“Father of the nation”, “Bangabandhu”, “the greatest Bengali of all time”, and countless other titles have been given to this one man. Bangabandhu had been and continues to be adorned by these adjectives. That’s not surprising, given the immense sentiments the image of Bangabandhu’s image generates. We need these emotions. This is what makes us human.
But if we look away from the accolades and the celebrations of his life, what do we find? What did he really fight for? What drove Bangabandhu to sacrifice a peaceful existence and a normal life?
His struggle culminated into the liberation war. But at the core of it all, his fight was for human rights
In 17 March, 1920, a boy was born in the house of a serestadar (clerk) in the civil court in Gopalganj. This new born son of an ordinary civil servant Sheikh Lutfar Rahman, was the third among six brothers and sisters. The boy grew up to finish his primary education in the local Gimadanga School. He passed his Matriculation from Gopalganj Missionary School, Intermediate of Arts from Calcutta Islamia College, and BA from the same college.
That is Bangabandhu’s background. It doesn’t sound a whole lot different from that of thousands of others. Imagine an alternative universe, where instead of being interested in society and politics this man grew up to be a very quiet and uninterested person. Imagine he didn’t show any early signs of leadership. Imagine that the political upheaval and changes in the subcontinent occured without the presence of this man!
It is certainly possible, even easy, to imagine a person with his background quietly merging into the crowd of the educated middle class. We know, because thousands of people have. We often focus on his extraordinary qualities. But there is something glaringly obvious that we often overlook. He was one of us! He could easily have been one of our grandparents or fathers. The only reason why he became a monumental figure in history was because he cared. And that is where we will find the motivations that drove him all his life. The earliest story about his political activism is very instructive.
When Bangabandhu was only 18 and a high school student, he did something incredible. AK Fazlul Huq, the Chief Minister of Bengal in 1938, came to visit Gopalganj Missionary School, where Bangabandhu was a student. He organized an agitation to bring the poor conditions of the local people into the Chief Minister’s attention. If you want to, you can summarize his life from this one small incident. 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 into the liberation war. But at the core of it all, his fight was for human rights.
From that little agitation in Gopalganj in 1938 to the stupendous gathering on March 7, 1971, this is clearly seen and heard in his political agenda and actions. His focus constantly was on the people’s rights. “The people of Bangla want to live. The people of Bangla want to have their rights,” he started his famous speech on March 7, proclaiming the inalienable rights of the people. This remained the recurring theme and the nucleus of his famous speech, expressed throughout political issues on the ground.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahiyan of the United Arab Emirates said to Bangabandhu in 1974, when he visited the UAE, that they have one thing in common. “We both are sheikhs,” Sheikh Nahiyan playfully remarked. “But there is a difference,” replied Bangabandhu; “I am a poor Sheikh.” Both leaders burst into laughter,” wrote Syed Badrul Ahsan, in his the book Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: From Rebel to Founding Father.
“Bangabandhu’s Bangladesh”, “the dream of Bangabandhu realised” – these are often repeated slogans. But if we are serious about Bangabandhu’s dream then we will have to bring back human rights at the forefront of our national agenda, like Bangabandhu did. And he showed us that it was a fight worth fighting for.