South Asia

Lessons for Today's Bangladesh in the Unfinished Memoir of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

The book is a no-holds-barred account of the historical events and personages that shaped his life and times and, of course, the fortunes of the nation that he carved out of the troubled subcontinent.  

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding father, was a larger-than-life personality. There is a reason behind the clichéd line though. This article is a review of Sheikh Mujib’s autobiography – The Unfinished Memoirs – from the point of view of an enthralled reader, and not from that of an able critic who can put a published work under a literary scanner.

And so in venturing out on the daunting task of summing Mujib’s life, the usage of that adornment of ‘larger-than-life’ seemed the most convenient yet germane option, as despite being an autobiography, The Unfinished Memoirs portrays the early life of a nation more than that of a man.

Mujib, popularly known as “Bangabandhu,” was no Shakespeare and he never intended to be. He was, from the bottom of his heart, a people’s person. Thus, when he wrote, he wrote with simplicity, acuity and precision, mincing no words in describing events and people. Much of the charm and utility of the book stems from his personalised, no-holds-barred approach to the historical events and personages that shaped his life and times and, of course, the fortunes of the nation that he carved out of the troubled subcontinent.

The memoir was written during Mujib’s incarceration from 1967 to 1969, a result of the infamous Agartala Conspiracy Case initiated by the Pakistani government. While in prison, Mujib gave the four notebooks containing the manuscript to Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni, his cousin and a newspaper editor.

But after both men were killed, the notebooks were lost and remained so until they were eventually found by Mujib’s daughter, the incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, nearly three decades after his death.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: The Unfinished Memoirs

Hasina, with the help of her younger sister Sheikh Rehana, had the brittle and fraying pages meticulously transcribed and then translated from Bangla to English. Later the book gets translated in six other languages including Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, French, Hindi and Arabic.

A fighter for human rights

In the solitude of his prison cell, Mujib first transported himself back to his childhood and laid the foundation of his political understanding through some anecdotes. His background is similar to that thousands of others, and by reading those anecdotes, the readers would have understood that the boy, ‘Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’ could have quietly merged into the crowd of the educated middle-class.

He didn’t because he cared. He cared about the people and the prevailing disparity in the society. He preferred the discomfort and challenge of life spent on people’s cause rather than the one spent inside the comfort zone of mediocrity.

When Mujib was only 18, and a high school student, he did something incredible. A.K. Fazlul Huq, the chief minister of Bengal in 1938, came to visit Gopalganj Missionary School, where Mujib was a student. Mujib organised an agitation to bring the deplorable conditions of the local people to chief minister’s attention. His life could be summarised from this one small incident alone. That is what this teenager in 1938 would continue to do for the rest of his life.

The crux of his political struggle was therefore always about something deep. Yes, it was the political self-determination of the people of this land. His struggle culminated in the liberation war. But at the core of it all, his fight was for human rights.

As he was a lifelong fighter of human rights and social disparity, Mujib, through his prudent political observation, gave hints in his autobiography that the birth of Bangladesh was more the result of the Muslim League’s failure than any other factor. He portrays the independence movement as materialising in the context of constant let-downs by the Muslim League’s leadership, who were totally disconnected from the people of East Pakistan.

Political philosophy

Mujib’s dissatisfaction with the Muslim League started at an early stage of his political career when Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the then prime minister of Pakistan, declared at the Legislative Assembly that the people of East Pakistan must accept Urdu as their state language.

The young Rahman came out against this declaration and became a fervent activist of the Language Movement. An ardent supporter of the Muslim League, he left the party and joined the newly-formed Awami Muslim League under the leadership of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, evolving into a secularist who argued that Pakistan needed to reinvent itself by respecting the politics of its various regions.

Mujib’s philosophy was obviously shaped by his political guru Suhrawardy, a man who believed in Western-style democratic values. Up until Suhrawardy’s death in late 1963, he remained stubbornly devoted to him.

Nonetheless, Rahman had his own political philosophy which was shaped through his voracious reading habit. As an avid reader, he was an ardent admirer of writers, philosophers and statesmen the world over. Among those he placed on a pedestal were Bertrand Russell, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi.

Khuda Buksh (right) with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

One must bear in mind that this is an unfinished autobiography. It leaves many questions unanswered, especially those relating to Bangladesh’s liberation and the political developments immediately following that momentous point in history. But what the book does contain is of indisputable worth: it shines a light on crucial aspects of the ground realities that led to the split of Pakistan into two in less than 25 years of its creation.

And most importantly, his autobiography teaches us an important lesson. “Bangabandhu’s Bangladesh”, “the dream of Bangabandhu realised” – these are often repeated slogans that we have been increasingly hearing these days. But the fact is, if we are serious about “Bangabandhu’s dream,” then we will have to bring human rights at the forefront of our national agenda like Sheikh Mujib did. And he showed us that it was a cause worth fighting for.

Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka-based journalist.