Our great leader and his vision of democracy
The young Mujib realised even as a political student activist of the pre-partition era the dangers of doing politics from a position which is basically elitist, and is not focused on the rights and interests of the masses. He was quick and eager to protest against those who had arrogated power and preferred to rule tyrannically from such a perspective.
In Pakistan, the budding politician found a lot of evidence of undemocratic policies pursued by men ensconced at the top and at a remove from ordinary people. For instance, about Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister of Pakistan, Bangabandhu has this to say at one point of The Unfinished Memoirs, "He used to talk about democracy but he never practiced it" (UM, 127).
Later in the book he is even more explicit about the root of the problem that had alienated Khan from almost all East Pakistani politicians within a few years: "The fact is he didn't like the idea of an opposition at all. He couldn't stand the idea that anyone would dare criticize his government's policies" (UM, 143). Khan was, in other words, undemocratic in every sense of the word; he would silence those who wanted to speak out and would not allow any other party to operate freely.
To quote Bangabandhu again, "He wanted to be the prime minister not of a people but of a party. He had forgotten that a country could not be equated with any one political party" (UM,144).
A fervent believer in parliamentary democracy at this stage of his career, he declares, "A democratic state can have many political parties; this is only natural if one goes by the law" (144). To Khwaja Nazimuddin, who became prime minister of Pakistan after Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated on 16 October 1951, he has this to say: "The Awami League is in the opposition. It should be given the opportunity to act unhindered. After all, a democracy cannot function without an opposition" (UM, 213).
In The Unfinished Memoirs, there are also other clear indications about what Bangabandhu was thinking regarding how democracies should be functioning ideally at this stage of his career. They could not, for instance, be established "without political parties" (UM, 238). A constitution, too, had to be framed immediately after the birth of a country.
He felt that the example of India's speedy adoption of its constitution and holding of elections immediately afterwards should be emulated by other countries, and not the Pakistani one where there continued to be much dilly-dallying on this issue. As for individual political parties, none of them should be allowed to operate "without a manifesto or declaration of its principles" (243). All citizens, he is sure, should have equal rights. No one, he felt, should be imprisoned "without a trial" (UM, 246).
Written in the 1960s at a time when Bangabandhu had to serve extended and repeated terms in prison even as mass agitation against Pakistani oppression and exploitation in East Pakistan was going on outside, The Prison Diaries records many other examples of his views about the principles and functioning of democracy. He is thus bitter about the denial of the right to protest and the censorship of news in Pakistan at that time. The right to dissent and "express oneself fully" (PD) he sees as basic to the functioning of a democracy.
Bangabandhu finds the way the "freedom of the press" has been snatched away in the country as nothing less than shameful (PD, 50). Instead of the repressive tactics adopted by Pakistan, he believes that "a movement for democracy can only be tackled through democratic routes" (PD, 53). He has no doubt that underlying politics and government policies there should be "kindness and compassion" (PD, 135); he felt that it was lack of these polices that was resulting in so many untried juvenile offenders in prison that he was meeting then.
Ayub Khan's dictatorial regime and ploys to be in power, Bangabandhu believes firmly, would not work. He has no doubt about the outcome of the struggle going on in East Pakistan and the attempt to stifle democracy there: "If Pakistan's rulers try to suppress East Pakistan's demand for self-rule, the outcome will be fatal" for the Pakistani nation (PD, 139).
In the New China book as well, Bangabandhu's democratic inclinations are clear. He finds, for example, a very compelling reason why the communists of Burma, the country he had visited briefly en route to China, had failed in their bid to take over power. He compares the Burmese ideologues with the communists of the country he was writing about at such length and with such great enthusiasm, based on his visit to it a few years ago. The secret of the success of the Chinese Communist Party he had been witnessing in its nation-building initiatives is due, Bangabandhu believes, to the support it had been receiving from the Chinese populace. Or, as he says in this context, "No country can succeed without the support of the people. The communists [of Burma] don't have a lot of popular support" (NC, 7).
When talking to ordinary people in his visit to China, as when he is with a Chinese shopkeeper, Bangabandhu tries to probe into the cause of the success of the government's programmes. The man tells him at some length the cause of their approval of the party, "'Our party has no intention of stifling anyone's speech by adopting any kind of legislation. We want to build up our country using our own resources and on the basis of our own ideals. We ae not ready to adopt any imported ideology. At the same time, we don't want to slight anyone's ideology. We believe in freedom of speech'" (NC,15-16).
Even the Chinese Army, that seemed to Bangabandhu to be taking such an active part in national reconstruction, he is told, is "truly a people's army; real development has been initiated by it" (NC, 24).
In sum, although the Chinese Communist party came to power by defeating Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist party, it appeared to have become to Bangabandhu widely acceptable by the Chinese since it had become a government for the people.
The Chinese Communist Party, guided by Mao, had liberated China from centuries of oppressive rule by first demanding and then restoring the rights of ordinary people. As Rehman Sobhan has noted, it was Bangabandhu who articulated "the concept of democratic assertion", which "coalesced with the notion of a separate identity for the Bangalis" that became central to the movement he had led until Bangladesh became a nation based on democratic principles.
Dr Fakrul Alam, who has been a professor of English at the University of Dhaka, has translated Bangabandhu's Oshomapto Atmojiboni and Karagar-er Rojnamcha into English.