The independence leader is central to many stories told about Bangladesh, but there are dangers in the government not allowing any space for debate about him.
Jacco Visser December 18, 2020
Under the Awami League administrations from the 1990s onwards, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s independence leader, its first president, and the father of the current prime minister, has increasingly become central to formal commemorations and is positioned as the head of a national family.
The party has undertaken several well-known initiatives to institutionalise this role of Sheikh Mujib to help justify his daughter, Sheikh Hasina, as the prime minister, and to position her as a natural heir to his legacy. Examples include the depiction of Sheikh Mujib on banknotes, introducing commemorative days, and naming many public institutions after him. More recently, the party has introduced the highly controversial Digital Security Act, banning anyone contesting the party’s reading of the past or contesting what the party describes as Sheikh Mujib’s legacy.
The Awami League has even introduced a ‘‘Mujib year’’, which started on March 17th 2020 and will run until March 26th 2021. However, the use of Sheikh Mujib to tell national stories does not stop with these formal laws and additions to the commemorative calendar — Awami League politicians without a family connection to Mujib have weaved him into family histories about the Bangladesh War in remarkable ways, illustrating the effectiveness of using family as a platform to tell national stories.
This use of kinship and family as a platform to tell bigger stories about the Bangladesh War, and the entanglement of national stories and family stories is not new. We have seen the use of family metaphors in a range of commemorations of the Bangladesh War for a long time. An example is the famous poem Amar Bhaier Rokte Rangano (My Brothers’ Blood Spattered) by Abdul Gaffar Choudhury which is recited during Ekushe. Nor is it new to use kinship terms to refer to Sheikh Mujib, as his honorary title Father of the Nation illustrates. However, while attending commemorations in London, as well as some commemorations in Bangladesh, I was struck by the uses of family and kinship terms by politicians, and how they incorporated Sheikh Mujib in family histories to legitimise their position and to present a politicised, cleansed version of the national past.
At a gathering during Independence and National Day in 2017 organised by the Bangladesh High Commission in London a booklet for the event was handed out to all attendees. It in there was a personal story written by the press secretary of the high commission at the time, Nadeem Qadir, about how his father passed away during the war, linking his passing to the assassination of Sheikh Mujib. He explained that his biological father was tied to Sheikh Mujib through his participation in the Bangladesh War and through a meeting his father had with the leader. The published text explains his mother’s reaction to the assassination of Sheikh Mujib explaining how “She cried when the radio announced on the morning of 15 August 1975 that Bangabandhu has been killed, and said “what will happen to Bangladesh?” We were suffering because my father was martyred and every minute we felt his absence. And now the ‘father supreme’ too is martyred for the cause of the same country.”
Although I heard a remarkable number of personal stories about Sheikh Mujib within Awami League ranks in London, not many will have such a direct personal connection to him. However, many can relate to the story both because of an emotional investment in the war and the relatability of a family member passing away. Such kinship references are a powerful vehicle to make people feel invested in national history. What makes this such a difficult story to reject is that the story is both personal and political. The effect of such uses of kinship terms depends on repetition and a broad use of such references in relation to different issues. At the meeting, this was illustrated by rotating images of Sheikh Mujib, while Sheikh Hasina was presented in a caring, parental role, inspecting troops of the Bangladeshi navy and a factory. Elsewhere in the leaflet, as well as in speeches and images, the prime minister was hailed as bringing development to Bangladesh and bringing to fruition Sheikh Mujib’s vision of a Golden Bengal.
The main reason for the effectiveness of using family stories for political purposes is that it allows people to feel a sense of proximity, a personal relation to commemorations, and because they make people feel invested in national pasts. Although commemorations are always political, the use of family terms opens up space for the increased manipulation of commemorations for political ends. At commemorations, songs, speeches and personal stories come together for many and make remembering and commemorating the Bangladesh War both a way of imagining the nation and positioning oneself in relation to it. However, by positioning Sheikh Mujib as the central figure in official commemorations, while banning any interpretations that do not fall in line with the Awami League’s interpretation of his legacy, a cleansed past is created.
Despite being highly critical of the ways in which Sheikh Mujib is used for political purposes and of how the Awami League has banned interpretations of his role in national history that contradict the party’s line, for example through the Digital Security Act, this article does not challenge the general importance of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for the independence movement. On the contrary, I fear that because of these blunt political manipulations, and by not allowing any space for debate, the party may well be putting his legacy at risk. This concern seems to be shared by people who agree on the importance of Sheikh Mujib in national history, as illustrated by a gathering at the National Press Club in Dhaka earlier this year in honour of the March 7th address by Sheikh Mujib in 1971. At the meeting speakers emphasised the speech’s democratic value and raised concerns over the current state of democracy in Bangladesh. These concerns over Sheikh Mujib’s legacy seem rather urgent in light of the shrinking space for civil society in Bangladesh and the current contestations over the vandalism of several statues of Mujib in Bangladesh. They reveal the vulnerability of placing him on a pedestal without allowing for debate about him, and for multiple stories and interpretations of his legacy to exist alongside each other.
Jacco Visser has written his PhD at Aarhus University on how the Bangladesh War is remembered and commemorated in London. This article sums up a longer academic article in a special issue on the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh in the journal Contributions to Indian Sociology titled “‘May you live with us forever Father!’ Rethinking state and kinship among Bangladeshi long-distance nationalists in London”
Dhaka Tribune – ‘Hints of Democracy in Bangabandhu’s 7 March Speech’