I have a confession to make — I probably do not know Bangabandhu well. Do you?
All these years, I thought I knew him. I mean, how can I not know the person who inspired us through our struggle for independence? How can I not know him when his March 7 speech still gives me goose bumps? How can I not know the person whose contribution in making and shaping of this country is unparalleled?
Well, how do we know a person? We recognise a person by his or her personality and work. When it comes to national leader, knowing the work is more important than knowing personality. Personality — charismatic or ruthless — helps the leader to influence or motivate the people. Understanding the work — not what a leader wanted to do, but what he actually did — in contrast, helps people trust and better understand the psyche of their leader.
Non-political leaders who rise to power at gunpoint carefully construct an untainted personality, based on facts and fairy tales, to blanket their unknown past and ruthless deeds. All the ruthless military leaders who reigned in this world had one thing in common — they spoke softly and carried big guns. Trust in those leaderships was not a choice or an issue for the people. Fear came first, which was then followed by respect. Later on, people renamed that fear as trust.
But for political leaders, trust comes first. Here the legitimacy is earned through decades of struggle and public work. No one would have heeded if one unknown Sheikh Mujib went to the racecourse on March 7 to announce independence.
He had to earn the people's trust over thirty years of his political career before he could announce: "This time the struggle is for freedom, this time the struggle is for independence." He did not need an army to support his cause; rather, his cause was against an army. People were willing participants in it.
Now, that part of Bangabandhu is well understood. We know the Bangabandhu who led our independence war. But do we know the Bangabandhu who ruled the nation? I am afraid the post-independence generation never got to know Bangabandhu. Not even during these Awami League eras. After his assassination, the post-August 15 incumbents turned the state-run media into anti-Mujib propaganda machines and the post-independence generation grew up listening to these. Some of these were hateful, others were very delicate.
One of my personal favourites is the propaganda about the Special Powers Act. No one will abandon it, but all will continue to blame him. In the 1980s, a common news headline on the evening of Eid was: "President HM Ershad has pardoned and freed this many prisoners today who were held under the 1974 Special Powers Act."
If you were an informed citizen, you probably blamed the 1974 law (and Mujib for that). But many of my school friends used to believe that those prisoners were held in prison since 1974 and Ershad has finally freed them. How would a school-goer know that those people were actually imprisoned by Ershad and only he is to blame for it?
State media until mid-1990s played anti-Mujib campaign to deliberately keep the political discourse on Mujib's deeds. Naturally, most political debates were on his pardoning of razakars, release of Pakistani war criminals, India-Bangladesh treaty, 1974 famine, BKSAL, Special Powers Act, etc. While these debates helped the post-15 August incumbents to keep public eyes away from their misdeeds, the works of Mujib, however were not clarified through these debates.
Take the pardoning of war criminals for an example. While the post-August 15 leadership rehabilitated the war criminals by offering cabinet posts in successive regimes, they blamed Mujib all along for pardoning the war criminals. Interestingly, I have also heard many Awami League leaders openly admitting that "mistake" by Mujib.
Over the past 35 years, people were made to believe that Mujib indeed pardoned the war criminals and thus we can't put them on trial. As we see the war criminals being put on trial, we now realise that Mujib never pardoned the war criminals who directly or indirectly helped in rape, arson, looting or murder. Rather, the trial he initiated, constitutional amendments he made, and acts he brought for the trial are the ones that are facilitating the current trial process.
However, once that pardoning-propaganda was proved to be wrong, another round of propaganda emerged. Some leftist-writers-turned-right are vigorously writing in prominent Bengali print media blaming Mujib for the release of 195 Pakistani war criminals.
Once again they are having a free ride. No one is telling them how the Pakistani soldiers were deported to India before Sheikh Mujib was released from Pakistan, and how strongly he tried to put those Pakistani war criminals on trial defying China's veto in the United Nations and Pakistan's threat to execute stranded Bangalis in retaliation; and finally, how they were released from India.
Similarly, most of his acts were not even explained to the people. Not even during his life time, not by his trusted allies. I have heard all the good and bad words about him, what he dreamt of, how he wanted to make Bangladesh Shonar Bangla. I have seen buildings and bridges named after him.
But no one explained to us how he managed to influence India to withdraw its troops from Bangladesh within months; how he tried to keep Bangladesh in between capitalist and communist blocks by promoting a mixed-economy based on socialism; how Bangladesh endured post-war natural calamities and international apathy; how the India-Bangladesh treaty was more favourable to Bangladesh than to India.
If the post-August 15 leadership are to blame for anti-Mujib propaganda, AL leadership is to blame for not demystifying Mujib's deeds. Either local AL leaders do not understand why Mujib did what he did, or they swallowed the anti-Mujib propaganda and are busy to move on.
Demystifying Mujib's image will not provide us electricity or gas supply; it will most definitely not solve Dhaka's traffic jam or bring food prices down. The government will have to work on that separately if they are to remain in power. But this demystifying is necessary for any nation to clear its conscience.
AL owes at least this much to Bangabandhu.