Bangabandhu’s actions were always inspired by his love for the people
The two great occasions -- the birth centenary of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence are reminding us of the moment of Bangladesh’s creation and Bangabandhu’s unique role in it.
For our generation, who saw Bangladesh emerge as an independent nation and witnessed the unique role of Bangabandhu in its creation, it is very difficult to find words to adequately evaluate his political thoughts and contributions. In this article I will discuss how peace, freedom, and humanity, these three ideals, influenced Bangabandhu’s work and way of thinking, and were reflected in his foreign policy.
Humanity, freedom, and peace in Bangabandhu’s political actions
The Unfinished Memoirs of Bangabandhu begins with his quote where he identifies himself first as a human being and then as a Bangali. On May 30, 1973 he wrote:
“As a man, what concerns mankind concerns me. As a Bengali, I am deeply involved in all that concerns Bengalis. This abiding involvement is born of and nourished by love, enduring love, which gives meaning to my politics and my very being”.
Bangabandhu’s actions were always inspired by his love for the people, and their welfare was the singular objective of whatever he did. This humane value inspired him into joining the political struggle. This value is reflected in his political ideals, such as democracy, secularism, and socialism.
Bangabandhu often said that the dream of his life is to “bring a smile to the faces of the destitute.” The use of this unique expression tells us that his vision of development was comprehensive and multi-dimensional. I have heard that Bhutan has been trying to measure the country’s development by using a “happiness index.” It is interesting to note that more than half a century ago Bangabandhu also had similar ideas when he used to say that his goal was to bring “smiles to the faces of the destitute.”
From a young age, Bangabandhu was driven by this desire. When he was only a school student he became involved in politics as well as in social services. His political awareness was kindled by his desire to liberate the poor, oppressed, and the deprived from various forms of exploitation.
In his autobiography, he noted that he had joined the movement for Pakistan thinking that the poor Muslim peasants would be liberated from the oppression of the Zamindars in the new state. We find him working at the soup kitchen for the people struck by famine in 1943-44. During the communal riots of 1946, he rescued members of both the Muslim and the Hindu communities, many times risking his own life.
After the birth of Pakistan, Bangabandhu became involved in various movements to secure the rights of the Bangalis. He was imprisoned time and again. In addition to the struggle to protect the Bangla language and culture, his greater struggle at that time was to free the Bangalis from different forms of oppression and establish their democratic rights.
The ideals of a democratic state and a just socio-economic order were intricately linked with his nationalist ideas. He wrote that he was not a communist but he believed in socialism. Two facets of socialism attracted him -- first, freeing people from different forms of exploitation, and second, eliminating disparity between the rich and the poor.
Bangabandhu was cognizant of the global anti-colonial, anti-imperialist struggles. In 1952, he attended the Peace Conference of the Asian and Pacific regions held in China where he exchanged ideas with leaders and activists of peace movements from different countries. He described his experiences in his book, Amar Dekha Noya Chin, where he wrote:
“We are willing to join the peace struggles of people from countries around the world -- Russia, USA, UK, China.”
Throughout his life Bangabandhu was involved in moving forward the Bangali nationalist movement but never once did he pursue the politics of inflaming hatred and conflict between different identity groups. Of late, we see the rise of ultra-nationalism in some countries in the West and other regions, which is promoting violence between different identity groups.
Bangabandhu’s idea of nationalism was the exact opposite of this. He believed in the coexistence of different identity groups and equal rights of all citizens.
Bangabandhu believed in secular politics. He opposed misinterpretation of religion, violence unleashed in the name of religion, and misuse of religion for political purposes. He not only talked about the coexistence of all communities, he also reminded the people of the majority community that they have a special responsibility to protect the minority community.
He himself worked to that end. He always took a stand against communal violence, and played a pro-active role in preventing communal riots in 1946, 1954, and 1964.
Even in his March 7, 1971 speech, he warned the people to stay vigilant against communal violence, reminding the majority community to ensure peace. “Please do not let ourselves be disgraced,” he said.
Bangabandhu always viewed the Bangali nationalist movement as secular, democratic, and peaceful. He built a strong political party. He mobilized hundreds of thousands of people but he was always committed to nonviolent movement so that people’s rights could be realized through democratic and peaceful means.
In the 24 years from 1947 to 1971, the Bangali nationalist movement gained strength under his leadership, but he always remained within the parameters of a democratic process. In his historic March 7,1971 speech Bangabandhu brilliantly presented Bangali nationalist struggle as a peaceful and democratic movement to free people from oppression.
On the global stage he was compared with Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, who had also waged nonviolent movements to secure people’s rights. The image of Bangabandhu as a champion of peace, freedom, and humanity greatly helped mobilization of global public support for the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.
Humanity, freedom and peace in Bangabandhu’s foreign policy
Bangladesh’s foreign policy was shaped by Bangabandhu’s political ideals. Its main goal was the establishment of regional and global peace. The guiding principle of his foreign policy was: “Friendship to all and malice towards none.” He often said he wanted to develop Bangladesh as the “Switzerland of South Asia.”
Bangladesh’s foreign policy was based on the principles of non-alignment, peaceful coexistence, and opposition to colonialism, racism, and imperialism. Bangabandhu supported the freedom struggles of people across the world, especially those in South Africa and Palestine in different international forums.
In 1973 during the Arab-Israeli war, newly independent Bangladesh sent a medical team in support of the Arabs. Following this example set by Bangabandhu, in 2017, his daughter Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gave shelter to over a million Rohingya refugees which established her as another champion of humanity on the global stage.
After gaining UN membership, Bangabandhu addressed the General Assembly in Bangla on September 25, 1974. In his speech, he highlighted the need for control of the arms race, peace, and international cooperation. He recognized the importance of the UN’s humanitarian work in different countries; at the same time he underscored the need for being self-reliant.
Bangabandhu concluded his speech by placing his faith in the “indomitable power of people to achieve the impossible.” He said:
“Suffer we may, but we will defy death. The people’s resolve is the ultimate force driving our battle for survival … We will move forward through the united and coordinated efforts of the people.”
Bangabandhu’s trust in the “united and coordinated efforts of people” had borne fruit. In the last 50 years, people of Bangladesh have had overcome many challenges to achieve remarkable social and economic development. We hope that the “united and coordinated efforts of the people,” which were identified by Bangabandhu as a force, will be further strengthened under the bold leadership of Bangabandhu’s daughter, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Bangladesh’s march forward towards progress will be unstoppable. Together we will be able to build Bangabandhu’s dream of Sonar Bangla where peace will prevail, people will be liberated from exploitation and oppression, and fundamental freedoms will be ensured for all citizens.
Dr Rounaq Jahan is a Bangladeshi political scientist and author. This was first presented at Bangabandhu’s Birth Centenary and Bangladesh’s Golden Jubilee celebration on March 24, 2021.