A transformational leader in the making

A transformational leader in the making

Bangabandhu was certainly a transformational leader who could challenge the status quo and think about the future. He could motivate and engage his followers with a vision of the future and remain pragmatic and flexible. But that did not mean he was opportunistic. Instead, he was upright in achieving his goal without being hot-headed. He could be innovative and think ‘out of box’, if needed.

He knew how to remain calm even in the height of a crisis and contribute towards conflict resolution. He could do this as he was a compassionate team-centric person whose basic intuitions about people’s aspirations and rights always proved to be right. A caring person from his boyhood, Sheikh Mujib was deeply connected with the problems of ordinary people of all walks of life.

His actions could, therefore, always inspire his co-leaders and followers to ‘dream more, learn more and become more’ (as pronounced by the 6th President of the US John Quincy Adams). Professor John Manor echoed this while giving a talk on ‘Understanding Bangabandhu’ on 10th April 2018 at SOAS, University of London. He said Sheikh Mujib was unique as he opted to go to to jail 22 times for his strong belief in his goal of ethics and freedom during his political career, which no other Father of the Nation could match. A transformational leader in the makingHe gave two examples of how Bangabandhu left room for negotiation of conflict resolution in that speech.

The first one relates to his globally recognised gem of a speech given on 7th March 1971. While he left no doubt in the minds of his followers that this was indeed a struggle for independence through guerrilla warfare, he never fell into the trap of ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI)’. He did this deliberately to avoid a massacre of thousands of the people who came to hear him as the enemy planes were hovering above the meeting ground and also to leave the door open for talks to reach an agreement without violence. The second example was his refusal to go into hiding on the evening of 25th March, 1971 when the genocide was launched by the Pakistan army. Again, he waited for the arrest after formally declaring the independence of Bangladesh in the early hours of 26th March, 1971 to minimise deaths and violence. While he asked all his co-leaders to leave Dhaka and start the war of liberation he remained available for negotiation for independence with his adversaries. Professor Manor finds in this a remarkable quality of remaining calm in the midst of a ‘perfect storm’ for achieving his goal through negotiations and avoiding violence. But he never bowed his head in both instances and came out bigger than himself in his steadfastness for a genuine cause. Indeed, he was never afraid for his life and always cared for his people.

This unique style of his leadership did not develop just in a day or two. This was well embedded in his leadership traits even during his early and full blown youth. Let me share with my readers two incidents which will support this style of his transformational leadership that has already been alluded to. One such example of his leadership and righteousness can be seen in the interview of his childhood friend Sheikh Shahadat Hossain.

In 1941, some Hindu students beat up a Muslim student in Public School in Gopalganj. The teachers didn’t take any action even after the students complained and after that they went to Mujib (a young student leader of 21 years working to achieve Pakistan under the banner of Muslim League) for help. Mujib went to the school and, after assessing the situation, called for the Muslim students to boycott classes and gather in the field. Once the students were out of their classes and gathered peacefully, he went to the headmaster to say that there would be a new school for Muslim students starting the following day since they were not feeling secured.

The headmaster Narendranath Das Gupta was a highly respected teacher and simply could not imagine that such a thing could happen in his school. The students were also highly respectful to him. Even then he was surprised to see how Mujib, a student from another school, could mobilise them within such a short period of time. The headmaster then visited Mujib’s house and talked to his father. Mujib was always very polite and well-behaved to him and resolved the matter in that meeting. Mujib always believed that students were like their children to teachers. This story has been narrated by Shahadat Hossain from Tungipara who used to know Bangabandhu closely. (See Alam Talukder, ‘Bangabandhu Ajana Addhay’, “Unknown facts about Bangabandhu’, Janata Prokash, Dhaka, 2011, page 122).
Bangabandhu’s expulsion from Dhaka University is also a well-known story to many.

In his ‘The Unfinished Memoirs’, we can see Bangabandhu describing the events of the strike by the 4th class employees of the University.

After the partition of India and Pakistan, the University of Dhaka was the only university in East Pakistan. Yet, the 4th class employees of Dhaka University were largely underpaid. The employees had excess workload but a lot of the facilities they had before were being taken away from them by the government. The employees had told Sheikh Mujib, who was then a student of the university, about their problems. He suggested that the employees would have to unite to realise their demands. They formed a Union accordingly. Bangabandhu was travelling around the country for the language movement in 1949. When he returned to Dhaka, he heard that the employees were on a strike. Many students also went on strike to show their solidarity with the employees.

Bangabandhu also joined the strike. He also went to the Vice Chancellor on behalf of these employees. The higher ups had decided by then to fire all the employees who went on strike. Bangabandhu also met with the Vice Presidents of student unions of different halls and had asked them to persuade the Vice Chancellor to resolve the issue. Finally the Vice Chancellor said that if the employees stopped the strike and returned to their posts by the following day, he would consider their demands. They believed the Vice Chancellor’s words and most of them returned to their jobs. However, around 50 employees who received the news a little late or had other problems arrived after 12PM. And these employees were fired. The students and employees thought that this was unreasonable and, therefore, went to meet the VC again. However, the VC said that he meant that only the employees who would return by 11AM would be considered. It didn’t take long for Bangabandhu to understand that the VC was twisting his words because of political influence. He found it very distasteful that someone managing an educational institute would do something like this because of political pressure.

The students and employees continued with the strike. The next day, the university was announced closed until further notice and all students were forced to leave the halls. It became tough for them to continue the strike. Within a month the strike was weakened and many employees signed a bond and returned to their posts. Bangabandhu saw in the newspaper that 27 students along with him had been expelled from the university on charges of instigating the strike. However, with the exception of four students, they would be able to regain their studentship if they signed a bond and paid a fine. Sheikh Mujib was among these twenty three students. He, however, did not sign the bond or pay the fine because he knew he did not do anything wrong and he stayed strong in his moral grounds.

Bangabandhu knew it was important for the employees to unite if they wanted to achieve any results. From this incident we can also see that if Bangabandhu saw people facing injustice and exploitation, no matter who they were, he jumped to their aid. And he also had it in him to stick to his values and morals. This is why even when he had the option to return to university, he did not do so. This is what separated him from others and made him such a great leader. Not everyone can remain so strongly righteous even in the face of such circumstances. He was always ready to make a personal sacrifice for the broader public good. And this made him the unique transformational leader of his times, who always stood by the struggling people.

Dr. Atiur Rahman,
The writer is the Bangabandhu Chair Professor at Dhaka University, and former Governor of Bangladesh Bank.
Daily Sun, 14 April, 2020

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