Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned from jail in Pakistan on January 10, 1972. It was the 26th day after his country had become Bangladesh from East Pakistan after a nine-month long war. He was accompanied by Dr Kamal Hossain, only 35, who was also jailed in Pakistan. Bangabandhu himself was only 51. The great leader had stopped in London and New Delhi on his way home.
We had fought our great war of independence without him. He was our Nelson Mandela but he was in a Pakistani jail. Our war of liberation was fought in his name but under the leadership of his closest associates. Bangabandhu was the president and Tajuddin Ahmed was the prime minister of the Mujibnagar government in exile. Syed Nazrul Islam was the Acting President. Our freedom fighters fought for Bangabandhu. A teenage schoolboy, alias yours truly, trembled in great excitement whenever the elegant voice of Eva Nag uttered these loving words: "The followers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman are bravely fighting against the Pakistani soldiers to free their motherland…"
All great men begin humbly. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a great organiser but initially was just a critic of Pakistani rule and later the military dictatorship of Ayub Khan. He spoke of the disparity between East and West Pakistan and the injustice meted out to the former.
He slowly grew in stature. His increasing popularity frightened the Pakistani government and they made the mistake of starting the Agartala Conspiracy Case against him. Bengalees by then put great trust in his patriotism and loved him. Progressive politicians united under Maulana Bhashani and the All Part Students' Union also supported him whole-heartedly.
The Pakistanis were forced to release him and he became our undisputed leader. Meanwhile Ayub Khan left, handing over power to Army Chief Yahya Khan. The latter arranged elections and allowed it to be free, thinking that East Pakistan had many Pakistan-lovers and Sheikh Mujib would not emerge victorious.
But Bangabandhu's Awami League won 167 out of 169 seats and the whole world recognized him as our undisputed leader. But the Punjabi ruling clique was not ready to transfer power. The conspiring Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was behind them. Yahya Khan came to Dhaka to start a dialogue with Bangabandhu, after the latter had decided to go for a peaceful non-cooperation movement after the first session of the elected national assembly was suspended.
Yahya decided to play a traitor, ended his talks and fled to Pakistan after ordering a military operation in Dhaka. On the night of 25 March 1971, 50,000 unarmed civilians were killed. Political activists, students and even passers-by were gunned down. Pakistan laid buried under corpses. Bangabandhu was ready and declared the independence of Bangladesh. He courted arrest thinking that such an act would save Dhaka from total destruction.
It was a people's war which led to our freedom. Soldiers, students, farmers and workers fought hand in hand and liberated Bangladesh in nine months. Tajuddin Ahmed's government conducted the war and the political battle firmly and with success. India gave shelter to one crore East Pakistanis and Awami League activists helped build world opinion in our favour. We became independent on December 16, 1971.
It took us less than nine months. All this while Bangabandhu was in captivity. Even a grave was dug for him and he was to be hanged. But world public opinion and his liberal image forced the Pakistanis to set him free.
The great leader first went to London where Prime Minister Edward Heath opened the car's door for him. Then he flew to New Delhi, spoke at the Safdarjung Airport with Indira Gandhi beside him, mesmerised his listeners and returned to Dhaka on January 10, 1971.
Hundreds of thousands flocked to the airport to see him. His journey to Suhrawardy Udyan took more than an hour. I was glued to the radio for the running commentary. Even on such a happy day a terrorist was detected with a bomb and a knife. He later admitted that he was sent to kill the great Bengalee leader. I remember with pride that a young Sonia Gandhi, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, insisted on accompanying her mother-in-law to have a glimpse of Bangabandhu.
The handsome leader had lost forty pounds in jail. He was a worried man there but not a frightened man. He thanked his people for freeing him and expressed his happiness that we were free at last. A man, a Bengalee and a Muslim die only once, he remarked. He had no fear of death. Now he would try his best to reconstruct his war-ravaged country.
We fought our noble war of independence in the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, our best ever political leader, an orator of the highest order and a giant with the soft heart of a Bangalee mother.
Our women prayed for his release from jail and our people fought heroically for independence. The government-in-exile of Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmed, Mansur Ali, Qamruzzaman and others guided the nation in its crisis with wisdom, sincerity and sacrifice. The governments of India and the Soviet Union were our great friends in 1971.
We Bengalees proved to the whole world that we were a heroic nation and the leader who turned us into a confident and united nation was none else than Bangabandhu himself. Our losses were great but we were a free nation. Our future generations would not have to live as colonial citizens.
As a ruler, Bangabandhu had to build the war-ravaged country from zero. That was not an easy task. The most powerful nation in the world was against our independence and their government was yet to forgive Bangabandhu. They had planted men in politics, journalism, the civil service and the armed forces. So they successfully created a distance between Bangabandhu and some of his most trusted men.
There were impediments here and there. Despite his best efforts, our great leader had failures as well as successes. But he certainly didn't deserve death for that. That was a period when great nationalist leaders were not allowed to survive. Bangabandhu, Allende and the likes had to embrace martyrdom and make way for military rulers, who served as yes-men to the mightiest nation.
How do we remember Bangabandhu now? What is he to me? To our one hundred and sixty-plus million people? He is our best politician ever born. He is the selfless leader who fought his whole life for an independent country for his Bengalee brothers and sisters.
He achieved the biggest goal he had: making Bangladesh an independent nation. But he had to leave us tragically after a few years like quite a few third-world nationalist leaders. He loved his people to a fault and they love him in return. As long as the Padma and the Meghna will flow, Bangabandhu will be fondly remembered by his people.
Junaidul Haque writes fiction and essays.