Sheikh Russel: A Tale of Imprisonment Before He Could Turn Seven

Sheikh Fazilatunnesa Mujib, the beloved wife of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, said angrily in the middle of 1966, “The detectives tailed the father not before he was 28, but his son was followed when he was just one and half years old.”

The context was- Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested at the late of night on May 8, 1966 under the Pakistan Defense Act. The allegation was serious- by providing six points of autonomy, he was practically trying to establish a state of Bengalis by dividing Pakistan into two. This was not the first time he got arrested. But, after announcing those six points, Pakistan authority became desperate to restrain him. At first, he was imprisoned without trial. Later, Agartala Conspiracy Case was filed and he was made the main accused in the sedition case. To meet a political prisoner, permission from the jail authority and the district administration was required. After applying for the permission, the detectives would inquire about the visitor. And after listening to the disrespectful questions about a one and half year-old child, his distressed mother made this remark- “Those detectives are inquiring about a one and half year old child!”

But even then, it was beyond her imagination that Russel would be imprisoned in less than five years. His father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was still a prisoner. However, unlike in previous times, he was arrested in the early hours of March 26, 1971 for the declaration of independence of Bangladesh. A few days later, he was taken to ‘another state, Pakistan’. Sheikh Russel was detained along with his mother, two sisters, elder brother-in-law and elder (Mejo) brother Sheikh Jamal at a house on Dhanmondi Road No. 18. His elder brother Sheikh Kamal joined the Liberation Army formed by the Mujibnagar government immediately after 25 March. Within a few days, Shiekh Jamal also left the house unespied by the heinous Pakistan Military and went to the battlefield to become a proud member of the liberation army. Sajib Wazed Joy, the first child of Russel’s elder sister Sheikh Hasina, was born in that time, when she was a prisoner in this house.

How was that life in captivity? About this, Sheikh Hasina has written in her writeup ‘Amader Chotto Russel Shona’, “Even little Russel is also living the life of a prisoner. Not enough food. No toys, no books, the suffering was beyond comprehension for that little kid. We used to get no news of our father in that time of captivity. Didn’t know where he was, how he was. In the beginning, Russel used to cry a lot for our father. Moreover, his beloved brother Kamal was not there; and that was painful for him.” [Itihasher Mohanayak, Page 21]

Sheikh Hasina has written, “They arrested our father in the early hours of 26 March. The next day, they attacked our home. Our mother and brother Jamal took shelter in the house next door with Russel… My mother was captured by the Pakistani invaders. [Page 21]

Sheikh Fazilatunnesa Mujib has 'seen' the prison many times to meet her husband. But, in 1971, she could not meet her imprisoned husband in the prison of Pakistan. Till 1954, Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Kamal used to accompany her in this prison ‘seeing’. In 1958, another two names were included in this list- Sheikh Jamal and Sheikh Rehana. Sheikh Russel’s first prison ‘seeing’ was on 8 May 1966, after his father got arrested.

Sheikh Russel was born on October 16, 1964. At that time, Bangabandhu was the General Secretary of East Pakistan Awami League. He was the Minister of East Pakistan for two terms in 1954 and 1956. In 1954 he was elected a member of the East Pakistan Legislative Assembly. In 1955, he was elected a member of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, which was responsible for the formulation of the constitution for Pakistan. On 6 October 1956, martial law was imposed in Pakistan, and the East Pakistan Legislative Assembly and the Central Legislative Assembly of Pakistan were abolished by military decree. Along with many other political leaders and activists, East Pakistan Awami League General Secretary Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was put into prison.

Soon after the establishment of Pakistan, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was identified as a 'dangerous person for the state'. He went to jail in 1948 for organizing a movement to establish Bangla among the state languages. He spent two terms in prison in 1949 - the first time, for more than two months, the second time for about two and a half years. He faced prison life again after the dissolution of the United Front government in 1954. And then again in October 12, 1956. But he was indomitable. He was offered release from prison in exchange of a bond signing – “I will not involve myself in politics”. This temptation was always in front of him shoved by the Bengali-hating Muslim League rulers of Pakistan. The military ruler Ayub Khan tempted him to be appointed as the governor of East Pakistan or any other state post of his choice. He rejected those all without hesitation. Not only was he a determined person, but he got all kids of cooperation and support from his wife. While in prison in 1950, his said something that he would remember for the rest of his life- “I am not disheartened you being in jail, but please look after your health.” [Oshomapto Atmojiboni, Page 191]

By then, Bangabandhu was determined to establish ‘Bangladesh’ for the Bengalis. He was roaming the streets of Bengal to make the people aware and organized. The support from his wife only strengthened his stance manifolds. Shortly after his arrest during the military rule in 1956, an officer of the Dhaka Central Jail commented on Bangabandhu- “This prisoner is not frightened. He inspired the activists to commence whispering campaign against the military rule. He also stated that, the purpose of military rule was to turn East Pakistan into a colony of West Pakistan.” [Intelligence report, Volume V, Page 29]

After being arrested this time, Begum Mujib saw him on 28 November. She told her husband that- “Our house in Shiddheswari is surrounded by jungle. Difficult to get clean water. Mosquitoes and flies were swarming the house. I am trying to shift the house, but everyone is frightened. They don’t want to rent their house to Sheikh Mujib’s family.” [Intelligence report, Volume V, Page 179]

He always said that he was prepared to endure any hardship for the sake of Bengalis. In a letter to Shaheed Suhrawardy on 14 June 1952, Bangabandhu wrote- “Please don’t think for me. I have born to suffer.” [Intelligence report, Volume II, Page 239]

Since May 1966, Sheikh Russel went to the Dhaka Central Jail times after times to meet his imprisoned father. Bangabandhu has described all these encounters in his book ‘Karagarer Rojnamcha', filling our eyes with tears. On July 6, 1966, he wrote, “My kids want to see where I live. I said, grow up, be a worthy human being. You will see.” [Page 150]

But, Sheikh Russel could never grow up. He could never know the place, where his father was imprisoned for the liberation and freedom of the Bengalis. On the morning of August 15, 1975, before celebrating his 11th birthday, he was brutally killed at his house No. 677, Dhanmondi Road No. 32. His life began in a room of this house, he spent the time of his captivity of 1971 in a house next to this, and this was the house where he was brutally killed with his parents and family members in a brushfire.

Growing up was not easy for Sheikh Russel. On the day of his birth, his father was at a public meeting in Chittagong. For the next few months, he was either out of the house for political activities, or put into jail for short periods. At the age of one and a half, his father became imprisoned. He was kept in Dhaka Central Jail and Dhaka Cantonment for almost three consecutive years. During that time, Begum Mujib had to sell her jewelry to meet various needs including running the household, paying for her children's education, and paying for the case. She got her elder daughter Sheikh Hasina married in this time, which was reported in the newspaper this way- “It was a joyless and unadorned program that marked the wedding ceremony of Sheikh Mujib’s eldest daughter.”

The student community and the mass people formed a strong movement to free Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from the Agartala conspiracy case. After his release, he was hailed as Bangabandhu. But soon after his release, a new struggle began. Bangabandhu continued to campaign all over Bangladesh for the general election of 7 December 1970. Where would he get time to spend some with his family members, with his little Russel? From the first day of March 1971, Bengalis’ fight for freedom reached a new height. Mass people joined in this war. The little Sheikh Russel was not left out of this danger either. He could have died at any moment after March 25. Dr. MA Wazed Mia wrote, “After the disappearance of Sheikh Jamal, the Army tightened their security at the house on Dhanmondi Road No. 18. The number of troops increased from one company to two. To guard the house, one company was deployed under the charge of a Punjabi Habildar and another company under a Pathan Habildar. Heavy machine guns were placed in the bunker made of sandbags on the roof of the house and medium-range machine guns were placed on the roof of the car garage. [Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibke Ghire Kichu Ghotona o Bangladesh, Page 91]

Was it in that time of captivity, when little Russel got to know- how desperately the Pakistani rulers tried to hang Bangabandhu? After listening to the news of the war in Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra or BBC, did anyone tell him that his two elder brothers were fighting like heroes in the battlefield to destroy the Pakistani aggressors? On 16 December 1971, the Pakistani aggressors surrendered unconditionally. It was not before the next day, 17 December, Sheikh Russel was released along with his mother and other family members. When the whole Bangladesh was roaring “Joy Bangla! Joy Bangabandhu!” along with the people of Dhanmondi, Road no. 18, one independent Russel also roared the same. On 10th January of the following year, Bangabandhu was released from the prison of Pakistan and returned to Bangladesh. Then he took the responsibility of the Prime Minister. He devoted himself to rebuilding this war-torn country. A 'new life' began for Sheikh Russel and his family members. But this new life was as ordinary as before, without any place for luxury or pride. Sheikh Russel would go to school with an ordinary bag on his back like any other kid. His home-tutor Gitali Dasgupta would come to teach every day, whose every word Russel used to obey like his teachers in University Laboratory School. She would read the biography of Gautam Buddha to Russel. Russel would stay up late at night for his father, who, after serving as the Prime Minister and returning from other work, listened to the question of the little kid- “Do you know the life story of Gautam Buddha? I have learnt it from Apa (Gitali Dasgupta). Buddha wanted the best for all people. You want the same. Don’t you?” Russel, who grew up in the affection of many, including his siblings, also experienced his mother's strict regulations. Dr. MA Wazed Mia wrote, “When it came to moving the family to the new Ganabhaban, my mother-in-law expressed her opinion against staying in the PM's residence. She explained that, if the children were brought up in the comfort of government facility, their mentality and behavior would be poisoned with egoism and snobbishness. They would be separated from their relatives and neighbors.” [Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibke Ghire Kichu Ghotona o Bangladesh, Page 174]

Nothing short of this was expected from the Mother of the Nation. And she brought up Sheikh Russel to live such a simple, unpretentious life just like her. Russel would go to watch the Abahani Sports Club football match with his elder brother Sheikh Kamal. If the team played well, he would roll on the field expressing his joy. If the team got defeated, his eyes would fill up with tears, he would stop taking food. He used to plant flowers in the yard, feed the pigeons and ride bicycle. Even though it was crammed, he loved living with his family members in their little home. He would go to Ganabhaban and fish in the lake with a fishing rod. Above everything, there was his desire fueled by his spirited childhood to spread his wings of dreams in the sky and fly high. But his life was stopped before he was even eleven years old. He could never see, how his elder sister Sheikh Hasina created endless possibilities for the development of countless children like him. Educational institutes are full with the footsteps of five Crore students. Poverty is on its way out. The door of education has been opened to all. Today, Bangladesh is becoming that Shonar Bangla, building which his father sacrificed his life. There is no shortage of food. The whole country is illuminated by the light of electricity. Though bicycle was Russel’s favorite vehicle, this Digital Bangladesh could even fulfill his dream of space travel. He could have driven over the Padma Bridge by car or train to his favorite village Tungipara in just three hours. His playmates of childhood are all grown up now. They wouldn’t swim in the Madhumati river anymore. But the changing scene of his village would fascinate him, no doubt. With fish, meat, vegetables and milk, food is abundant today. But alas! Today, In Bangabandhu's Bangladesh, he is deprived of enjoying the wonders of the world! Bangladesh will never forgive those betrayers responsible for wiping out this littlest light.