 1960s, the West-based Pakistani rulers put many Bengali politicians, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman being a prominent one, behind bars for years together for asserting the legitimate rights of the people of the East. While most part of the Sheikh’s political life, which came to an end with his brutal assassination while in power in 1975, was spent in the opposition, he was not only aware of the importance of political dissent in creating a democratic polity, but was also convinced that the politics of oppositionalism was rather a prime precondition for democracy. His conviction for the role of the opposition in democratising society and the state finds clear expression in his prison notes, which has now been published in two volumes – The Unfinished Memoirs and Karagarer Rojnamcha — while his concerns about the subject are also manifested in his travelogue — Amar Dekha Nayachin — written on his two China visits in 1952 and 1957. Politicians, indeed, make rhetorical public speeches on ideologies and principles, with or without conviction, but when a persecuted politician writes diaries and that too inside the four walls of an oppressive prison, he, in fact, talks to his own self, reflecting on his ideas and ideologies relating to his political life — present, past and future. There can hardly be any deception in such reflections. The Sheikh’s recollections and diary entries while in prison unfailingly point to his genuine conviction for the need of vibrant political oppositionalism for democracy.
Mujib’s thoughts on oppositionalism
THAT Sheikh Mujibur Rahman sincerely believed in political dissent by the opposition and the democratic accountability of the rulers finds expression in many a recollection that he recorded in the prison diaries. According to one such recollection, he, while he was quitting student politics to become active in the Awami League in 1949, praised the Student League for its positive role in the language movement in the past year, saying: ‘You have also managed to play the role of the opposition. And without an opposition party, democracy cannot flourish.’ (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, The Unfinished Memoirs, The University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2012, p 135)
Earlier, a few days after Jinnah had left Dhaka in March 1948, he publicly asserted the importance of the democratic accountability of political leaders — no matter how big the stature they had. Recollecting the event, the Sheikh writes: ‘A few days after Jinnah left Dhaka [in March 1948], a meeting of students was held in front of Fazlul Huq Hall. A student whose name I can’t recall now gave a speech saying, “We will have to accept whatever Jinnah tells us. Since he wants Urdu as our state language we must accept it as our state language.” I said, “If any leader does something which is wrong, people have the right to protest and persuade him to abandon his position.”’ (Ibid, p 105. (The name of the student that the Sheikh forgot was Moazzem Hossain Chowdhury, who was a former vice-president of the Fazlul Huq Hall students’ union. General students sharply reacted to Moazzem Hossain Chowdhury’s statement and subsequently burnt down his bed and threw out his belongings into the nearby pond on the hall campus. See, Abdul Matin’s interview by Badaruddin Umar, Bhasha Andolan Prasanga: Katipay Dalil, Vol II, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 1995, p 321) In this regard, he also mentioned that the ‘ordinary people had once queried Caliph Omar himself about the long dress that he was wearing.’ (Ibid) Understandably, the need for speaking truth to power and demanding accountability of the powerful was an important component of the Sheikh’s thought on political oppositionalism those days.
However, the Awami (Muslim) League, the Muslim League of the ordinary masses, in other words, was launched in East Bengal under the leadership of Moulana Bhasani in 1949 as an opposition party to fight against anti-people programmes of the ruling Muslim League, which was being controlled those days by the Dhaka nawabs — the representative of the landed aristocracy. But initially, the Muslim League incumbents did neither ‘recognise’ any opposition party nor did they allow any oppositional activism in the country. Under the circumstance, the Sheikh, who was a founder joint secretary of the Awami League, happened to meet Nawab Khawaja Nazimuddin, Muslim League leader and prime minister of Pakistan at the time, in Karachi and pleaded the cause of opposition in democracy. Khawaja gave a ‘patient hearing’ for, personally, ‘he thought highly of my abilities as a party worker and was fond of me.’ Recollecting his conversation with Khawaja Nazimuddin, the Sheikh writes in his prison diary: ‘I said to him, “The Awami League is in the opposition. It should be given the opportunity to act unhindered. After all, a democracy cannot function without an opposition.” […] He conceded that the Awami League was the opposing political party. I asked him, “Can I tell the newspapers that you are willing to accept the Awami League as the opposition party?” He replied, “Certainly.” … I took my leave. I was grateful to him for patiently listening to me.’ (Ibid, p 213)
Nevertheless, with or without government recognition, the oppositional Awami League continued to grow by way of fighting for the cause of the people while the government of the Muslim League continued to persecute the opposition leaders and activists, that too, terming them to be ‘enemies of the state.’ Under such a situation, the Sheikh writes in his prison diary in 1966: ‘I really get scared to think about what has been happening in Pakistan over the past 19 years. Whoever comes to power thinks that he is the only one who thinks about the well-being of the country while the rest are anti-state elements. The rulers have finished many a patriotic leader by keeping them in jail months after months, year after year; their health is being destroyed, family jeopardised. Nobody knows how long this oppression would continue! Alas! This is independence! This is human rights!’ (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Karagarer Rojnamcha, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2017, diary entry on July 31, 1966, p184) The Sheikh’s observation about the inherent arrogance of the rulers is so right and his concern for the persecuted leaders and activists of the opposition appears so genuine.
The Sheikh’s displeasure about the government oppression to the legitimate demand of the opposition was evident in a note on June 7, 1966 — the day the Awami League called for a general strike to press home its Six-Point demand for regional autonomy and the release of political prisoners, including himself. The Sheikh was receiving information in jail that the government was out to obstruct the League from observing the general strike and resort to violent measures in different parts of the Dhaka city to keep opposition supporters from bringing out processions and holding rallies. Under the circumstance, he writes in his diary in the evening, ‘The people of every democratic country have the right to peacefully protest [at injustice], but it seems that the incumbents would not allow any peaceful protest.’ (Ibid, entry on June 7, 1966, p 69)
The next day, the Sheikh was eagerly waiting for the newspapers to know as to what had happened the day before, but discovered with utter disgust that there was no news on the general strike, except a ‘press note’ issued by the government, admitting that 10 protesters were killed in police firing while claiming that the police fired shots in ‘self-defence’. He did not take time to understand that censorship was imposed on the mass media to hide government atrocities. The note that the Sheikh writes in his diary that evening clearly reflects his political disapproval of the governmental oppression of opposition protests, the freedom of the media and the killing of the political opponents. He writes: ‘There is no information about the general strike in newspapers. They have contained the government press note only. Ittefaq, Azad, the Observer — the same is the case with all the newspapers. This is what is called the freedom of the media! […] The newspapers were not allowed to publish their own information. The government press note, however, admitted that 10 people have been killed in police firing. I am really scared to imagine as to how many people have really been killed when the government itself has admitted 10 deaths. […] When a government issues press note containing falsehood, people cannot have faith in the government. We have been hearing the whole life that the police have been forced to fire shots in self-defence. Does anybody believe it? […] I can’t console my mind: why people take lives of others in their own interest?’ (Ibid, entry on June 8, 1966, pp 72–73)
Then, again, while the Sheikh had never feared imprisonment for his legitimate oppositional political activism, he used to bleed inside for being kept away from his near and dear ones for his political opinions, what he used to find ‘inhuman’. He once noted, ‘How inhuman can people be to keep a man away from his dear ones and his children because of political reason. People become blinded by greed [for power].’ (The Unfinished Memoirs, p 208)
The government, however, continued to oppress opposition leaders and activists and even those, including traders, perceived to be sympathetic to opposition parties. The Sheikh found it to be a symptom of the imposition of the one-party rule and, more importantly, observes that the people of the East would ‘not take’ one-party rule ‘for long’. In order to face such ‘one-party rule’, the Sheikh even foresaw a form of movement that he, as a practitioner of constitutional politics, did not ‘intend to’ adopt. Clearly, he was apprehending of ‘violent resistance’ against the autocratic government of the incumbents. He notes: ‘The printing of posters and pamphlets of the Awami League is being obstructed. The owner of any printing plant that prints them is being arrested under the Defence of Pakistan Rule. The owner of the Bengal Printing Press has been arrested even for printing black badges. Understandably, the incumbents would not allow the realisation of any demand through democratic movement. They want to impose a one-party rule. East Bengal would not take it for long. They are forcing the movements to take different dimension that we really did not intend to.’ (Karagarer Rojnamcha, entry on June 18, pp 102–103)
Not surprisingly, the Sheikh announced in his party’s ‘election manifesto’ before Pakistan’s first-ever general elections in 1970: ‘The Awami League was launched […] with a view to resisting the attempt of the erstwhile ruling party (Pakistan Muslim League) to establish a one-party rule in the country. Thus we initiated the uncompromising struggle for establishing democracy in Pakistan.’ (Nooh-Ul- Alam Lenin (ed), Bangladesh Awami League: Sankshipta Itihas O Nirbachita Dalil, Somoy Prakashan, Dhaka, 2015, p 259)
However, the Sheikh used to value oppositional newspapers and independent journalism a lot because of their contributions to the protection and promotion of the democratic rights of the citizens while he had always stood for the democratic freedom of the media in the Pakistan era. The media outlets in East Bengal those days were very few, but many a well-meaning and independently thinking journalist of the East had been persecuted in many forms by the West-based rulers of Pakistan. The Sheikh’s concern for the persecuted journalists found deep expression in one of his entries in the prison diary after the Ittefaq-famed Tofazzal Hossain Manik Miah had been arrested in July 1966. He writes: ‘Manik Miah is not involved in [active] politics, but he has his own opinions. He has been arrested under the Defence of Pakistan Rule. What an injustice! What an unprincipled act!’ (Karagarer Rojnamcha, entry on July 20, 1966, p 171) The Sheikh defended oppositional journalists in innumerable times in the long years of his oppositional political life.
The Sheikh’s conviction for the democratic dissent was not meant for any national boundary those years. Instead, as many of his documented observations as well as diary entries clearly suggest, his conviction for political oppositionalism was of a universal nature. Himself a nationalist, having no love lost for the communists, the Sheikh was critical of Chiang Kai-Shek (1887–1975), a nationalist Chinese leader who had been in power in China between 1943 and 1948, for while in power the latter did not allow political oppositionalism in the country. The Sheikh writes, ‘The government of Chiang Kai-Sheikh did not allow any opposition party to be floated. Those critical of him or the unjust deeds of his government were to suffer various kinds of repressions — imprisonment and death included. Many were compelled to quit politics while many others were forced to take refuge in the Communist Party to effectively fight against Chiang’s oppressive regime. When the Communist Party waged a war against his repressive regime, the Chiang administration not only failed to secure any public support, but found the people active for the downfall of his government. (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Amar Dekha Nayachin, Bangla Academy, Dhaka, 2020, p 89)
The Sheikh was absolutely clear about the fact that any people oppressed under any regime, nationalist or otherwise, are forced to aspire to a change of guards in power while they would not mind joining the communist forces, or any oppositional force for that matter, if the latter put up effective resistance against the injustices inflicted upon the people by the oppressive regime. The Sheikh writes, ‘The Chinese were not fond of the Communist Party. Instead, they used to get scared even on the mention of the Communist Party. […] But when the outlawed Communist Party urged the people to join resistance [against the repressive regime of Chiang Kai-Shek], the Chinese people came forward in thousands.’ (Ibid)
That, again, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not have faith in the violent oppression of political opponents becomes clear in a diary entry recorded in June 1966. Referring to the death penalty of the killers of Patrice Lumumba (1925–1961), the leftwing founding prime minister of the independent Democratic Republic of Congo, and the subsequent ‘path taken’ by General Mobutu Sese Seko (1930–1997) in that country, the Sheikh notes in his prison diary in June 1966 that ‘blood is the price of shedding blood’. Then he observes, ‘It is a very dangerous idea to plot against those having differences of opinion in politics and kill the political opponents by conspiratorial means. Many a ruler has suffered the consequence of such politically committed sins.’ (Karagarer Rojnamcha, entry on June 3, 1966, p 59)
Evidently, while in the opposition, the Sheikh had consistently pleaded for the core democratic values like political dissension, pluralism, freedom of expression, so on and so forth. That his conviction in such democratic values was not politically empty had found expression in his persevered struggles against civilian and military authoritarianism, the persecution of political opponents, the gagging of the mass media, the intimidation of journalists, et cetera.
SHEIKH Mujibur Rahman, who was arrested by the Pakistan authorities a few hours before the commencement of Bangladesh’s liberation war against the occupation forces of Pakistan on March 25, 1971, returned to the liberated country on January 10, 1972. He was given a hero’s reception that Bangladesh had ever seen while his ‘national’ popularity those days was matchless with that of anyone in Bangladesh and beyond. The successful national war of liberation was fought under his name. The founding president of the newly emerged country, the Sheikh took the rein of power the next day. However, he was brutally assassinated, along with most members of his family, in less than four years of his ascendency to power. In between, Bangladesh had unfortunately experienced almost everything that the Sheikh had fought against in the long years of his oppositional political life.
Be that as it may, the violent overthrow of the Sheikh’s government did not help Bangladesh to take a genuinely democratic path. Instead, the one-party civilian autocracy was replaced with one-man military dictatorship, which had differently distorted the country’s political process. The politics of Bangladesh has not yet recovered from the distortion. Meanwhile, the space for democratic dissent has been further shrunk over the past decade. For the redemption, people of the country would need to wage a new struggle for the democratic principles that the great Sheikh had fought for while he was in the opposition.
Nurul Kabir is editor of New Age.
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