Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is popularly known as Bangabandhu or Friend of Bengal. He became the Prime Minister of Bangladesh in 1972. He was a close friend of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Today Bangladesh is our populous neighbour with 160 million people. Bangladeshi people’s gratitude towards India for helping in its Liberation struggle was evident among the people in the first year or two of Mujib’s regime, but soon the relations started to sour.
Today, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is Mujibur Rahman’s daughter who escaped death on 15 August 38 years ago. Her government has been friendly and helpful towards India. It is extremely important to have a peaceful relationship with our immediate neighbour to the East and smoothen the glitches over the water sharing of 56 common rivers and border security.
Remembering Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, his personality, his rise to power as a great leader, a person who could with his speeches arouse Bengalis on both sides of the border, and the way he was killed, is quite painful. He was responsible for the birth of Bangladesh, yet he was killed by his own countrymen on August 15th in his house in 1975. I met Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for the first time in December 1972. It was a memorable meeting and he gave me a broad and welcoming smile and we exchanged a few pleasantries. I had heard him speak to the people of Bangladesh many times on the TV. He gave very emotional speeches and he seemed to touch every one’s heart.
Spirits were high in the new born nation of Bangladesh in 1972 except for the unemployed Mukti Bahini soldiers, who were at a loose end after the Liberation and posed sporadic problems all over the country. Our economist friends from London were Members of the newly appointed Planning Commission. Some of these friends we had harboured in our home in Delhi when they were fleeing the mass murder of intellectuals in the Dhaka University by the Pakistani army .
Anyone who met Sheikh Mujib was impressed by his sincerity and charismatic personality. He could arouse a sense of nationalism in millions and he addressed them in his booming and rich voice. He lived near our house in Dhanmondi, Dhaka, and we saw him going back and forth from his house in his car without much fanfare or security. He always wanted to be one with the people and was a simple, unassuming man but with exceptional courage.
He fought against his Pakistani oppressors bravely and wanted his people to live with dignity and humanity. His six point programme which he presented to the government of Pakistan in 1966 for greater autonomy for East Pakistan insisted on equal treatment. He did not want the people of East Pakistan to live like second class citizens and demanded the same rights and privileges as the west Pakistanis. He also wanted the development of East Pakistan through industrialisation. East Pakistan had been neglected for years and became a supplier of raw materials for the industries in West Pakistan. All these demands were legitimate and urgent.
Mujib fought against violation of human rights and oppression and had no fear about his personal safety. Such a courageous leader is missing in South Asia today. He confronted the army personnel, who came to kill him, with a smile. He was coming down the stairs to meet them when he was shot. His entire family present in the house was killed. His daughters Sheikh Hasina and Rehana were saved as they were abroad.
His vision was for a free and prosperous Bangladesh. He wanted freedom from poverty and servitude. Unfortunately though South Asia has prospered since his times, poverty and hunger remain in all the countries. Also the entire South Asia except for Sri Lanka has a low position in the world when ranked by Human Development Indicators.
While each of the South Asian country has globalised it has not integrated as a region. It is the least integrated region in the world with intra-regional trade of only around 5 per cent. Investment from one country to another is also low. Between India and Pakistan the flow of investment is negligible. There is lack of trust among the countries in the region and India is blamed for having large trade surpluses, more resources and international clout than the others.
Mujib always admired India and wanted India to play an important role. He said in a speech on February 16, 1972, “I have no doubt that India, our next door neighbour, will proudly march on as the largest democracy with secularism and socialism at home and non-alignment in international relations.” He felt close to India which led to the adaptation of certain foreign policy ideals that were similar to India’s. Bangladesh endorsed the principle of non alignment, peaceful co-existence and opposition to colonialism, racism, imperialism in any form. He was instrumental in signing the most important Treaty between India and Bangladesh at that time–the Friendship Cooperation and Peace Treaty, on March 19, 1972.
Unfortunately that vision of cooperation with India with its neighbours is lost in today’s South Asia. India has treated its neighbours rather generously but India’s leadership is still not recognised. In the case of Bangladesh, India has made it possible for almost all imports from Bangladesh to enter duty free. There is only a very short negative list like alcohol and drugs. This gesture would have pleased Mujib a lot.
If Mujib had a vision of greater integration and cooperation among the South Asian countries, it has not happened. The region lacks a strong charismatic leader like Mujib who had set out nationalism, democracy, secularism, socialism as the main planks of the newly born nation.
Sheikh Mujib had many failings and he made many mistakes in the three and a half years of his rule as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. But he kept the interests of Bangladesh always close to his heart and kept hoping things would improve. He was a lawyer by training and set up a Constitutional Assembly that drafted the Constitution soon after he took over as the Prime Minister.
Such a dedicated leader who loved his people is missing in the present day South Asian region. But he could not control many things like corruption that soon surfaced after the Liberation of Bangladesh when he launched a scheme of privatisation of state owned enterprises. He wanted to follow the socialist pattern of development like India after its Independence. As a result, people who loved him so much in the beginning, got disenchanted with his policies and the loss of democratic values when he started a one party system under BAKSAL. He was surrounded by a coterie of henchmen and sycophants who were interested in personal gains. More and more, Mujib got isolated from the very people he loved. The Bangladesh economy was doing badly and inflation was high. There was a scarcity of essential goods and inequality was growing. In short, he could not deliver what he promised. He paid a heavy price with his untimely death and sadly few mourned his death at that time.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
Courtesy ORF; The article can also be read at: Mujib’s world vision and India
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