On Founding Fathers and Hero-Worship in Bangladesh



As there are multiple narratives about the Partition of 1947, so are there multiple theories about the emergence of Bangladesh. One school of thought tells us there was nothing inevitable about the emergence of Bangladesh; its birth could be averted had the main actors, Bhutto, Yahya, Mujib and some others behaved differently. The other narrative highlights the fundamental differences between the two wings of Pakistan – geographical, historical, ethno-linguistic, cultural, social, and economic – which are said to have made the separation of the two wings inevitable.

Then again, what politicians and their followers in socially and politically fractured Bangladesh assert in public about who and what turned the movement for provincial autonomy for East Pakistan into the Liberation War is mostly one-sided, biased accounts that glorify their own heroes and idols of the Liberation War. The ardent followers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League give all credits for achieving Bangladesh to Mujib and glorify him as the founding father of Bangladesh by undermining others, including freedom fighters like Maulana Bhashani, Tajuddin Ahmed, General Osmani, General Ziaur Rahman, Serajul Alam Khan and some other top leaders of Bangladesh.

Awami League leaders invariably undermine Zia as a freedom fighter, let alone as one who formally declared the Independence of Bangladesh on 27 March 1971, and later became the President of the Republic and founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Some top Awami League leaders, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, denigrate Zia at best as an insignificant actor in the Liberation War, and at worst as a Pakistani agent, collaborator, and enemy of Bangladesh. What we hear from BNP leaders and activists is equally partisan, glorifying Zia as the real founding father, and even as the “first president” of the Republic, as his son and political heir Tareq Zia has asserted many times, publicly. By demonizing Mujib as anti-Liberation, Indian agent, or even as a Pakistani collaborator, BNP top brasses assert Mujib only wanted to become the Prime Minister of united Pakistan by using the sentiment of the freedom-loving Bengali radical forces in East Pakistan. So, at the end of the day, it seems both the parties’ leaders and workers leave no stone unturned to see if the main patriarch of the rival party – Mujib or Zia – is denigrated and demonized enough to their own (perceived) political advantage!

Today some ultra-radical “leftist” leaders of the National Socialist Party (JSD), which emerged out of the Awami League, glorify their own leaders, especially the enigmatic Sirajul Alam Khan and A.S.M. Abdur Rab, as the real founders of Bangladesh. In late 1972, they established the (JSD) as an alternative to the ruling Awami League. Their version of the history of the Liberation War is very different from the Awami League and BNP versions. The Awami League version of the history of the emergence of Bangladesh is very different from those who lived through the turbulent period of 1960s and 1971 (both within and beyond Bangladesh) as well.

The historiography of the Liberation War of Bangladesh is full of diametrically opposite versions of “history”, and many of them are “eye-witness” accounts as well! These accounts are reflective of the over-polarised and emotionally-charged well-informed, less-informed, and uninformed people’s ideologies, sentiments, and emotionally- and politically-charged blatant lies. They represent the viewpoints of politically over-polarised sections of the people, as well as those who are plain and simple hero-worshippers. Both are equally capable of lying in support of their political ideologies, and the ideologues or heroes they love, adore, and glorify which is understandable from Carlyle’s important work on heroes and hero worship.

What Carlyle said about the hero-worshippers with regard to “The Hero as King”, namely Cromwell and Napoleon, are applicable to the blind admirers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman, who are the main idols or cult figures in Bangladesh. What he said about the worshippers of Cromwell and Napoleon in his sixth lecture in 1840 is applicable to what Mujib’s and Zia’s blind followers are doing, decades after their tragic deaths. The hero-worshippers find no wrong with their idols.

Carlyle said:

“The Ablest Man: he means also the truest-hearted, justest, the Noblest Man: what he tells us to do must be the wisest, fittest, that we could anywhere or anyhow learn:—the things which it will in all ways behoove US, with right loyal thankfulness and nothing doubting, to do! Our doing and life were then, so far as government could regulate it, well regulated; that were the ideal of constitutions.”

Ardent followers of the two main heroes in Bangladesh  are sharply polarized into two hostile groups of people, who are least interested in respecting each other, let alone, coming to a working political understanding or relationship. Many of their crafty leaders tactfully play the divide-and-rule game for the sake of absolute power. Most of them do not nurture and respect democracy. The absence of intra-party democracy in all the major political parties in the country substantiates this. The cult of hero-worship is a stumbling block in the way toward any meaningful understanding of history and society in Bangladesh. It shrouds the truth and reality from the objective investigators.

Last but not least, the United States recognizes at least six other people — John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison — besides George Washington as its founding fathers. Glorifying single individuals as founding fathers is very common in relatively backward and premodern countries, mainly in the Afro-Asian continents. One may mention Mustafa Kamal, Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung, Sukarno, Gandhi, Jinnah, Mujib, and among others, Mugabe in this regard. And the countries they represent as their sole founding fathers are nominal / dysfunctional democracies or totalitarian dictatorships.

Had Bangladesh adopted the concept of multiple founding fathers, it would have possibly been a democracy without any dynastic rule and cult figures around. At least one of them, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman aka Bangabandhu (Friend of Bangladesh), would not have remained a demigod beyond any reproach or criticism. It is a criminal offence in Bangladesh to question his persona or denying him as the Father of the Nation. People even cannot raise the question if he ever declared the independence of Bangladesh! The country is possibly only comparable to North Korea with regard to the jealously guarded cult of personality. In India and Pakistan people can get away with saying not-so-nice things about their founding fathers, Gandhi and Jinnah respectively, not so in Bangladesh and North Korea!

Dr. Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014). Email: [email protected]


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