Closer than you may think, Mandela and Mujib 11 Dec 2013

Niaz Alam Dhaka Tribune 11/12/13

Amid the richly deserved tributes by world leaders at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service this week, one theme stands out. Madiba unified his country and brought peace and reconciliation that earned the respect of enemies, both within and outside South Africa. The praise is so great and widespread that it seems almost futile to ask the question of whether Sheikh Mujib can be compared to the icon of the struggle against apartheid.

Almost, but not quite. By the time Mandela came out of prison, the apartheid regime was prepared to give up on violence. He could afford to be magnanimous. Apartheid’s defenders often used violence, most notoriously in Angola and Mozambique where hundreds of thousands died in countries that should have had more peaceful transitions to independence after the Portuguese left in 1974, but which became embroiled in the moral free conflicts of the Cold war. By the time Mandela was freed in 1990, South Africa’s army had suffered a major defeat at the hands of Cuban backed Angolan soldiers at Cuito Carnavale in 1988. Throw in the arithmetic of a four fifths black majority and it was clear the jig was up. Only the usual quota of hardliners and nutcases found in every society, would seek to defend apartheid after all that.

Mujib on the other hand, showed magnanimity towards enemies who were deeply embittered and hostile to Bangladeshi independence. If he did not have instincts towards peace and reconciliation, he would not have invited Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Bangladesh in 1974. With evidence of the crimes committed by Pakistan’s forces so fresh in the memory, it would have been easier or at least more populist for him to have insisted on trials of the leading Pakistani generals. That he did not do so, is usually explained by reference to the then recently independent Bangladesh’s need to seek recognition from China, Pakistan and a swathe of Muslim states. In other words, it is said that he had to be magnanimous.  But this is to underplay his conciliatory instincts. Firsthand accounts about the time from Kamal Hossain in his memoir “Bangladesh Quest for Freedom and Justice” or Anthony Mascarenhas in “Legacy of Blood” point to an inherent preference on Mujib’s part to seek what he saw as the moderate path.

It also downplays the importance to Bhutto of achieving reconciliation with Bangladesh. Mujib was a respected global figure in the early 1970s, hailed by Castro and Western politicians alike. Bhutto meanwhile had been the willing accomplice and cynical foreign minister of a murderous military regime. For sure, the wily Bhutto used his charisma to denigrate Bangladesh and doubtless took advantage of Mujib’s ability to show goodwill. But it is telling given his conduct during the war, that Bhutto was anxious to try and gloss over his role and put all the blame for war crimes onto those he liked to term “drunken generals.”

Realpolitik then is too mealy mouthed a term to indicate Mujib’s pragmatic inclinations. Unlike Mandela, he had to take over a country devastated by total war and beset by rival factions. His better instincts during this time are demonstrated by the fact that he was magnanimous towards the United States despite Nixon and Kissinger’s actions against Bangladeshi freedom. Mujib’s memory today is tarnished in part by the willingness of Bangladeshis to always look for the worst in other people. A greater problem however is that many biographers have been unable or unwilling to treat Mujib’s achievements in context. They prefer to dwell in hagiography on his undisputed role as leader of the liberation struggle or on his brutal assassination. This makes it easier for critics to point out faults during his administration or the undemocratic error of BAKSAL.

Yet no fair minded historian can honestly argue that anything got better after the murder of Mujib.  Violence escalated and the bewildering array of conspiring factions in the armed forces which he had sought to contain killed each other in the cycle of coups and counter coups after August 15 1975.  Likewise, Bangladesh’s constitution may have  failed to recognise the concerns of peoples in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, but Mujib’s mistake in not addressing this was amplified many fold by subsequent governments leading to prolonged conflict. And the country’s ability to counter India’s hegemonic tendencies was not improved by the stronger rhetoric of other parties either.

It does not make sense to blame the many faults in Bangladesh’s politics today with choices made four decades ago by Sheikh Mujib. Perhaps the seeds of the corruption and dynastic politics that blight the nation were present during his brief three and half years in office, but the problems of the nation today are the responsibility of the people of today, not the founding generation of independence. Blaming Sheikh Mujib for Bangladesh’s problems in 2014 makes as little sense as criticising Nelson Mandela for the fact that the end of apartheid has not ended economic inequality in South Africa. It is easy to argue that he could have done more, but when you consider the circumstances,  would that have actually been possible? To expect the ending of overt racism to overcome inequalities created by the world’s history of colonialism and capitalism, is putting too much faith in the power of Nelson Mandela.

If this sounds fatalistic, well perhaps it is, but to think otherwise is to enter the realms of alternate history and speculative fiction. If people wanted to follow anti-apartheid style boycotts on every human rights issue, then every consumer and investor in the world would think twice about using products made in China. And petrol-heads proclaiming their freedom to drive fast would spend more time pondering the fact that a lot of oil for their cars comes from a country where women are not legally free to drive at all.

But if we are going to go down the route of alternative history, then why not speculate on the positive? Born barely two years apart in British colonies, both Mandela and Mujb admired Gandhi. Both went to prison for the cause of liberation. Both maintained their faith in peaceful foreign policies. Both had their foibles and their detractors. Both championed non-alignment and national independence struggles even after being lionised by the West. Had he not been murdered, who is to say that Mujib could not have lived up to his visions of a Sonar Bangla that strived to be the Switzerland of Asia?

It is true that Mandela is singled out for celebration because he defied the trend of post independence disillusionment seen throughout the South after decolonisation. But Mujib’s vision was a worthy one. However far from it he was when his life was cut short, might he too not have stepped down from power after being out of prison for nine years?  Who is to say that he may not have turned his back on Baksal or have adapted his economic policies over time?

Of such questions are science fiction stories written. Perhaps in one of these, Mandela and Mujib could have met each other in retirement as free men in the 1990s. But in real life of course, that is even more impossible than comparing a politician to Mandela – See more at: