‘Prison Diaries’ could have been recommended as mandatory for school and college libraries in India, because of New Delhi’s involvement in the liberation war in 1971.
New Delhi: Bangladesh’s most popular independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s book, Prison Diaries, hit the stands in Dhaka in 2017—a pity the tome did not flood the Indian markets. Now, reprints of the book are flooding the market in India, ostensibly because Bangladesh is celebrating the birth centenary of its first Prime Minister. Rahman’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, is the current Bangladesh PM and wrote a foreword.
Wrote Hasina: “Independent Bangladesh is the outcome of immense hardships and sacrifices Bangabandhu had made throughout his life. Through reading these diaries the people of Bangladesh will be able to discover the frontier-head of their independence. My mother inspired my father to write. Every time he was in prison, my mother would purchase notebooks for him and ensure that they reached him there. Whenever he was freed from prison, she would collect the notebooks and preserve them carefully. If she did not have such foresight we would not have been able to present these valuable writings to the nation. Bangabandhu was confident that his people would be free, and the self-belief was so sturdy that it could even be seen in his write-ups. I don’t know if any leader of the world was ever so confident about ensuring independence of any nation like Bangabandhu.”
Ideally, the book, which was published a few years before his birth centenary, should have crossed the borders. It could have been recommended as a mandatory read for school and college libraries in India, ostensibly because of New Delhi’s involvement in the liberation war in 1971. But it did not happen. Publishers from Bangladesh rarely travel beyond Kolkata; they have their own theories of not plugging their books in other markets in India. Probably no one told them there is a large section of Bengalis who live outside Kolkata.
But before one opens Prison Diaries, it is important to understand the aftermath of the birth of Bangladesh. I found a note from the January 1972 edition of the Time magazine:
“In the aftermath of the Pakistani army’s rampage last March, a special team of inspectors from the World Bank observed that some cities looked like the morning after a nuclear attack. Since then, the destruction has only been magnified. An estimated 6,000,000 homes have been destroyed, and nearly 1,400,000 farm families have been left without tools or animals to work their lands. Transportation and communications systems are totally disrupted. Roads are damaged, bridges out and inland waterways blocked. The rape of the country continued right up until the Pakistani army surrendered a month ago. In the last days of the war, West Pakistani-owned businesses—which included nearly every commercial enterprise in the country—remitted virtually all their funds to the West. Pakistan International Airlines left exactly 117 rupees ($16) in its account at the port city of Chittagong. The army also destroyed bank notes and coins, so that many areas now suffer from a severe shortage of ready cash. Private cars were picked up off the streets or confiscated from auto dealers and shipped to the West before the ports were closed.
“And then, slowly yet steadily, a new nation—Bangladesh—rose from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix, a giant bird associated with the Sun.”
Elaborate plans to celebrate the birth centenary of Rahman are in place, though there are chances that the celebrations could get delayed because of the pandemic wreaking havoc all across Bangladesh. Rahman lives in the thoughts and minds of millions of people across Bangladesh. At the ever-crowded Dhaka University, scores of students sit barefoot on grass sketching Rahman. The prize for one sketch ranges between 500-700 Taka.
Prison Diaries highlights the dreams of Rahman, the nation’s biggest independence leader who was brutally assassinated on 15 August 1975 at his Dhanmondi residence by a group of young Bangladesh Army personnel as part of a coup d’etat. The tome explains how in jail and even after getting released, only to be arrested time and again, Rahman did not compromise with his values and continued with his protests. Pages after pages are all about Rahman’s struggles inside various prisons of East Pakistan and also in the Lyallpur and Mianwali prisons in West Pakistan. Rahman was sentenced to death but his execution was deferred on three occasions.
The book explains why Rahman was punished time and again. Rahman writes lucidly that repeated arrests did not break him and could not make him stop from believing his morals and values. Rahman claims in his book that he wanted to create a niche in politics and wanted to fight for an independent nation. In many ways, the book bears testimony to his enduring love and infatuation for Bangladesh and Bengalis.
Rahman explains why life in prison is different from life at home. The iron bars of the prison reminded him time and again about the brutal plans of the East Pakistan government, ably supported by the West Pakistan government. Wrote Rahman: “Those who have not been to jail, those who have not experienced life in jail, do not know what jail is.”
The book, it is a 332-page tome, includes the historical description of Rahman’s prison life from 1966-68, which is almost one-fifth of his life. Rahman meticulously penned his daily political and other activities of his time. What is interesting is that the Pakistan government seized six diaries when Rahman was released from a jail in Pakistan. However, four of the diaries were returned later. And then, eventually, Hasina recovered the remaining two diaries when her party, Awami League, came to power.
Prison Diaries highlights the daily life of Rahman in various jails. It says it was in the year 1966 that Rahman presented the much-talked about Six Point Demand and in the first three months of that year, he was arrested for a record eight times.
Rahman wrote in the book how he used to listen to the songs of other prisoners in jail, took part in gardening, and planted many rose plants. Rahman had an eye for detail, he once wrote about a chicken who died inside the jail. “The chicken had some kind of seriousness in its way of walking.”
Rahman also wrote about the birds inside the jail, especially crows which would often disturb him. But Rahman did not disturb the birds. “It was the breeding time for the crows. Where would they go if I destroy their nests?” The book vividly portrays the tumultuous political condition of Bangladesh, position of Awami League, and the ruthless repression of the Pakistan government over the masses of East Pakistan.
Can the Indian bookstores get copies of this classy tome from next door Dhaka?