Behind or within Bangabandhu the founder of Bangladesh was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the man.
In Bangabandhu there was an abundance of humour. Asked by newsmen in January 1972, on the day he took over as prime minister of a newly free Bangladesh, why he had not given portfolios to some of the new ministers about to take the oath of office, he advised them to wait. But he did mention that the health and family planning portfolio was going to a leading politician who had an emaciated appearance. How so? The minister's poor state of health would convince donors about the need for aid in the health sector. Besides, who but he would understand the great need for planned families since he had two wives and fourteen children between them?
On a visit to the United Arab Emirates in 1974, Bangabandhu was welcomed by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahiyan. The UAE ruler was happy that he and the Bangladesh prime minister were both sheikhs, to which Bangabandhu replied, 'But, Excellency, there is a difference. I am a very poor sheikh.' The two men burst into laughter. Then, there were all the times when his fury was aroused by the misplaced notions of others about his country. When Nigeria's Yakubu Gowon wondered, at a meeting with him on the sidelines of a Commonwealth summit, if an undivided Pakistan could not have been a symbol of Muslim strength in the world, Mujib had this to say: 'Mr. President, you are right. Now, if India had not been partitioned, it would be one strong country. Similarly, if Asia was one whole or the world had not been segmented into different nations, we would all be strong as members of one human race. But, Excellency, do we always get what we want out of life?'
When Saudi King Faisal grumbled that Pakistan's break-up had weakened Muslims in South Asia, Bangabandhu simply asked him where all that concern for Muslims was when Pakistan's Muslim soldiers were killing Bangladesh's Muslim men and raping their women. The Saudi monarch had no reply. In 1954, as Pakistan's central government prepared to dismiss the United Front government in East Bengal, Chief Minister Fazlul Huq and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman flew to Karachi to reason with Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Bogra that such a disastrous step ought not to be taken. Bogra, at one point and in all his arrogance, told Mujib that the government had a big file on him. Mujib shot back, 'So what? Our government has a file on you. Remember the time when, upset that you had not been taken into the central cabinet, you secretly contributed money to opposition funds?' You can imagine the loud silence that rang around the room.
There was supreme confidence in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In the heady days of the non-cooperation movement in March 1971, Bangabandhu was asked about the repercussions of his defiance of the Pakistan government. 'What government?' He retorted. 'I am the government.' And courage was always a hallmark of his personality. Asked by a foreign journalist about the way he felt being on trial in the Agartala conspiracy case, he said, loud enough for everyone to hear, 'You know, they can't keep me here for more than six months.' His arithmetic was close to the reality. He was freed seven months into the trial. On day one of the trial, he noticed the journalist Faiz Ahmed among the mediapersons covering the proceedings. Faiz Ahmed had his back to the accused. When he noticed the journalist, Bangabandhu softly called out his name. Faiz would not respond. Bangabandhu tried a second time. Faiz Ahmed, aware of Pakistani intelligence in the courtroom, whispered, 'Mujib bhai, we can't talk here.' The Bengali politician exploded, 'Anyone who wants to live in Bangladesh will have to talk to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.' Even the judges were shaken by the outburst.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman could be blunt in conversation, often leaving his listeners at a loss for words. He asked Indira Gandhi directly, in matter-of-fact fashion, when she would take her army back home from Bangladesh. She took them home before Bangabandhu's birthday on 17 March 1972. He once told Yahya Bakhtiar, who had asked him if the Six Points were not going to destroy Pakistan, 'You have sucked our blood for twenty three years. It's now time for you to face the music.' With alacrity he rejected an embattled Ayub Khan's offer to him of the office of Pakistan's prime minister at a dinner between the two men in March 1969. He refused to oblige Z.A. Bhuto when the latter suggested, in January 1971, that his party forge a grand coalition with the Pakistan People's Party. Asked by newsmen in March 1971 if he would agree to talks with Yahya Khan in Dhaka, he said simply and with meaning, 'He will be our guest.' He had already decided that Bangladesh was the new reality.
Bangabandhu was a good reader. His collection of books remains testimony to his interest in ideas. An admirer of Bertrand Russell, he was also drawn to George Bernard Shaw. Hours before he was assassinated along with his family, he was reportedly reading the Irish writer's Man and Superman. In prison in Mianwali in 1971, he had a copy of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, which he gave away as a parting gift to his jailor before flying back home to a free Bangladesh in January 1972.
Bangladesh's founding father laughed uproariously, in spontaneity. He hummed Tagore in his moments of contentment. He never forgot faces even three decades after he had last seen them. And he remembered names.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was our troubadour, trekking through the villages and hamlets of this land, spreading the message that liberty was all. In his eventual days of glory, he clearly remembered the muddy paths and the monsoon storms that had shaped his politics.
It was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, our Bangabandhu, who decreed on 5 December 1969 that this land would not be East Bengal, would not be East Pakistan. Henceforth it would be Bangladesh. And Joi Bangla would be our song.