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A founding father's journey
Updated:Aug 25, 2014
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Title: SHEIKH MUJIBUR RAHMAN :From Rebel to Founding Father
Author: Syed Badrul Ahsan
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Pages: 349 pages
Price: Rs 595
Of the three nation states that succeeded colonial British India, Bangladesh is the youngest, being born amid the tumult, chaos, turmoil and bloodshed of the India-Pakistan war of 1971.
While Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the Indian armed forces had their own unique role to play in the creation of Bangladesh, much of the credit rightfully goes to one man - Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh.
But while reams have been written about Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding fathers of India and Pakistan, respectively, the same cannot be said about Mujib. True, there are works in both Bangladesh and in India, but most of them are in Bangla. And most are hagiographies, lacking objectivity, since the long shadow of Mujib dominates Bangladesh to the present day.
Syed Badrul Ahsan's latest book, then, is a welcome addition to the canon of literature on Bangladesh's founder.
Mr Ahsan, a former teacher of English and a veteran journalist, is currently the executive editor of the Bangladeshi daily The Daily Star. He has used his journalistic experience and insight to write a commendable biography on the life and times of Mujib.
The book details the life of Mujib and the various transitions he underwent - from a young man who vigorously championed the cause of Pakistan, a homeland for South Asia's Muslims in the 1940s, to his joining the fledgling Awami Muslim League in East Pakistan in 1949; his relationships with veteran Bengali Muslim leaders like Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani and A K Fazlul Huq; and the nascent Bengali nationalism that developed in him as he saw the discrimination that was meted out to the Bengalis of Pakistan. It was this nationalism that finally metamorphosed into an outright rebellion and Mujib's stewardship of it, due to which he was given the honorific "Bangabandhu" (friend of Bengal).
The book tries to answer some pressing questions about Mujib's legacy in a balanced and forthright manner. For instance, was Mujib a traitor to the idea of Pakistan - a man who allied with the "infidel" Indians to dismember Pakistan owing to his lust for power?
Mr Ahsan explains that this was hardly the case; Mujib, in fact, was ready to compromise till the last minute. After the Partition of the subcontinent, he tolerated various discriminatory measures of the regime based in West Pakistan - the shootings at Dhaka University during the Language Movement (1952), the dismissal of the Awami League provincial government in East Pakistan (1954), the infamous "One Unit Policy" (1955), the regime's complete abandonment of East Pakistan in the 1965 Indo-Pak War, the ban on Rabindranath Tagore's works (1967) and the Agartala Conspiracy Case (1967-69).
Mr Ahsan notes Mujib had first voiced his doubts about the future of Bengalis in Pakistan in 1957. But his mentor, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, had reprimanded and silenced him. In 1961, he had established links with the Shwadhin Bangla Biplobi Parishad (Free Bengal Revolutionary Council), an underground students' body. Here, too, his interests were just in debating the merits and demerits of eventual Bengali independence.
In 1966, he floated his "six-point programme" on autonomy for East Pakistan. That was the farthest he went. Following the 1970 election, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto refused to share power with him, Mujib, in his speech on March 7, 1971, at Race Course in Dhaka, again asked for autonomy. It was only after the Pakistani army launched "Operation Searchlight" on March 25, 1971, that Mujib finally declared an independent Bangladesh.
Mr Ahsan also tries to answer the other question: was Mujib a true democrat? Or an autocrat? The author says that while Bangabandhu only had the good of his people on his mind, circumstances forced him to commit actions that were construed as dictatorial.
An expansion of left-wing extremism in the country - in the form of the Sarbahara Party and the East Pakistan Communist Party - rising crime, and food shortages (which culminated in the famine of 1973-74) forced Mujib to first bring in the Special Powers Act and later cause the ultimate sacrilege: the fourth amendment to the Constitution, by which Bangladesh became a one-party state with a presidential system of government, with Mujib as the president.
Mr Ahsan notes that Mujib also made more enemies than friends due to his actions. For instance, his decision to raise a national paramilitary force (Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini) turned many army men against him. Also, his taking sides in a tiff between student leaders caused the formation of a new party - the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal.
Ultimately, it all culminated in a brutal army coup in 1975 in which Mujib's entire family, with the exception of three members, was murdered.
Mr Ahsan's prose and style are lucid and make for easy and quick reading. His book could not have come at a better time. As events continue at a dizzying pace in Bangladesh, and as the country struggles to balance its past, present and future and become a consummate democracy, the need to study the life of the man who founded it has never been greater.
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