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On the occasion of the country’s golden jubilee of independence and the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a 10-day series of events from 17 March were organised by the government at the parade grounds. The gracious presence of the heads of governments and states of five South Asian countries added to the brilliance of the celebrations.

The heads of state and government of many power powerful countries of the world delivered their felicitations on the occasion by means of video messages and lauded Bangladesh’s socioeconomic advancement. This is undoubtedly a matter of joy. However, while it was for democracy that Bangladesh fought for its freedom, I do not recall anyone saying anything in praise of the state of democracy in the country.

The government hosted, physically and virtually, leaders from all over the world on the occasion of the country’s golden jubilee of independence. However, persons directly involved in the Liberation War and those who had significant contribution to the independence struggle, were not given due importance. None of those in the government during the 1971 Liberation War or those in the advisory council is alive today, but there are several who had played an important role in the government at the time, who had organised the freedom fighters, gave leadership to various sectors, who are living today. Surely, on this 50th anniversary of independence, they had something to say to the new generation.

Mujib Borsho and the golden jubilee of independence

There were two aspects of the celebrations. One was Bangabandhu’s birth centennial that was supposed to have been commemorated in March last year. That hadn’t been possible because of the Covid outbreak. It is only natural that on his 100th birthday, speakers would highlight Bangabandhu’s struggles, his extraordinary contributions towards the fight for democracy and independence and his sacrifices, and they did so. They highlighted various aspects of his personal and political life. Even during this pandemic, there were meaningful discussions at home and abroad on Bangabandhu where many learned persons spoke, including Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen.

It was perhaps not necessary to discuss any other leader at the events commemorating Bangabandhu’s birth centennial. But when the golden jubilee of independence is at the centre of discussion, then along with Bangabandhu, there could also have been discussions on his contemporaries, his predecessors and successors in politics, even leaders of other parties, and their contributions. This should have been done.

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Steps towards independence

We can divide Bangladesh independence struggle into certain phases. There was the language and constitution movement of the fifties, the education and anti-martial law movement of the sixties, Bangabandhu’s six-point demand in 1966, the Agartala case of 1968, the 1969 mass uprising, the 1970 election, the non-cooperation movement in March and the armed struggle for freedom.

Bangabandhu had an extraordinary contribution in this long journey. It is also true that there were many politicians, bureaucrats, military officers, leaders and activists, students and youth who took to the streets, whose active support helped him reach his goal. In fact, we accuse many of being reckless, but it was this attitude that lent strength to Bangabandhu’s negotiations with the Pakistani rulers. It was the countrywide uprising of the people that transformed the six-point movement to one single point. Pre-March Bangladesh and the Bangladesh of March were not one and the same.

Bangabandhu’s astute decisions

We believe that from placing the six-point demand in 1966 up till 25 March 1971, each and every step of Bangabandhu was correct, astute and pragmatic. Many criticise him for being arrested on 25 March, but by being arrested on that day, he gambled his life for independence. When the Pakistanis arrested this elected leader of the party with the majority on charges of sedition, threw him into jail, and went on a killing spree, Bangladesh’s struggle for freedom won the support of the world community. But it was not possible for Bangabandhu to head Bangladesh’s provisional government from 8 Theatre Road of Kolkata.

Tensions in the Mujibnagar government

In his 7 March speech Bangabandhu gave specific directives to the people of what to do for the independence struggle, but he also kept the door open for negotiations. He wanted the matter to be resolved through negotiations. He wanted Bengalis to regain their autonomy. But the barbaric Pakistani rulers forced an unjust war upon the people and the armed struggle phase began.

Among the Awami League leaders, it was the party general secretary Tajuddin Ahmad who first crossed the border to India and met with Indira Gandhi. When he sought India’s assistance in the freedom struggle, the question arose as to how would they help and who would they help. They would need to form a government to get official assistance. In face of this reality that they formed a provisional government, with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as president, Syed Nazrul Islam acting president in his absence and Tajuddin Ahmad as prime minister. This is known as the Mujibnagar government. The name ‘Mujibnagar’ was also given by Tajuddin. The other three members of the cabinet were Khandkar Mushtaque Ahmed, HM Qamaruzzaman and M Mansur Ali. The chief of army staff of MAG Osmani. On 17 April the Mujibnagar officially began functioning, but things were not smooth. Tensions prevailed.

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Mushtaque’s conspiracy and Pakistan connection

From the writings of writer and researcher Maidul Hasan we know that prime minister Tajuddin Ahmad had a hard time to gain support of the outside world, even from India, to run the government. There was the conspiracy of Khandkar Mushtaque, Mahbub Alam Chashi and others on the one hand, and opposition from the Mujib Bahini on the other. Even India was in a dilemma over the future of Bangladesh’s freedom struggle, up until the pact signed with the Soviet Union. USA and China directly sided with Pakistan.

August was the most critical period. On behalf of Mushtaque, National Assembly member Zahirul Quayum went to the office of the American consul general in Kolkata with a proposal to reach a compromise with Pakistan. He proposed to exchange independence for Bangabandhu’s freedom. He wanted to use the emotions of the youth and young leaders towards Bangabandhu. But Tajuddin Ahmad said, “We want both independence and Bangabandhu’s freedom.” In September Mushtaque was dropped from Bangladesh’s delegation to the UN and his conspiracy was thwarted.

All-party advisory council

Meanwhile, in order to win Soviet Union’s support against the US and China, it became necessary for the Mujibnagar government to take on a multi-party form. Most of the Awami League cabinet members initially opposed this, but later top official of the Indian foreign ministry and prime minister Indira Gandhi’s special assistant DP Dhar intervened and resolved this problem. An all-party advisory council was formed which included, outside of Awami League, the heads of the two NAP’s – Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani and Professor Muzaffar Ahmad, Moni Singh of the Communist Party and Monoranjan Dhar of the National Congress. While it was not possible to make the advisory council very active, the scope expanded for the leftist leaders and workers to receive training and join in the war. Tajuddin won the support of the cabinet members, except for Mushtaque. Syed Nazrul in particular would give him courage in all his endeavours.

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The different path of Mujib Bahini

However, the problem that lingered on was running the Mujib Bahini activities outside of the Mujibnagar government. Mujib Bahini had been formed under the leadership of Awami League’s young leaders. They had been opposed to forming the cabinet too. They had demanded a revolutionary council to be formed. The Indian government did not accept this proposal. Then Mujib Bahini was formed under the leadership of General Uban. The four leaders of Mujib Bahini were Sheikh Fazlul Huq Moni, Sirajul Alam Khan, Abdur Razzak and Tofail Ahmed. Tajuddin raised the matter at the highest level of the Indian government but could not resolve it. India, too, didn’t want to put all its eggs into one basket. It was back then in 1971, that there were omens of a stormy political scenario in post-independence Bangladesh.

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People’s war vs Awami League

Unlike Pakistan and India, Bangladesh did not get its independence over a roundtable conference. It won its independence through an armed struggle. This was a people’s struggle. Other than a handful of Razakars and Al-Badrs, each and every one played a role for independence from their respective stands. But the party that led the liberation war, Awami League, never accepted this as a people’s war. It would be very unjust if we just took the Mujibnagar government and its political leadership into consideration when discussing the armed struggle for freedom. Long before the official announcement of independence or before the government was formed, people from all over, from all walks of life and professions, had begun a war of resistance. Many Bengali officers in civil service, the Bengali members of the armed forces and police, rebelled after the Pakistan troops began crack down in a genocide on 25 March.

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When Operation Searchlight began, the Pakistanis arrested Bangabandhu from his home. They also targeted the EPR and police headquarters. They disarmed the Bengali soldiers and police. Like Mushtaque Ahmed, some politicians also tried to strike a compromise with the Pakistanis, but did not get the chance. Had the Pakistanis won, all of them would have been court martialled, with the maximum sentence of death. The Bengali civil service officers did not even think about when a government would be formed. The 3 million people who gave their lives in Bangladesh’s Liberation War, the 2 million women who were tortured, were mostly common people, people of the villages, workers in the cities, students and youth. How far have they been remembered during this golden jubilee of independence?

Ignored fighters of independence

Prominent student leader of the Chhatra Sangram Parishad in 1971, ASM Abdur Rab, said that the Mujibnagar government has been ignored during the golden jubilee of independence. Not just the Mujibnagar government, but the organisers of the freedom struggle (including Mujib Bahini) have been overlooked too. The nation has been deprived of listening to the sector commanders of the Liberation War who are still alive today. Yet in India, even till a few years ago they had special programmes with their freedom fighters on their independence day. None of them is alive today.

Karam Chand Gandhi was the main leader of India’s struggle for freedom. But he is not solely remembered on India’s independence day. Subhas Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, Ballav Bhai Patel and Ambedkar who are also honoured on the occasion. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is also the main leader of Bangladesh struggle for independence. We will certainly recall his contributions with deep respect on the golden jubilee of independence. But why did we not acknowledge those who conducted the Liberation War for nine months, who foiled the conspiracies of Mushtaque and his gang and made the independence war successful? Why were the members of the advisory council of the Mujibnagar government – Maulana Bhasani, Moni Singh or Muzaffar Ahmed – not offered due respect on the golden jubilee?

Bangabandhu’s dignity won’t increase by belittling others or denying their contribution. Each and everyone must be given their due recognition in history.

*This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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