Sheik Mujibur Rahman

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Sheik Mujibur Rahman

Sheik Mujibur Rahman (1920-1975) was a charismatic leader who organized dissent and rebellion against the British in India, led the Bengalis of East Pakistan in their resistance to the unjust actions of the post-colonial Pakistani government, and finally helped found the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1972.

Sheik Mujibur Rahman (Mujib) was born on March 17, 1920, in Tongipara village in the Gopalganj subdivision of the Faridpur district in the eastern part of the province of Bengal in British India. An extroverted, sports-loving young man, Mujib was well liked by his teachers and friends, but never distinguished himself in his studies. To the dismay of his father, a small landholder (sheik is one of the titles often assumed by the landed gentry) and a government official, Mujib showed the first sign of his future revolutionary leadership by distributing rice from his father's stockpile to the famine-stricken peasantry of his area.

A charismatic leader, Sheik Mujib epitomized anti-colonial leadership in the Third World. He organized dissent and rebellion against the British and rose against the injustice and exploitation by the power-wielders in West Pakistan against the Bengali population of East Pakistan. For Sheik Mujib the battle for freedom from exploitation was never-ending. Even after winning independence for Bangladesh from Pakistan, an exploitation-free Bengali society eluded him. When he seemed to be having some success in tiding over the most difficult period of post-liberation history, he was assassinated and his family massacred in a fluke coup staged by a handful of junior officers of the fledgling Bangladesh army.

Seeking Justice for Bengal

Joining the Awami Muslim League Party in 1949 with his mentor, Hussain Shahid Suhrawardy, and later elected its general secretary (1953), Mujib formed a coalition of a number of East-Bengali-based political parties. In the provincial election of 1954 the coalition (Jukta Front) inflicted a landslide defeat on the Muslim League Party, which had been responsible for the creation of Pakistan and was often equated with Pakistan itself. He served in the cabinet of Fazlul Huq until the election was voided and Huq put under house arrest by the central government of Pakistan.

Earlier, in 1952, Mujib had played a leading role in the student movement demanding that Bengali, the language of the majority of the people of the country, be made an official language. The Karachi government of Pakistan subsequently conceded the demand under public pressure, but not before a number of Bengali students had been killed by the police. The 1954 incident reiterated what Mujib had suspected before—that Bengalis were not going to receive their rights without a fight.

In 1957 Mujib became the undisputed leader of the Awami League, defeating Ataur Rahman in the struggle for the party presidency after Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, the founder-president of the party, resigned over foreign policy disagreements with fellow party leader Prime Minister H. S. Suhrawardy. Mujib's stand on the language issue and his later open challenge to certain orders of the martial law projected him as an undaunted fighter for human rights. Sensing that Mujib was organizing another mass movement, the central government ordered his arrest on a trumped up charge of corruption in 1958 when he refused to comply with the new law (Elective Bodies Disqualifications Order of 1958) requiring all Pakistani politicians to refrain from political activity for six years. By now Dhaka jail had become a second home to Mujib; he spent a number of years during the pre-and post-independence periods there.

His extensive grass-roots tour of East Pakistan between 1960 and 1962, defying the martial law ban against political activities, made Bengali appreciate Mujib for his uncompromising commitment to equality and justice. For his increased visibility as a Bengali nationalist and for his defiance of the military, Mujib was again jailed in 1962 for six months. After the promulgation of the second constitution by Ayub Khan the same year, Mujib came out of prison, began preparations for a mass movement against the Ayub regime, and waited for the opportune moment to start it.

A Drive for Bengali Autonomy

The opportunity came after the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war in which East Pakistan, with its Bengali majority, was practically left defenseless by the central government. In November 1965 Mujib worked out a six-point program for enabling his party to secure political and economic justice in a federal system. The scheme involved setting up a federal system in which the power of the central government would be dramatically curtailed; only foreign affairs and defense were to be left as central subjects. The provinces were to have jurisdiction over currencies and fiscal policy, with the stipulation that the federal government was to be provided with requisite revenues for meeting only the requirements of defense and foreign affairs. Mujib's six-point program also demanded that a constitutional provision was to be made providing that separate accounts for foreign exchange earnings and foreign trade could be maintained under the provincial governments. A last point emphasized that a separate military for East Pakistan was to be raised and maintained in order to contribute to national security.

Mujib's program was rejected by the leaders of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (composed of the leaders of the combined opposition party who had unsuccessfully challenged Ayub in the election of 1964) at an all-party meeting in Lahore in February 1966. Undiscouraged, Mujib quickly decided to start a mass movement based on his program. In 1966 he was once more arrested, and in 1967 the central government brought a charge of treason against him for his alleged conspiracy with Indian leaders to make East Pakistan secede from Pakistan. Pressured by a nationwide mass movement, the Ayub regime withdrew the conspiracy charge against him and others and Mujib was set free unconditionally on March 2, 1969.

Under the Legal Framework Order of Yahya Khan, who took over power from Ayub in 1969, the dates for national and provincial elections were set for December 5 and 17, 1970, respectively. Perhaps the November cyclone which claimed half a million lives and rendered 3 million homeless and the apparent lack of concern for the victims by the Yahya junta changed the course of Pakistan's political history. Mujib's Awami League won a landslide victory—167 seats out of a possible 313—thereby securing an absolute majority in the Assembly. This was unacceptable to West Pakistan's military and political elites. As a result, the Assembly was indefinitely postponed by President Khan on March 1, 1971, two days before the first session was to convene. This infuriated the Bengalis, and a spontaneous mass movement against the military erupted. Mujib tried to turn the rising public anger into a non-violent, civil disobedience movement.

During the three week long movement Mujib ruled East Pakistan as the de facto head of government. A last effort to negotiate a peaceful settlement failed on March 23. On midnight of March 25, 1971, the military crackdown on the Bengali autonomy movement began, resulting in the arrest of Mujib, the round-up of suspected nationalists, and a general disarming of the Bengali police and Bengali members of Pakistan's armed forces. The crackdown, accompanied by senseless killing of Bengali police, soldiers, and civilians, served to harden Bengali resolve to fight the Pakistan military to the last. Although Mujib remained in a West Pakistan prison waiting execution for alleged treason, his name became a symbol of inspiration and strength for Bengalis everywhere.

From Jail to the Presidency

After India's defeat of the Pakistani army in East Pakistan on December 16, 1971, and the transfer of power in Pakistan from the military junta to civilian leaders headed by Zulfikar Bhutto, Mujib was freed. On January 10, 1972, he returned to Bangladesh as a hero. Promptly he took charge of the new nation and inspired the people to rebuild their war-torn country. His initial success as inspirer, as integrator, and as consensus-builder was reflected in the first general election of the new nation in 1973, when his Awami League Party secured another landslide victory.

Earlier in 1972 Mujib, popularly called Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal), had given the new nation of Bangladesh its first constitution. It incorporated four basic principles of state policy: democracy, socialism, secularism, and nationalism; together they were called Mujibism. The first step which Mujib took in order to ensure quick economic recovery was to nationalize all banks and major industries, most of which were owned by West Pakistanis. After the landslide electoral victory in 1973, Mujib became overconfident and complacent about the future, and, to the neglect of national priorities, he began to concentrate on building grass roots bases of his party. This necessitated a drastic redistribution of resources, which segments of the Bengali elite—particularly within the civil and military bureau-cracy—found difficult to accept. The consecutive droughts in 1973 and 1974 also created an unmanageable situation for Mujib and his regime, which lacked both the experience of crisis management and the support of the largest food donor of the world—the United States.

The worsening situation was used as the chief justification by Mujib to declare a state of emergency on December 28, 1974, and to amend the constitution in early 1975, transforming Bangladesh's parliamentary system into a presidential one, giving Mujib unlimited power as the new president of the Republic, and establishing a one party system. Armed with this amended constitution Mujib forced the leaders of the opposition parties to join his newly created party—Bangladesh Krishak Sramic Awami League— popularly known as BAKSAL.

Using his new power, Mujib tried to bring fundamental changes to Bangladesh's political, economic, and administrative structure through political centralization and administrative decentralization. But before he could see his dream of "golden Bengal" come true, he and most members of his family were assassinated in a pre-dawn coup staged by a handful of junior officers of the Bangladesh army of August 15, 1975, the anniversary of the day India won independence from the British in 1947. The coup leader, Khondar Kar Mushtaque Ahmed, took over the presidency. Two more coups in rapid order brought to power Ziaur Rahman.

Further Reading

Additional information can be found in Zillur R. Khan, Leadership in the Least Developed Nation: Bangladesh (1983); International Who's Who 1972-1973; and TIME 99 (January 17, 1972).

Additional Sources

Sheikh Mujib: a commemorative anthology, London: Radical Asia Books, 1977.

Tribute to Sheikh Mujib: fifth death anniversary, 17 March 1920-15 August 1975, London: Bangabandhu Society, 1980. □