What does it mean for a man, or a woman, to have ‘a life led in politics’? Is it one in the midst or at the forefront of great events, fashioning them and in so doing, changing the course of the destiny of nations? Is it one spent embroiled in the chicanery and attendant skulduggery of court intrigue and manoeuvring, striking down opponents while forwarding the cause of allies, both forged largely as a matter of expediency, and with the ultimate aim of arriving at the pinnacle yourself? Or is it one spent privy to history as it unfolds before you, all the time doing your bit to ensure no great harm is done to the natural order of things, but mostly just being along for the ride, with no sway or influence over how the deck of cards was dealt?
Most of history’s great men and women, in particular those who held the privilege of also at the same time being great leaders, would subscribe to one or a combination of those three outcomes. But in assessing the life of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose life was quintessentially political from any angle you look, we find all three of these descriptions falling short in the face of one simple epitaph: he led it for his people.
This is the single-greatest attribute that shines through, right from the start of his political education, that we may date to the visit in 1938 by Prime Minister A.K. Fazlul Huq and Labour Minister H.S. Suhrawardy of Bengal’s provincial government to Gopalganj, during which Bangabandhu, aged hardly 18, first met and then subsequently started a correspondence with the latter that would continue till 1963, the year of Suhrawardy’s death. The relationship they formed over the course of the quarter-century they knew each other would prove of acute significance to the lives of the people whose cause they espoused, the people of Bengal. As the founding father of a nation-state with a population touching 75 million at the hour of Independence (now exceeding 160 million by most estimates), Bangabandhu may well be said to have surpassed his mentor in history’s estimation. But for anyone to undermine the influence Suhrawardy had over the young Mujib would be sadly misguided.
Notably, Suhrawardy’s name is the first to appear, indeed in just the second paragraph, of Bangabandhu’s revelatory ‘Unfinished Memoirs’, that finally came out in 2010, thirty-five years after his cruel and unjust killing at the hands of some disgruntled army officers on August 15, 1975 - a black date if there ever was one. In it, penning the words in the confines of his small room in Dhaka Central Jail, Bangabandhu credits Suhrawardy for having taught him ‘the essentials of political life’. Yet the question remains, can anyone be taught to feel empathy for people you are not related to? Can you bristle with indignation at injustice when its brunt is faced by others? These are instincts that would have to be innate to a person’s self, to exert the kind of influence they did over Bangabandhu’s life and actions, that we saw over the course of the life he led.
It is in the words he himself has written, even though they end up covering such a short period of his life - till 1955 - that we get certain hints of the humanity, that seamless sense of being at one with his fellow men and women, even as he was their leader, that would end up characterising his words and deeds, the choices he made, in becoming Bangabandhu - the Friend of Bengal - as he was proclaimed, upon his release from the jail term he was serving from 1966-69 in connection with the Agartala Conspiracy Case.
Can there be any greater recognition for a leader, than to be conferred with the title of your people’s friend? A nickname itself denotes a kind of transcendent place even within the pages of history, and it can often be grandiose, in which case you know just from hearing it (Suleiman the Magnificent, Ivan the Terrible, the Mahatma), but it can never lie. And in the case of Bangabandhu, in its almost homespun simplicity lies the secret to its time-tested truth: right from the days that the people of Bengal (his maa-e ra, his bhai-ra, pronounced with such sincerity in his speeches) first started making his acquaintance as a strapping, bespectacled youth with a genuine face that encouraged you to open about your problems, their ‘Mojibor’, to the bitter but already triumphant end as the one who gave them their nation, history’s Sheikh Mujib, here was a man who always stood by his people.
In ‘Unfinished Memoirs’, this comes through in an early section on his birth and the house into which he was born in Tungipara of Gopalganj. Now in almost our fifth decade as an independent country, one cannot help but notice how our society still struggles to let go of an unhealthy bondage to regressive conceptions of status and self-worth, that are the definitive leftovers of a feudal and colonised past. We note the unhealthy obsession with ‘obhijaat’ family histories, and to that end people’s efforts to glorify it and exaggerate even the good bits.
Bangabandhu, in describing the fortunes of the Sheikhs of Tungipara since their arrival on the banks of the Modhumati through one Sheikh Borhanuddin ‘many years ago’, almost denigrates it for how it had mismanaged wealth and property to be reduced to living, at the time of his birth, to “tin-roofed houses surrounding these crumbled buildings.” It isn’t self-deprecating as much as it is disarmingly honest. In addressing his people, Sheikh Mujib could never deign to lie to them. I have written elsewhere on the honesty that comes through in his speeches. Speeches, interviews, books and memoirs form the compendium of a leader’s dialogue with his people. And in that dialogue, Bangabandhu never deigned to lie to them. It would rob him of the conviction with which he always pronounced, ‘my people’, in some of his English interviews, such as the one with David Frost, the great British journalist, or at that memorable press conference at Heathrow on 9th January, 1972. And always, ‘amar maa-e ra, amar bhai-ra’.
His people are what you can never take away from him. And his identification with them was, to be sure, innate. You learn this not just from his epochal deeds that feature in history’s timeline, but in also noting some of his most casual ones, from people’s private recollections. I was fortunate to be privy to a few such occasions, and also hearing about them from those belonging to my generation, or older ones. Just from how he would address them to how he would retain minute details relating to the life of people you would think so far removed from him. Little did one know, how he saw it so differently. In assessing Bangabandhu’s leadership, the great lesson on the timeless art of leadership it delivers, is that it stems from those who succeed most, in thinking of themselves as part of the people they represent. In internalising the attachment that a leader must achieve in his relationship with the people. His was perhaps not a bookish sort of democracy, the word itself derived from the Greek demos, meaning people. And there can be no doubting from the life he led in politics, that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was always unquestioningly for, unflinchingly of, and unfailingly by, his people.
(This article was first published in Dhaka Courier)