Incarceration is a drastic but effective way to inspire political activists to put pen to paper. Martin Luther, Adolf Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, among others, wrote copiously while in prison. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is another one who utilised enforced breaks as best he could.
Mujib wrote his memoirs in the late 1960s, while undertrial and prime accused in the so-called Agartala Conspiracy Case. As Sheikh Hasina relates in the preface, his notebooks disappeared after the assassination. They were rediscovered in poor condition, decades later. Ms Hasina restored whatever was legible, and aided in the translation and editing.
A fascinating self-portrait emerges of someone who helped shape the subcontinental map. Mujib wrote flowing, elegant Bengali, (apart from being a mesmeric speaker) and it would be difficult to render his style idiomatically. The translation is, at best, workmanlike.
He was born in 1920, the eldest son in a family of landed gentry in Tungipara village, Gopalganj District. The Sheikhs had fallen on bad days but remained respected locally. As a schoolboy he developed glaucoma and lost several years while being treated in what was then Calcutta.
Returning to Golpalganj, his interests revolved around playing football and hockey and he confesses to a certain amount of light-hearted hooliganism as well. But his natural leadership qualities helped make him an influential gang-leader, to use his own words.
The grounding in Communalism 101 started in 1938. “Sher-e-Bangla” Fazlul Huq, then Premier of Bengal (equivalent to chief minister), visited Gopalganj, along with Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. Mujib’s boys helped organise a reception. Although he got on well with many local Hindu lads, Mujib noted that they shied away from welcoming the Muslim leaders. Mujib also had a brief conversation with Suhrawardy, who was impressed enough to stay in touch and later became his political mentor.
Just after the visit, Mujib was arrested for the first time after a scuffle with some Hindus. This may have helped the process of radicalisation along. By the time he joined Islamia College (now Maulana Azad College) in Calcutta, he was committed to the cause of Pakistan.
Undivided Bengal and its Muslim League (ML) activists played a key role in Partition politics. The province was two-thirds Muslim. Huq, who ran the Krishi Praja Party, drafted the 1940 Lahore Resolution that called for Partition. After Huq, Suhrawardy served as the only provincial premier of a majority ML government. In 1947, 56 per cent of Pakistan’s population was Bengali.
Mujib was a student activist through 1940-46, and one of Suhrawardy’s trusted lieutenants. His account presents the perspective of a young man, with all the certainty and naivety that implies. He was in the thick of the famine, communal riots, elections, the Sylhet referendum and internecine politics.
While he may not have understood the big picture at the time, he describes in detail what he saw. Mujib was in Delhi for the ML Conference, when the demand for Muslim states (plural) carved out of India was altered to a demand for a singular Muslim state.
His account of Direct Action Day and its aftermath, and of Gandhi’s peace march with Suhrawardy, offers an inverted mirror image of the versions Hindu Bengalis are familiar with. Incidentally, he admired Bose and Gandhi, and thought Bose the only Hindu Bengali politician to transcend communalism.
Post-Partition, fissures soon developed between the two wings of Pakistan. Language was a flashpoint. Bengalis wanted their mother tongue recognised as a state language. The Awami League, floated by Maulana Bhashani and Mujib, backed this to the hilt. The eastern support for the ML eroded due to the organisation’s Urdu-only stance.
The east-west divide broadened as the more educated West Pakistanis controlled more of the levers of power, leading to eastern resentment and disillusion. Liaquat Ali Khan cracked down on the Awami League. Mujib was in and out of jail, and often underground.
On February 21, 1952, on what is now known as Language Martyrs Day, students agitating for the recognition of Bengali were shot in Dhaka. Mujib was in jail. When he emerged, he helped to form a coalition. Led by the Awami League, the United Front swept East Pakistan in the 1954 elections. Mujib was the youngest minister. The memoirs end in 1955, as the coalition came apart, and the westerners cracked down again.
In between the politics, there are some touching descriptions of family. Too busy to earn a living, Mujib was funded by his father, Sheikh Luftar, and wife, “Renu” (Begum Fazilatunessa). There is also some introspection about Bengal, the character of Bengali Muslims and the socio-economic inequities that divided the two communities.
Mujib was a socialist. While standing for the common man against the zamindari system, he was not anti-capitalist. He was unhappy about Pakistan’s US-centric policy, saying he would have preferred non-alignment and peace with India.
During his short stint as Bangladesh’s founding father, he proved to be a liberal in both religious and economic terms. His political stance, as displayed here, was sometime simplistic and seemed often to be driven more by a “fit” in terms of personality, rather than ideology. The book, with its wealth of detail, is a valuable addition to the oeuvre.
THE UNFINISHED MEMOIRS
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
323 pages; Rs 699