A British university’s collaboration with the Bangladesh government on a meeting about Sheikh Mujib raises important issues.

LSE, Sheikh Mujib and the Bangladesh government David Bergman January 19, 2021

Screenshot taken from the LSE website advertising a talk, which will be held in collaboration with the Bangladesh High Commission

In a week’s time, on January 27th January, the South Asia Centre at the London School of Economics (LSE) is organising an event on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s independence leader, to mark his 100th birth anniversary, with eminent speakers including the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and the Bangladeshi economist Rehman Sobhan. 

The event, however, has been organised in collaboration with the High Commission of Bangladesh raising a question about the terms, conditions and context of this meeting. As one of the world’s leading academic institutions, LSE should be committed to ensuring freedom of expression and critical and constructive comment — but  it is unclear how this will happen when it is organising the meeting jointly with a government that has imprisoned people who criticise Sheikh Mujib, the very subject of the meeting.

In 1970, the Awami League won Pakistan’s elections and Mujib should by right have been the prime minister of the whole of the country. The West Pakistan establishment however refused to concede power and on the night of March 25th 1971, the Pakistani military initiated a violent crackdown in Dhaka, leading to  a nine month long massacre, a huge death toll, mass rapes and exodus of refugees. Mujib was arrested in Dhaka, taken to West Pakistan where he was imprisoned, and only released, after Pakistan’s military defeat.  In January 1972, Mujib returned home to a free but war ravaged Bangladesh, with a hero’s welcome. He led the country as president and then prime minister until his assassination and the murder of most of his family members by Bangladesh army officers in August 1975 as part of a coup which brought in years of military rule.

There is much positive to say about Mujib — from his role in Bangladesh’s independence, to how he managed to get a post-war nation back on its feet. But on the negative side, during his four years in power, there are allegations of serious human rights violations, negligence in dealing with a famine, the suppression of independent  media and the introduction of a one party state. Like all political leaders, his achievements are a curate’s egg.

The present Bangladesh government, however, does not allow any public discussion that shows the less glorious side of Mujib — who is also the prime minister’s father – instead only permitting a one-sided hagiographic portrayal. The Awami League has, in modern parlance, weaponised Mujib’s life for political gain, trying to legitimise and justify its own rule through a nostalgic and nationalist representation of him as an independence leader, omitting from consideration his much more patchy record as leader of the country’s first government. 

The current Bangladesh government certainly has a positive story to tell about the country with its continuing social and economic progress — and it is this  story which Awami League leaders seeks to link directly to Mujib in some kind of linear narrative that depicts Sheikh Mujib as the originator of the dream of a prosperous country which his daughter and the current prime minister Sheikh Hasina has now brought to fruition. The current Awami League government also seeks to cover itself in the glory that is undoubtedly attached to Sheikh Mujib as the country’s independence leader.

But there is also a far less positive story of contemporary Bangladesh. This one involves rigged elections, a suborned judiciary, a repressed opposition, systemic human rights violations including extrajudicial killings and disappearances and a highly censored media and social media environment leading to dozens of journalists and commentators being jailed. The current government of course denies this narrative — but this current reality can also be linked directly to the Mujib government’s repressive and anti-democratic policies of that time.

Indeed, in order to avoid mention of the negative side of the father of the prime minister, the Bangladesh government has gone so far as to pass a specific offence that criminalises anyone who undertakes “propaganda” against him, with a maximum sentence of ten years imprisonment. On second conviction, this sentence increases to life imprisonment. 

The term “propaganda” is not defined in the law and is broadly interpreted  by the police and government officials so that many people have been arrested and jailed for simple criticism or satire of Sheikh Mujib. In one case, a Facebook post which simply stated “Where and when will the special iftar mehfil [gathering to break the Ramadan  fast] for Mujib Year be held?” was given as a reason to arrest two men who were subsequently detained for months. Not long ago, the Bangladeshi publisher of a book on Mujib, written by the dissident writer Pinaki Bhattacharaya now living in France, was threatened with multiple criminal cases to stop him publishing it. The book was never published in Bangladesh.

The law has extraterritorial jurisdiction, so in theory any speaker at this LSE event, including those responding to the panellists or putting comments in a chat box, could be subject to the same risk of criminal charges if these were considered by Bangladesh police or government officials to constitute “propaganda”.

That should not be a reason to avoid having a panel on Mujib, but should raise questions about the appropriateness of holding such an event on this subject in collaboration with the Bangladesh government.  

The influence of the Bangladesh government over the event is not only suggested by the presence of the High Commissioner as a speaker and the apparent lack of a speaker with a critical perspective of Mujib  but also by the title of the event, “Bangabandhu & Visions of Bangladesh”. Bangabandhu  — a term not much known outside Bangladesh and parts of South Asia — means “Friend of Bengal” and was an honorific popularised by Mujib’s followers after his release on sedition charges following his imprisonment in the late 1960s. It is now a term that the Bangladesh government requires all institutions including the media to use, facing threats and harassment were they not to do so.  So whilst LSE probably used the title in deference to the government’s request, it should be aware that universities in Bangladesh, holding a similar talk, would have had no choice but to do so. 

In response to these points, Alnoor Bhimani, the Director of the South Asian Centre pointed out that the LSE has in recent years “provided a platform for a variety of critical discussions on Bangladesh.” He noted  that at a conference in June 2018, LSE had a panel discussion on the status of minorities in Bangladesh which was “open, frank, and clearly critical of ground realities in Bangladesh.” and has also held an exhibition of photographs of Shahidul Alam, a critic of the government.

In relation to the Mujib event, he said that it “will be looking at multiple ‘visions’ of Bangladesh, not just the view from the high commission.”

He added: “Hosting events with representatives from relevant diplomatic missions — to share knowledge and expertise — is normal practice at LSE. But we are clear that academic freedom and freedom of expression is non-negotiable and underpins everything we do. LSE’s students, staff and visitors are encouraged to openly discuss and debate pressing — and sometimes controversial — issues in a mutually respectful manner.”

Let us hope that he is right, and the event will allow a consideration of a more complex history of Mujib, rather than —  through its collaboration with the Bangladesh High Commission —  the Bangladesh government’s narrative. It must also consider Bangladesh’s  other trajectory involving a move towards the repressive and authoritarian state of today, and when and how its foundations were laid, some of which were arguably in Mujib’s period itself●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.