The Shame of
Habibul Haque Khondker offers a personal account of a national tragedy
Recently, I was showing a Tk 500 bill to my daughter, telling her I found it quite odd that I met -- in fact, knew -- the person whose picture was on this bill. "It would be like knowing George Washington," quipped my daughter. She was born 13 years after the gruesome murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family on August 15, 1975.
I told her that I had the rare privilege of shaking his hand, and had an informal conversation at his residence. This is definitely not a big deal because there are many around us who had much closer ties with this man, worked with him closely, and could write volumes about him. I am only thinking of a future generation -- say, the one of my children who would grow up to tell stories to their children about my own generation's tryst with history.
I have a simple gauge for someone's moral, and not just political, position. It is revealed in his or her evaluation of the murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding leader of Bangladesh. Those who fail to condemn this murder are people to whom I give a wide berth.
Political figures, however great, are not immune to criticism. In Kolkata, the statue of Mahatma Gandhi was defaced once. Of course, there are people who can be very critical of Gandhi's politics. Bangabandhu was by no means above criticism; he made his share of mistakes, errors in judgments and what political pundits call these days, "misspoken" statements.
But my moral stand is clear: if killing a human being is unacceptable, then killing someone who sacrificed so much for his people is an abominable crime. What ethical position can condone, let alone justify, such heinous acts of killing a nationalist father figure, innocent women and children, and close relatives and associates? The crime, in its lowness, is comparable to the morally reprehensible crime of killing four other founding leaders of Bangladesh inside the Dhaka central jail in early November 1975.
During an afternoon in December 1975, I was taking a rickshaw back to Tajmahal Road where we lived from Dhaka University after I went to see the results of our MA final examination, I looked at the Bangabandhu residence on Road 32, and memories flashed back.
Not too long ago, it was in that house that Sheikh Kamal, whom I used to coach once in a while on sociological theories and issues, had introduced me to Bangabandhu. I was having lunch with the Bangabandhu family in their first floor dining room. Kamal took certain pride in introducing me to Bangabandhu, saying: "Abba this is Habib, he is the first boy in our class. He will also secure first position in the MA final exam."
"I congratulate you in advance," boomed Bangabandhu, shaking my hands warmly. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I recollected the encounter. Did he have a premonition that he would not be around to congratulate me in person when our results were announced? Bangabandhu wanted to know who my father was. I told him he would not know him since my father was a sub-registrar civil servant who worked all his life in small towns in Khulna division. He tried to place him.
Later, my father told me that he had met the young Mujib while they were trainees for a job in the cooperative department in Kolkata. I also found out later that one of my uncles, Khondker Khadem Ali, was his roommate at the Baker Hostel while studying in Islamia College in Kolkata. Sheikh Mujib had an amazing gift of remembering people from the distant past, but I did not give him enough clues. His presence was overwhelming. We felt somewhat relieved as he retreated to his room with his signature pipe in hand. That was the last image of Bangabandhu that remains etched in my mind.
I was with Kamal on August 13. We were from Salimullah Muslim Hall. He was there to support our debating team, of which I was a member along with Selim Jahan. On August 12, we had our viva voce as part of our MA final examination in sociology. Kamal was wearing a sky blue safari shirt. He was happy with his performance, he knew he would graduate. I spent many days studying closely with him. He was sharp, and often lamented that with his father in and out of jail, he, as the older male member, had to run all the errands of the family with little time left for studies.
Those were the proudest moments of my life. Here I was in the private chamber of 32, Bangabandhu House, discussing Durkheim and listening to music on his music system -- a gift he received from Mrs. Indira Gandhi. I was privileged to have had such a ringside seat to history.
The Sheikh Mujib family was kind to me. I would have my lunch with them almost regularly in the days before our examination. Upon returning home, my mother would ask me what I had, and would always be impressed by the simplicity of the menu of un-milled rice, dal and fish curry at the president's residence.
The Bangabandhu family lived simply. Once, Rehana, the younger daughter, complained she had asked her father for an air-conditioner for the bedroom as the July heat was unbearable, to which Sheikh Mujib replied that she should wipe the floor with a damp cloth and sleep on the floor.
For me, the association with the Bangabandhu family was very special because I was not politically connected with the Awami League or the Student League. As a child growing up in a family of civil servants who hailed from Murshidabad in West Bengal, we had loyalty to Pakistan like most other fellow migrant families. We grew up singing "Pak Sar Zamin Shadbad" (the national anthem of Pakistan written in Farsi), and we admired General Ayub for his dress and his looks. Punjabi and pajama-clad politicians never impressed us. As a college student, my loyalty was to the Marxist parties, as we adored (and continue to adore) student leaders such as Rashed Khan Menon and Motia Chowdhury, who were legends in our time.
Yet I was moved by Bangabandhu's famous March 7 speech. The words reverberated in my mind. I could barely control my tears when he spoke again at the Race Course on January 10, 1972. He was magnanimous in that speech -- calling Bhutto his brother -- and opened his heart for peace.
Bangabandhu requested his Indian counterpart Mrs. Indira Gandhi to withdraw the Indian troops by March 17, on his birthday, a request to which she acceded. This was rare, as following the liberation of Germany, US troops are still present in Germany and Japan (Okinawa) 60 years after the conclusion of World War II. In retrospect, such speedy withdrawal was perhaps somewhat premature. The forces that actively opposed the creation of Bangladesh (for them, it was disintegration of Pakistan) were the religious right -- the so-called Peace Committees, Razakars, al-Badrs, and al-Shams -- and the splinter groups of the left parties such as East Pakistan Communist Party (Haque, Toaha groups), etc.
A systematic campaign undermined the efforts of the Awami League government to rebuild and rehabilitate. The government did not lack in commitment or sincerity but lacked in administrative experience, and there were self-seeking politicians who were busy amassing wealth by unscrupulous means. With the departure of the international disaster relief organisations, the newly installed government, despite its shortcomings, mounted a heroic effort to rebuild a war-ravaged country. The bridges were broken, the roads were destroyed, the Chittagong port was strewn with mines, intellectuals were murdered. The country was in a shambles.
Bangabandhu's failings included his love for his people: he loved them too much. People who were not always ready to give him an objective assessment of the situation surrounded him. Yet Bangabandhu was eager to know what was going on -- he once told Dr. Kamal Hossain: "I like you because you are one of the few who like to share unpleasant truths with me." Dr. Kamal Hossain was the first law minister, and played the central role in drafting the constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh. Later on, he was offered the portfolio of the foreign ministry. In 1972, Dr. Kamal Hossain was only 35 years old. Although his father, Dr. Ahmed Hossain, who had a medical practice in Kolkata, knew Mr. Huseyn Suhrawardy, the family was not a political one. Bangabandhu chose Kamal Hossain for his intellectual ability and honesty.
The first planning commission was a star-studded commission that had professors Anisur Rahman, Rehman Sobhan, and Muzaffar Ahmed as members with Professor Nurul Islam (Ph.D. Harvard, 1955) as deputy chairman. Both the local and international circumstances were unfavourable to the newly independent country. The socialism that the Mujib government preached was socialism by default as many industries vacated by their Urdu-speaking owners were nationalised. The attempted land reform, which sought to break the monopoly of the large landowners, was not properly implemented either as many large landowners sliced up their land under "benami" (ghost) owners. The later was an example that even best intentioned policies can fail because of the insincerity of the people and slackness in implementation.
The first cabinet of Bangabandhu did not lack talents or commitment: apart from Dr. Kamal Hossain, the cabinet had Professor A.R. Mallick, a historian, Professor Muzaffar Ahmad, a political scientist, and other political figures such as Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmed, Kamruzzaman, Capt. Mansur Ali, Khandker Mushtaque Ahmed, and others. Of course, some like Khandker Mushtaque also turned out to be a Brutus. In an article written in Bengali shortly after the murders of August 15, Holiday editor Mr. Enayetullah Khan likened the demise of Bangabandhu to a Greek drama.
In the middle of an economic crisis, and a declining law and order situation in post-independence Bangladesh, rumours flew in all directions about corruption, some of which involved the families of the ministers. Very little evidence was produced, even by the regime that endorsed the murder by indemnifying the murderers.
I remember the days at the university soon after the liberation when we returned to the classrooms. Many of our friends perished in the war, many of our beloved teachers were mur ered. Kamal escaped from house arrest and crossed over to India to join the liberation war and so did his younger brother, Jamal. Kamal was commissioned with the first batch of officers. He served with Gen. MAG Osmany as his ADC, and narrowly escaped an attack on December 16 on MAG Osmany's helicopter in Sylhet.
I once received a gift from Sheikh Kamal. He went to play a cricket match on hire in Chittagong. As remuneration he was offered a shirt-piece, pale yellow coloured, which he gave to me. I got a shirt tailored, which I wore with great pride. Kamal always wore a light blue or white shirt. He was not very fashion-conscious. He did not smoke nor taste any alcohol. He drove an old, blue Toyota (I think). In the interior of the car, Munir (Pagla Munir) wrote "long live scientific socialism," a slogan of the rival JSD, to irritate Kamal. Kamal was a good sport. He was asked to play the role of a montri (minister) in a play Ami Montri Hobo, a play that satirised politicians. He took up the role without hesitation although he knew, as he told me, why he was chosen for the part.
Days before the murderous August 15, Bangabandhu told his newly wed daughter-in-law Sultana: "Let's leave the running of the country to others and retire, let's go back to Tungi Para." Sultana confided this to her parents, whom I met soon after the deadly August 15. Mr. Dabiruddin Ahmed, Sultana's father told me to plead with the sociology department to release Sultana's results although she was gunned down days before her viva voce.
He wanted to see that his slain daughter had graduated. I went to see Professor Nazmul Karim, the Chairman of the department and a distinguished sociologist. He kept the request. Sultana did pass the MA, even without the marks of her viva voce. Days after the brutal murders when I went to the Dhaka University someone asked me: "Weren't you a friend of the Sheikh family?" My reply was: "No, I was more than a friend, I was part of the family."
Since I knew both the families of Kamal and Sultana, I was one of the first to be consulted when the Sheikh family's marriage proposal reached the family of Sultana. I must confess I was slightly hesitant. I asked in confidence the opinion of my brother, with whom we weighed the various scenarios, including that of a military coup. I was reassured by my brother that in the event of a coup, the Bangabandhu family would be sent to exile and Kamal would run a hotel in London. With that prospect I was somewhat relieved. Not that my opinion mattered, because the process took its own course. When Sultana was asked by her parents, she wanted to go with her parents' decision. The wedding took place in mid-July 1975.
On the morning of August 15, I heard the ominous announcement on Bangladesh Betar: "Ami Major Dalim bolchi…" Sheikh Mujib has been killed. This was numbing. I felt a chill down my spine. I did not have the slightest clue that the rest of the family had also been slaughtered. I went to my next-door neighbour's house to make a phone call to Bangabandhu's residence. I was rehearsing what to say to console Kamal, and especially Sultana. The phone rang, but no one responded. I thought they were too shocked by the murder of Bangabandhu to pick up the phone. I called again and again, but in vain. It was later in the day when my brother, an air force officer, told me that the entire family had been murdered.
What was most ominous about that fateful morning was a jubilant Bihari gentleman, running in front of our Tajmahal Road residence shouting: "Mujib has been killed!" (Yes, in English). His celebratory mood betrayed an anticipation: Mujib equals to Bangladesh, and with Mujib dead, Pakistan may revive. That's how I interpreted the joy and the exuberance in his voice and face. Not surprisingly, Pakistan was the first country to give recognition to the post August 15 regime, and full diplomatic relations followed. Full diplomatic recognition from China and Saudi Arabia followed in its wake as well.
In 1973, Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile, was killed in a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet allegedly backed by the CIA. Allende fell with a sub-machine gun in his hands. After his death, a military helicopter airlifted his family to safety. The murder of Bangabandhu and his family was brutal, inhumane, and barbaric. Children and women were not spared. Inhumanity apart, what was more damaging was that Bangabandhu was also a symbol of Bengali nationalism. With his demise came all the competing definitions of our nationalism. With Mujib gone, the raison d'être of Bangladesh was challenged. It was a pity and a national shame that it took more than two decades to bring the murderers of Bangabandhu and his family to the fold of the law.
Political convenience in the post-1975 period denied justice, which can be understood. What is difficult to understand is the conspiracy of silence from sections of the intelligentsia. What took them so long to wake up to the moral violation? What is it that leads some people to trade political expediency for moral principle? I beg to know which moral or religious position justifies murder of an innocent child, or women whose wedding decorations (henna decorations on hands) were yet to be washed away. Not only did regimes in the post-1975 period give the murderers legal protection from trials, they were also rewarded for their crime with diplomatic appointments.
The only feeling that I have in remembering this sad saga is the feeling of deep shame.
Habibul Haque Khondker is a professor of sociology at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi.