by R. Chowdhury 28 March 2020
“A lie will add to your troubles, subtract from your energy, multiply your difficulties and divide your effectiveness.”—Thomas Jefferson.
Bangladesh under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is celebrating a year-long, Taka 400 Crore Mujib Borso Extravaganza starting from March 17, 2020 to honor Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on his birth centenary.
Most observers suspected that the regime suppressed the onslaught of the deadly Coronavirus (COVID 19) until March 17 so that it could commence the Mujib Borso undisturbed and unchallenged. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was supposed to join the Opening Ceremony on March 17 but it was cancelled at the last moment due to the Coronavirus. Subsequently, some of the large programs were curtailed or cancelled. Since most of the programs have been under preparation for years and many have been pre-recorded, the celebration continues at various levels, even amidst the Corona threat.
I watched two videos recently in celebration of Mujib Borso: one was a Ha Do Do match of old men in my remote village home. The other was a disco performance, in fact tummy dance, by elderly, bearded and bulky teachers in front of their students. There may be hundred others like this. Nothing wrong, but propriety was in question.
Songram but No Songram
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a driving force in the independence of Bangladesh. But he was not alone. Nor was he clean of controversies. Some of his acts were highly questionable, even indefensible. He called for the “struggle” for freedom and independence on March 7, 1971 (এবারের সংগ্রাম আমাদের মুক্তির সংগ্রাম। এবারের সংগ্রাম স্বাধীনতার সংগ্রাম. The Struggle this time is for our freedom, for our independence). But when the সংগ্রাম time came, he declined to join it. In other words, he would have nothing to do with the fight for independence. According to various authentic accounts, he even refused to make the Declaration of Independence and sign a document to that effect produced by his deputy Tajuddin Ahmad on the night of March 25, 1971, citing that it would remain an “evidence of treason” against him. Instead, he surrendered to the military and sent to West Pakistan. His family was taken care of by the military. Some Mujib followers explained, quoting Mujib, that if he joined the war or went hiding, the military would make a massacre of the whole nation searching for him. Only an idiot can buy such a logic. Pakistan committed a genocide, nonetheless. Others think it was a betrayal to the 70 million people who reposed their trust on Mujib.
Newspapers on April 1, 1971 flashed a front-page image of Mujib surrounded by escorts at Karachi airport. Official caption was, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was taken into custody.
Mujib in Pakistan
Life of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Pakistan in 1971 remained shrouded in mystery amidst various rumors and narratives. But Raja Anar Khan, who served Mujib in the jails, spilled the bean at a Naqta-e-Nazar television interview, first aired in December 2015. The Pakistani program was in Urdu, which might be a reason why it did not reach Bangladeshi viewers. Even if it did, official scorn might have silenced its disclosure and dissemination. The interview revealed certain facts that went counter to fixed and formulated Awami partisan scripts about Mujib and his Bangladesh. The reader may watch this video of the live interview at:
Raja Anar Khan was a young Police Inspector of Special Branch and acted as an illiterate decoy of Mujib’s co-prisoner. Mujib’s jail house had an attached bathroom and a kitchenette. Khwaja Ayub, another fake prisoner, cooked food for Mujib as per his choice. Mujib had his regular supply of tambaku (tobacco) for his pipe. Sheikh Abdur Rahman, perhaps a Police Superintendent, was the overall in charge.
At retreat (nightfall), Raja Khan would lock Sheikh Mujib’s room and sleep outside. He would reopen the room at reveille (dawn). Khan addressed Mujib as “Baba”, a respectable term for elders. Over time, Mujib and Raja developed an affection for each other and could confide. “You are unpar (illiterate), but pretty sharp,” Mujib once complimented Khan. Being a veteran jail-goer, Mujib must have understood who they were.
Coming after 44 years, on a Bangladesh Victory month, there was little reason for Raja Khan, who retired as a Senior Superintendent of Police, to concoct or hide facts in his revelation. He appeared credible and spoke good of Mujib.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won majority in the December 1970 elections, but Islamabad’s military leaders refused to honor the popular verdict. The junta decided to unleash the military to “teach the Bengalis a lesson” for their audacity to ask for equal rights and freedom from the domination of Punjabi overlords.
The military picked up Mujib from his residence at midnight of March 25, 1971. His family was housed at 18 Dhanmondi, Dhaka’s posh residential area. Pakistan Army took care of the family, including provision of monthly cash allowance. In his book Amar Phansi Chai, Motiur Rahman Rentu quoted Sheikh Hasina saying that General Tikka Khan regularly visited them and respectfully checked their welfare. Tikka was otherwise known as the “Butcher of Bengalis” for committing the genocide in East Pakistan in those days. Sheikh Hasina also acknowledged that her paternal grandmother was helicoptered from their village home in Tungipara to Dhaka for a minor treatment. That spoke of the close collaboration between Mujib, his family and the Pakistan military. (Reference: Motiur Rahman Rentu, Amar Phansi Chai, 1999, p. 99.).
What Raja Anar Khan Said
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was lodged at a jail at Faisalabad, about 60 miles west of Lahore. When the Indo-Pak war broke out on December 4, 1971, the authorities feared that the jail could be attacked or bombed, or even a rescue attempt made by Indian commandos. They shifted the Bengali VIP prisoner to Mianwali jail, another 150 miles to northwest. After the fall of East Pakistan, Mujib was taken to a Rest House at Sahalla, near Islamabad. Sheikh Abdur Rahman and Raja Khan stayed with him.
According to Khan, Mujib was totally unaware of the developments outside, military or political, not even the start of the Indo-Pak war. During his road travel from Faisalabad to Mianwali, Mujib pointed at the movements of military in camouflage gear outside. Khan explained that it was perhaps a military exercise. While in jail, they heard occasional firings and bomb blasts. His prison mate explained that it was due to the presence of a firing range close by. At the Mianwali jail, an “L” shaped air raid shelter, a trench, was prepared with mats and blankets inside for comfort.
Upon arrival in Bangladesh, Mujib claimed it to be his would be grave. That was odd. First, Muslim graves are not made “L” shaped, nor do they contain mats, blankets and pillows. Second, why would Pakistan bury Mujib in the jail compound, if they had to?
Mujib had no access to media (books, newspaper, television, radio), not even visitors. This contradicted somewhat from the finding of Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci to whom Mujib admitted to have done “some reading” in jails, despite his earlier denials. (Please see Oriana Fallaci, L’Europeo, January 24, 1972). Jails had libraries and Mujib could have access to books, unless authorities restricted it. Raja Khan perhaps meant information sources like newspapers, TV, radio etc. At the Sahalla Rest House, Mujib got all the media materials he needed.
Mujib’s defense attorney A K Brohi met him from time to time. During the meetings, in which Raja Khan was always present, only his case was discussed. No political topic or outside information could be exchanged.
Refusal to Accept Bangladesh Independence
After becoming president (on December 20, 1971), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came to see Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the Rest House. During the meeting, Khan was hiding behind a screen to monitor their conversation. He had a loaded pistol, for whatever reasons. After greeting each other, the two leaders sat on a sofa. Below was part of the conversation that took place between them. Mujib started the talks.
Mujib: Ap kaise? What brings you here?
Bhutto: I am now the President and Chief Marshal Law Administrator of Pakistan.
Mujib: How come?
Bhutto: East Pakistan has fallen. India won victory and Pakistanis surrendered to India. General Yahya Khan resigned.
Mujib was outraged. He sprang to his feet and scornfully demanded.
Mujib: How can it be? How can you be the president? You are a loser, a minority (in the elections). I am the majority leader. I have the right to those positions, not you. Take me immediately to a radio or TV station, I will denounce all these and keep East Pakistan as before. I will nullify all these and fix everything.
Bhutto: Please calm down. This is the reality now. Sit down please.
Mujib sat down. After a short silence, Mujib expressed his disgust at Tajuddin Ahmad, Secretary General of the Awami League and wartime Prime Minister based in India, and said that he suspected Tajuddin would end up doing something like that in collaboration with India. This corroborates with the assertion of Prof Aftab Ahmed of Dhaka University. Prof Ahmed wrote in his book that upon landing in Dhaka on January 10, 1972, Mujib rebuked Tajuddin saying, “শেষ পর্যন্ত তোমরা পাকিস্তান ভাইঙ্গাই ফেললা? (So, you finally broke Pakistan?)”.
On Mujib’s request, Bhutto arranged to bring Dr. Kamal Hossain to the Rest House from Nowshera. He also ordered for media materials, such as, newspapers, tv, radio etc. for the guests.
After Bhutto left, Mujib locked himself in his room. Raja Khan and others were worried that Mujib might do something in desperation, given his earlier tantrums at the break up of Pakistan and Bhutto becoming the new leader. Khan finally succeeded in getting the door opened after repeated knocks and appeals to his “Baba.” Mujib returned to his prayer mat, fell prostrate and started crying in Bangla, (which Khan by now understood), “Ya Allah, why all these happened? I never wanted it to be like this….”
If Khan is to be believed–there is no reason not to–was it a drama on the part of Mujib (lamenting on a divided Pakistan)? If so, to what end? East Pakistan became Bangladesh, Pakistan had a new leader, apparently treason charge, if any, against him had been quashed and that Mujib was a free man. There was no need to act or play the Pakistani tune. And, if it was a drama, his prayer would have been in Urdu, not in Bangla, to be clearly understood by Khan, Sheikh Abdur Rahman and others in the hearing distance. So, what would one deduce about Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: a trickster, confused or a true Pakistani?
Stanley Wolpert writes in his book Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan (1993) that, in a meeting on December 27, 1971, Mujib assured Bhutto that their two countries would have a Confederation relationship. “I told you it will be confederation,” said Mujib. “This is also between you and me… You leave it to me…Absolutely leave it to me. Trust me… My idea is we will live together and we will rule this country. You know the occupation (Indian) army is there.”
In this context, one may recall the visible comraderies between Mujib and Bhutto during the OIC Summit in Lahore in February 1974.
Mujib said similarly to Anthony Mascarenhas in an interview in London on January 8, 1972: “Going to keep some link with Pakistan. (Reference: Anthony Mascarenhas, Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood, 1986).
Earlier in a jail room conversation with Khan, Mujib blamed President Yahya Khan for destroying Pakistan. On the other hand, in his Affidavit for the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, Yahya credited Mujib to be a patriot and blamed Bhutto for breaking Pakistan. He wrote, “Mujib was a patriot,” further adding that on March 12, 1971, Sheikh Mujib “delivered a public speech wherein he reiterated the unity and solidarity of Pakistan.” On Bhutto, Yahya affirmed that he “was a clever and venomous toad,” and made “unpatriotic speeches and statements which ultimately contributed to the breakage of Pakistan.” (Reference: Abu Rushd, ed., Secret Affidavit of Yahya Khan on 1971 (2009) p. 40).
When time came for Mujib to leave, he wanted to go to India first. Why? Was it Mujib’s political trickery, a stunt, a quick change of mindset and game plan? He had earlier denounced Tajuddin’s India collaboration that materialized Bangladesh. Now he became an India lover overnight. Reasons are not far to seek. Bangladesh became a reality despite Mujib’s best efforts to keep Pakistan united, and keeping himself out of trouble. India was instrumental in the process (At that point of time, he had no knowledge about the Mukti Juddho/Liberation War fought by the Bengalis). He, therefore, had to reorient and readjust his political strategy and loyalty. Under the changed circumstances, he needed India’s blessing to reassert himself. Otherwise, he would lose the ground to Tajuddin Ahmad.
Bhutto declined the request on political and technical grounds. It was finally decided to send him to London. Mujib invited his close attendants, Raja Anar Khan and Sheikh Abdur Rahman, to come with him to Bangladesh. He even offered Khan a befitting job in Dhaka. It could not be done. They saw him off at the airport.
At parting, Mujib presented Raja Khan the book Crime and Punishment by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, in addition to one of his smoking pipes. Perhaps borrowing a line from the book, Mujib wrote: “In the long war between falsehood and the truth, falsehood wins the first battle and the truth the last,” and signed it on January 5, 1972. The book carrying Mujib’s signature was displayed during the interview.
In London on January 8, 1972, in an interview with David Frost, Mujib invented the figure of “three million” (some explain, it was his misunderstood version of three lakhs) Bengalis that the Pakistanis killed during the nine- month war. Serajur Rahman of BBC, the first Bengali to meet Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in London, asserted in The Guardian on May 24, 2011 that he had mentioned to Mujib of about 3 lakhs (300,000) Bengalis dying in the war. Serajur Rahman had also noticed that Mujib looked somewhat nervous and kept smoking his pipe too much.
This was not the first time Mujib faced public adulation. He had them before. But, this time, he stood between his lifelong conviction and reality, as well as between truth and false. Oriana Fallaci, who interviewed Sheikh Mujib almost immediately after his arrival in Dhaka in January 1972, also observed him to be nervous, inconsistent, continuously shifting stands, as well as arrogant and throwing rebukes at Fallaci.
It was rather strange that the man who left the seventy million people at the mercy of the Pakistani killers–while arranging safety and security for his own family– suddenly became their champion and started shedding crocodile tears!
After release from Pakistan, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman came to independent Bangladesh and took over its administration, which remained highly corruptive, totally undemocratic and extremely oppressive. As a result, when Mujib died on August 15, 1975, there were no tears, no protest, not even a symbolic one, from any quarter. People celebrated his fall as a Victory Day. It was difficult to find people to complete his final rituals at his village home at Tungipara. Mujib’s close colleagues rushed to form the follow up government when his bullet ridden dead body was still lying on the steps of his house.
For the next 21 years and through five successive governments, Mujib virtually remained forgotten. Sheikh Hasina, Mujib’s daughter, managed to form a coalition government in 1996 and started aggressive efforts to rehabilitate her father. After a break, she regained power in January 2009 with Indian overt and covert help. She continued to stay in authority through undemocratic, fascist and illegal orchestrations, and with backing from India. Simultaneously, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman continued to ascend to the throne of a “god” created by his daughter, party and sycophants.
The Mujib Borso is the latest and the grandest attempt of Sheikh Hasina and her regime to further cement her father’s status as the supreme and undisputed leader, the god. Mujib Borso is designed to give full credit to Mujib for Bangladesh and everything Bangladesh has. Nobody, not even remotely, can have a share in it, nor allowed to come close to it.
No doubt, Mujib had made great contributions for Bengalis. But he was not ধোয়া তুলসি পাতা (clean) either. He had a dark side too. The public are not allowed to know that, nor launder his dirty linen. It became punishable offence to do so.
The Mujib Borso was designed to tell the people, particularly the newer generations, that there is “None but Mujib.” I am afraid, this may one day backfire when the people would learn the correct history of the country and Mujib, his rule in 1972-75. Most importantly, when they will raise questions: Why nobody regretted Mujib’s death on August 15? Why people celebrated Mujib’s fall? Why Mujib’s colleagues rushed to form the follow up government when his body was still bleeding on the steps? And, why Mujib remained forgotten for 21 years?
As Mujib quoted: “In the long war between falsehood and truth, falsehood win the first battle but truth wins the war.” It will one day, sir.
March 28, 2020
R Chowdhury is a former soldier and a decorated freedom fighter in the war of liberation of Bangladesh. Enjoys retired life in reading, writing and gardening. Writes on contemporary issues of Bangladesh; published three books so far.