Syed Badrul Ahsan
Book: The Unfinished Memoirs
Author: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
(Translated by Dr Fakrul Alam with a preface by Sheikh Hasina)
Publisher: Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 699
On his last night alive before he was murdered along with nearly his entire family by soldiers of the Bangladesh army on August 15, 1975, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founder of the independent nation of Bangladesh and Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal) to his people, happened to be reading George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. An avid reader, Mujib was an ardent admirer of writers, philosophers and statesmen the world over. Among those he placed on a pedestal were Bertrand Russell, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi. His library at home, today a memorial to his exalted place in Bengali history, bears evidence to the wide reading which shaped his perception of politics in our part of the world. That was somewhat surprising since, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, he seemed to be constantly going to prison over his rising opposition to the depredations of Pakistan’s ruling classes.
And yet, as The Unfinished Memoirs demonstrate only too well, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, like so many others in thrall to the All India Muslim League in the 1940s, was initiated into politics on the premise of a separate, independent state for India’s Muslims. Under the influence of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, then prime minister of Bengal and a leading advocate for Pakistan, Mujib was inexorably drawn to the communal politics pursued by Mohammad Ali Jinnah and defended to the hilt by Suhrawardy. The latter, one might recall, despite being the fount of political authority in Bengal, had no qualms about declaring a government holiday on August 16, 1946, as part of his plan to observe the so-called Direct Action Day that Jinnah had called to press the demand for Pakistan. Tragedy swiftly followed, with tens of thousands of Muslims and Hindus dying in riots that no one had foreseen.
In these incomplete memoirs, Mujib recalls the frenzy with which people hacked one another to death simply because of a difference in religious beliefs. Having survived and saved lives in Calcutta, Mujib moved to Patna, where a reprise of Calcutta had occurred. Despite all these troubles breaking out almost without warning, Mujib’s belief in the political leadership of Suhrawardy never wavered. As these recollections reveal, to the very end — until Suhrawardy’s death in late 1963 — Mujib remained a devoted, almost stubborn Suhrawardy loyalist.
Mujib was placed under arrest for advocating regional autonomy for the federating units of Pakistan and especially its Bengali eastern wing, a spell followed by the even worse period of his trial for sedition in the Agartala conspiracy case in 1968. The beauty of The Unfinished Memoirs, written at a time when he was under the threat of death from the state of Pakistan in the latter part of the 1960s, is that it is a first-hand account of politics in Pakistan between 1947 and 1955. In those formative years, the liberal democratic ambiance that Pakistanis had looked forward to was being steadily eroded.
Jinnah, for whom Mujib retained an abiding respect despite all, planted the seeds of disillusionment with his insistence that Urdu be the language of the new state. Mujib’s impression of Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister, was predictable: he found him arrogant as well as ignorant of political realities. On a visit to Dhaka in 1949, the year in which the Awami Muslim League (subsequently Awami League) was formed by unhappy Bengali Muslim Leaguers, Liaquat pompously told newsmen in Dhaka that he did not know what the Awami Muslim League was.
The year 1949 was revealing for Mujib, in more ways than one. The police pursued him relentlessly. The Awami Muslim League, hounded by the government by the repeated imposition of restrictive orders, found itself unable to organise public rallies in East Pakistan. At one point, when the police went after Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, the founding president of the party, and Shamsul Haque, a leading party figure (Suhrawardy was another), the Moulana ordered Mujib to stay a step ahead of the police and evade arrest. More critically, Bhashani asked Mujib to travel to Lahore and brief Suhrawardy, then touring West Punjab, on the travails faced by the party in East Pakistan.
Mujib’s account of his journey to Lahore, in pitiable conditions, makes revealing reading. He had only two rupees on him when he reached Lahore. Worse, he discovered that Suhrawardy had gone out of Lahore and would not be back for days. When Suhrawardy eventually returned, Mujib’s sense of relief was palpable. His leader piled him with warm clothes to cope with a winter Mujib found hard to adapt to.
The Unfinished Memoirs are an exposition of the wrong turn politics was beginning to take in Pakistan. In 1954, already a political organiser of proven skills, Mujib savoured the electoral triumph of the Jugto Front (United Front) over the ruling Muslim League in East Pakistan. The combined force of Suhrawardy, Bhashani and AK Fazlul Huq at the head of an Awami League-led alliance humiliated the decadent Muslim League administration led by Chief Minister Nurul Amin. The government formed by the United Front was short-lived, though. The day Mujib joined the cabinet violence, patently fanned by the Karachi-based central government, led to the deaths of as many as five hundred Bengalis and non-Bengalis at Adamjee jute mills in Narayanganj on the outskirts of Dhaka. And then, on a visit to Calcutta, new chief minister Fazlul Huq waxed eloquent about his pre-1947 association with the city. These two incidents were a godsend to the Punjabi-dominated establishment in Karachi. The United Front ministry was dismissed under a law of arbitrary import, Section 92-A. Not a single minister, not even the chief minister, raised his voice in protest. Mujib was the only minister who was carted off to prison.
One wishes, even as one turns the pages of this work remarkable for its spontaneity driven by clarity, that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had written the tale of his life in its entirety. But then, the times after February 1969, when the Agartala conspiracy case was withdrawn and he was released through a mass upsurge, assumed dramatic, volatile dimensions. Mujib and his party won Pakistan’s first general elections in December 1970, were denied the right to assume power and launched an armed struggle for Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan.
The rest, as they say, is history. Mujib the ardent Muslim Leaguer evolved into a secularist of conviction, arguing throughout the 1960s that Pakistan needed to reinvent itself through respecting the aspirational politics of its various regions. In a broad sense, The Unfinished Memoirs subtly presage the transformation of a firebrand young politician into a national leader prepared to lead a people to freedom.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Executive Editor of the Daily Star, Dhaka
Indian Express, 7 July 2012