Suhrawardy and Sheikh Mujib in 1949
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is eulogized as the freedom fighter who led the successful campaign for Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan and, in 1971, became the country’s first prime minister. But he had a murky background. He honed his political skills in one of the most turbulent and violent periods in Bengal’s history.
Sheikh Mujib's political career took off in 1938, when he came in contact with Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. Suhrawardy asked Sheikh Mujib to organize Bengal’s Muslim youth into a political body. The All India Muslim Students Federation was created in 1940 and, with Suhrawardy’s support, Sheikh Mujib became its leader. In 1943, Sheikh Mujib joined the Bengal Muslim League and began to work for achieving the League’s agenda of creating a separate homeland for Muslims. In the 1946 Calcutta massacre, in which thousands of Hindus were killed, Sheikh Mujib’s student federation played a pivotal role.
Suhrawardy is the infamous "Butcher of Bengal” for Indians. He is blamed for being the mastermind behind the 1946 Calcutta massacre. But in Bangladesh, he is revered as Sheikh Mujib's mentor. Since Sheikh Mujib was operating as Suhrawardy’s chief lieutenant in Bengal, he was equally responsible for the communal violence that engulfed Bengal in this period. Like Suhrawardy, he too deserves the label of “Butcher of Bengal.”
Sheikh Mujib was good at leading guerrilla armies and unleashing violence, but he didn’t have the skill to provide good governance to a nation. Within months of his taking over as Bangladesh’s prime minister, it was apparent that he was bereft of administrative skills. His government became bogged down in corruption scandals and petty power struggles erupted between his close associates. In 1974, Bangladesh was struck by a famine, regarded as the worst in the twentieth century—close to 1.5 million people, several times more than the number killed in the 1971 war of liberation, starved to death. Sheikh Mujib’s government tried to whitewash this catastrophe by claiming that only 27,000 had perished.
Neamat Imam has written a brilliant novel called The Black Coat on Sheikh Mujib’s troubled political legacy. The novel does not go into the role that Sheikh Mujib played in fomenting communal violence in Bengal during the 1930s and the 1940s—its focus is on his role as the prime minister of Bangladesh in the 1970s. Imam presents a dystopian view of Bangladesh under Sheikh Mujib. The novel’s title comes from the black coat that Sheikh Mujib and his followers used to wear. This black coat (also known as the Mujib coat), Imam notes, became, in the eyes of the Bangladeshis, the symbol of tyranny and corruption.
Reflecting on the loot that happened during Sheikh Mujib’s reign, Imam writes: “though the thugs came with different names, with different levels of power, they all came wearing the Mujib coat, and raising the Joy Bangla slogan. They all introduced themselves as his [Sheikh Mujib’s] relatives, his dear friends, his dedicated supporters, who professed to sacrifice their lives for him. Then they looted. They attended his public speeches, worshipped him as the founder of their nation, and looted. They hung his picture in their offices, sitting rooms, bedrooms, waiting rooms, and looted as much as they wanted.”
The novel is narrated by the protagonist, Khaleque Biswas, a wartime reporter who lost his job because he was intent on telling the truth to his readers—journalists who told the truth were not appreciated by the political elites in Sheikh Mujib’s Bangladesh. One day an illiterate man called Nur Hussain turned up at Biswas’s door. In a bizarre attempt to make money for his survival, Biswas trained Hussain to deliver Sheikh Mujib’s classic 1971 liberation speech. Then he dressed him in a black coat and took him to deliver the speech at street corners. Many people were impressed by Hussain’s ability to mimic Sheikh Mujib and they threw a few coins at his feet.
Imam gives a dark account of the catastrophic 1974 famine. Refugees from the countryside kept pouring into Dhaka. But Dhaka was itself starving; the city had no food, no shelter to offer to the refugees. People dying of starvation in the streets became a common sight. It was impossible for Biswas and Hussain to evade the truth that instead of bringing freedom and prosperity, Sheikh Mujib had brought tyranny, starvation, and misery. In 1975, Sheikh Mujib was assassinated. His death did not herald the end of tyranny; it led to new power struggles and nightmares for the masses.