Bangabandhu created the subcontinent's first nation state based on linguistic nationalism (later Bangali nationalism) and first secular state
Dhaka Lit Fest opened on Thursday for three days of sensational sessions. But even among the star-studded panels, one was hotly anticipated, perhaps due to the participation of one of the more popular speakers Shashi Tharoor, or perhaps due to the topic of discussion - Sheikh Mujib as an icon of postcolonial liberation.
The Abdul Karim Shahittya Bisharod Auditorium at Bangla Academy was jam-packed long before the session started. The murmuring among the audience - standing and sitting - revealed the extent of how much they were looking forward to the discussion.
Prof Shamsad Mortuza, pro vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh, moderated the session featuring Liberation War researcher and journalist Afsan Chowdhury, poet and former career civil servant Kamal Choudhury (former principal secretary to the prime minister), and writer, diplomat, and politician Shashi Tharoor.
Shashi last visited Bangladesh five years ago at Dhaka Lit Fest 2014.
Tharoor said: “When you look at Sheikh Mujib and his life and a number of astonishing things about him, and it is a fitting moment a few months before we reach his birth centenary to think aloud of him.”
He said: “He became the first leader in a postcolonial system to have to interrogate what a nationalistic identity really meant, and did so through an enormous number of struggles. One forgets that it was not just 1971, everything went back to his student days.
"He had a long career of action, agitation, reflection, attempted conciliation, peacemaking, and oppression through arrest and incarceration. We know he was also sentenced to death. He went through all that before reaching the ultimate goal. He articulated a vision of what that form of postcolonial identity meant, which I think has rightly continued to inspire many,” Tharoor said.
He listed nationalism, secularism, socialism, and democracy as the four pillars that were fundamental to Sheikh Mujib’s policy.
The Indian author-politician zeroed in on Bangabandhu’s uncanny articulation and oratory skills, drawing upon an adolescent memory from 1972, when Sheikh Mujib had a stopover in Kolkata from London via Delhi after he was freed by the Pakistani regime.
He said: “The exams had ended and my friends and I had gone to see him... It was an extraordinary sight, there was no standing room... Indira Gandhi, accompanying him, spoke first in English... Sheikh Mujib stood up, and mischievously started speaking in English. And the crowd started screaming ‘Bangla te bolun!’ and then he went right in, and what a speech! He was undoubtedly one of the greatest orators the Subcontinent has ever seen.”
Prof Shamsad said: “There are some that argue the birth of Bangladesh marked the success in the first armed separatist struggle in the postcolonial world.
Shashi Tharoor retorted: “Not just the first struggle, but the only successful struggle. There have been insurrections and rebellions and armed struggles, but no other has been as successful as Bangladesh...”
He continued: “Pakistan was made up of provinces and territories. Bengal was a province. And later they created East Pakistan and West Pakistan as units...the unifying concept was supposed to be a positive force with the religions identity of Islam. But even then, Sheikh Mujib was interrogating the whole question of what exactly does this mean for the people of East Bengal?
“It took a lot of courage and nerve, and vulnerability to the charge of treason and betrayal, but he felt that some things were more important than even his own safety.”
Afsan Chowdhury said: “In July 1947, a group of Bengal Muslim League activists sat in Kolkata, and decided they did not want to have anything to do with India or Pakistan and they would want an independent state of their own. The person who gave me this information used a very interesting quote that I use it all the time, 'We can think of only one man who could become the leader of such a state, which was the tall man from Gopalganj.'
“My team and I have visited over 10,000 villages. And this strength of Sheikh Mujib comes from the villages… Sheikh Mujib came from a small town, and in three years he nearly conquered Kolkata. Nobody dares to say anything against Sheikh Mujib because he has the numbers. Who was this man and what was he dreaming of?”
The eminent researcher noted Sheikh Mujib’s proposal for a state was placed with great emphasis on the peasants.
He suggested that Sheikh Mujib had the backing of the peasantry in Bengal, whose support he said was fundamental to every anti-colonial resistance movement from the Faraizi Movement through the Fakir-Sannyasi Rebellion to the Indian Sepoy Mutiny.
To further emphasize the role of the peasantry in the Liberation War, Afsan called upon a conversation with Indian Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Arora, who told him that the Indian army could not have entered Bangladesh if the peasants had not wanted them.
Poet Kamal Choudhury, who is the chief coodinator of the National Implementation Committee for the Celebration of the Birth Centenary of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, invoked a familiar remark from Fidel Castro: "I have not seen the Himalayas, but I have seen Sheikh Mujib.
"When we are talking about Bangabandhu, we get very emotional. He was titled the 'Poet of Politics' not by Bangalis, but by Newsweek."
Kamal added: "Bangabandhu is our George Washington by vision and by association Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi. He is the greatest Bangali of our time."
Bangabandhu created the subcontinent's first nation state based on linguistic nationalism (later Bangali nationalism) and first secular state.
2020 has been declared Mujib Year to commemorate the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujib. The Dhaka Lit Fest announced it dedicated next year's edition to Bangabandhu.