FE Today Logo

Bangabandhu’s encounter with Castro

HELAL UDDIN AHMED | August 15, 2023 00:00:00

Bangabandhu and Fidel Castro at Algiers in 1973

The meeting between Prime Minister Mujib and President Castro was arranged near the end of NAM summit. On the day of the summit, news reached Algiers at noon that food-riot and looting had started in Chile following disruptions in food supply due to countrywide Truck strike. The leftist leaders in Chile were dumbfounded. In this volatile situation, a large column of tanks surrounded the Santiago residence of President Salvador Allende. Air Force planes were hovering in the sky; Allende's fall was imminent. Castro was terribly upset about the whole episode.

Fidel Castro arrived at the designated place of the meeting surrounded by a large contingent of security personnel. He was to meet another legendary figure of the time Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The rays of the sun were fast receding in the Mediterranean and the sound of the Seagull could be heard from afar.

Castro wore a semi-military bottle-green uniform and a guerrilla cap. His face was covered with beard. Alighting from the car, he smiled when he saw Bangabandhu waiting to receive him. They warmly embraced and kissed each other. It was a rare moment of camaraderie between two great leaders of the two hemispheres. Castro did not have much command over English. His broken English carried French and Spanish accent. Bangabandhu's accent, on the other hand, had sub-continental flavour. The two started their conversation without the help of interpreters. They were seated on the same sofa with the entourage members sitting opposite them.

The conversation between the two had tremendous historical significance. Noteworthy portions from the dialogue are presented below in a polished form.

Castro: Excellency, you are probably aware about the latest developments in Chile. Allende's government may fall anytime due to external conspiracy. That means, this great man will be wiped out from the face of this earth. Excellency, in such a backdrop, I would like to say a few words as I consider you a friend.

Bangabandhu: Excellency, you can say anything you like without hesitation. I know very well that you are our well-wisher and friend.

Castro: From what we hear about Bangladesh and India, situation there does not seem to be very good. The agents of imperialism are active in both these countries.

Bangabandhu: Excellency, you can address me without ceremonies.

Castro: Then listen. Like President Allende of Chile, we also consider Bangladesh Prime Minister Mujib to be a lost case. Excellency, you are done.

Bangabandhu: Comrade, why do you say so? Can't you articulate more clearly?

Castro: The reason is, you have rehabilitated the defeated administration of Bangladesh. So you are going to be eliminated, Excellency.

Bangabandhu: Excellency, you know very well, our country is a small one. It suffered enormous losses during the war of liberation. So, to reconstruct Bangladesh, we need seasoned and experienced bureaucrats. That is why I have reinstated experienced officers of the Pakistani era in our administration, with the exception of a few collaborators.

Castro: Please do not take any offence, Excellency; you are speaking about their administrative experience! Ha! With their experience and guidance, mighty Pakistan lost in the war and fell apart. But your Mukti boys? No experience. Fighting, fighting and fighting, then getting victory.

Bangabandhu: Then how can we reconstruct war-ravaged Bangladesh?

Castro: Bring lawyers, bring journalists, bring business executives, bring doctors, bring engineers, bring professors, and put them on top of the administration. They will make mistakes; make mistake and learn----but not conspiracy. For God's sake, please give more responsibility to your Mukti boys. And trust them fully.

Bangabandhu: Comrade, to tell you the truth, I have dismissed only a handful of collaborator officers and reinstated the rest in responsible positions. Till now, my view has been that their experience would be useful. But I am worried by what you say.

Castro: Excellency, nowhere in the world today have top-ranking officers of the defeated regime been given responsibility of a new administration. In Bangladesh, their lives have been saved because of your magnanimity; isn't that enough? In a post-war country, no question can arise about rehabilitating these officers. Even look at the USA; if the incumbent loses the battle for presidency, top-ranking officials and diplomats of that administration are removed.

Bangabandhu: Excellency, my only concern now is how to rebuild war-ravaged Bangladesh.

Castro: Excellency, let me then cite the example of Cuba. After our great revolution, Comrade Che Guevara reorganised the whole administration after eliminating the defeated ones. In Cuba today, you will find not a single bureaucrat of the Batista regime. Because of that, although mighty USA is sitting on our neck, no conspiracy against me succeeds. Look at the map of the western hemisphere, your Excellency. The distance between Cuba and Miami Beach of the USA is only about 90 miles. Despite that, Cuba has maintained her proud presence. Comrade, look at my bodyguards. Nobody can make them turn against me-at no price can they be bought.

Bangabandhu: Excellency, please continue. I want to hear more from you. My eyes within are opening up to the conspiracy without.

Castro: (Pointing fingers at the bodyguards) Please try to buy them. Offer them hundred thousand dollars-two hundred thousand-half a million. All right, offer them one million dollars. No, you can't buy them. They were engaged in a prolonged war against the dictator Batista; we fought together from the same bunker. We shared food, bed and everything. You can't imagine how dearly they love me. I smoke cigar; my boys taste them first. Two of them even died because of CIA poisoning. Excellency, whom do you trust in Bangladesh? Like Allende, you are also going to be finished Comrade Mujib.

All eyes were full of tears by then. The time to say good-bye had arrived. Putting the half-burnt cigar in the ashtray, Fidel Castro rose and stood in front of Bangabandhu. Then they embraced and kissed each other. Castro put his head on Mujib's shoulder and raised his voice, "Comrade Mujib, I love you, I love Bangladesh." As he climbed into the limousine waiting outside, Fidel Castro turned his head and shouted, "Joy Bangla." In no time his motorcade vanished from our sight.

[Extracted and translated from the biography on Bangabandhu titled 'Mohapurush' (in Bangla) authored by M R Akhtar Mukul]

Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly. [email protected]

Share if you like