The prisoners were in a bus, on their way to the court. They were accused of a very serious crime: sedition. If proven guilty, death penalty seemed inevitable. Nevertheless, in such a grave situation, the so called Accused # 1 – Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – told the co-accused to sing a song. And hence everybody sang along:
Emon deshti kothao khuje pabe na ko tumi
Shokol desher rani shejey amar jonmo bhumi…
Such was the patriotic spirit and fearlessness of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He and 34 others were accused of plotting a plan to overthrow the government. The historic trial, that sparked a mass uprising, was called State versus Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Others, better known as Agartala Conspiracy Case.
Dr Shamsul Alam (a co-accused, who served in the army and was also a cultural activist) and Sheikh Mujib shared a room as prisoners in Dhaka Cantonment. The court too, was in that area. When he entered the room, he was introduced to Mujib. Of course, he already knew who this legend was. But it was the first time he met Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in person.
As a cellmate, Dr Shamsul Alam got a glimpse of how Sheikh Mujib was as a prisoner – and as a person. By then, Sheikh Mujib was an 'experienced' prisoner, having been arrested frequently and having spent a lot of time behind bars.
Sheikh Mujib was very welcoming and compassionate. He tried to make Dr Alam's stay comfortable. Mujib shared his suitcase with him, which had bed sheet, pillow case, lungi, thread and needle, etc. – things that would make prison life a little bearable.
The presence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was indeed overwhelming. “There was no sign of fear in him. A case was going on, where we could be hanged till death or shot at the firing squad. But he seemed unruffled,” Dr Alam reflected in an interview in the book, Agartala Mamlar Onucharito Etihash O Shaheed Sergeant Zahurul Haque (Untold History of Agartala Case & Shaheed Sergeant Zahurul Haque).
And he instilled that courage in others too, assuring that if he gets out, they will too, and that there is nothing to be afraid of.
Sheikh Mujib also didn't like the food there, and asked Dr Alam what he could do about it. Eventually, Dr Alam managed a stove (the guards and those in charge there highly respected Mujib) and made dal, bhorta, etc.
Whenever Dr Alam's family came to visit, his little daughter used to rush to their room, and Sheikh Mujib, who called her Putul, used to take her in his lap and say that he would keep her company while Dr Alam talked to his wife.
June 19, 1968 was the first day of the trial. At one point, Sheikh Mujib tried to draw the attention of a journalist in the court. But the journalist decided it would not be a good time to speak to him then. He whispered, “Mujib bhai, we can't talk. There are intelligence people all over the place.” The infuriated Mujib blasted out, “Anyone who wants to live in Bangladesh will have to talk to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.”
The people of East Pakistan demanded the release of their leader and the co-accused whilst politics in West Pakistan grew grave, as Yahya Khan, who had replaced Ayub, called a roundtable conference to resolve the issue. He also needed Sheikh Mujib to participate in it, but that won't happen if he was in prison. He would only attend if all the accused are released and the case is withdrawn, came the demand.
Outside the cantonment, a revolution was in place. And the murder of Sergeant Zahurul Haque (one of the accused) added fuel to fire. Students and common people took to the streets: “Agartala mitha mamla tuley nau! (lift the lie that is the Agartala case)”
The inmates were tortured to the extent beyond what you and I can even imagine.
The court became a circus as the witnesses refused to cooperate. One said that after the beating he had been through, he would even confess that chicken has one leg, not two; whilst another, when asked to identify Sheikh Mujib, pointed at Sergeant Zahurul Haque!
Rumours of Mujib's release swept over the country. On 22 February, 1969 the case was withdrawn, with the release of the accused.
On 23 February, 1969 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman stood in front of a mammoth crowd. And it was then and there he was honoured with the title, Bangabandhu.
The Friend of Bengal had emerged.
Source: Agartala Mamlar Onucharito Etihash O Shaheed Sergeant Zahurul Haque (Untold History of Agartala Case & Shaheed Sergeant Zahurul Haque).