Bangladesh Is Still Waiting For Mujib
Shobak: Naeem Mohaiemen
On August 15 1975, a group of army officers burst into the residence of independent Bangladesh's first President Sheikh Mujib. After killing Mujib, the army officers proceeded to massacre his entire family. The 1975 coup ushered in an era of instability in Bangladesh-- repeated coups and counter-coups, two military dicatorships, and a fragile democracy today has left Bangladesh in a vulnerable state. Although Bangladesh was formed in rejection of the Islamic state of Pakistan, "secularism" was removed from the constitution and Islam was named the "state religion" during the military juntas of, respectively, Zia and Ershad. 30 years on, the debate over Mujib's legacy is bitter and partisan. On the ocassion of the 30th anniversary, members of the "new generation" of Bangladeshis were asked to talk about what Mujib means to them. These are my thoughts.
Although born in 1969, I am technically part of the "post-71 generation." The struggles, debates and emotions that animated and divided our parents are an abstraction and learned memory for us. We are the first generation that has benefited from those struggles without having to go through sacrifices. At the same time, because of our distance and lack of personal involvement in the watershed years, we are perhaps best placed to start engaging in an open debate and analysis of our founding myths.
The fissures and divisions that are core to our history are most apparent in the controversy over the meaning of Sheikh Mujib. To some, he is Bongo Bandhu, Father of the Nation, the great national leader, an unassailable demi-god without flaws. To critics, he is a signifier for everything that went wrong at the outset-- an autocrat who ruthlessly crushed political dissent, and an inept administrator who failed to rebuild a war-ravaged nation. To the more academic or "neutral" observers, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is a textbook case of the failure of Third World Charisma. Certain nations seem prone to throwing up leaders who are brilliant at raising emotions and bringing the masses together in moments of crisis, but are inept at the arduous task of running a country's day-to-day operations. About Mujib, the simplest summation can be that he won the war, but lost the peace. Of course Mujib's failure as a leader can never be used to justify the grisly murders of August 15. Those rogue military officers who carried out the coups were murderers and destroyers of democracy. No matter how much revisionist historians may deconstruct Mujib's flaws, this can never be used to exonerate the coup plotters.
In 1971, when the Pakistani army crackdown began, my father, an army doctor, had the bad luck of being posted in West Pakistan. As war raged on, Bengalis in West Pakistan were herded off to prison camp. My earliest memories are actually in Mondi Bahauddin camp. It wasn't until 1973 that the hundreds of Bengali families were repatriated to Bangladesh, as part of a prisoner exchange with the Pakistani POWs held inside India. We drove in my father's Volkswagen Beetle to the transition point, where we boarded German Fokker Friendships. I was very excited-- it was my first time on a plane. My mother, always prone to carsickness, was overcome by tension and threw up repeatedly along the side of the car. It was some kind of homecoming.
In many ways, we missed all the emotional ups and downs of Bangladesh's early years. We spent the war trapped in Pakistan. Subsequently, we missed Mujib's joyful homecoming, when the country was united in support behind him. By the time we returned to Bangladesh, the rot had set and Mujib's stature was in freefall. Corruption and mismanagement was everywhere, flood and famine gripped the country. Whether Mujib was personally honest or not, he certainly tolerated the rampant corruption of his entourage. In this, he showed a quintessentially Bangla trait, a tolerance for "chatukars" or sycophants.
In the mid 1970s, the Middle East started importing Bangla skilled labor, and my father was one of the first batches of doctors to be sent to Libya. It was while we were living in that hostile, desert nation that we received news of Mujib's assassination. My grandfather also passed away in that same period, and in my fractured memories, somehow the milad for my grandfather metamorphosed into a milad for Mujib.
Salman Rushdie later satirized Mujib's gruesome end in "Shame":
"Sheikh Bismillah, the architect of division, became chief of the junglees. Later, inevitably, they swarmed into his palace and shot him and his family full of holes. Sort of behavior one expects from types like that."
Rushdie of course was very thoroughly on the Bengali side (he later gave Benazir a tongue-lashing for her attempt to criticize Mujib in "Daughter of The East"), but the "Shame" of the title could very well have been directed at the Bangali nation. Mujib made many mistakes, but he never deserved this dog's death on the steps of "Number 32"-- machine-gunned down by his own soldiers, who proceeded to slaughter the entire family, trying to wipe out any successors.
Three decades have passed since summer 1975, but it is still difficult to have a rational discussion about Sheikh Mujib's legacy. Like all things in Bangladesh, opinions about him are trapped between two warring extremes. One side acknowledges no flaws, the other gives Mujib no credit. Some have gone as far as to erase the portion from Zia's independence speech where he says "on behalf of our great national leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman"-- as if that would obscure the fact of who won the 1970 election, and whose call first brought the Bengali masses to the streets.
Personally, I am the first to criticize Mujib's faults. Beyond BKSAL, there are three events I count as his greatest political failures. The first is the massacre of JSD leaders who dared to assemble at Dhaka University TSC for the first public revolt against the new Mujib government. The second is his infamous challenge, "Where today is Shiraj Shikdar?" (after the Sharbahara Party leader had been killed while in police custody). And finally, there was his paternalistic advice to the Pahari tribals of Chittagong Hill Tracts, "From today you are all Bengalis"-- setting the stage for the ethnic cleansing of CHT and the 30-year guerilla war in that region. But while I can critique Mujib, I also acknowledge that without his leadership at a crucial time, there would be no Bangladesh, no Bangladeshi nationalism, no green Bangladesh passport, and while we are at it, no Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-- who are today the sworn enemies of "Mujibism".
Elsewhere in the world, leaders have been re-evaluated without diminishing their achievements. Jinnah's legacy is now up for debate in India, with some Indians belatedly acknowledging his inaugural speech's promise of equal rights for minorities. Gandhi too is often debated-- some call him "Mahatma" and some don't, and that is permissible in that society's more open environment. In Western academia, starting from Jefferson and Washington's treatment of slaves, up to Churchill's divided legacy as a great wartime Prime Minister who was also a poisonous racist and beyond, anything is up for discussion. Most recently, new archives have revealed some of Lyndon B. Johnson's private prejudices, but those same researchers have credited him for finally pushing through Civil Rights legislation to give African Americans dignity and rights (something the far more popular JFK failed to do). By looking at all aspects of history, these leaders' achievements are not diminished-- rather we get a nuanced view of complex people and events.
In my generation, there seems to be a total exhaustion with the whole Mujib vs. Zia, Awami League vs. BNP debates and the controversies over "who gave the independence announcement first?" But it would be a mistake to turn away from history because of this. History writing is not a nation-building project that papers over unsightly cracks, but rather a search for the fullest truth about ourselves. The past is always prologue to our future. We are still waiting for a historian who can construct a truly critical history of Bangladesh's founding years, which has to include a proper accounting of Sheikh Mujib. Instead of trapping him between the polarities of hosannas and hate, we need a new history that looks at his flaws in historical context, but also acknowledges his gift to the nation.