Bangladesh observed the 48th anniversary of the martyrdom of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on Tuesday, 15 August 2023. But do you know Who was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman? Rahman, the chief architect of Bangladesh and its founding president, tragically lost his life on 15 August 1975. He and many of his family members fell victim to a brutal assassination carried out by a faction of junior military officers. But what made Rahman the Bangabandhu (friend) of Bangladesh? This article tries to answer as to how a small-town boy turned into one of the most influential persons of the 20th century.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was born on 17 March 1920 in Tungipara, a village within the Gopalganj subdivision (currently a district) of Faridpur district. He spent his early years in Tungipara, where he commenced formal schooling at Gimadanga Primary School at the age of seven in 1927. He later went to Gopalganj Public School in 1929 and subsequently to Madaripur Islamia High School in 1931. Mujib married Begum Fazilatunnesa at the age of 18 in 1938, with whom he had two daughters and three sons. Notably, only his two daughters survived the tragic events of 1975.
During his time as a student at Gopalganj Missionary School, his political inclination began to take shape, influenced by Awami League and former Chief Minister of Bengal in undivided India, as well as Pakistan’s first republican prime minister (1956-57). Rahman’s association with Suhrawardy profoundly influenced his Bengali nationalism. He began his formal political journey by becoming a Muslim League councillor in 1943. In 1944he was nominated as the secretary of the Faridpur District Association, an organization headquartered in Calcutta that represented the residents of Faridpur.
With India’s partition and Pakistan’s artificial creation, East Bengal became East Pakistan. As Pakistan was shaping its future, Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin declared Urdu the sole state language in February 1948. This decision sparked controversy as it denied most Bengalis the right to their language. In response, Mujib and the Muslim Students League led swift protests, which generated widespread outrage. On 2 March 1948, a meeting of political parties led by Sheikh Mujib established an All-Party State Language Action Committee, prompting a nationwide strike on 11 March against the one-language policy. He played a pivotal role in then newly formed All Pakistan Awami Muslim League in 1949 under the guidance of his political mentor HS Suhrawardy.
However, while Suhrawardy sought federalism, Mujib supported autonomy and even the idea of East Bengal’s independence. Pertinently, due to the language issue, the early 1950s witnessed a clear divide between Bengalis and other Pakistanis. Pakistani leaders like Khwaja Nazimuddin and Liaqat Ali Khan firmly imposed Urdu despite hopes for reconciliation. Mujib, a leader of the language movement, played a crucial role in protests, especially during the 1950 visit of Liaqat Ali Khan to Dhaka. The government subsequently jailed him.
When President Ayub Khan adopted the 1962 constitution and established Pakistan as a presidential republic, Mujib played a significant role in mobilizing opposition against it as it curtailed the universal suffrage doctrine. Later, he ascended to the presidency of the Awami League and advocated a comprehensive 6-point plan during a national opposition parties conference in Lahore in 1966. The program aimed to abolish the Basic Democracy system, restore universal suffrage, delegate federal powers to East and West Pakistan provinces, implement distinct fiscal and trade policies for each wing, and increase security investment in East Pakistan.
Apart from the autonomy short of independence, it emphasized the need for East Pakistan to maintain its independent paramilitary forces. Mujib’s propositions galvanized public endorsement throughout East Pakistan, which is acknowledged as the crucial juncture leading to the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation. Mujib staunchly advocated for a federal democracy and secured broad backing from the Bengali community. It provided a blueprint for the national liberation movement of the country.
Mujib was arrested by the Pakistan Army in 1967 and spent two years in detention before facing an official sedition trial in a military court for the Agartala Conspiracy Case. The public uproar and unrest over Mujib’s arrest and sedition charges triggered significant turmoil in East Pakistan, marked by extensive protests and strikes.
As Pakistan witnessed political deadlock, President Ayub Khan called for a Round Table Conference in 1969 with opposition parties, which saw Sheikh Mujib being released from prison. He once again sought greater autonomy for East Pakistan. This time, Mujib emerged as a prominent opposition leader during the conference and emphasized that East and West Pakistan could unite for mutual benefit, dismissing divisions promoted by vested interests. But Mujib’s demands under the six-point plan were never met by Ayub Khan’s assurances. Upon his return to Dhaka, he announced that East Pakistan would henceforth be known as Bangladesh.
With Ayyub Khan out of the picture in 1969 and Yahya Khan assuming the presidency, Pakistan conducted its first-ever general election in December 1970. Mujib led Awami League, and in a stunning result, his party secured a resounding victory, winning 167 out of 300 seats. The Pakistani establishment favourite, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, was a distant second with 81 seats. The mandate, however, also reflected the schism between East and West Pakistan, with Awami League and PPP securing the majority, respectively. However, the travesty of the people’s mandate and justice followed, and Bhutto coaxed Yahya Khan against allowing the formation of government and transfer of power to Mujib. On 3 January 1971, Mujib took the oath from his elected representatives and other leaders and reiterated his demands for federal autonomy. He was finally arrested on 25 March 1971, coinciding with the launch of Operation Searchlight, which resulted in the genocide of Bengali in the next nine months till Bangladesh became independent. However, before being arrested, Mujib secured sending his declaration of independence to Chittagong, published on 26 March 1971, which led to the resurgence of the national liberation war.
During the liberation war that began after the 25 March army crackdown, even though Rahman remained imprisoned, he was appointed as the president of the provisional government, known as the “Mujibnagar government”, established on 10 April 1971, by representatives of the people to lead the Liberation War. He also assumed the role of Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Throughout the war, Sheikh Mujib’s charisma inspired freedom fighters, fostering national unity and strength. The trial of Sheikh Mujib and his subsequent death sentence by the Pakistani junta finally brought global attention to Pakistani genocidal crimes and prompted the international community to intervene. Pakistani Army finally surrendered on 16 December 1971 in the most humiliating fashion ever, handing over 93000 soldiers as prisoners. Following this, Rahman was released and arrived in Dhaka on 10 January 1972 amid nationwide celebrations. His return also resolved uncertainties surrounding the leadership of the new republic and solidified Bangladesh’s future.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led the first government of Bangladesh for a brief but crucial span of three and a half years. Despite the immense challenges posed by a war-torn nation, his administration started the process of state-building and nation-building, including reestablishing law and order, confiscating illegal weaponry, rehabilitating freedom fighters, reconstructing the communication network, protecting individuals opposed to the Liberation War from public backlash, and notably, ensuring sustenance for millions facing hunger.
Undeterred by these obstacles, Sheikh Mujib swiftly facilitated the creation of a constitution within ten months and laid down the core tenet of Bangladesh’s foreign policy: “Friendship to all and malice to none.” However, with political uncertainly looming because of transforming the country into a single-party system polity, coupled with the ravages of the great famine of 1974, a group of disgruntled army officers, presumably coaxed by some political leaders, assassinated Mujibur Rahman and his family on 15 August 1971 but two daughters of Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana, thereby bringing curtains down on the momentous life of the architect of Bangladesh and to whom Bangladeshis will remains forever indebted to. It is worth noting that his daughter has carried forward Mujib’s legacy and taken the country to the heights of economic development in the present era.