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Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Bangladesh

Published : 16 Mar 2021 10:33 PM | Updated : 28 Sep 2021 05:52 PM

A charismatic leader, dedicated and committed to the cause of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu described his journey to a free Bangladesh as one “from darkness to light, from captivity to freedom, from desolation to hope’.  In Delhi, on 10 January, 1972, he also reiterated that he was going back to his independent country ‘not with hatred in my heart for anyone, but with the satisfaction that truth has at last triumphed over falsehood, sanity over insanity, courage over cowardice, justice over injustice and good over ill’.

Bangabandhu’s magnanimity and belief in the people of Bangladesh was reflected in his optimism. It was also this spirit that would inspire him to face up to the many difficulties that he would have to overcome in the coming months not only with regard to reconstruction of war devastated Bangladesh but also in being able to provide relief and rehabilitation to more than 10 million Bangladeshi refugees returning home from India. There was also the unfolding paradigm of the newly independent country’s engagement within the matrix of international affairs. He understood that these factors meant that he would have to tread this difficult path with care and sensitivity.

Bangabandhu, a statesman and a gifted orator, reflected this in his speech delivered on 10th January at Suhrawardy Uddyan. At this first opportunity, he warned that no one should ‘raise’ their ‘hands to strike against non-Bangalees’. At the same time, he displayed his concern for the safety of the ‘four hundred thousand Bangalees stranded in Pakistan’. While re-affirming that he harbored no ill-will for the Pakistanis, he was also clear in pointing out that ‘those who have unjustly killed our people will surely have to be tried’.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman played a critical role in overcoming 

obstacles, in unifying the war affected population and branding Bangladesh 

throughout the world. A pious person, who believed in non-communalism and 

was averse to sectarianism, he became through his foreign policy the symbol  

of successful secularism throughout the Islamic world.

He also appealed to the United Nations ‘to constitute an International Tribunal to enquire and determine the extent of genocide committed in Bangladesh by the Pakistani army.  Later, on 17 April, 1973, after the completion of investigations into the crimes committed by the Pakistan occupation forces and their auxiliaries, it was decided to try 195 persons for serious crimes, which included genocide, war crimes, crime against humanity and breach of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions- murder, rape and arson.

Bangabandhu took keen interest in foreign policy and encouraged the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to undertake initiatives not only for obtaining recognition of Bangladesh by other countries and in the establishment of diplomatic relations but also in Bangladesh becoming a member of important International Organizations.

Bangabandhu believed strongly in the sovereign equality of all nations and laid particular stress on the promotion of close cooperation with India in the fields of development and trade “on the basis of equality and mutual benefit”. It was this approach that led him eventually to persuade India to agree to the establishment of a Joint Rivers Commission. In the Joint Declaration of the Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and India on 19th March 1972 at Dhaka, there was also a reference to examining the feasibility of linking the power grids of Bangladesh with the adjoining areas of India. That is being achieved now.

Consistent with this principle of brotherly relations, Bangabandhu signed the historic “Land Boundary Agreement (LBA)” with the then Indian premier Indira Gandhi on May 16 in 1974 to settle the land boundary dispute between the neighbors. Bangladesh quickly ratified the agreement that year but India failed to do so. Indian Parliament however took 41 years to subsequently unanimously pass the LBA on May 7, 2015- thanks to the persuasion of Sheikh Hasina.

Similarly, Bangabandhu enacted “The Territorial Waters and Maritime Zones Act” to establish Bangladesh’s sovereign rights in the sea. The law was framed in 1974 when there was no such a law in most of the countries in the world. Nearly eight years after the enactment of “The Territorial Waters and Maritime Zones Act” by Bangabandhu, the United Nations (UN) framed “The UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS)” in 1982.

This vigorous effort enabled us to move forward in the arena of international relations very quickly. By 26 March, 1972, when we were celebrating our first anniversary of independence, 54 countries from Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America had already recognized Bangladesh (as opposed to less than 10 before his return to Bangladesh). It took time for the USA to accord recognition- it came about near the middle of 1972.

Within a short time after that, Bangladesh became a member of the Non-Aligned Group, the Commonwealth, the ILO and the WHO and started playing an important role in the diplomatic arena. We obtained the status of Observer in the United Nations but were however unable to become a Member because of the veto power of China (a close ally of Pakistan). This was particularly disappointing for Bangabandhu as he held China with great respect and often recalled his own visit to that country in 1956.

This smooth process of transition was however considered incomplete because of the stubborn decision by some countries not to recognize Bangladesh. The players in this short list included Pakistan and some of her major friends- the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, People’s Republic of China, Iran, Turkey and the then Libyan Arab Republic.

The number of States which recognized Bangladesh however increased sharply by the end of 1972. I believe this was largely due to the positive measures undertaken by Bangabandhu and also because of the fact that he was able to persuade India to withdraw its troops from the territory of Bangladesh.

Our not being a Member of the United Nations however did not deter Bangabandhu from seeking the humanitarian intervention of the then United Nations Secretary General Dr. Kurt Waldheim on 27 November, 1972 in arranging the repatriation to Bangladesh of innocent Bangalees detained in Pakistan in different camps. These efforts on the part of Bangabandhu and indirect pressure from Egypt, the then USSR, Afghanistan, India, Iraq and Japan led to the UN Secretary General Waldheim visiting Bangladesh on 9 February, 1973 to discuss with Bangabandhu how to help Bangladesh in its reconstruction efforts. This eventually led to the formation of the United Nations Relief Operations, Dhaka (UNROD) and subsequently United Nations Relief Operations Bangladesh (UNROB ) after we became a Member of the United Nations in 1974.

Bangabandhu with his foresight understood that the best way forward would be to seek the direct support of Egypt, Iraq and Syria, whose leaders were significant in terms of the Arab League and the OIC whose headquarters was in Cairo, Egypt and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia respectively.

The necessary opportunity presented itself through the Egyptian- Syrian- Israeli war in 1973. Bangabandhu seized this opportunity to demonstrate Bangladesh’s active interest in supporting the efforts of Egypt and Syria viz-a-viz Israel. It was this insight on his part that led Bangladesh to proactively engage with Egypt and Syria in this war and to reaffirm that Israel should withdraw from Arab territories occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. This became a conscious principle of our foreign policy.

This courageous step by Bangabandhu and Bangladesh was greatly admired not only by Egypt and Syria but also by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan. This foresight on the part of Bangabandhu and friendly gesture eventually led the King of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Algeria and Syria to exercise their influence on the OIC and Pakistan to not only invite Bangladesh to participate in the OIC Summit held in Lahore in February, 1974 but also for Pakistan to recognize Bangladesh on a reciprocal basis.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman played a critical role in overcoming obstacles, in unifying the war affected population and branding Bangladesh throughout the world. A pious person, who believed in non-communalism and was averse to sectarianism, he became through his foreign policy the symbol of successful secularism throughout the Islamic world.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Distinguished Fellow, Bangla Academy, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance