This chapter investigates the evolution and utilization of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s image and ideology, termed “Mujibism,” as a populist tool in Bangladesh’s political landscape. Through a detailed examination of two distinct periods, the chapter elucidates how Mujib’s persona and the concept of Mujibism have been harnessed to foster a specific brand of populism, referred to here as “memorial populism.”

The first period under scrutiny spans from the independence struggle culminating in the 1971 Liberation War to Mujib’s assassination in 1975. During this time, Mujib was celebrated as the quintessential leader of the new nation, embodying the will and spirit of the Bengali people. His leadership style and the cult of personality surrounding him were instrumental in the nation’s fight for independence and its immediate aftermath. However, internal conflicts, governance challenges, and a devastating famine in 1974 eroded his and his party’s popularity, leading to a brief experiment with one-party rule before his assassination.

The second period begins with the return to democracy in 1991 and extends to the contemporary era under the leadership of his daughter, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Here, the chapter explores how Mujib’s legacy has been revived and reconstituted as a central ideological pillar of the Awami League’s populist strategies. This period is characterized by a strategic rearticulation of Mujib’s memory to legitimize political authority and foster an antagonistic narrative against perceived enemies of the nation, such as the opposition parties and their allies.

By analyzing these periods, the chapter introduces the concept of memorial populism, where the past is selectively remembered and instrumentalized to serve contemporary political needs. It discusses how Mujib’s image has been transformed into an “empty signifier,” a term borrowed from Ernesto Laclau, representing a set of ideals that can be molded to fit current political contexts. This chapter contributes to the broader discourse on populism by highlighting how historical figures and events are repurposed to create a unified national identity and sustain political power.

This chapter is published in the edited volume Claiming the People’s Past: Populist Politics of History in the Twenty-First Century, which is part of CUP’s publication series ‘Metamorphoses of the Political: Multidisciplinary Approaches’.

Read the chapter.