On 21 October 1955 the Awami Muslim League dropped the word ‘Muslim’ from its name at a special council to detach, in parts, from the Muslim League and also to open to all communities by appealing to Hindus, non-Muslims and secularist within the province. Sheikh Mujib was re-elected as General Secretary of the party, a post that he held until 1966 when he became president of the party. He was also elected to the second Constituent Assembly of Pakistan and served from 1955 to 1958. He worked for the cabinet of Ataur Rahman Khan briefly from 1956 and was in charge of Industries, Commerce, Labour, Anti-corruption and Village Aid Ministry but resigned in order to devote himself to the task of taking the Awami League party to grassroots level and work full-time.
A charismatic organiser, Sheikh Mujib had established his firm control over the party. He had the mettle to revive the Awami League in spite of the fact that his political guru, HS Suhrawardy, was in favour of keeping political parties defunct and work under the political amalgam called National Democratic Front.
Sheikh Mujib was a pragmatic politician. In the Pakistan state, he appeared as the undaunted advocate of the Bengali interests from the start. He was among the first language prisoners. However, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman grew in political eminence in the early 1960s. Through his organising ability Mujib was able to salvage the Awami League from a series of defections and exit of various factions from the mainstream party. He reorganised the Awami League and put it on a firm foundation.
It happened to be the same time that Pakistan’s last governor general Iskander Mirza, the instigator of the first military coup d’état in the Pakistan’s history, imposed martial law on 7 October 1958 and banned all political activities throughout the provinces. In a bid to suppress any possible threat, politicians including Sheikh Mujib were arrested throughout the week in a bloodless coup, the latter being held on 11 October 1958.
A brief rule of Iskander Mirza ended as he himself got ousted two weeks later by his appointed chief martial law administrator (CMLA) General Ayub Khan. General Ayub assumed the Presidency of Pakistan on 29 October 1958 and exiled Mirza to United Kingdom, where he died six years later.
A number of political prisoners arrested by the brief Mirza rule were set free after General Ayub assumed control, but Sheikh Mujib was not one of the released and was held in jail for over 14 months. On his release in late 1959, he was arrested again from the jail gate.
While the Awami League claims to be an All-Pakistan party it has been primarily based in the Eastern Wing and its success in the West is still limited. The Awami League leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, gave a new turn to Pakistan politics when he put forward a six-point program which would allocate maximum power to the province, and at the same time reduce the strength of the Central government. The entire weight of the party was thrown in favour of the anti-Ayub movement which spread throughout the country in the early months of 1969 and it is likely that the Awami League will play an even more active role in the future.
He was eventually released from jail after he won a writ petition in the High Court. Upon his release, Sheikh Mujib commenced underground political activities against the martial law regime of General Ayub Khan by setting up an organisation called "Swadhin Bangal Biplobi Parishad" (Independent Bangla Revolutionary Council) in 1961. This underground organisation was made up of talented and prolific student leaders working for the independence of Bangladesh. Much of Sheikh Mujib’s time during this period involved protesting against the measures introduced by General Ayub Khan, and he travelled to Lahore, Pakistan, on 24 September 1962 to join forces with Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy to form the National Democratic Front, an alliance of the opposition parties, with this objective in mind. He spent the entire month of October traveling across the whole of Bengal along with Huseyn Suhrawardy to drum up public support for the National Democratic Front.
However, their partnership wouldn’t last for much longer.
In 1963 Sheikh Mujib went to London to visit Huseyn Suhrawardy, who was there for medical treatment. Later that year, on 5 December 1963, Huseyn Suhrawardy died controversially in Beirut, Lebanon. It was left to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to revitalise the Awami League. On 25 January 1964 Sheikh Mujib re-established the Awami League during a meeting held at his residence. He was chosen as the General Secretary whilst Maulana Abdur Rashid Tarkabagish was elected as party president.
Few weeks later, on 11 March 1964, an All-Party Action Council was formed and Sheikh Mujib led a committee to resist communal riots. Following the riots he took the initiative to start a vigorous anti-Ayub movement and became one of the key leaders to rally opposition to President Ayub Khan's Basic Democracies plan, the imposition of martial law and the one-unit scheme, which centralized power and merged the provinces. He supported Fatima Jinnah, the then 71-year-old sister of the deceased Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s Father of the Nation, to contest against Ayub Khan as President of Pakistan. Two weeks before the election, the regime responded Sheikh Mujib’s outspoken support for Jinnah by arresting him under the public security act (PSA) on 18 December 1964. The government charged him with sedition and making objectionable statements. He was sentenced to a one-year jail term but was later released on an order of the High Court of Pakistan.
To do anything great, one has to be ready to sacrifice and show one's devotion. I believe that those who are not ready to sacrifice are not capable of doing anything worthy. To engage in politics in our country, one must be ready to make huge sacrifices to make our people happy.
During this period there was rising discontent in East Pakistan over the atrocities committed by the Pakistani Armed Forces against Bengalis and the neglect of the issues and needs of East Pakistan by the ruling regime. Despite forming a majority of the population, the Bengalis were poorly represented in Pakistan's civil services, police and military. There were also conflicts between the allocation of revenues and taxation.
Unrest over continuing denial of democracy spread across Pakistan and Sheikh Mujib intensified his opposition to the disbandment of provinces. On 5 February 1966 a national conference of the opposition parties was held in Lahore, Pakistan. During the conference Sheikh Mujib declared his six-point programme, calling it 'Our [Bengalis'] Charter of Survival', demanding greater self-government and considerable political, economic and defence autonomy for East Pakistan in a Pakistani federation with a weak central government.
Struck sharp at the roots of West Pakistani dominance, the six-point programme at once drew the attention of the nation. Though conservative elements of all political parties looked at it with consternation, it instantaneously stirred the younger generation, particularly the students, youth and working classes.
Shortly afterward, on 1 March 1966, Awami League elected Sheikh Mujib as the party’s president and he began touring the entire country to drum up support for his six point movement. However, during his tour he was arrested and harassed several times by police, particularly in Dhaka, Sylhet and Mymensingh.
During the first quarter of the year he was arrested eight times. On 8 May 1966, he was arrested again after his speech at a rally of jute mill workers in Narayanganj. A countrywide strike was observed on 7 June 1966 to demand the release of Bangabandhu and other political prisoners. Police opened fire during the strike and killed a number of workers in Dhaka, Narayanganj and Tongi.
Disturbed by the radical political views of Sheikh Mujib, in early 1968 Sheikh Mujib and 34 East Pakistani politicians and officers from both military and bureaucracy were accused by the Ayub Khan government of conspiring with Indian government agents in a scheme to divide Pakistan and threaten its unity, order and national security. A case, "State vs Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and others", was filed and became widely known as the Agartala Shoŗojontro Mamla (Agartala conspiracy case) as the main conspiracy was alleged to have taken place in the Indian city of Agartala in Tripura state (east of Bangladesh).
Sheikh Mujib was named accused number one in the case. The trial began on 19 June 1968 inside Dhaka Cantonment amidst tight security.
The Agartala case marked the rise, in meteoric manner, of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the spokesman of the Bangalis. His courage of conviction where his principles were concerned and an abundance of self-confidence were made clear in the early stages of the trial. When a western journalist asked him what he expected his fate to be, Mujib replied with characteristic unconcern: “You know, they can't keep me here for more than six months.” In the event, he was to be a free man in seven months time.
On the opening day of the trial, Mujib spotted before him, a few feet away, a journalist he knew well. He called out his name, only to find the journalist not responding, obviously out of fear of all those intelligence agents present in the room. Mujib persisted. Eventually compelled to respond, the journalist whispered, “Mujib Bhai, we can't talk here . . .” And it was at that point that the future Bangabandhu drew everyone's attention to himself. He said, loud enough for everyone to hear: “Anyone who wishes to stay in Bangladesh will have to talk to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.”
The arrest created a national outcry and large protests and strikes took place in East Pakistan. Many Bengali political and student groups added demands to address the issues of students, workers and the poor, forming a larger "Egaro Dofa Andolan" (11-point plan), which contained Sheikh Mujib’s original six points. The government caved to the mounting pressure, dropped the charged and on 22 February 1969 Vice Admiral A.R. Khan, Pakistan's defence minister, announced the unconditional withdrawal of the Agartala Conspiracy Case and the release of all accused.
From this point onwards, there was no stopping Mujib, except by confinement in jail. As Pakistani politics more and more became the preserve of the military, as the military conspired with a few West and East Pakistani politicians and bureaucrats to deprive Pakistan of democracy, and as the numerically superior Bengalis of East Pakistan found themselves increasingly thrust out of power, Mujib was in the thick of the action to wrest back the rights of his people through a secular, organized, and democratic movement, even as a succession of military generals attempted to rule Pakistan through martial law. In and out of jail in the latter half of the 1950s and throughout the 1960s, Mujib became convinced that Pakistan was a dead end for his people and that a way out of the clutches of the military-bureaucratic coalition that was ruling Pakistan at this time was needed urgently.
In his desperation, Mujib even thought of seeking the help of India. Karim suggests that it could have been his admiration for Subhas Bose that led Mujib to take a secret trip to Agartala in January 1963 where he met Satindranath Sinha, the Chief Minister of Tripura, to see if Indian assistance would be forthcoming for a separatist movement. But according to Sinha, whom Karim quotes without citing the source, Nehru was not interested and the trip was inconsequential. It is ironic, then, that it was for a trip to Agartola that he never took that the Pakistani government would try him for treason in what has come to be known as the Agartola Conspiracy case in 1967. Unfortunately for them, the effort at concocting a conspiracy backfired, for not only were they unable to sustain their case in front of the special tribunal that was set up for the purpose, they were also forced to release Mujib in the face of increasingly violent agitation against them in both wings of Pakistan. Indeed, the Pakistani dictator of the period, Ayub Khan, was forced to resign, and Mujib left the jail triumphantly in 22 February 1969, widely acknowledged by this time in his part of Pakistan as the man most suited to lead it forward to autonomy and prosperity.
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