LEADERSHIP: BANGABANDHU, TAJUDDIN, AND HASINA
Syed Badrul Ahsan
Bangladesh’s history in modern times has effectively been an enduring story of the leadership provided to it by three individuals. There is Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and then there is Tajuddin Ahmad, and now there is Sheikh Hasina.
When you take note of the ratification in recent times of the Land Boundary Agreement between India and Bangladesh by the two chambers of the Indian parliament, it is essentially thoughts of our achievements as a nation which come to mind.
Read through the history of the country, sift through it, separate the chaff from the grain, and then focus on the grain. Leadership, in that purposeful sense of the meaning, has come from these three individuals.
And the others? The brief answer is that all of them pushed us, increasingly and perilously, into the dark. Leadership was not their forte. A systematic negation of history was.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s leadership rested on the basic human value of not letting your guard down. Alone among politicians in the Pakistan era, he saw little reason to strike any deals or go for any compromise with the Rawalpindi-based military-civil bureaucratic complex on the issue of Bengali autonomy.
He suffered from no flip-flops, did not walk on the shifting sands of politics in the way Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy, Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq, and Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani did at various stages in their careers. He was clear about his goals. Through his Six Point programme of regional autonomy, he informed Bengalis that the next step was political sovereignty. That was to come to pass.
In post-1971 Bangladesh, Bangabandhu’s leadership was sorely put to the test. A devastated economy, compounded by famine and a violent underground leftist movement, was his inheritance coming out of the war. He did make mistakes, yes, but he made sure he did not abdicate the position of leadership that had always been his.
On his watch, the country made significant strides in diplomacy through reassuring the outside world that Bangladesh had become a pivotal pillar in the global political structure. He reached out to all nations, even those that had remained queasy about Bangladesh’s struggle against Pakistan in 1971. He was willing to extend the hand of friendship to Richard Nixon’s America; and he thought it prudent to stay away from any criticism of the Chinese role during the war because he knew Dhaka and Beijing would need to forge links sooner rather than later.
He took Bangladesh bravely into the Organisation of Islamic States. He suffered no fools or arrogance and was willing to tell men like Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal off. He knew his country would be under a cloud if Indian soldiers remained in it, and was frank enough to ask Indira Gandhi to take them home. She did.
Bangabandhu’s leadership demonstrated a new dimension through his move for a twenty-five year treaty of friendship with India. He was confident enough to invite Pakistan’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Dhaka in June 1974 for talks on the outstanding issues between their two countries. He led Bangladesh into the United Nations in September 1974.
And much as you argue against or for it, the fact remains that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s decision to go for Baksal in early 1975 was a brave act towards ensuring the survival and security of the state.
Bangabandhu lived in courage. He faced death during the Agartala trial in 1968. His life hung in the balance at Mianwali in 1971. And when the assassins came for him in August 1975, he did not flinch. When he fell, all of us fell with him. And, as Shakespeare might have said, bloody treason reigned supreme.
The leadership provided by Tajuddin Ahmad to the nation in the dark days of 1971 remains a pivotal reference to Bangladesh’s history. There is little argument with the thought that had Tajuddin not been there, a very different sort of story could well have been scripted for Bangladesh. In circumstances where other Bengali politicians found themselves in a daze caused by the brutality of the Pakistan army or were primarily in search of a safe haven before making their next move, Tajuddin Ahmad knew even as he crossed the border into India that resistance would need to be planned and executed against the state of Pakistan. With Amirul Islam he travelled to Delhi in early April 1971 and met Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to inform her that Bangladesh needed Indian help, diplomatically and politically, as it waged war for freedom.
Tajuddin Ahmad’s single most significant contribution to history remains his leadership of the Bangladesh government-in-exile at Mujibnagar. He braved all the odds, among which was the resistance to his leadership from the Young Turks in the movement — Sheikh Fazlul Haq Moni, Tofail Ahmed, Abdur Razzak and others. He confidently confronted those Awami League members of the national and provincial assemblies determined to wrest the leadership of the government from his hands. Tajuddin survived Moni and his rebellious band. He won the confidence of a majority of Awami League lawmakers. And he was perspicacious enough to see through the motives of Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed and prevent him from proceeding to the United Nations in September 1971 to speak for Bangladesh.
Tajuddin Ahmad’s belief in socialism was without ambiguity. It was this belief which gave his leadership of the freedom movement a halo that was not to be missed. With his colleagues, he devised battlefield strategy. He kept his vow of staying away from his family in his pursuit of national liberty. His spartan mode of life — washing his own clothes, cooking his own food, touring the war zone and cheering up freedom fighters — is today the very stuff of legend. A first class mind, a sharp intellect and great dignity were his hallmarks. Bhutto was afraid of the profundity in him and warned Yahya Khan in March 1971 that in any negotiations with the Awami League, Tajuddin was the man to watch out for. It was a truth that would not be lost on Robert McNamara either. Much as he wished to speak to Tajuddin at a conference in Delhi in early 1972, the President of the World Bank discovered to his dismay that Bangladesh’s Finance Minister had little desire to see him.
Tajuddin’s assessment of Dhaka vis-à-vis the World Bank was simple: the newly liberated country would base its development on homegrown socialistic principles and therefore it had little room for capitalistic lending institutions to be accommodated. And yet it was a principle he was compelled by circumstances to set aside when he did finally meet McNamara in Washington in 1974. Even so, he gave McNamara to understand that Bangladesh did not need much from the World Bank. It was a mystified McNamara who heard Tajuddin tell him that Bangladesh needed bullocks for its agriculture, nothing more, nothing less. Everything else was in place.
Political commitment was always part of Tajuddin Ahmad’s life and career. Even as his relations with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman nosedived and forces outside the Awami League thought he would link up with them, he remained loyal to his leader. When Bangabandhu asked him to resign from the cabinet, he did so without hesitation. He did not support Baksal, but he remained committed to the idea of the Bangladesh his leadership had seen through to victory in 1971. He died bravely, with his old comrades in the Mujibnagar government.
There is, for good reason, criticism aplenty of Sheikh Hasina. And there are all the enemies lurking in the bushes to bump her off, just as an earlier generation of conspirators pushed the leaders of the nation’s freedom struggle to violent death in the 1970s. The grenade attack of August 2004 remains a glaring instance of the threats which continue to swirl around Sheikh Hasina’s life.
History provides ample evidence of strong, purposeful leadership endlessly becoming the target of murderous villainy. Sheikh Hasina, clearly one of the strongest leaders in Bangladesh’s history, demonstrated her qualities early on, in 1996, when she initiated the trial of the assassins of 1975 through having Parliament, where her party did not have a majority but led a coalition in government, repeal the infamous Indemnity Ordinance earlier insinuated into law by the Zia military regime. The prosecution of the assassins was a hint of the future. And the future came quickly enough when Sheikh Hasina reached a deal with Indian Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda on a sharing of the waters of the Ganges and struck a peace accord with the Shanti Bahini in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Leadership is always about substance. It begins in rhetoric but at some point rhetoric must give way to achievement if the question is one of a legacy being put in place. The legacies of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad are the perfect reasons why their places in history have endured. With Sheikh Hasina, it is a similar circumstance. She has faced down terror in the shape of such forces as the Hefazat-e-Islam and has informed the country in no uncertain terms that a caretaker system of government cannot forever be part of the national political process. That she has stuck to her point of view and has indeed brushed aside demands for general elections to be deferred until such time as her political rivals reached a deal with her on the issue may not have sat well with her detractors. But it was leadership at its most decisive. Her no-nonsense attitude was all.
It was this attitude which led to the prosecution of the war crimes committed by the local collaborators of the Pakistan occupation army in 1971. Sheikh Hasina’s determination to go ahead with the trials, despite the many questions raised about them at home and abroad, certainly gave the lie to the skepticism voiced by individuals who had earlier been convinced that men like Mollah, Nizami, Salahuddin Quader, Kamaruzzaman and others would never have their comeuppance in a country they had so violently opposed all those decades ago. Sheikh Hasina’s place in history is assured. Even if she were to retire now or lose an election, the truth will last — that through bringing the criminals of 1971 and 1975 to trial she ensured a return to justice and social decency.
Sheikh Hasina’s government successfully prosecuted the matter of Bangladesh’s rights to the Bay of Bengal through international arbitration. And its ability to convince the Narendra Modi government in Delhi that a rapid implementation of the Mujib-Indira accord of May 1974 was most urgent has paid off.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad fashioned the history of a modern, sovereign Bangladesh through the 1960s and early 1970s. In the late 1990s and, following an interregnum and beginning anew in 2009, it has been Sheikh Hasina’s task to cleanse history of the distortions that had been brought into it in the times following the conspiracies and resultant disasters of August and November 1975.
Leadership, in the case of all these three politicians, has been all.