Shuvo shokal from Dhaka,
Today is a public holiday in Bangladesh; a commemoration of the birthday of Bangabandhu, the father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I hope my dear readers are amenable to a short history lesson on this great man, especially since there are international ramifications of his life and actions.
After partition, Pakistan was divided between East and West – probably a thousand kilometres apart but sharing an adherence to Jinnah’s Muslim vision. The preponderance of Muslims in both ears was accentuated by the mass migration across land when partition created the new nation of Pakistan (Jinnah’s idea).
It so happened that East Pakistan produced most of the nation’s wealth, paid most of the taxes and had most of the population. But, West Pakistan had most of the power, including the capital city.
Among a lot of other contentious and provocative edicts from Islamabad, the language edict riled more than all of the others. It was decreed that Urdu would be the national language, despite the fact that most East Pakistanis spoke Bangla. Mujib was from East Pakistan and led the movement against enforced language change (known as The Language Movement) from the early 1950s.
“his thunderous speech”
In 1970, an election saw Mujib’s Awami League win in a massive landslide but Yahya Khan (firmly ensconced in Islamabad by virtue of the army’s favour) refused to acknowledge the result or hand over power. On 7th March, 1971, Mujib made a famous speech at a racecourse here in Dhaka in which he called on his fellow-countrymen to fight for liberation. Sukumar Barua describes it poetically as “his thunderous speech, roused the heroic Bangalis”. The speech is remembered today as a great oratorical call to readiness.
On 31 March Mujib was arrested and taken to Pakistan (where a grave was dug in the adjoining cell whilst he was being held). The war broke out immediately and lasted for nine bloody months.
By any standard it was one of the most brutal conflagrations of all time. Mujib recalled – in a David Frost interview in 1973 – “Many leaders, many workers, many intellectuals, many government officials were taken from custody and killed after being tortured for days.” He also said – amid tears – “this inhuman torture I have never heard of in history”.
In Bangladesh, the civil war raged on, with brutal results.
the Blood Telegram
Archer K. Blood was American Ambassador in Dhaka at the time. He sent repeated entreaties to Nixon and Kissinger for intervention, including the infamous Blood Telegram. But the Americans valued their relationship with West Pakistan more and looked on – to their eternal discredit. Blood later wrote a book called “The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh” and was recalled to US and demoted to a desk job.
The Liberation War ended on 16 December when the Indian Army triumphed for the long-suffering Bangali people. That day is also commemorated as Victory Day here.
Mujib became the country’s first Prime Minister but was assassinated about three years later. He wryly commented on the ado associated with his birthday anniversary. “The only narrative of my birthday anniversary is that our struggle shall continue till achievement of goal. Truth and justice are on our side. Our victory is inevitable.” He also said, “Who cares about the birth- or death-days of Bangladeshi people? When someone attempts to kill them, they die. And I am merely one among those masses.”
Mujib’s family were all murdered in 1975. This is except Sheikh Hasina who had been hidden abroad. These days, Sheikh Hasina is the Prime Minister.
Today is also known as National Children’s Day. Sheikh Hasina says that’s fitting because her father had “limitless love for the children”.
Post Script: the first western nation to recognise the new nation of Bangladesh was Australia. (Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister.)