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OP-ED: January 1972: The nightingale flies to freedom

  • Published at 02:11 am January 8th, 2021
Bangabandhu UK Prime Minister Edward Heath
Bangabandhu with UK Prime Minister Edward Heath MUJIB100 PHOTO ARCHIVE

Bangabandhu’s arrival in London was the culmination of a phase in his life which has gone down in the annals of history

It was literature wrapped in history. Or it was history which came encapsulated in literature. There was that unmistakable epic quality in the odyssey Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman made from Mianwali to Rawalpindi to London in January 1972. 

A sure sense of poetry underpinned the saga of a great man, removed from his people and confined in a prison cell for the nine months of a determined struggle for liberation waged in his name by his nation.

Bangabandhu’s arrival in London early on the morning of January 8, 1972 was the culmination of a phase in his life, indeed in the heritage of his people, which has gone down in the annals of historical time. 

Here was a creator of history, the founder of a sovereign nation-state, put away in the darkness of an alien prison cell, unsure of whether he would be permitted to live by his captors, suddenly emerging in the light of the sun.

Who do we thank for Bangabandhu’s return to the normal world as we know it? Or do we need to demonstrate gratitude to anyone at all? 

The two men responsible for the torment suffered by the Father of the Nation, General Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, were later to put up their defense in the matter of saving Bangladesh’s leader from the gallows. 

Bhutto wished the world to believe that he had saved Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from execution. 

Yahya Khan, after his fall from power, offered the statement that in October 1971, before he left for the gala celebrations of the Iranian monarchy in Persepolis, Bhutto had insistently asked him to ensure that Mujib was hanged and done away with. 

And yet the Bhutto record, as put out by his acolytes, is that before Yahya Khan handed over the presidency of rump Pakistan to him on December 20, 1971, the disgraced junta leader had asked to be allowed to hang Bangabandhu in line with the sentence of death handed down to him in November.

In London, Bangabandhu went public with his expression of gratitude to Bhutto for saving his life. 

Today, at this distance of time, there is no way of inquiring into what Bhutto and Yahya contemplated about Mujib’s fate. Whatever it was, everything was upended by the defeat of Pakistan’s forces in Bangladesh in December. 

Bhutto, as his country’s new leader, would not jeopardize the lives of the 93,000 Pakistani soldiers-turned-prisoners of war in Dhaka by putting an end to Bangabandhu’s life. 

A day after taking charge in Rawalpindi, he informed foreign diplomats stationed in Pakistan that he would place Sheikh Mujibur Rahman under house arrest. 

Bangabandhu was yet in his cell in Mianwali jail, delinked from the rest of the world since he was flown out of a ravaged Bangladesh in April 1971. 

On December 22, the very same day on which the leaders of the Mujibnagar government arrived in liberated Bangladesh from Calcutta, Bangabandhu was moved out of solitary confinement and to a guest house of the Pakistan government in Rawalpindi. 

The arrest now was house arrest. We do not know of Bangabandhu’s feelings on this change in his circumstances, but when Bhutto turned up at the guest house on December 24, Bangladesh’s leader was certainly in for a surprise. 

As he was to tell the Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar later, he asked Bhutto how he happened to be there. 

Bhutto’s response was brief: He told the man who should have been Pakistan’s first elected prime minister that he was president of Pakistan. He would add that he was also chief martial law administrator. 

There are those who have claimed that until his arrival in London, Bangabandhu was not aware of Bangladesh’s liberation. Such assumptions do not add up to the facts, for Bhutto, without explicitly referring to Pakistan’s defeat, appealed to Bangabandhu to keep links with Pakistan. 

The shrewd and experienced politician Mujib was, he could easily read into the changed circumstances. 

Matters became clearer to Bangabandhu at his second meeting with Bhutto on December 27. Meanwhile, for the very first time since he was arrested by the Pakistan army in March, a period in which he had no access to newspapers, radio, and television, the Bengali leader was provided with a radio. 

It was thus for him an opportunity to re-establish contact with the world, which at the time was abuzz with news of his country and of his own possible release.

President Bhutto remained focused at his second meeting with Bangabandhu on the idea of some loose links being kept between Dhaka and Rawalpindi. Britain’s Sunday Telegraph was to quote Bhutto on January 1972 in its report:

“I plan to release him (Sheikh Mujib) unconditionally in a couple of days, with hope and faith that the fire of Pakistan still burns in his heart. He will be free to go. I am not extracting any promise from him … From one end of the spectrum to the other, an extremely loose arrangement could be worked out, but at least the name of Pakistan must remain. It’s our legacy of 1,000 years and we can’t spurn it.”

It was hyperbole. It was a pipe dream. On January 3, Bhutto addressed a public rally in Karachi. He had earlier informed Bangabandhu that he would be freed to leave Pakistan but that before that he (Bhutto) would need to ascertain the wishes of his people. At the Karachi rally, Bhutto in theatrical manner asked the crowd if it agreed that Mujib should be released. As the crowd roared its approval, Pakistan’s new leader told them, in Urdu: “Shukriya, shukriya.”

Events moved fast, a hint that Bhutto was getting nowhere in his negotiations with Bangabandhu. On January 7, Bhutto was quoted by the Daily Telegraph as saying: 

“One thing is clear, however. Mujib is not going to be influenced by me or anyone else. His mind is his own.”

On the evening of the same day in Rawalpindi, Bhutto, with his team, played host to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Dr Kamal Hossain, who had been incarcerated in Haripur jail, at a farewell dinner. In the course of the dinner, Bhutto attempted to have Mujib delay his departure since, he said, Pakistan’s air space had been closed off to all flights because of the impending arrival of the Shah of Iran. Bhutto’s clear last-minute aim was for Bangabandhu to stay back and have the Shah mediate between him and Bangladesh’s leader. Bangabandhu firmly turned down the suggestion, telling Bhutto that he was Pakistan’s president and had the power to open up the country’s air space and have him fly out of Pakistan.

As January 7 gave way to January 8, the two leaders -- Bangladesh’s President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Pakistan’s President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto -- bade each other farewell at Chaklala airport in Rawalpindi. The special PIA aircraft carrying Bangabandhu and Kamal Hossain and the latter’s family took off for London. Bhutto would tell newsmen later, as he awaited the Shah’s arrival in Rawalpindi: “The nightingale has flown.” 

On board the aircraft taking Bangabandhu to London were five senior Pakistani air force and airline officials, one of whom was later to become chief of staff of Pakistan’s air force. Six hours into the flight, the British government was informed of Bangabandhu’s impending arrival at Heathrow. A senior official of the Foreign Office, Ian Sutherland, swiftly informed the senior-most Bangladesh diplomat in London, MM Rezaul Karim, of the development. 

By the time Sutherland, Karim, and two other Bengali diplomats -- Mohiuddin Ahmed and Mohiuddin Ahmed Jaigirdar -- reached Heathrow, Bangabandhu had already landed. With all honours accorded to him as a head of state, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was escorted to Claridges Hotel in central London. Once there, he spoke to his family, to Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad and to Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

One of the first visitors to meet the Bangladesh leader was Britain’s opposition leader Harold Wilson, who greeted Bangabandhu thus: “Good morning, Mr President.” Indian High Commissioner to the UK Apa Pant came calling, along with leading figures of the British-Bengali community. In the course of the morning, Bangabandhu was welcomed at 10 Downing Street by Prime Minister Edward Heath, to whom he made out the case for Britain’s diplomatic recognition of his new state. The meetings with Wilson and Heath were satisfying for Bangabandhu, who was to say later in the day: “I have talked to Mr Heath. I have talked to Mr Wilson. And I am happy.” 

In the afternoon on January 8, Bangabandhu addressed a crowded press conference at Claridge’s. He looked thinner after all those months in prison and appeared exhausted. But the firmness and the conviction in his voice were unchanged, as his opening remarks revealed: 

“Today I am free to share the unbounded joy of freedom with my fellow countrymen, who have won their freedom in an epic liberation struggle. 

The ultimate achievement of this struggle is the creation of an independent, sovereign People’s Republic of Bangladesh, of which my people declared me as their president while I was a prisoner in the condemned cell, awaiting the execution of a sentence for hanging.” 

Back home in Bangladesh, a nation went delirious with joy. The liberator would soon be home.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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