Bangabandhu’s quest for inclusive development
Dr. Atiur Rahman
Bangabandhu was very close to the grassroots even as a schoolboy. A born organizer, young Mujib put his full energy into the betterment of the disadvantaged. Mujib led the volunteer brigade and welcomed H.S. Suhrawardy to the Mission school in Gopalganj in late 1930s. Mr. Suhrawardy was impressed by his leadership quality and began to exchange letters with him later (The Unfinished Memoirs, p.10). This can be considered the first stepping-stone of Mujib’s political career. And the rest is history.
As a student leader in Kolkata, he was stunned by the loss of life and dignity of millions of people who had to struggle with 1943 famine. The war mongering British rule and the greedy traders created this awful situation. But he didn’t sit idle. Rather he fought it back with his co-workers to run gruel kitchens to feed the hungry.
He saw similar human tragedy in 1947 when India was divided. He rushed to Patna and Asansol to run relief camps for the displaced people who were victims of communal riots. He was completely shattered by the outcome of the Pakistan movement where he too participated for a separate homeland for the Muslim majority, but for more inclusive and democratic state with no feudal Zamindari system and, with enough provision of human rights. The newly born Pakistan was indeed a ‘false dawn’ to him and his co-leaders.
In 1948, Sheikh Mujib joined the law department of the University of Dhaka as a graduate student. During this time, he made significant contributions to the initiation of the language movement, Dawal movement (the movement against cordon policy of the government for restricting movement of food, with huge implication for the seasonal farm laborers) and the movement of class 4 employees of Dhaka University. Sheikh Mujib was expelled from the university as he refused to plead guilty for supporting the low-paid employees. By this time Mujib was arrested a few times. After his expulsion, Mujib decided to devote himself fully to mainstream politics. He wrote, “I was still angry with the Muslim League leaders. What they were doing with Pakistan was contrary to the Pakistan I had dreamt of. … Ordinary people depended on us and would direct their questions at us. The country had become independent: why wasn’t anything being done to alleviate their sufferings?” (The Unfinished Memoirs, p.134).
The Awami Muslim League was formed in 1949, with Mujib as the joint secretary while still in jail. This was not surprising given his relentless efforts in laying the building blocks for this party. He had to remain in jail for more than two years during this spell of detention. It may be noted here that he was under an intelligence scanner right from his arrival to East Bengal from Kolkata. He led the first phase of the language movement directly as a student leader in Dhaka University. He also guided the student leaders to organize the 1952 Language Movement while he was confined in Dhaka Medical College Hospital as a detainee. He was sent to Faridpur jail because of his underground connection with the language movement activists. This, however, could not stop his activism. He started a hunger strike to popularize the cause for the language movement. Then came the carnage of 21st February, where several students and other activists were martyred by police firing. The whole province protested this killing and Mujib was finally released on 27th February when his physical condition deteriorated significantly.
He started reorganizing Awami Muslim League after a brief period of recovery. To him the language movement was much deeper than a cultural movement and had wider socio-economic perspectives. And he continued to hammer this point in subsequent pollical activities. He then went to Karachi to see his mentor Suhrawardy and the Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin, to press his demands for realizing the goals of the Language Movement, achieving democratic space for his party, and ending the oppression of the people. He was only 32 at that time. Yet his political gestures were thoughtful and far-sighted. This characteristic of his leadership was also visible when he visited the newly liberated China in the same year. He was at the time neither a Member of the Parliament nor a Minister. Indeed, his approaches were always statesman-like. He visited agricultural farms, industrial factories, workers’ homes, and educational institutions to learn how reforms were made by the new leadership that brought unprecedented socio-economic transformations to China. He took notes of what he saw and apparently made good use of them when he started rebuilding the newly liberated Bangladesh.
Sheikh Mujib always demonstrated his compassionate leadership which was also deeply pro-poor. Just to illustrate this quality of his leadership, let me share with the readers an interesting episode. During a pre-election campaign Sheikh Mujib came across an old lady who invited him to her hut and offered him a bowl of milk, a betel leaf, and some coins. He was very touched by her gesture but returned the coins along with some more money after drinking the milk. The old lady did not take the money and told him that ‘the prayers of the poor will be with him’. Sheikh Mujib wrote, “When I left her hut my eyes were moist with tears. On that day, I promised myself that I would do nothing to betray my people.” (The Unfinished Memoirs, page- 260). In 1954, Sheikh Mujib became the minister of the Cooperatives and Agricultural department and took oath on 15th May. However, he served for only around a fortnight as Minister since the provincial government was dismissed by the central government on flimsy grounds. Moreover, he was the only Minister who was put in jail.
Sheikh Mujib became the minister of industries, trade, labor, anti-corruption, and village aid in Ataur Rahman Khan’s cabinet in 1956. He made many contributions from his positions as a minister and as the chairman of the Tea Board. However, he resigned from his minister post when Maulana Bhashani questioned Mujib’s position as both a minister and the General Secretary of Awami League and asked him to choose one. He invariably chose the latter as he was more focused on building organization.
Following the imposition of Martial Law, Sheikh Mujib was arrested on 12th October 1958 and released after more than a year on 17th December 1959. Ayub was then in power in Pakistan. Sheikh Mujib was under strict surveillance even after his release. In March 1964, the party was formally revived with him as the Secretary. In June they declared their party manifesto, which included measures against the economic disparity between the two regions. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman proposed six points for the emancipation of the disadvantaged people of East Pakistan on 5th February 1966. He traveled around the country to popularize the six-points program which was overwhelmingly supported by the people. However, the government was dead against this program and consequently Mujib was put behind bars many times. There was a general strike on June 7, 1966, in support of the Six-Points Program which caused several casualties.
Bangabandhu was deeply pained by the loss of lives and massive arrest of party activists. He became more optimistic about the outcome of his struggle for regional autonomy following the people’s overwhelming support for it.
He was technically released from the central jail only to be arrested again under the so-called Agartala Conspiracy case in 1968. He was detained in the cantonment and tried in a military court for ‘sedition against the state’. There was a mass upsurge primarily organized by the students, which led to his release and contributed to the subsequent fall of Ayub regime. Following his release, he was given the title of Bangabandhu, the friend of Bengal, by student leaders led by DUCSU Vice President Tofael Ahmed. General Yahya Khan later took power and arranged a general election in 1970, which proved to be a comprehensive mandate for the six-points program led by Bangabandhu.
In 1971, when the Yahya government backed out from handing over power to the elected representatives, Bangabandhu launched the hugely successful non-cooperation movement. On 7th March Bangabandhu delivered his historic speech, which reflected the aspirations that the Bengalis had for generations. Bangabandhu formally issued the declaration of independence of Bangladesh at 12:20am on 26th March, following the initiation of genocide in the evening of 25th March by the Pakistan army. He was arrested from his residence soon afterwards and he spent his days in prison expecting his death. The whole nation participated in a war of liberation for nine months. The youths volunteered to become freedom fighters and didn’t hesitate to bleed for the liberation of Bangladesh. Bangabandhu’s ideals and determination helped his co-leaders coordinate this war, which was finally supported by the Alliance forces from India. Together they defeated the Pakistani occupying forces and ensured victory for Bangladesh. However, independence was incomplete in the absence of Bangabandhu, who was imprisoned in Pakistan. Thanks to the support of global leaders and committed diplomacy of the then Indian Premier Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the Pakistani leadership had to finally set Bangabandhu free.
Bangladeshi people believed that the promise of “Golden Bengal” was not a mere political rhetoric of Bangabandhu.
Bangabandhu returned to Bangladesh on 10th January 1972. He took control of the war-devastated country and began to rebuild it right away. His speedy moves on reconstruction of the war-torn infrastructure, rehabilitation of ten million refugees, reconstruction of more than two million houses for those who were internally displaced, rehauling the regulatory institutions including the central bank, upgrading a provincial government into a central government, creation of a planning commission to initiate First Five Year Plan, and mobilizing food aid in the face of persistent natural calamities and adverse geopolitical climate provided great hope for a struggling nation to move forward despite many challenges.
The constitution and the First Five Year Plan were already in action within a year of liberation. The four principles of the constitution reflected what Bangabandhu, and the Bengalis had spent years struggling for: Nationalism, Socialism, Democracy, and Secularism. Taking the reins of a war-torn country was not an easy task. Braving these challenges, he helped rehabilitate millions of refugees and thousands of wounded war veterans including war heroines, rebuild communication system and other physical and social infrastructures, gain recognition by hundreds of countries, design a non-aligned independent foreign policy, and pursue farsighted inclusive development policies.
One must also remember that he started this development journey with virtually no resource in hand. The foreign exchange reserve was just zero, the size of the economy was about eight billion US Dollars, savings to GDP was 3% and that of investment 9%. The size of his first budget was only Taka 786 crore with no taxation imposed. Yet, he started walking on two legs, emphasizing both agriculture and industrialization. The latter was state led with prudent policies that provided ample scope for the private sector to play its role. He also gave an opportunity for the cooperative sector to flourish. He also initiated an Education Commission to produce forward-looking skilled human resources.
The economy started responding positively, demonstrating its resilience. The per capita income went up to 273 USD in 1975 from just 93 USD in 1972. However, due to sudden rise in oil price and shortfall in domestic food production, the level of inflation skyrocketed. But he tried hard to take appropriate monetary policy measures including demonetization and improve local food production to bring down prices of food and other daily necessities. He established a rationing system along with trade corporation of Bangladesh to rein in inflation. His measures were yielding results and inflation started calming down. But he was totally upset with the corruption prevailing in the administration and the society. As a response, he introduced the Second Revolution to bring systemic changes and decentralization of the administration. However, it required time to fix all this. So, Bangbandhu asked for more time again and again. When speaking on the Second Revolution, Bangabandhu had said, “Give me three years, if Allah keeps me alive, I will come back to parliamentary democracy. I was unable to do much during the last three years because of domestic and international disasters. This saddens me a lot.” (Syeduzzaman, M, Bangabandhur Smriti O Unnayan Darshan, Uttaran, December 2020, p.49). On 15th August 1975 we lost our hope and our leader, and the country became rudderless for years until his able daughter took charge of the party and later the government. The country then reverted to the path of vibrant and inclusive development and has been moving ahead despite many challenges including the pandemic.
One thing that remained constant through all the years was his devotion towards his people. He never lost touch with them. Indeed, he was an aesthetic leader who was always compassionate to his people. Even his worst enemy will have to agree that he was the embodiment of Bangladesh. As he himself said, he was not an angel. There must have been many limitations in his leadership style. However, on balance the successes overwhelmed his failures. His own narrative of the journey he pursued is so fascinating that one can hardly match it. Yet, as a mark of respect to the greatest son of our country we revisited his journey in a modest way in this article, to orient the youths about the Himalayan proportions of his contributions in building this nation of ours from scratch. One cannot learn about Bangladesh without first learning about Bangabandhu’s life in its entirety. Such was his organic relationship with this country and its people. And he will continue to provide the nation the aspiration to build a prosperous Bangladesh, his favorite ‘Sonar Bangla’.
Dr Atiur Rahman is the Bangabandhu Chair Professor of Dhaka University and former Governor of Bangladesh Bank.