It is often necessary to go into comparative studies of political leaders who may not exactly have shared times and perspectives but may have been in rather close historical proximity to one another, enough for researchers to view them through the prism of history.
Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman were men who inhabited the political landscape two generations apart. When the future founder of Pakistan was engaged in his campaign for the creation of a state for the Muslims of India on the basis of what he called a two-nation theory, the future founder of Bangladesh was an activist of the All-India Muslim League wholly dedicated to an implementation of the Jinnah concept. In Calcutta as a student and as a young Muslim Leaguer, Mujib believed, as so many others of his faith did, that Pakistan would be a good, perhaps even healthy proposition for India's Muslim community.
Jinnah's Pakistan did come into being, but for the young Mujib it was not to be roses all the way, or even at all. Those incendiary remarks early in 1948 on the position of the Bangla language by Pakistan's founder, revered as Quaid-e-Azam, were the beginning of discontent. They were a sudden jolt back to reality, especially for Mujib. His earliest confinement in prison only months into the creation of Pakistan was a precursor to what lay ahead for the country. Muslim Pakistan was not turning out to be the dream it ought to have been. For the Bengalis, the majority component of Pakistan's population, the gloss and glitter of Pakistan began to wear off, progressively, as time went by.
And this is where one needs to focus in trying to comprehend the evolution of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to Bangabandhu. Place him in juxtaposition with Jinnah. The contrast could not have been greater. Jinnah's political career blossomed through his fealty to constitutionalism, indeed to the concept of a future India being a secular entity. Yet this secular politician would dwindle in time, to decline into being a communalist through his demand for a state resting on the concept of India being a land compartmentalised into Hindu and Muslim nations.
Now observe Mujib. Starting off as a believer in the communal division of India through the emergence of Pakistan, he would through the 1950s and 1960s progressively graduate into being a thoroughly secular political leader. Where Jinnah had plunged from the heights of secular politics to communalism, Mujib had done the reverse: He abjured communal politics and through his advocacy of secular democracy and Bengali nationalism made it obvious that his world had broadened out into a vast landscape of liberal ideas. His Six Points, made public in Lahore in February 1966 – and it was the same city where Jinnah had launched his drive for Pakistan in March 1940 – were a pointer to a new truth: he had evolved into Bangabandhu. The formality of the honour would come three years later.
The emergence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as a principal political figure in South Asia was necessarily linked to the ideas he had adopted over a long course of time. It would be proper to argue that he did not quite share many of the ideas which his mentor Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy propagated both in pre-partition India and post-1947 Pakistan. Even so, Mujib remained loyal to Suhrawardy right till the end, the patent reason being his affinity with the constitutional politics that Suhrawardy propagated throughout his career. A study of Bangabandhu's politics is indeed a reconfirmation of the truth that all through his political career he did not deviate from the constitutional path. Even as he knew that the regimes of Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan would undermine him at every step, he upheld his democratic principles. No provocation, not even the genocide launched in March 1971 by the Pakistan army, would have him shift his political ground.
Bangabandhu's political union with Suhrawardy notwithstanding, he was quite enamoured of the radical politics pursued by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose between the late 1930s and mid-1940s. Both men, in their demonstrations of nationalism, shared a passionate belief in the need to eject foreign colonialism from the region. It is interesting to think how Bose and Mujib might have forged links and a shared belief in politics had history gone in a different direction.
But, again, Bangabandhu was a lifelong admirer of Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das. He was only five years old when Das died in 1925, but the democratic principles on which Deshbandhu based his career were those Bangabandhu would identify with in his own times. Mujib appreciated Jawaharlal Nehru's politics and at one point in the 1960s made it a point to seek the Indian prime minister's support for a free Bengali republic in future. Nehru reportedly discouraged the thought, at that point of time. The two men thus had little chance of meeting each other, but the commonality in political belief has been obvious.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman imbibed ideas from political leaders who came before him. As he told David Frost in 1972, he admired Winston Churchill. He was also drawn to Abraham Lincoln, from whom he aptly borrowed for his foreign policy the principle of friendship for all and malice toward none. Bangabandhu's respect for Mao Zedong was abiding, given that the two men met in 1956 when the future founder of Bangladesh was part of a Pakistani team visiting Beijing. Bangabandhu, understanding the nuances of diplomacy, was careful about keeping the door open for productive Dhaka-Beijing relations in the future despite the Chinese veto of Bangladesh's application for membership of the United Nations in 1972.
Between the mid-1960s and early 1970s, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's rise to national and global prominence was swift and unmistakable. And so was the loyalty to him his politics engendered among his political associates, notably Tajuddin Ahmad, Syed Nazrul Islam, M Mansoor Ali, AHM Quamruzzaman and a whole swath of others. His oratory, his diction, indeed his mannerisms would be a motivation for younger politicians – even those who were not quite drawn to his brand of politics – as they sought to claim their own space in the sun.
This was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – Sheikh Shaheb to many, "amago Mozibor" (our Mujibur) to many others, Bangabandhu to the entire nation.
The writer, a political commentator, is a biographer of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad.