“The Father of Nation” He is considered to be the driving force behind the independence of Bangladesh; who is popularly dubbed with the title of “The friend of Bengal” considered by the people of Bangladesh. By: Tauhidul Islam Apu

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Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (17 March 1920 – 15 August 1975), shortened as Sheikh Mujib or just Mujib, was a Bangladeshi politician and statesman. He is the founding father of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. He served as the first President of  Bangladesh and later as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh from 17 April 1971 until his assassination on 15 August 1975. He is considered to be the driving force behind the independence of Bangladesh. He is popularly dubbed with the title of Bangabandhu (“Friend of Bengal”) by the people of Bangladesh. He became a leading figure in and eventually the leader of the Awami League, founded in 1949 as an East Pakistan-based political party in Pakistan. Mujib is credited as an important figure in efforts to gain political autonomy for East Pakistan and later as the central figure behind the Bangladesh Liberation Movement and the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Thus, he is regarded as JatirJanak or Jatir Pita of Bangladesh. His daughter Sheikh Hasina is the current leader of the Awami League and also the Prime Minister of Bangladesh.

An advocate of democracy and socialism, Mujib rose to the ranks of the Awami League and East Pakistani politics as a charismatic and forceful orator. He became popular for his opposition to the ethnic and institutional discrimination of Bengalis in Pakistan who comprised the majority of the state’s population. At the heightening of sectional tensions, he outlined a 6 point autonomy plan and was jailed by the regime of Field Marshal Ayub Khan for treason. Mujib led the Awami League to win the first democratic election of Pakistan in 1970. Despite gaining a majority, the League was not invited by the ruling military junta to form a government. As civil disobedience erupted across East Pakistan, Mujib indirectly announced the independence of Bangladesh during a landmark speech on March 7, 1971. On March 26, 1971, the Pakistan Army responded to the mass protests with Operation Searchlight, in which Prime Minister-elect Mujib was arrested and flown to solitary confinement in West Pakistan while Bengali civilians, students, intellectuals, politicians and military defectors were murdered as part of the 1971 Bangladesh genocide. Despite Mujib’s absence, Bengalis from all walks of life joined the Mukti Bahini and fought to win against Pakistan Armed Forces in Bangladesh Liberation War. After Bangladesh’s independence, Mujib was released from Pakistani custody due to international pressure and returned to Dhaka on January 1972, after a short visit to Britain and India.

Sheikh Mujib became the Prime Minister of Bangladesh under a parliamentary system adopted by the new country. His government enacted a constitution proclaiming, socialism and secular democracy. The Awami League won a huge mandate in the country’s first general election in 1973. However, Mujib faced challenges of rampant unemployment, poverty, and corruption. A famine took place in 1974. The government was criticized for denying constitutional recognition to indigenous minorities and human rights violations by its security forces, notably the National Defence Force para militia. Amid rising political agitation, Mujib initiated one-party socialist rule in January 1975. Six months later, he and most of his family were assassinated by renegade army officers during a coup. A martial law government was subsequently established. In 2004 BBC poll, Mujib was voted the Greatest Bengali of all time.

Early life and education

Mujib was born in Tungipara, a village in Gopalganj District in the province of Bengal in British India to Sheikh Lutfur Rahman, a serestadar (court clerk) of Gopalganj civil court. He was born into a Muslim native Bengali family as the third child in a family of four daughters and two sons.

In 1929, Mujib entered into class three at Gopalganj Public School and two years later class four at Madaripur Islamia High School. From a very early age, Mujib showed the potential for leadership. His parents noted in an interview that at a young age, he organized a student protest in his school for the removal of an inept principal. Mujib withdrew from school in 1934 to undergo eye surgery and returned to school only after four years, owing to the severity of the surgery and slow recovery.

Later, he passed his Matriculation from Gopalganj Missionary School in 1942, intermediate of Arts from Islamia College (now Maulana Azad College) in 1944 and BA from the same college in 1947. After the partition of India, he got himself admitted into the University of Dhaka to study law but could not complete it due to his expulsion from the University in early 1949 on the charge of ‘inciting the fourth-class employees’ in their agitation against the University authority’s indifference towards their legitimate demands. After 61 years in 2010, the expulsion has been withdrawn terming the expulsion as unjust and undemocratic.

Political activism in British India

Mujib became politically active when he joined the All India Muslim Students Federation in 1940 when he was a student of Islamia College.

He joined the Bengal Muslim League in 1943. During this period, Mujib worked actively for the League’s cause of a separate Muslim state of Pakistan and in 1946 he went on to become general secretary of the Islamia College Students Union. M. Bhaskaran Nair describes that Mujib “emerged as the most powerful man in the party” because of his proximity to Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy.

After obtaining his BA degree in 1947, Mujib was one of the Muslim politicians working under Suhrawardy during the communal violence that broke out in Calcutta. In 1946, just before the partition of India.

Leader of Pakistan

Early political career

After the Partition of India, Mujib chose to stay in the newly created Pakistan. On his return to what became known as East Pakistan, he enrolled in the University of Dhaka to study law and founded the East Pakistan Muslim Student’s League. He became one of the most prominent student political leaders in the province. During these years, Mujib developed an affinity for socialism as the solution to mass poverty, unemployment, and poor living conditions.

Following the declaration of Muhammad Ali Jinnah on March 21, 1948; that the people of East Bengal would have to adopt Urdu as the state language, protests broke out amongst the population. Mujib immediately decided to start a movement against this former planned decision of the Muslim League.  At the same year, March 2, a conference was held at Dhaka University’s Fazlul Haq Muslim Hall, with leaders of different political parties. In this conference, discussions about the movement against the Muslim League were discussed. From here on, the decision of the constitution of the All-party Parliamentary Council was decided. The strike was celebrated in Dhaka on March 11, 1948; in the call of this council. During the strike, some other political activists including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman were arrested in front of the secretariat building. But due to pressure from the student protest, Mujib and other student leaders were released on March 15. On the occasion of their release, Rastrabhasa Sangram Parishad (National Language Action Committee) arranges a rally which took place at Dhaka University. Police had blocked this rally. In protest of police activities, Sheikh Mujib immediately announced a nationwide student strike on March 17, 1948. On March 19, he organized a movement aimed at securing the rights of the fourth class employees of Dhaka University. On September 11, 1948; was again arrested.

On January 21, 1949; Sheikh Mujib was released from prison. Out of jail, he again became involved in the demand for the demand of the fourth class employees, for which he was fined from the university. But he refrained from acquiring these fines as illegal. In continuation of this, on April 26, Muslim League-backed candidate Shamsul Haq won a by-election in Tangail. Sheikh Mujib strikes a hunger strike in front of Vice Chancellor’s residence for the success of his movement for which he was again arrested. At that time he was expelled from Dhaka University. He was accused of leading the movement of the fourth class worker’s rights in the university. After the formation, Sheikh Mujib left the Muslim League and joined this new team. He was elected joint general secretary of party East Pakistan. In September of this year, he was temporarily detained for violating Section 144 but he was released immediately.

In early January 1950, the Awami Muslim League brought out an anti-famine procession in Dhaka on the occasion of the arrival of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan to East Pakistan. Sheikh Mujib was arrested this time because of his leadership. His service was imprisoned for two years. On January 26, 1952; Khwaja Nazimuddin announced that Urdu would be the only state language of Pakistan. In spite of being kept in jail after this announcement, Mujib played a vital role in organizing protests and prevention. He played the role of guiding the state language movement by issuing instructions from jail. After this, it was decided to observe February 21, as the day of recognition for state language. At the same time, Sheikh Mujib decided to observe the fast on February 14 from jail. His fasting was effective in 13 days. On February 26, he was released from jail. 

The founding of the Awami League

Mujib left the Muslim League to join Maulana Bhashani and Yar Mohammad Khan in the formation of the Awami Muslim League, the predecessor of the Awami League. Maulana Bhashani was elected as President while Yar Mohammad Khan was the treasurer. He was elected joint secretary of its East Bengal unit in 1949, while Suhrawardy worked to build a larger coalition of East Bengali and socialist parties, Mujib focused on expanding the grass-roots organization. In 1953, he was made the party’s general secretary and elected to the East Bengal Legislative assembly on a United Front coalition ticket in 1954. Serving briefly as the minister for agriculture during A. K. Fazlul Huq’s government, Mujib was briefly arrested for organizing a protest of the central government’s decision to dismiss the United Front ministry.

He was elected to the second Constituent Assembly of Pakistan and served from 1955 to 1958. The government proposed to dissolve the provinces in favor of an amalgamation of the western provinces of the Dominion of Pakistan in a plan called One Unit; at the same time, the central government would be strengthened. Under One Unit, the western provinces were merged as West Pakistan during the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1956. That year East Bengal was renamed as East Pakistan as part of One Unit at the same time. Mujib demanded that the Bengali people’s ethnic identity be respected and that a popular verdict should decide the question of naming and of official language.

In 1956, Mujib entered a second coalition government as minister of industries, commerce, labor, anti-corruption, and village aid. He resigned in 1957 to work full-time for the party organization.

In 1958 General Ayub Khan suspended the constitution and imposed martial law. Mujib was arrested for organizing resistance and imprisoned till 1961. After his release from prison, Mujib started organizing an underground political body called the Swadhin Bangal Biplobi Parishad. They worked for increased political power for Bengalis and the independence of East Pakistan. He was briefly arrested again in 1962 for organizing protests.

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