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Bangladesh honours its founding father

On the occasion of the 49th anniversary of independence and national day, Bangladesh is also celebrating 100 years of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

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Fondly known as Bangabandhu, his political philosophy is written into the four guiding principles of state adopted in the Bangladesh constitution: Nationalism, democracy, secularism, and socialism.

BANGLADESH is celebrating the birth centenary of its founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and honouring him through year-long activities this year. Bangabandhu, as he is popularly known in the country, led the freedom struggle that resulted in the founding of Bangladesh as an independent country in 1971 and was its first Prime Minister.

"Bangabandhu is widely regarded as the greatest Bengali of all time. Through the year-long celebration of his birth centenary we want to focus once again on the turbulent time of our national history and the genesis of our country through a long struggle and supreme sacrifice of millions under the great leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman," says Bangladesh's High Commissioner in Singapore, Md Mustafizur Rahman.

"Bangabandhu fought for justice, human rights, freedom and dignity of people throughout his life. We believe that his philosophy, principles and policies are very relevant even today," says Mr Rahman in an interview with The Business Times on the occasion of the 49th anniversary of independence and national day of the People's Republic of Bangladesh today.

Sheikh Mujib won the heart of millions by his courage, charisma, powerful oratory and uncanny ability to communicate with the people, says Mr Rahman. "He also made inordinate personal sacrifices as he spent some 11 years in prison, where twice he came very close to the gallows. Bangabandhu believed in constitutional politics though, during his time, many nationalist leaders resorted to violent means seeking to realise their goal of self-determination. By any standard, he had a remarkable political career which deserves wider appreciation."

Bangabandhu not only led Bangladesh's independence movement but also ran the administration of the new-born country in an exemplary fashion. "As the Head of Government, he guided the building up of national institutions as well as directed the formulation of national policies on important areas. Much of today's success story of Bangladesh owes to the founding principles and policies designed by Bangabandhu during his short stint in office. He steered the country steadfastly during that eventful and challenging journey," says Mr Rahman.

"Sheikh Mujib wanted to achieve 'Sonar Bangla' - the 'Golden Bengal' - so that his people could live in peace and prosperity with dignity and equality. This was not mere political rhetoric for him. Bangabandhu was aware of the glorious past of this land and strongly believed that the past glory could be revived through an appropriate policy strategy and determination."

Mr Rahman says that, like Bangabandhu, "Singapore was also blessed with an iconic leader in Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who made remarkable contributions towards building his nation and leading his country to an enviable level of development. Mr Lee Kuan Yew got a full life to shape his country. Unfortunately, we did not have Bangabandhu for long enough to lead our nation to prosperity. Bangladesh would probably have been in a far better position than it is today if he had survived for a long period."

Bangabandhu was acclaimed as 'a poet of politics' by Newsweek magazine even before the country achieved its liberation, Mr Rahman highlights. "After independence, he pursued a non-aligned foreign policy and vowed to support the self-determination of nations across the world. Domestically, his government worked seriously to achieve inclusive development, education and healthcare for all, rapid industrialisation, as well as self-sufficiency in agricultural production," he adds.

One of the remarkable features of Bangabandhu's political life was his transformation from an ordinary rank and file worker of a political party to an unparallelled leader of millions of people. He possessed outstanding organisational capacity and, at the same time, was a great orator, notes Dr Rounaq Jahan, a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka.

Within a short period after the establishment in 1947 of Pakistan, of which present day Bangladesh was a part being known then as East Pakistan, Sheikh Mujib became convinced about the need for establishing an opposition party for championing the rights of the Bengalis and to challenge the authoritarian rule of the Muslim League.

STRONG SENSE OF BENGALI IDENTITY

"In his speeches, we find a strong articulation of various demands of the Bengali nationalists and his strong sense of Bengali identity. In the council session of the party in 1955, the Awami League dropped the word "Muslim" from its name. In February 1966, Bangabandhu presented his historic six points demand which put forward a very radical notion of provincial autonomy, leaving only limited powers in the hands of the central government," Dr Jahan notes in a paper published last year.

In March 1966, Sheikh Mujib became the president of the Awami League and began a country-wide campaign to popularise the six points which soon became the sole agenda of the party. The six points captured the aspirations of the nation and were billed as the charter for the liberation of the Bengalis. Following the launch of the six points, Bangabandhu was again imprisoned and charged with treason by the Pakistan government.

In 1969, when then Pakistan President Ayub Khan fell from power following a massive students' movement, Bangabandhu was released from prison and the students conferred on him the title of Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal). During the 1970 election campaign, Bangabandhu started using nationalist slogans such as "Bangladesh" and "Joy Bangla".

Thus, within a relatively short span of four years, between 1966 and 1970, Sheikh Mujib was able to unite the whole Bengali nation behind his demand for liberation and independence. No other nationalist leader had been so successful in mobilising such a huge number of people within such a short period of time.

Significantly, in December 1970, at Pakistan's national election, the Sheikh Mujib led Awami League party won all but two of the 169 seats in East Pakistan, thereby gaining a majority in the new National Assembly. He would have become the country's prime minister as leader of the largest party in the house but the Assembly meeting was not called by the Pakistani rulers.

Sheikh Mujib launched a non-violent non-cooperation movement and became the de facto head of government in East Pakistan. Civil servants, the police, businesses, banks and the labour force followed his lead, said Professor James Manor of the University of London in an article published in The Dhaka Tribune in August 2018.

A MAN OF THE MASSES; THE ORDINARY PEOPLE'S ASPIRATIONS

While Bangabandhu was a man of the masses, he learned about people's aspirations from them. At another level, he was the leader of the people. He carried forward the ordinary people's aspirations. That is why he could call upon people on March 7, 1971, to join the liberation struggle with "whatever little they have".

Bangabandhu's political philosophy is written into the four guiding principles of state adopted in the Bangladesh constitution: Nationalism, democracy, secularism, and socialism. He stressed these four principles in various speeches delivered in parliament, at party forums, and in the many addresses to the nation.

Just as things were looking bright for the young nation, tragically, Aug 15, 1975, turned out to be a dark day in Bangladesh's history. Bangabandhu, the architect of Bangladesh, was brutally killed along with most of his family members by a group of misguided army officers. Fortunately, two of his daughters, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana, who were abroad at that time, escaped the assassination.

Sheikh Hasina, who is the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh, visited Singapore in 2018. She met with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during her visit and among her other engagements here addressed the Bangladesh-Singapore Business Forum.