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The statesman in Bangabandhu

Syed Badrul Ahsan | August 15, 2023 00:00:00

It is rather hard to point to a time when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman graduated from a politician into a statesman. And yet there all those moments in Bangladesh's history when we can definitively point to phases which threw light on him for the statesmanlike positions he took on a variety of issues in his political career.

One of those moments came in early 1971 when an Indian aircraft was hijacked to Lahore and blown up. It was also a time when People's Party chairman Zulfikar Ali Bhutto returned to the Punjab capital after his less than fruitful talks with the Awami League team in Dhaka.

At Lahore airport, Bhutto, pathologically anti-Indian, met the hijackers and praised them as Kashmiri freedom fighters. When these men blew up the aircraft, Bhutto and his followers were clearly pleased. And that was when Bangabandhu demonstrated the wisdom which properly is the mark of a statesman. He condemned the hijacking and blowing up of the aircraft, for he knew they were actions that would have grave ramifications. He was proved right within days, when the Indian government banned overflights by Pakistani aircraft through Indian air space.

The Father of the Nation demonstrated, on other occasions, his ability to look beyond the present and peer deep into the future. On the eve of his seminal address at the Dhaka Race Course on 7 March, much pressure was exerted on him to declare Bangladesh's independence at the rally. Bangabandhu listened to everyone, especially the young student leaders around him, hearing them out on the reasons why they thought Bangladesh's independence ought to be declared. But deep within himself, he was clear about the strategy he meant to adopt on 7 March. On that day, his statesmanship came out brilliantly in his oration. He called for Bangladesh's independence and yet stayed well away from actually breaking free of Pakistan in precipitate manner.

He would not be the leader to go for a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) and go down in history as a secessionist. The four demands he placed before the Yahya Khan junta placed Pakistan in a predicament. Bangabandhu knew only too well that the regime and its friends would have a hard time agreeing to his demands and that would be the moment for him to declare Bangladesh's independence as a sovereign entity. The moment came to him in the early minutes of 26 March when, with the Pakistan army fanning out all over Dhaka on its killing mission, he formally made a declaration of Bangladesh's independence. Soon afterward, he was a prisoner of the army.

Post-liberation, Bangabandhu proved astute as a statesman. Having been a prisoner of Pakistan for nearly ten months, with no access to newspapers, radio and television, he did not know what was happening in his beloved Bangladesh, though he might have made his own conjectures about the plight of his people. Moved out of solitary confinement by the new Bhutto government and placed under house arrest in the third week of December 1971 in Pakistan, Bangabandhu would soon come to know of the dire situation in Pakistan as a result of the actions of its soldiers in Bangladesh. When Bhutto met him, he attempted conveying to Bangabandhu the false narrative that the Indian army had occupied 'East Pakistan' and that the country needed to be saved from the Delhi's aggression.

Bhutto wanted guarantees from Bangabandhu that he would engage in a mission to eject the Indians from 'East Pakistan' and thereby preserve the unity of the country. It is to be noted that at no point in his conversations with Bangladesh's leader did Bhutto inform Bangabandhu that Bangladesh had emerged as a sovereign state, that Pakistan's army had surrendered in Dhaka. Bangabandhu listened and the sharp-minded politician that he was, he could easily guess that Bangladesh was no more in the Pakistani scheme of things.

Bangabandhu's statesmanlike qualities shone in London when he arrived there from Pakistan in early January 1972. As Bangladesh's President, to which position he had been placed by the Mujibnagar government in April 1971, he called on Prime Minister Edward Heath, impressing on the British leader the need for London to accord diplomatic recognition to Dhaka. It was a similar point he conveyed to Opposition Leader Harold Wilson, who called on him at Claridges Hotel.

Bangabandhu's statesmanship was burnished in those early days when he made it known that Bangladesh needed to be part of the Commonwealth. He realised that being part of the Commonwealth would afford Bangladesh the opportunity to interact with a group of nations already part of a significant organisation, and indeed have it play a crucial role in it. Bangladesh's contributions to the Commonwealth in these past five decades bear testimony to the vision of the Father of the Nation.

Bangabandhu's belief that Bangladesh's freedom needed to be solidified through having Indian soldiers, who had been part of the joint Indo-Bangladesh command during the war, return to Delhi was a key factor behind his inquiring from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as to when her troops would go home. The soldiers left Bangladesh before Bangabandhu's birthday on 17 March 1972. That was a clear achievement, soon to be followed by another. On Mrs Gandhi's visit to Dhaka in the same month, Bangladesh and India agreed a 25-year treaty of friendship and cooperation. The treaty, along the lines of the Indo-Soviet agreement reached in mid-1971, was a bulwark against any and all attempts to undermine Delhi or Dhaka or both in a situation that was rather fluid.

Bangabandhu followed up his dealings with India with an official visit to Moscow, where his talks with Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev, Nikolai Podgorny and Alexei Kosygin added fresh impetus to ties that had already been cemented in the year of Bangladesh's guerrilla struggle against Pakistan. The Moscow trip for Bangabandhu was not only a means of expressing his gratitude to the Soviet leadership for their support for Bangladesh in 1971 but also a clear hint that Dhaka would pursue an independent foreign policy in what was a time of the Cold War. More than two years later, in October 1974, at a meeting with US President Gerald Ford at the White House, Bangabandhu spelt out the principles on which his country was forging links with the outside world.

A key element of Bangabandhu's foreign policy was the need to associate Bangladesh with the non-aligned movement. He had always been acutely conscious of the damage pre-1971 Pakistan had inflicted on itself through alignment with the West, especially Washington, in such regional, anti-communist bodies as SEATO and CENTO. He was not willing to fall into that trap but follow in the footsteps of the founders of the non-aligned movement --- Nehru, Nasser, Sukarno, Tito --- in order for geopolitics to be reshaped.

Bangladesh would be part of that reshaping, which was a good reason why on Bangabandhu's watch Dhaka sought and was swiftly accorded membership of the non-aligned movement. With Tito, Indira Gandhi and Fidel Castro the Bangladesh leader found himself in a situation where his sense of history would place his country at an important turning point of global politics.

Mao Zedong's China did not accord diplomatic recognition to Bangladesh during Bangabandhu's lifetime. Worse, Beijing blocked, in the early years of Dhaka's emergence as a free nation, Bangladesh's attempt to enter the United Nations. On the China question, Bangabandhu's pragmatism came into play. He knew only too well that sooner or later the two countries would enter into cooperation in a number of areas. It was on the basis of this assessment that Bangabandhu's government publicly refrained from any criticism of Chinese policy vis-à-vis Bangladesh. In his own way, Bangabandhu was an old China hand, having met Mao at the head of a Pakistani delegation to Beijing in the mid-1950s.

At around the same time, on Premier Zhou En-lai's visit to Dhaka when Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was Pakistan's Prime Minister, a young Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had read out the address of welcome for the Chinese leader. He therefore knew that generationally Chinese civilisation was a matter of waiting even as it looked out to the world beyond. If China could wait, it was Bangabandhu's reasoning, so could Bangladesh.

Bangabandhu's statesmanship was on brilliant display in February 1974 when he was able to secure Pakistan's formal recognition of Bangladesh's sovereignty before he would fly to Lahore for the Islamic summit called by Prime Minister Bhutto. Questions were raised at the time about Dhaka's taking part in the summit, given that it was constitutionally a secular state. Bangabandhu's stance was unambiguous here.

Bangladesh was home to a population the vast majority of which was Muslim and hence it could not stay outside the Islamic tent. But note that Bangladesh's participation at the Islamic summit did not in any way compromise its secular polity. Bangabandhu was ready to speak for Islamic unity but was not willing to have religion be the guiding principle of Bangladesh. That was the message he conveyed to the world in his times.

A key instance of Bangabandhu's statesmanship was his willingness, in the interest of inaugurating a new era of peace and friendship in South Asia, to let the 195 Pakistani POWs charged with committing genocide in Bangladesh go free. Of course, it is a different matter that the Bhutto government, which had promised to try the men in Pakistan, reneged on its commitment. But that Bangabandhu was a statesman, as proved through the move to let the officers go, is part of his politics.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman towered above a number of global leaders in his time. His message, in his interaction with them, was one of peace and goodwill for their nations from his. His frankness and bold expression of views, his spontaneity of conversation was disarming for them. He bestrode the world as a giant among men.

Bangabandhu came across political leaders who had made history, to find that they sought his company --- for they spotted in him a statesman ready and willing to speak for the exploited and deprived and underprivileged of the world. He was the world's hope, diplomacy's bright future.

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