The Man Who Never Sold Us Out
Shaheen Islam examines Sheikh Mujib's legacy and how we have never truly appreciated his true greatness
In South Asia, August 15 marks the end of two over-arching symbols and the birth of two legacies. It marks the end of British rule in the sub-continent. Scholars talk about the two divergent, almost contradictory, strands of the British Imperial legacy: the monarchic viceroyalty and the democratic representation. Like almost everything else in South Asia in the 20th century, the North Indians divided -- "partitioned," if you will -- the legacy between them. The authoritarian tradition went to Pakistan and the parliamentary democratic tradition went to India, hence the divergent histories since that fateful year of 1947.
Equally, perhaps more importantly, August 15 marks the barbaric murder of one man and his family.
I say "more" deliberately.
I say "more" because this man created a post-imperial state through a baptism of blood, not through imperial consent as in the rest of South Asia.
I say "more" out of pride because he was not a "derivative" of any imperialism, brown or white: not for him foreign languages, degrees from the Metropole, the adulation of foreign cultures and foreign women, or speeches in English and only English.
I say "more" out of protest that South Asian intellectual elites of every hue are so overcome by the narrative of power emanating from Delhi or Islamabad and the guilt of their own consciences, that they do not and cannot look at this man, his words, and his actions as supreme instances of anti-Imperialism or Islamic humanism or both -- but are ready to wax lyrical about their Netaji, their Punditji, their Allama or their Quaid for pages on end.
I say "more" out of sheer desperation that even the very people he freed from bondage are ready to place the elites in the struggle against British rule in a global framework, but seem unsure nowadays about the relative magnitude of his influence, his stature, and his achievements vis a vis theirs.
Most importantly, even his vocal supporters seem to have acquiesced to the regional and global consensus that strives to consign him once again to the very margins he helped his people successfully escape in his lifetime. Thus, they fail to see his continuing relevance to the marginalised of South Asia and elsewhere.
This man's legacy might have proved in the end to be more potent than anyone else's in South Asia, for two reasons. Firstly, as already mentioned, no one could cast doubt on his undoubted authenticity. No one disputes that he was a man quintessentially of the masses of this region -- indeed some denigrate him for this virtue. But this also means his liberal inclinations were due not to the influence of Mill, Locke, or Rousseau, but his own wide-ranging socio-economic and political experiences.
Stated differently: whereas those deemed most culturally authentic in the post-colonial milieu of South Asia tend to be right-wing, hard-line religious parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami and the BJP, very rarely is a liberal, pluralistic figure deemed worthy of the accolade of "authenticity." Yet, there is no questioning of either his authenticity as a man who rose from the common mass or his brand of politics.
Liberalism and pluralism are his legacy. They are thus the Bangladeshi norm, and not imported ideas as many would like to have us believe.
Secondly, this legacy had the potential for creating the most inclusive, egalitarian, and pluralistic state in South Asia. It was after all his dream, and he had two words for it that you could understand from Teknaf to Tetulia: Shonar Bangla.
Shonar Bangla might have become a beacon of hope across the global south benighted by inequalities, identity politics, and the disregard for the weak and marginalised.
As we all know, that did not happen. We became yet another elite-driven third world country, divorced from the vision of the man who wanted us to be more than merely that. These last 38 years have been largely lost, and that perhaps is the magical tragic quality of this story. And the responsibility for that, perhaps unfairly, can be placed at his doorstep.
For within that legacy there were two strands: pre-1971 and post-1972. Pre-1971 is the lost legacy: the uncompromising championing of one the most marginalised people on Earth, his own. This is the underestimated legacy, for rarely will you find a more marginalised people who had accepted all sorts of self-injuring cosmopolitan narratives with so much alacrity.
I do not exaggerate either our marginality or his role in ending it in our own consciousness. Ask yourself: in what cosmopolitan, pan-national scheme do Bangalis from the East ever come up -- except at the margins?
Not Western pan-humanism.
Not Islamic Ummahtocism.
Not South Asian Desi-ism (but never "Deshi-ism").
And lastly, certainly not Kolkata-centric pan-Bengalism.
Forever at the margins, one man took us by the scruff of the neck and shoved us into the centre of it, ending the sway that all hegemonic narratives had over us. This was a man proud to be of eastern Bengal, proud to use his language unapologetically in the forum of the world, proud of his roots and convinced that his people deserved to stand and be counted amongst the peoples of the world. In this, he was unprecedented. Whatever he did later, he never compromised on this basic principle.
The story of what happened after 1972 is, of course, much repeated.
The reality of a war-ravaged country hit, with a heavy dose of power to match. He became dictatorial, suspicious, overwhelmed, not really quite sure of what he had unleashed: the power of millions. He said things that went against the very grain of his inclusiveness. He took stands that were not for the marginalised. He did things that went against the very pluralism he had once worn as a proud emblem.
And the people that we are -- forever accustomed to the margins, losing out on every venture, suspicious of each other, and unaccustomed to being masters of our own destiny amidst the tides of empires and rivers -- we took all these little lessons to heart and forgot the big lessons he had so painstakingly taught us for so long.
And then came that August dawn 34 years ago when Dhaka was awoken once again by gunfire.
And from there we went on our merry downward spiral, all mirroring that darker legacy. We forgot about the marginalised, of whom the dead were the first. We tried to erase him, because no matter what he did in those three short years, he could not dull the gloss of what he had once been.
And that perverted effort has, ironically, made many wary of historical re-assessments of his legacy. Yet, how are we to know of his continuing significance without constantly reviewing the historical record for fresher insights?
And it got worse. We shut down newspapers, beat up reporters, killed people in crossfire. We helped people only when our leaders told us to, gave flood relief only when photographers were present, talked about "national security" while selling, starving, and exiling our people.
And we constantly -- constantly! -- denigrated and killed our fellow Bangladeshis, at times, ironically, in the name of their Father.
His shining legacy lived on … in name only, stashed away behind glass cases, to be admired but not practiced.
And we took it one step further. Even in his darker days, he never initiated any policy or invented any narrative that sold us out. After his death, that is what our leaders -- political, as well as intellectual and social ones -- did. We were told by them what countries to emulate, where to easily emigrate and who our "permanent allies" were. We created false dichotomies between "independence" (an Awami League monopoly) and "sovereignty" (a BNP monopoly), which undermined both in the final equation.
In the meantime, 38 years went on by and maybe another 38 will go before people wake up and realise that the other half of his legacy, the pre-1971 one, has either been denigrated or never been tried, even by his own admirers.
So, welcome to the country of sell-outs whose leaders only fight over whom to sell-out to. And that is the sad story. Simple, not pretty, but a thousand times more honest than what Awami intellectuals or BNP apologists and the fringe elements of both will tell us.
August 15 marks the day that we lost the one person who refused to sell us out in word or deed at the most important juncture of our history.
May we remember him like that.
Art works by Shahabuddin
Shaheen Islam is a blogger, and is of the generation that was born years after the guns of the seventies fell silent.