Following his return to Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s first statement to the international media was: “Gentlemen, as you can see, I am alive and well.” He was abducted by the Pakistan Army in the early hours of March 26, 1971 at the onset of Operation Searchlight, in an attempt to defeat Bangladesh’s struggle for independence. But Rahman’s foresight in delegating responsibilities to his trusted deputies and faith in the people ensured they would not only wage one of the fiercest wars for independence, but also ensure victory.
After Bangabandhu was released on January 8, 1972 from Pakistan, he wished to return to Dhaka immediately. But as Pakistani aircraft were banned in Indian airspace, Pakistan’s new President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had taken over from a disgraced General Yahya Khan, ordered that Rahman fly to Tehran or another ‘neutral’ location, not India.
He then decided to fly to London, where he addressed the world media in a sensational meet-and-greet at the Claridge’s Hotel.
After a brief stopover in Delhi to thank the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for her assistance to the Bangladesh cause throughout the Liberation War, he finally returned home on 10 January, 1972, where millions of people lined up the streets of Dhaka to welcome him.
Upon his return, Bangabandhu delivered a speech on the same day at the Race Course (now Suhrawardy Udyan) outlining the principles upon which Bangladesh would function as a sovereign state.
“My Bangladesh is independent today, my life’s desire has been fulfilled today, people of my Bengal have been liberated today. My Bengal will remain free.
“In my state, in this Bangladesh, there will be a socialist system. There will be democracy in this Bangladesh. Bangladesh will be a secular state.
“Together we will build a new and prosperous Bengal. The people of Bengal will be happy again, live life merrily and breathe freely in an open atmosphere,” he had said.
London-based Indian diplomat Sashanka Banerjee, who was deputed to accompany Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as an officer on special duty on the flight, recalls latter’s journey from London to New Delhi and then to Dhaka, a report by Ashis Ray
51 years ago on January 10, a British Royal Air Force Comet aircraft flying from London carrying Sheikh Mujibur Rahman landed in Delhi to a remarkable reception at Palam Airport. The entire Indian cabinet led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was on the tarmac to receive him. It was the climax of a co-operation between India and the freedom fighters in former East Pakistan – a territory that had now become Bangladesh.
On December 16, 1971 – our patriotic and valiant freedom fighters with strong support of Indian armed forces and back up of former Soviet Union liberated Pakistan’s eastern wing and obtained the surrender of 93,000 Pakistani servicemen from generals to foot soldiers. Two days before his descent on Delhi or January 8, under irresistible international pressure, Pakistan was compelled to release Mujib, who had been incarcerated in West Pakistan for nine months and sentenced to death for allegedly waging war against Pakistan.
London-based Indian diplomat Sashanka Banerjee, who was deputed to accompany Mujib as an officer on special duty on the flight, recalled, “After about an hour of small talk, ‘Bangabandhu’ stood up and started singing ‘Aamar Shonaar Bangla, Aami Tomaye Bhalobashi’ (Oh my golden Bengal, I love you dearly). I was seated next to him, and as he started singing, I too stood up as he did. Mujibur Rahman asked me to join him in singing the song with him, which I did.”
He went on: “At the end, he turned towards me and asked what I thought of the song. I had understood that Mujib wanted the song to be the national anthem or ‘jaatiyo sangeet’ of Bangladesh. Who could deny that it was a beautiful song fit to be the Jaatiyo Sangeet of Bangladesh. ‘You are right’, he said, ‘that was what I was thinking too.
Good then, that will be the song that will be the national anthem of Bangladesh’.” Composed by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in the first decade of the 20th century, it was duly adopted as such.
After arriving in the Indian capital, Mujib rested for a while before formal discussions with Gandhi. Banerjee informed the Prime Minister that Mujib desired withdrawal of Indian forces from Bangladesh be advanced to March 31 from June 30. She, according to Banerjee, asked him to communicate back to Mujib that this be officially mentioned at the ensuing meeting. This Mujib did bring up, and she immediately accepted the request.
British Prime Minister Edward Heath was holidaying in the country when Mujib was flown from Rawalpindi to London. He quickly returned to his official residence-cum-office at 10 Downing Street to meet him. The talks lasted about an hour and Mujib asked Britain to recognise Bangladesh. Following this, Heath told the House of Commons: “We would do our utmost to help Bangladesh in the present situation.” Less than a month later, the United Kingdom announced the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Dhaka.
After spending a few hours in Delhi, Sheikh Mujib returned home to a tumultuous welcome. Banerjee’s eye-witness account portrayed: “Over a million people had gathered to receive the Bangladesh leader at the Ramna Maidan, echoing slogans of ‘Joy Bangabandhu, Joy Bangla’. Raising his very masculine voice, Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal) declared standing on the podium: ‘My countrymen, rejoice. Bangladesh is now a sovereign, independent nation’.”
The foreign admirers of the Father of the Nation ranged from political leaders to military commanders, bureaucrats, journalists, rights activists and missionaries.
"In the history of struggles, he (Sheikh Mujib) will certainly be recalled along with Lenin, Rossalinburg, Gandhi, Nkruma, Lumumba, Castro and Allende," said life-long crusader and member of British House of Lords Fenner Brockway.
Sheikh Mujib had not only fought for the political independence of his people, but also struggled for the freedom of their economic and social life, according to Brockway.
Paying tributes to Bangabandhu, Lakshman Kadirgamar, the former foreign minister of Sri Lanka, said, "the people of Bengal might have had leaders in their history more intelligent, more learned, more eloquent, more dynamic than Sheikh Mujib.
But no other Bengali leader did more than him to forge for them a distinct cultural and political identity, to visualise and articulate for them the dream of independence and to lead them in a successful struggle to create a nation".
Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister of Pakistan, in an interview with Prof Muntasir Mamun said: "He (Mujib) was even ready to die on the question of principle. His murder, therefore, deeply shook us".
J N Dixit, a former Indian foreign secretary, said "Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's role in Indo-Bangladesh relations was governed by his undoubted sense of patriotism, his perceptions of Bangladesh's national interests and security and his calculations about the regional and international equations.”
Dixit's threadbare analysis of the "persona" of the leader reached the conclusion that all his policies and actions were aimed at protecting Bangladesh's interest.
"Mujib as the first head of government of Bangladesh was deeply imbued with a sense of Bangladesh's identity as a distinct socio-ethnic and political force in the sub-continent.
The Newsweek magazine dedicated the cover page of its April 5, 1971, issue to Bangabandhu, describing him as a "symbol of freedom."
In an article titled "poet of politics," it said: "Tall for a Bengali (he stands 5 feet 11 inches), with a touch of greying hair, a bushy moustache and black eyes, Mujib can attract a crowd of a million people to his rallies and hold them spellbound with great rolling waves of emotional rhetoric. He is a poet of politics".
The comments of the Cuban leader Fidel Castro on Bangabandhu which he made in the 1973 Non-aligned summit in Algiers, could be quoted to measure his height.
"I have not seen the Himalayas. But I have seen Sheikh Mujib. In personality and in courage, this man is the Himalayas. I have thus had the experience of witnessing the Himalayas".
The following lines from the personal diary (May 30, 1973) of Bangabandhu may give a glimpse of the great man that he was.
"As a man, what concerns mankind concerns me. As a Bangalee, I am deeply involved in all that concern Bangalees. This abiding involvement is born of and by love, enduring love, which gives meaning to my politics and to my very being".
The historic day will be observed today jubilantly across the country.
Anwar A. Khan is an
independent political observer who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs