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The long shadow of August 1975

  • Published at 12:01 am August 15th, 2019

It was a tragedy like no other

History always tells the truth. Today’s history guides us to consolidate our tomorrow. 

I was in Geneva when Eugene Davis Boster was appointed the first US Ambassador to Bangladesh in 1974. He was attached to the Office of the US Arms Control Bureau in Geneva. 

I invited him to dinner with his wife, Mary, before his departure for Dhaka. He wanted to be briefed about the present situation in the country, particularly the situation of national security. At the dinner he asked about the Soviet Naval presence in Chittagong ports. He expressed his fear that the Soviet Union may be using Chittagong as a springboard for further military presence in Bangladesh. 

I assured him that the chances of his fears being realized were totally negative and told him that before the Soviet Union, the government of Bangladesh called an international tender for clearing the ports, which were clogged with ships and vessels docked prior to and during the war (most of them were Pakistani ships and some were foreign ships). 

I also informed him that I had approached UNDP concerning the same issue and they expressed their inability to take the job. Therefore, the government asked me to know if UNDP could be of any assistance to the situation in Bangladesh. 

I checked with the head office in New York and I was unmistakably told of the organization’s inability at that moment to do the job. 

During the 1973 UNDP meeting in Geneva, where an IPF of $36 million was divided equally between Bangladesh and Pakistan, the Gulf States, including Turkey, all close friends of Pakistan, opposed the creation of Bangladesh. 

It was the American lobbying for Bangladesh by Peter Peterson and the head of the American team, Yuri Zarogin, that the Bangladesh resolution was adopted with a good majority. There, my Pakistani counterpart, Ambassador Naiznaik, who was my DG in Islamabad, remarked, “Allocation of money to the authority of Dhaka is like turning a sharp knife on the back of Pakistan.”

After the UNDP Dhaka operation was completed, the first UNDP representative was sent to Dhaka, the gentleman mentioned above, Yuri Zarogin. He had been my original recommendation to the government of Bangladesh. 

When I explained our past attempts to persuade UNDP to assist Bangladesh, then only did the Soviet Union offer to assist in clearing the port of Chittagong. 

Ambassador Boster reported our exchange to the State Department and the White House. Later, I believe he had also consulted and confirmed with Peter Peterson what I had previously told him, that UNDP was not equipped to deal with the situation in Bangladesh.

I arrived in Dhaka after completing my sabbatical in Oxford on August 7, 1975. As head of the mission in Geneva, I gave a farewell reception before my return in honour of my friends who had helped Bangladesh during the War of Independence. 

In Dhaka, I had my first call on Boster around 8/9 August, 1975. I again contacted him on August 16, 1975. He asked me to call him the day after. When I met him, I asked him about the events of August 15. 

He informed me that there was “some dissatisfaction in the party of the prime minister and some members of the army may be involved in taking some action, the full nature of which I am not aware of.” 

He continued: “Some officers of some agencies in the US embassy had informed me of their contacts with the army and some civilians. I clearly directed these officers to keep their hands off regarding anything of that kind in Bangladesh.”

When I read about the meeting of Lipschultz with Ambassador Boster in Mexico, I was reminded of my few meetings with Boster and Lipschultz which corroborate what I was told by Boster. 

I also met Boster later several times. In those traumatic days, I had forgotten to keep a proper diary. He had expressed his grief and sadness with the events of the August 15. And I also reminded him of our last conversation in Geneva, when I came down to see him off. 

I trusted him because I found him to be a man of goodwill for Bangladesh.

He felt very sad regarding the destruction of the country during the war. He even compared it, remotely, to the Civil War in America. But he also remarked, the Civil War, however destructive, did not kill so many people as in Bangladesh. 

I briefed Boster of my conversation with Sheikh Mujib on August 14 when he had asked me to read the Swiss constitution, which had attracted him originally in 1972, during his first visit to Geneva. I read a part in 1973 again in Geneva when he was there for the First Bangladesh Envoys Conference.

I read another part on the night of August 14. Having been in Dhaka only seven days before that fateful day, I could not grasp the dimension of the conspiracy that was being hatched. 

I had lunch with Boster sometime later, prior to his departure. When he left Dhaka, he looked a very sad man, so did his wife Mary, who regretted they could not give a dinner for me because of the situation in the country. It is interesting to note that, although the US did not recognize Bangladesh until 1974, the humanitarian aid from the US was the largest in the world. The first relief flight was in 1972, soon after independence, by a fellow named Max Rubb whom I found later as my counterpart in Rome in 1987.

I read with interest the letter of Boster Jr. I fully understood his anguish.

I am sure from the clarification of Lipschultz, Mr Boster Jr will realize that his father was a gentleman, and he had nothing to do with the 1975 events. If anything, he may have tried to prevent it, but did not succeed.

I know this story may cause unhappiness amongst some but history never lies. The truth will be upheld. The trial of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib did commence but could not be finished for reasons beyond our control. One day, justice will be done to the perpetrators of the heinous crime.

I very often read the history of Cromwell, who had been hanged symbolically, his skeleton sprawled before the House of Commons on charge of regicide. His body was reburied in the same place, on the same day. That is justice.

I mourn the death of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib and his entire family, and of the liberation leaders in Dhaka Central Jail. 

Waliur Rahman is an author and Founder Chairman, Bangladesh Heritage Foundation.