Culture of Peace
There is no question that Bangabandhu remained firmly committed to the idea of fostering peace—nationally, regionally and globally. In fact, a content analysis of 22 multilateral and bilateral events between 1972-1975 show that Sheikh Mujib, while speaking at such fora, uttered ‘peace’ 151 times, followed by the words—‘world’ and ‘Asia’—76 and 33 times respectively. Such commitment to peace came not only from his personal experience, coming in the wake of his own internment of 4,682 days for launching political campaigns against the repressive state of Pakistan, but also, from his awareness of the age-old civilizational quest of the people of Bangladesh. A closer exposition is warranted here.
One of the biggest hallmarks of Mujib’s speech at the UN was the use of Bangla. This was the first time it was done at the UN, and this made the 5th largest linguistic community in the world proud of its language and heritage. In fact, this was as much an issue of claiming the rightful place of the Bangla language in the world as much as it was an issue of proclaiming the democratic heritage of the people of Bangladesh. Mujib conveyed the same message to the international community when he spoke at the UN:
The very struggle of Bangladesh symbolized the universal struggle for peace and justice. It was therefore, only natural that, Bangladesh, from its very inception, should stand by firmly by the side of the oppressed people of the world.
Indeed, so central was the issue of justice and peace and the struggle to attain them that the framers of the Bangladesh Constitution, under the leadership of Bangabandhu, codified it in Article 25 of the Bangladesh Constitution in 1972:
The State shall…support oppressed peoples throughout the world waging a just struggle against imperialism, colonialism or racialism.
Mujib, in fact, never shied away from flagging the constitutional responsibility of Bangladesh, although he knew that some of the actors in the world would find this difficult to swallow. In this context, the following issues stand out:
Bangabandhu detested war completely. He openly opposed the Vietnam war, although he knew very well that his opposition would irk the US. In Moscow on 1 March 1972, Mujib stated boldly:
Here I may refer to the continuing tragedy in Vietnam. My government firmly believes that this tragedy must come to an end because we know from our experience what sufferings peoples of this region must be going through. Peace can be achieved only if all foreign forces are withdrawing, leaving the people of Vietnam to decide their own destiny. On our part, we shall support all initiatives for peace not only in South East Asia but all over the world.
Even as late as May 1975, and that again several months after his meeting with President Ford and Bangladesh becoming a full member of the UN, Mujib reminded world leaders of his unwavering support for peace and independence at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in Kingston, Jamaica:
My government established cordial relations with the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1972,
with the Provisional Revolutionary government of South Vietnam in 1973 and with the government of the Royal Union of Cambodia in 1974. We are confident that the Vietnamese people, steeled by a heroic struggle spanning over 30 years, will make a significant contribution to the development of that area in condition of peace and free from external interference.
Opposition to war also meant standing by the victims of war. In fact, following the Arab-Israel War in October 1973, Bangabandhu offered to send medical teams to Egypt and Syria to aid the victims there. This resulted in Bangladesh becoming the second largest medical team, only next to Cuba, amongst the friendly nations, and indeed, ‘the only non-Arab (Muslim) team in uniform’. All this could happen because of Mujib’s relentless commitment to peace.
Such commitment to peace, particularly at a time when the Cold War was still on and Bangladesh still in dire straits economically, must have made Mujib an exception at the world stage. Not surprisingly, Fidel Castro after conversing with Mujib at the Non-Aligned Summit in Algiers in 1973 remarked, “I have not seen the Himalayas. But I have seen Sheikh Mujib. In personality and in courage, this man is the Himalayas. I have thus had the experience of witnessing the Himalayas.” Given the comprehensive nature of Bangabandhu’s commitment to world peace, one cannot help but appreciate Castro for holding Mujib in such high esteem.
Against Arms Race
Mujib once said, “Tensions can be reduced, not just in Asia but the whole world, if the superpowers stopped the armaments race and utilized their resources for the wellbeing of the people of developing nations.” Bangabandhu again was talking from his experience, having had first-hand knowledge about the rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union, which had found its naked expression during the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. But Mujib’s opposition to the arms race had other reasons as well, including having to witness Pakistan becoming a pawn of the US by joining CENTO and SEATO in the mid-1950s, and in the process militarizing the state of Pakistan while denying the eastern wing of Pakistan (now Bangladesh) much-required funds for people’s empowerment and development.
Mujib’s opposition also came from the fact that he found such accumulation of military power futile. When a correspondent of the Teheran Daily asked him in February 1971, “Whether federal Pakistan would not enable India to ‘eat up’ Bangladesh”, Mujib laughed heartily and replied instantly:
No one can eat anyone nowadays. India can hardly control her own Bengal, and our people, though poor to the point of breaking, can still defend their independence. Look at Vietnam. How is it that the mighty United States of America is so helpless when trying to impose her will on a nation of poor peasants? If America cannot eat up Vietnam, how can India dream of eating up Bangladesh?
True to his words, and immediately after his return from Pakistan on 10 January 1972, Mujib impressed upon Indira Gandhi to withdraw India’s troops from Bangladesh, which India did on 15 March 1972. This paved the way for the US and the bulk of the European countries, including Australia, Canada and Japan, to recognize Bangladesh, while the new-born country wasted no time to join the Non-Aligned Movement in 1973.
Against Colonialism and Racialism
The Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, flagged the idea that violence can be subjective, symbolic and systemic. Subjective violence (that is, ‘violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent’) is visible and therefore catches the greater attention from scholars, media, policymakers, and activists. On the other hand, symbolic violence (one that is ‘embodied in language’) and systemic violence (the ‘catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems’) are invisible and therefore attract the attention of very few, although the latter two are instrumental, particularly systemic, in reproducing subjective violence in the first place. Sheikh Mujib, interestingly, not only detested, what Zizek called, ‘subjective violence’ but also detested ‘symbolic and systemic violence’, which came in the form of colonialism and racialism. While speaking to the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Ottawa on 3 August 1973, Mujib categorically pointed out:
Those who even today are struggling to vindicate their right of self-determination and their basic human rights in South Africa, Rhodesia, Namibia, Angola, Mozambique and other parts of Africa against the forces of colonialism and racialism, must have support from all those who value human freedom. We are pledged by our constitution to support the just struggle of all oppressed people against colonialism and racialism.
There are good reasons to believe that Mujib saw systemic violence feeding into subjective violence from his own experiences in British India and post-partition Pakistan, both of which he considered ‘colonial’, immensely oppressive, and demeaning to the life of humans. In the same light, Mujib wanted the international community to declare the Indian Ocean region as a ‘Zone of Peace’. This is because if it remains ‘a cockpit of contending power from outside this region’, implying the presence of ‘symbolic and systemic’ violence of the superpowers, no peace could be achieved.
South Asia as ‘an Area of Peace’
On several occasions, Mujib raised his concern about the conflict-ridden South Asia and the need to overcome it. In many ways, Mujib laid the ideological foundation of what later came to be known as SAARC or the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. In a speech at the banquet given in his honour by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in Kolkata (India) on 6 February 1972, Mujib laid down the vision for peace in South Asia:
It is my earnest hope that there will at last be peace and stability in the subcontinent. Let there be an end, once for all, to the sterile policy of confrontation between neighbours. Let us not fitter away our national resources but use them to lift the standard of living of our people. History will not forgive us if we fail in this challenging task. In a world torn by distrust and friction, achievement of peace and stability in this region can be a model for others. I have no doubt in my mind that together we will make a valuable contribution to the promotion of world peace.
But Mujib did not stop there. He took his vision to the UN and spoke of a newer South Asia in September 1974:
Consistent with our own total commitment to peace, we have striven to promote the process of reconciliation in our own sub-continent. It was our firm belief that the emergence of Bangladesh would materially contribute towards creating a structure of peace and stability in our subcontinent and that the confrontation and strife of the past could be replaced by relations of friendship and cooperation for the welfare of all our peoples.
Peace in South Asia has still not materialized; India and Pakistan are still at loggerheads. Yet the vision for realizing peace in South Asia had been laid down, as early as 1972. And there lies the far-sightedness of Mujib in advocating the ‘togetherness’ of South Asia and promoting peace in the region.
In lieu of a conclusion
Leaders go through ups and downs in their lives just as ordinary citizens do. But what distinguishes leaders from ordinary citizens is the vision that they inculcate in the minds of people. Mujib is an extraordinary example of such a leadership! But in his case, there is more to this than meets the eye. Though the state of Pakistan incarcerated him for more than 12 years, it failed to arrest his vision and the perseverance to attain it. Even when Bangladesh was in a dire situation, Mujib reminded the world about the resolve of his people ‘to live in freedom and with dignity as free citizens of a free country’, and with the thirst for a better future. In this context, one cannot help recollecting Bangabandhu’s words at the Brigade Parade in Kolkata on 6 February 1972:
The occupation army had ravaged my country. Three million people were killed by them. They killed intellectuals, educationalists and scientists and dishonoured my mothers and sisters. They looted all that we had. But our people fought as one man with iron determination and annihilated the beastly strengths of those hordes. And today with the same determination and confidence, the people of Bangladesh will build a Sonar Bangla on the ashes of these ruins.
Mujib certainly was aware that a prosperous Bangladesh or Sonar Bangla can never be attained in isolation, particularly with the region and the world in a state of perpetual conflict. Global peace is otherwise intrinsically related to the well-being of the people. Bangabandhu is no longer with us today, but his vision for global peace, with its foundation in the age-old civilizational quest of the people of Bangladesh, is bound to ignite imaginations for centuries. Younger generation of people can certainly take cue from it and engage themselves in contemporarising Sonar Bangla and making the Bangladesh Dream a reality!
Dr. Imtiaz Ahmed professor of International Relations University of Dhaka
This piece is an extract from the author’s article in the book, Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: Birth Centenary Volume, edited by HPM Sheikh Hasina (2022)