Sheikh Mujibur Rahman respected his detractors abroad, and so he disarmed them
Quite some conversation has been generated in light of a picture, posted by yours truly on Facebook, of Henry Kissinger with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in New York. The month is September. The year is 1974. Bangladesh had just become a member of the United Nations and Bangabandhu had spoken before the UN General Assembly. Kissinger was yet secretary of state, albeit under President Gerald Ford. Richard Nixon had resigned over the Watergate scandal a little over a month earlier.
One of my friends wished to know why Kissinger, whose role in America’s 1971 tilt toward Pakistan was well-known, had to be there in Bangabandhu’s company. Another was quite surprised that the Father of the Nation had permitted Kissinger to be in his presence when he should not have, given the American’s patently anti-Bangladesh stance in the year we went to war for freedom.
This is where the question of diplomacy comes in. In foreign affairs, there is no concept of permanent friends or permanent enemies. What matters is the level of pragmatism that a state demonstrates in maintaining its links with its friends and at the same time reaches out to nations and governments that may not have been sympathetic to it in critical phases of its history.
The Nixon administration knew of the atrocities the Yahya Khan junta was perpetrating in occupied Bangladesh in 1971 and yet looked the other way in a manner that remains inexplicable. Kissinger was a significant cog in the diplomatic wheel the White House operated in that year of decision for Bangladesh.
For Bangabandhu, the requirement post-liberation was the formulation and practice of a foreign policy that would expand Bangladesh’s links with the wider world. He did not forgive Nixon and Kissinger for their misdeeds in 1971. But he also realized that in a real world, a paramount need was statesmanship. He was willing and ready to be a statesman for his newly independent country. He was fully aware of the diplomatic truth that Bangladesh and the US needed to build bridges to each other. Washington’s recognition of Bangladesh’s sovereign status in April 1972 was the offshoot of that diplomacy. It therefore stood to reason that Bangabandhu would talk to Kissinger and later visit the White House for a conversation with President Ford.
Foreign policy is only as successful as those behind its formulation are willing to pursue it. In the days immediately following the liberation of the country, Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad was not keen about any rapprochement between Dhaka and Washington given the story of 1971, at least at that early stage. He had a point. The degree to which Tajuddin Ahmad was indignant about the Nixon administration’s role could be gauged from his refusal to interact with Robert McNamara, at the time president of the World Bank, at a conference in Delhi.
And yet realism would soon convince Tajuddin, by then minister for finance in Bangabandhu’s government, that Bangladesh could not play an isolationist role, that it needed to reach out to its detractors. In October 1974, on a visit to Washington, Tajuddin Ahmad met McNamara. Realities mattered. Bangladesh had just come through a famine; rising oil prices had pushed the country into dire straits; overall, the economy was at a low ebb. The country needed to engage with the Bretton Woods institutions. Tajuddin’s trip to Washington was one more sign of the pragmatism that was beginning to define Bangladesh’s foreign policy perceptions.
Foreign policy in the early 1970s bore Bangabandhu’s indelible stamp on every aspect of it. In a Cold War era, he knew more than anyone else that Bangladesh had to play its cards well. He could very well have declined to travel to Lahore for the Islamic summit in February 1974, but realities were what he was acutely conscious of.
For him, the invitation to the summit was a leverage he utilized to the full in securing Pakistan’s recognition of Bangladesh as an independent nation. At the same time, he knew that attending the summit was for him a good opportunity to interact with the leaders of the Muslim world, given that many of the heads of state and government present in Lahore had been implacably opposed to Bangladesh and were even at that point unhappy with the country’s secular foundations.
At the Islamic summit, Bangabandhu was emphatic in his assertions on two points. First, he made it clear to his fellow leaders that Bangladesh’s Islamic heritage was part of its history. Second, he made it known that the country entertained no majoritarian politics and that it was home to all religious beliefs on the basis of secular Bengali nationalism.
On the question of China, another country that refused to offer any support to or sympathy for Bangladesh in 1971 and which blocked Dhaka’s entry to the UN for two consecutive years, diplomacy did not give way to propagandist rhetoric. Bangabandhu’s position was based on how he conceived the future of Dhaka-Beijing ties to be. Khwaja Mohammad Kaiser, who had served as Pakistan’s envoy to China throughout the 1971 war, was Bangladesh’s link to Beijing in Bangabandhu’s time.
Unofficial channels of communication were maintained, and they paid off in 1974 when Bangladesh gained membership of the UN.
Bangladesh’s foreign policy in those early years were nowhere more manifest than in the government’s agreeing to initial, with India and Pakistan, a tripartite deal in April 1974. Bangabandhu comprehended the need for a new beginning in South Asia, which is when he consented to free the 195 Pakistani military officers charged with committing genocide in his country. It is another matter that the Bhutto government in Islamabad reneged on its promise to try the officers in their home country, but Bangabandhu perceived the need for a tension-free sub-continent.
He brought diplomacy once again into the South Asian narrative when he invited Prime Minister Bhutto to Dhaka in June 1974, the objective being a removal of the detritus that had accumulated in pre- as well as post-1971 times. The Pakistan government failed to seize the moment. The record shows that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman pushed diplomacy to the limits -- to inaugurate a new era. The impediments were there, but they did not give him second thoughts.
Wariness often underscores relations between nations, but hostility is a stranger to diplomacy. Adversaries do not have to be treated with disdain, for if they are, the concept of international relations takes a nosedive. Bangabandhu respected his detractors abroad and so disarmed them. That was the diplomat in him.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.