February belongs to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Or let’s put it another way: February is what the Father of the Nation made of it. An observation of Bangladesh’s history is revealing of the crucial as also critical role played by Bangabandhu in February. In short, in this month happened some of the more significant of historical episodes that would go a long way into adding substance to the ethos of Bangladesh.
Journeying back to February 1966 is a starting point, for in that phase of national history Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – and that was three years before he was anointed Bangabandhu – made waves throughout Pakistan. The reason was simple and yet far-reaching. He came up with a radical programme of autonomy for what was then East Pakistan, arguing that the Bengalis of Pakistan, fifty-six per cent of the country’s population, would not be content unless a Six-Point programme of self-expression were implemented for them.
The Six Points, be it noted, were announced by Bangabandhu in Lahore, the very city where twenty-six years earlier a resolution for the creation of Pakistan had been adopted by the All-India Muslim League. It was thus in Lahore that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman came forth with his argument that the state of Pakistan was in need of reinvention, necessary through a secularisation – in the shape of the Six Points – of its politics. His colleagues in the opposition did not agree with him. And the Ayub Khan regime threatened to employ the language of weapons against those arguing for the Six Points.
Three years later in February 1969, with much water having flowed down the Padma, a grateful Bengali nation cheerfully honoured Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as Bangabandhu at a mass rally in Dhaka. Mujib had transcended history, to create new history, in his emergence as a national leader through all his travails manifested in the Agartala Conspiracy Case. He had suffered for years, had witnessed his youth quickly turning into a greying of his age, and yet he had refused to kowtow to authoritarian rule. He had become East Bengal’s authentic political spokesperson, a very symbol of Bengali aspirations.
February 1969 was a turning point. A couple of days after his release from incarceration, one that might have pushed him to death at the hands of the Ayub regime, Bangabandhu travelled back to Lahore and from there to Rawalpindi. He would be taking part at the round table conference called by a collapsing regime. At the conference, he had one objective – to put his thoughts across that the Six Points he had spoken of three years earlier offered the best opportunity for Pakistan to reconfigure itself as a republic.
For his Bengalis, the Six Points were a guarantee of survival, of autonomy, of their freedom to reorder their lives in light of their historical traditions. The round table conference failed, but Bangabandhu had made his point. Indeed, in Rawalpindi he had made it known to the entrenched civil-military bureaucracy of Pakistan that the Six Points were the Bengalis’ Magna Carta and therefore there could be no turning away from them.
And then came another February, five years later in 1974. With Pakistan having officially accorded recognition to Bangladesh on 22 February even as a summit of Islamic nations went underway in Lahore, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led a strong delegation to Lahore a day later. Here he was in the very city where he had let the world in on his plans for Bengalis in February 1966. Where in 1966 he was a rising figure in the All-Pakistan Awami League, here he was in 1974, the founding father of the independent People’s Republic of Bangladesh, an honour guard of Pakistan’s armed forces welcoming him as a Pakistani military band played Amar Shonar Bangla.
It was a moment of triumph for Bangabandhu, replete as it was with history and irony. The history was in his transformation into a statesman who had led his people to liberation. The irony came when men like Tikka Khan, who had unleashed the killings of Bengalis in Dhaka in March 1971, saluted him at Lahore airport. Bangabandhu smiled a meaningful smile, said ‘Hello Tikka’ and moved on. There was irony too when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto welcomed Bangabandhu at the airport. Bhutto’s machinations had caused the crisis in March 1971. It was Bhutto who had crowed, on his arrival in Karachi from Dhaka on 26 March, ‘Thank God, Pakistan has been saved.’ Bangabandhu was under arrest and would soon be flown to Pakistan to face trial before a military court.
In February 1974, Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan and General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, two of Bangabandhu’s tormentors, were yet alive. One wonders with what feelings they must have observed Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s arrival in Pakistan.
And here was Bhutto, governing what remained of Pakistan. And here was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, bringing home to Pakistan the historical reality of a Bangladesh that had waged war against the Pakistan army and won that war.
The final February in Bangabandhu’s politics came in 1975, a month after Parliament had adopted the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, stipulating a presidential form of government for Bangladesh. Bangabandhu shed his role of Prime Minister and took over as President of Bangladesh. On 24 February 1975, Bangabandhu launched his Second Revolution through announcing the formation of a national political front called the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (Baksal).
The move was accompanied by a political reconstitution of the country into sixty-one administrative units, with each unit to be headed by a governor. Baksal was, additionally, a measure toward strengthening the national economy, a move that was beginning to pay dividends when the Father of the Nation was assassinated six months later.
Thus the chronicles of February, of Bangabandhu and of the far-reaching political measures he undertook in the month, across the years. Bangabandhu in February is a saga which constitutes a crucial part in Bangladesh’s history.
About the Author
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Chief Editorial Adviser of The Confluence; a journalist and author. He previously served as the Press Minister at the High Commission of Bangladesh, London and authored a biography on the Founder of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman entitled From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.