On the 42nd anniversary of the brutal assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of the Nation, and many members of his immediate family, I will try to recall the historic role that he played in safely guiding our ship through troubled waters amidst a devastated post-war scenario.
A charismatic leader and believer in nationalism, democracy, secularism, and socialism, he encapsulated his vision for his new country at Palam Airport, New Delhi on January 10, 1972.
He described his journey to a free Bangladesh as “a journey from darkness to light, from captivity to freedom, from desolation to hope.” 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.”
A statesman, a gifted orator, Bangabandhu quite naturally was overwhelmed with emotion after setting foot for the first time in independent Bangladesh.
His speech delivered on January 10 at Suhrawardy Uddyan (within a few hours of his arrival) was masterly in its pragmatic approach.
At this first opportunity, he did not fail to warn that no one should raise their hands to strike against non-Bangalis. At the same time, he displayed his concern for the safety of the 400,000 Bangalis stranded in Pakistan.
While re-affirming that he harboured no ill-will for the Pakistanis, he was also clear in pointing out that “those who have unjustly killed our people, they will surely have to be tried.”
In another significant assertion in the same speech, he pointed out to the Muslim world that “Bangladesh is the second largest Muslim state in the world only next to Indonesia.”
He also drew their attention to the fact that “in the name of Islam, the Pakistani army killed the Muslims of this country and dishonoured our women.” 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.”
It was this outlook that led him later on to strongly express his regret on February 10, 1972, and admonish Tunku Abdur Rahman, Secretary General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference Secretariat for OIC, remaining silent when three million Bangalis were killed in cold blood by the West Pakistani forces.
Later, on April 17, 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, breach of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, murder, rape, and arson.
Unfortunately, his death also resulted in the setting aside of the entire judicial process. Fortunately, under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the trial process has been activated and is being completed.
Many detractors of Bangabandhu have, after 1975, tried to portray him and the Awami League as having given up Bangladesh’s interest in the context of relations with India. This was far from true.
Today, 45 years later, we are evolving the necessary dynamics for a regional energy grid and regional water management for South Asia
Bangabandhu after his return to Dhaka, openly thanked India for its past assistance and then requested that country to withdraw all its troops from Bangladesh. This was complied with immediately and belied claims by the then Pakistani leadership that Bangladesh was going to remain as an Indian colony.
Another important achievement of Bangabandhu and his government was the creation of confidence among the war-affected citizens within the devastated country and also among the more than 10 million Bangladeshi refugees who had sought sanctuary on the other side of the border in India.
By February 8, 1972 Indira Gandhi acknowledged that more than 7 million refugees had returned from India to Bangladesh in the short span of six weeks. The rest of them, that included hundreds of thousands who had been tortured by the Pakistani army, returned home within the following months, sure of a new beginning. Providing relief and rehabilitation to such a large population was a daunting task but handled efficiently by Bangabandhu and his team in cooperation with the UN.
Bangabandhu believed strongly in the sovereign equality of all nations.
He also consistently stressed on the development and utilisation of resources “for the benefit of the people of the region.” It was this approach that led him eventually to persuade India to agree to the establishment of a Joint Rivers Commission on a permanent basis.
In the Joint Declaration of the prime ministers of Bangladesh and India on March 19, 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.
Today, 45 years later, we are evolving the necessary dynamics for a regional energy grid and regional water management for South Asia.
Such a process is consistent with Bangabandhu’s vision of so many years ago.
Bangabandhu took keen interest particularly 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 organisations.
The world recognises Bangladesh
At every opportunity, during his own visits abroad, or that of the foreign minister, it was underlined that Bangladesh was determined to maintain fraternal and good neighbourly relations and adhere firmly to the basic tenets of non-alignment, peaceful co-existence, mutual cooperation, non-interference in internal affairs, and respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty.
This vigorous effort enabled us to move forward in the arena of international relations very quickly.
I believe this was largely due to the positive measures undertaken by Bangabandhu.
Not being a member of the UN did not deter Bangabandhu from seeking the humanitarian intervention of the then United Nations Secretary General Dr Kurt Waldheim. On November 27, 1972 he sought Waldheim’s assistance for repatriation to Bangladesh of innocent Bangalis detained in Pakistan in different camps.
He did so because Pakistan was trying to politicise the issue and link their repatriation to the release of Pakistani POWs who had surrendered to the joint command of Bangladesh and Indian forces. This concern on his part was an example of his love for his countrymen.
Muhammad Zamir is a former Ambassador and an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance.