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When the liberator came home

  • Published at 12:00 am January 10th, 2019
A momentous time in history / <b>MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU</b>
A momentous time in history / MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

The story of January 10, 1972

In these 47 years which have gone by, I have remembered where I was, where millions of others were, on the day Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman came home to the country he had led to freedom. 

January 10, besides being significant in Bangladesh’s national history, has been for me a tale of my journey into witnessing history as it happened first-hand. I was there at Tejgaon airport minutes after daybreak on this day in 1972, in the company of my friend Billal. 

A huge crowd had already gathered there, despite the fact that the Father of the Nation was not expected to arrive before early afternoon. It was thrilling to hear people greeting each other with a full-throated declamation of Joy Bangla. Liberty was in the air. 

It would take roundness once Bangabandhu stepped on to the soil of this free country, his country.

On January 10, it is the drama of the moments preceding Bangabandhu’s return to Bangladesh that I recall. None of us knew, even as the Liberation War went on for nine months in 1971, where he was or in what condition he was. 

All that we recalled was that troubling image of him in the custody of the state oPakistan at Karachi airport, an image sent out to the media in April by the Yahya Khan regime only to prove to the outside world that contrary to Bengali claims, Mujib was very much Pakistan’s prisoner and sure to face trial on charges of sedition. 

After all, Yahya Khan had vowed on March 26, 1971: “This crime shall not go unpunished.” In August of the year, for the first time in months, we had something of a clue as to where Bangabandhu was when the murderous regime announced that the Bengali leader would go on trial on the charge of waging war against Pakistan. And lest it embarrass itself, the military junta made sure the trial was held on camera. 

In 1971, not one among the 75 million Bengalis celebrated Eid. And every man, woman, and child prayed for Bangabandhu’s safety, prayed that he would not be executed by a junta gone insane. And, as we were to learn after liberation, Bangabandhu had been sentenced to death by the military tribunal. Had war between India and Pakistan not broken out on December 3, it is a near certainty that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would have been hanged by the Pakistani regime in clandestine fashion. 

The miracle of Bangladesh’s liberation was a huge factor in saving Bangabandhu’s life. Yahya Khan, minutes before he handed over power to ZA Bhutto on December 20, expressed the desire that the Bengali leader be executed in line with the verdict of the secret military tribunal. 

The shrewd Bhutto, knowing full well that such an act would jeopardize the lives of the 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war in Bangladesh, would have none of it. He placed Bangabandhu under house arrest on December 22, the very day the leaders of the Mujibnagar government came home to a free Bangladesh. Mujib and Bhutto were to meet for the first time since March five days later, on December 27.

That meeting was decisive. Bangabandhu learned through Bhutto, for the very first time, that East Pakistan had disappeared, that Bangladesh was free, though Bhutto did not exactly use that term. He resorted to chicanery. East Pakistan, he informed Bangladesh’s founder, was under Indian occupation. 

Bangabandhu spotted the reality between the lines. Bhutto wished for Pakistan and Bangladesh to maintain some links. Mujib would not make any commitment until he returned home. In the pre-dawn hour of January 8, 1972, Bhutto, Pakistan’s president by default, saw Mujib off at Chaklala airport. 

“The nightingale has flown,” he said to no one in particular. Hours later, Bangladesh’s founder arrived in London. The BBC was the first media organization to carry the news. But that was something I would not know until late in the evening here in Dhaka. 

Earlier, waiting at the reception of Bangladesh Betar in Shahbagh for an audition in English news reading, I suddenly was witness to the dramatic news that Bangabandhu had flown out of Pakistan but no one knew where he was headed. Everyone around me was truly agitated, and smelled a new Pakistani conspiracy. 

I decided to forgo the audition, literally ran home, in Malibagh, and tuned in to the radio for news. It came after dusk had fallen. “The East Bengali political leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman arrived in London a short while ago from Pakistan,” intoned the newsreader on the BBC’s World Service. 

We jumped for joy. An hour later, on the BBC’s Bengali Service, we heard Bangabandhu’s voice for the first time in 10 months: “I am happy to share the unbounded joy of freedom won in an epic liberation struggle by my people,” said he. Tears of overflowing happiness streamed down our faces.

Two days later, as soon as the comet aircraft bringing Bangabandhu home landed at Tejgaon, something magical happened. With thousands of others, I was on the road outside the terminal building. Within seconds -- and I have no idea how it happened -- I found myself on the tarmac, right beside the overcrowded truck that was to take the leader to the Race Course, today’s Suhrawardy Udyan. 

He looked thinner, ran his hands through his hair, smiled, and yet looked sombre. As the truck inched out of the airport, I tried to climb on to it from behind. There was barely space there for one of my feet. The other I let graze the road. Colonel Osmani sternly admonished me: “Khoka, betha paabe. Neme poro.” 

I did not heed his advice, and hung on to the truck all the way to the Race Course. 

These days, every time I see that picture of a returning Bangabandhu on the truck, in the company of all those important men, I know that in the rear there is a 16-year-old me hanging on to that vehicle. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor-in-Charge of The Asian Age.