Bangabandhu: A world statesman


Published on August 18, 2022
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Uday Sankar Das:

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, was on the global political and diplomatic stage for less than four years after leading his country to independence but in that short period between mid-January, 1972 and mid-August, 1975, his great statesmanship, insight and valour enabled Bangladesh to be firmly established in the comity of nations. Bangabandhu became a leader revered by people across the world.

Bangabandhu’s leadership qualities, supreme dedication, aspiration and sacrifice made him not only an iconic leader of his country but also turned him into a political personality adored by international political leaders.

Almost immediately after the surrender of Pakistan's armed forces to the Allied Forces in Dhaka on Dec 16, 1971, President Yahya Khan was thrown out of power and Pakistan’s new leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had to bow to international pressure and announce the release of Bangabandhu. When Bangabandhu boarded a special Pakistan International Airlines flight on Jan 8, 1972, at Rawalpindi Airport, Bhutto was at the airport to see Bangabandhu off.

When his plane touched down at Heathrow airport in London, Bangabandhu was received by senior officials of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the VIP lounge – this in itself was a reception per the head of state protocol. He was escorted by the officials to Claridge’s Hotel where arrangements for his stay were made by the British government. The then British Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath was not in London at the time but rushed back to Downing Street to receive Bangabandhu. When Bangabandhu reached Downing Street, Sir Edward opened the door of the car of Bangabandhu – a scene hardly seen at the doorsteps of 10 Downing Street.

The two leaders held an hour-long meeting where Bangabandhu brought up the question of British recognition of Bangladesh as an independent country. Sir Edward assured his guest of his country’s goodwill and the United Kingdom recognised Bangladesh in February 1972. This paved the way for recognition by other European and Commonwealth countries and Bangladesh was able to join the Commonwealth as early as April 1972.

During the meeting in Downing Street, Bangabandhu’s return to his country was discussed. It was agreed that he would return by a Royal Air Force comet jet via Delhi. Sir Edward later recalled that Bangabandhu did not wish to be transferred to an Indian aircraft in Delhi. When the RAF comet jet landed in Delhi, he was greeted by President V V Giri and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – again a reception normally accorded to a head of state.

Even before returning to his dear motherland, now independent Bangladesh, Bangabandhu, during his stopovers in London and Delhi, did establish himself on the world diplomatic stage as a successful and charismatic leader.

After his return to a war-ravaged country, Bangabandhu realised that to rebuild Bangladesh from the ruins, he had to pursue a policy of friendship with all and malice towards none. He was also fully aware of the criticism that was made of his being under the influence of India. Bangabandhu visited Kolkata in early February 1972 where he was greeted by Indira Gandhi at the airport. Bangabandhu addressed a public rally at the Maidan in Kolkata and I remember the huge crowd roaring in applause and jubilation and shouting the slogan ‘Joy Bangla’ when Bangabandhu began his speech with the words: "Bhaiyeraa Amaar" (My brothers). During that visit, it was agreed that India would withdraw its army from Bangladesh by March 1972 and the withdrawal was completed on Mar 15, 1972. This, undoubtedly, was a huge diplomatic success for Bangabandhu.

The relationship between Bangabandhu and Indira Gandhi was one of mutual respect. When Indira Gandhi visited Bangladesh and addressed a public rally in Dhaka, she said, “You may lack a lot of resources today, but you have a world-renowned leader who has dedicated his entire life to your welfare and has given you unity and courage. This is your greatest asset and I have no doubt that Bangladesh will be stronger with his support”.

Bangabandhu was fully aware of the support that the erstwhile Soviet Union accorded to Bangladesh during its Liberation War, particularly in global diplomacy. The Soviet Union foiled attempts by Pakistan to stop the War of Liberation by giving a veto on several occasions in the United Nations Security Council, taking its stand in favour of Bangladesh. The Soviet Union was also one of the first countries to recognise independent Bangladesh, the recognition coming on Jan 25, 1972. Bangabandhu, therefore, made it a point to visit the Soviet Union to express his gratitude and also to seek further help in rebuilding war-ravaged Bangladesh. His visit in March 1972 was highly successful and Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin praised Bangabandhu for his leadership qualities. The two countries signed several agreements to help Bangladesh economically.

Three more successes on the world diplomatic stage stand out distinctly for Bangabandhu – these have shown how this larger-than-life politician coming from a humble background in Tungipara, Faridpur had carved a niche for himself and his country in the international arena. These three notable successes were in the OIC, NAM and the UN.

Bangabandhu, realising the nation-building and state-building tasks that Bangladesh had to undergo in a massive way, his administration launched a massive drive to achieve early recognition by the world communities including Muslim countries. Pakistan gave its recognition on Feb 22, 1974, swiftly followed by Turkey and Iran. It was immediately declared that Bangladesh would attend the Islamic Summit scheduled to be held in Lahore. By gaining membership in the OIC, Bangladesh was able to establish closer ties with the Muslim world and improve its relations on both bilateral and multinational fronts.

One bloc that Bangabandhu thought would be beneficial to join was the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) - he left Dhaka on Sept 6, 1973, to attend the 4th NAM Summit that was held in Algiers. Here he met world leaders like King Faisal, President Anwar Sadat, President Tito and President Muammar Gaddafi, among others. Bangabandhu’s presence was a huge exposure for Bangladesh and leaders of non-aligned countries were greatly impressed by his personality and charisma.

Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, at that NAM summit, met Bangabandhu for the first time and said, "I have not seen the Himalayas. But I have seen Sheikh Mujib. In personality and in courage, this man is the Himalayas. I have thus had the experience of witnessing the Himalayas."

Bangabandhu remained firm in his belief in secularism. At that NAM Summit in Algiers, Libyan President Gaddafi and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia asked Bangabandhu to change the name of Bangladesh from ‘People’s Republic’ to ‘Islamic Republic’. But, Bangabandhu, courteously rejecting the proposal, said that the people of Bangladesh, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians, fought together to realise their rights, for their independence.

Another golden feather in the cap of Bangabandhu was the membership of the United Nations and his historic speech at the General Assembly in September 1974. The entry of Bangladesh into this world body was thwarted several times by China. It first exercised its veto in 1972 and throughout that year and the next, Beijing refused to let Dhaka take its rightful place, clearly out of its support for Pakistan, in the world body. However, the UN General Assembly in mid-September, 1974 unanimously approved the membership of Bangladesh in the UN as its 136th. The following week, Bangabandhu spoke before the General Assembly in Bangla, the first time any leader to have delivered a speech in Bangla in the UN.

In that speech, Bangabandhu spoke courageously about establishing equal rights, world peace and justice for the oppressed. He called for an end to the arms race, saying huge resources were wasted in this unnecessary completion for the welfare of mankind. He also vowed to build a peaceful world free from the threat of nuclear war. It must be said that Bangabandhu’s historic speech in Bangla at the United Nations won widespread international publicity and made this larger-than-life politician of Bangladesh the voice of the ‘oppressed world’.

Bangabandhu was an epitome of peace and harmony, firmly believing that weapons can never bring peace. His charismatic leadership, great patriotism, towering personality and unflinching ideology made him a leader ‘extraordinaire’.

The world statesman that he was, Bangabandhu always dreamt of building a secular Bangladesh, where people of all religions will live in peace and harmony. As he so frequently used to say, “My strength is that, I love human beings. My weakness is, I love them too much”.

As a western journalist Cyril Dunn once observed of Bangabandhu, “His physical stature was immense. His voice was redolent of thunder. His charisma worked magic on people. The courage and charm that flowed from him made him a unique superman in these times”.

Writer: Senior journalist, former radio broadcaster with the BBC World Service, political commentator, sports analyst and cultural activist.