Two old friends in the VVIP flight from London to Dhaka

Published : 11 Jan 2023 09:20 PM

Bangabandhu and Banerjee had an old friendship. Banerjee's full name is Shashank S Banerjee. He is a Bengali speaking Indian diplomat born in Kolkata. He was in Dhaka for five years in the early sixties. He was then the Political Secretary of the Indian Diplomatic Mission. The beginning of friendship was on 25 December 1962. His residence was in Chakraborty Villa, a building next to the daily Ittefaq office. After midnight, he was startled by a knock on the door. There were instructions from upstairs to move more cautiously to work in a province of Pakistan. Confused, he opened the door. A very polite boy of about fourteen greeted him. The Ittefaq editor Manik Miah has asked to go at once, unless he has any problem. After some time, he went to the nearby Ittefaq building. Manik Mia was introduced with Banerjee. There was no difficulty in recognizing the tall gentleman sitting next to him. He has been seen many times addressing large gatherings at Paltan Maidan. He used to see him almost every day on the pages of newspapers. He is no one else. He is the father of our nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Manik Mia and Bangabandhu called Banerjee that day to hand over a letter from Bangabandhu to the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. In the letter, he described an outline and roadmap for the liberation struggle of Bangladesh and appealed to the Indian government for support. After the two-hour-long meeting after midnight, they held two more meetings on this issue at the same time. He revealed these facts in the book "India, Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh Liberation and Pakistan" published in 2011.

The two friends have not seen each other for almost nine years. They met again on 9 January 1972 at Heathrow Airport when Bangabandhu was preparing to return home after being released from Pakistan jail. Seeing Banerjee, Bangabandhu hugged him and said, "Banerjee, are you here too?" Banerjee was then working at the Indian Mission in London. Banerjee was personally instructed by the then Prime Minister of India Mrs. Indira Gandhi to accompany Bangabandhu in the VVIP flight from London to Dhaka via Delhi. The Indian Prime Minister took this decision in consultation with Minister for Policy Planning in the Ministry of External Affairs Durga Das Dhar, Intelligence Chief Ramnath Kao, Foreign Secretary T.N. Kaul. Indira Gandhi was told that he was a former acquaintance and friend of Bangabandhu. He is the right person to be Bangabandhu's travel companion. He gave Banerjee a direction on what to discuss with Bangabandhu during the flight, which Banerjee describes in the book as an important political mission of his life. Apart from Bangabandhu and Banerjee, a First Secretary of the London Mission of the Indian Embassy and Dr. Kamal Hussain was on that historic VVIP special flight that day. Banerjee said in a YouTube blog that Indira Gandhi never called the architect of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujib, Mujibur Rahman or Sheikh Sahib. She always said 'Bangabandhu'.

Bangabandhu was supposed to return in a special Air India flight. That's how the preparation was going on. This was conveyed in the half-hour-long Mujib-Indira telephone dialogue. Later, Indira Gandhi spoke to British Prime Minister Edward Heath and arranged a military jet from the Royal Air Force for security reasons. Indira Gandhi later secretly informed Bangabandhu on telephone about the intention to change the plane. Banerjee's seat was next to Bangabandhu. Banerjee by the window, Bangabandhu by his side. First drink orange juice and laugh and joke. Both are looking forward to the successful implementation of each other's diplomacy. Bangabandhu started first. He whispered without hesitation, "I need a favor from you." Bangabandhu said, as soon as he got off the plane, it should reach Indira Gandhi's ears that she should withdraw the army troops from Bangladesh by March 31, 1972 at least three months ahead of her plan. He will raise the issue in the upcoming Bangabandhu-Indira meeting in Rashtrapati Bhavan. If Banerjee does the work of 'dragging' in advance, then the discussion will be fruitful. Banerjee said to Bangabandhu, you were in jail. How did you know that India will take back the army on June 30, 1972? Bangabandhu replied that Edward Heath told him. Delay in withdrawing the army will delay Britain's recognition of Bangladesh. That is why it was Bangabandhu's diplomacy. Banerjee was in trouble. He was a little nervous. How will he inform the upper echelons of the chaos surrounding Bangabandhu at the Delhi airport? Fate was helping. After everyone got off the plane, when everyone was busy with state rituals, the Indian Foreign Minister DP Dhar called Banerjee to him and asked what happened to Bangabandhu. He informed the demands of Bangabandhu and Edward Heath. DP Dhar sent a message to Indira Gandhi to hold an urgent meeting with her.

On reaching the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Bangabandhu was entertained with new jaggery Sandesh, Singara and Darjeeling tea brought from Kolkata. Meanwhile, Indira Gandhi holds a meeting with the Foreign Minister. In the Indira-Mujib meeting, Bangabandhu raised the issue on priority basis and India agreed to withdraw troops by 31 March 1972. In Banerjee's description, 'Never before has a decision been taken so quickly on any issue related to India's security.' At the end of the meeting, Bangabandhu thanked Banerjee by his hand and said, "You are right. You should be awarded." Bangabandhu could not give him the award. However, his daughter Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina gave him the award on 20 October 2012.

On the other hand, the Indian Prime Minister had some instructions on Banerjee. To know what Bangabandhu thinks about the new system of government. Knowing who will be the president if the government is ruled by the cabinet. When Banerjee proposed the name of Justice Abu Saeed Chowdhury, Bangabandhu applauded him. At one point in the discussion on the parliamentary system of government, Bangabandhu wanted to know whether the idea was Mrs. Gandhi's. Banerjee writes in his book on Bangabandhu's question, " I became surprised to see Mujib's childish behavior.." Banerjee replied, "Yes, Bangabandhu, the Prime Minister has given me this suggestion for your consideration. It is your responsibility to decide."

Bangabandhu suddenly stood up in the plane. Shashank Banerjee also asked to stand. Three passengers on the VVIP flight also stood. Bangabandhu began to sing, "Amar Sonar Bangla, Ami Tomai Valobasi." The first time he sang it was like a rehearsal. The second time he sang with strong and tearful emotion. Banerjee was also taken along to sing. Banerjee also sang. Then everyone sat down. Bangabandhu whispered to Banerjee that he wanted to make the song "Amar Sonar Bangla, Ami Tomai Valobasi” the national anthem of Bangladesh. Banerjee's opinion was sought. When he agreed, Bangabandhu said, "Though it will not be written anywhere in history, but I (Banerjee) should know from a personal point of view that Rabindranath Tagore's song "Amar Sonar Bangla, Ami Tomai Valobasi” was decided by two old friends, 'You and I.' on a Royal Air Force flight from London to Dhaka."

Dr A B M Kamrul Hasan is a Brunei expatriate physician and columnist