Reviewed by Bahzad Alam Khan
Even the most ardent admirers of Mohammad Ali Jinnah have a hard time explaining why he adopted a cavalier attitude to the language question and declared in Dhaka — of all places — that Urdu alone would be the national language of Pakistan. Clearly Jinnah was unswayed by the argument that at 56.5 per cent Bengalis constituted the majority of the country’s population, though he could not have been uninformed about how strongly they resented what they viewed as the domination of the culturally insensitive civil and military officials of Pakistan’s western wing. He must have been surprised — perhaps chagrined — when he was opposed by students of DhakaUniversity.
The founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was there that day in 1948. In his unfinished memoirs — which he wrote while incarcerated in 1967 — Mujib recalls how he and his friends braved driving rain at Dhaka’s Tejgaon airport as they waited for Jinnah. Nevertheless, hundreds of students shouted “No, no,” when Jinnah declared at the racecourse ground that “Urdu would be the only state language of Pakistan”. Apparently, Jinnah did not take the hint and later, at DhakaUniversity’s convocation centre, repeated his ill-chosen words. Mujib recalls how Jinnah paused for about five minutes when Bengali students sitting in front of him opposed him by again shouting “No, no”. According to Mujib, Jinnah never afterwards said that he wanted Urdu to be the state language of Pakistan.
It is evident throughout the memoirs that Mujib is more than willing to give Jinnah the benefit of the doubt, although he makes it clear that he was among those who believed that Jinnah should not have become Pakistan’s first governor general. He had hoped that Jinnah would first become president and later prime minister. He rejects the widely held conspiracy theory that Lord Mountbatten, last viceroy of Britain’s Indian Empire, would have caused a lot of harm to the nascent state of Pakistan if he had been allowed to become its governor general in 1947. “Jinnah was cleverer than us all and only he knew what motives he had in wanting to become the governor general,” concedes Mujib.
But Mujib seems to have little patience with — and more crucially, little trust in — most Muslim League leaders other than Jinnah. Indeed, he appears to suggest that he had reason to expect the worst from them, even those who were from Bengal. He indicates in the memoirs that Khawaja Nazimuddin, a scion of the Nawab of Dhaka family, undermined Pakistan’s claim to Calcutta when the latter declared, after winning an electoral contest against Mujib’s political mentor Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, that Dhaka would be the capital of East Bengal. This was done deliberately, according to Mujib, because people in the Central League wanted Calcutta to go to India. “If Calcutta had become part of Pakistan the country would have had no other option but to make the city its capital since the people of East Bengal could claim that they constituted the majority and since it was the most important city in the whole of India.” Of course, Mujib’s assertion is at variance with the vast body of historical evidence which shows that Pakistan was actually deprived of the port city of Calcutta, but for a nationalist leader like him, perceived persecution mattered more than historical facts.
Mujib’s political career put him on a collision course with the political party that created Pakistan and the leaders, mostly feudal lords, who lost no time in seizing power in post-Independence Pakistan. In the 1970s he found himself pitted against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of the Pakistan Peoples Party. The difference in their background — and the trajectory of their political career — could not have been more stark, though both died violent deaths with Mujib being assassinated by army officers in an independent Bangladesh in 1975 and Bhutto being sent to the gallows by a military dictator in Pakistan four years later.
It is well-known how Bhutto studied first at the University of California, Berkeley and then at OxfordUniversity in an intellectually stimulating environment with considerable style, comfort and luxury. In his memoirs, Mujib is seen regularly borrowing money from his father to buy textbooks — which mostly remained unread because of his time-consuming political pursuits — and from his wife to buy cigarettes and sometimes clothes.
The memoirs provide a picture of an intensely political man who appears to be more comfortable with the grass roots of the party than with leaders, who is as adept at organising a successful public meeting as evading arrest and who loves the cultural diversity of pre-1947 India though he espoused the nationalist cause of Bengal.
Though Mujib suffered tremendously at the hands of the Liaquat Ali Khan government — and in the memoirs at quite a few places he unleashes a torrent of abuse against the country’s first prime minister — he retained his sense of humour. When it became almost impossible for him to avoid capture in East Pakistan, Mujib fled to Lahore where he spent considerable time with Suhrawardy. He again threw himself into political work and it soon became clear that the West Pakistan government might also arrest him. Mujib then told a surprised Suhrawardy that he was returning to East Pakistan. The reason was simple: food!
“If anything is going to happen to me, it’s best that it happens in East Bengal since in prison in East Bengal they will serve me rice and I will not survive if I have to eat the roti they serve in West Pakistani prisons!”
The reviewer is a Dawn staffer
The Unfinished Memoirs
By Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
OxfordUniversity Press, Karachi