• Sunday, October 26, 2014

National Mourning Day

August 15: Bangabandhu's daughters

Nauman Rasheed Chowdhury

BANGABANDHU and most of his family were assassinated at about 04:45 Dhaka time (00:45 German as well as Yugoslav time) on Friday August 15, 1975. The news was muddled for quite some time and Ambassador Humayun Rashid Chowdhury first heard of the coup at about 03:30 (German time) from a telephone call curiously from an extraordinary 65-year old German journalist, Gisela Bonn. This was confirmed by other calls coming in from various Bangladesh Embassies in Europe in the subsequent hours. The last call was at 06:00 from the Late Sanaul Haq, Bangladesh Ambassador to Belgium in whose house Sheikh Hasina, her family and Sheikh Rehana were guests.  

On hearing of Bangabandhu's death, Sanaul Haq asked his guests to leave immediately, (which in retrospect was most uncharitable and ignominious) and would Humayun Rashid Chowdhury take them. After some reflection, he agreed and asked that Sanaul Haq provide transport to bring them from Bruxelles as the Bonn Embassy would be short of transport because he had to go to Frankfort to receive the Foreign Minister, Dr. Kamal Hossain who would be transiting on his way from Belgrade to Turkey. However, Sanaul Haq refused this as well. Finally, it was agreed that Sheikh Hasina and all her family would travel from Bruxelles to Aachen on the German-Belgium border and Ambassador  Chowdhury would send two cars to Aachen to bring Sheikh Hasina and family to his residence in Konigswinter (a village very close to Bonn).

The order of events as mentioned in Dr. Wajid Miah's book (quoted by Mizanur Rahman Khan in his May 24 article in Prothom Alo) is very accurate. Sheikh Hasina and family left Bruxelles for Aachen at 10:30 local time. They were picked up at Aachen at around 13:00 and they arrived in Konigswinter at 16:30 on August 15, 1975.

Quite coincidentally, at about 12:00 on August 15, 1975, Dr. Kamal Hossain and the late Ambassador Rezaul Karim arrived as per schedule from Belgrade in transit to Turkey where they were to attend another function before returning to Dhaka. Dr. Kamal Hossain had heard of the coup just before leaving Belgrade and was not sure who had been murdered and who had survived (actually, no one outside Dhaka -- and very few inside -- was certain at that exact time).

Dr. Kamal Hossain decided at Frankfort airport that his trip to Turkey was meaningless under the circumstances and that he would proceed instead to London with Rezaul Karim. As citizens of a Commonwealth country, no visa was required for travel to the UK for Bangladeshis in 1975. Tickets for travel from Frankfort to London were bought but a problem occurred in confirming the flights. No seats on any flights were available until early next morning (August 16). Thus, they would have to spend one night in Germany. Ambassador Chowdhury invited them to stay at his house in Konigswinter, which they accepted. German visas were quickly issued for a short stay. It was only at this stage in Frankfurt, that Dr. Kamal Hossain learned that Bangabandhu's daughters would also be  staying in Konigswinter. Indeed, both Dr. Kamal Hossain and Sheikh Hasina and family arrived at Konigswinter within half an hour of each other.

Indeed, both daughters were extremely distraught and had to be comforted. Somehow the question of a press conference arose. Ambassador Chowdhury contacted Gisela Bonn who said that she would set it up and that indeed the press wanted to speak to him because a rumour was spreading in Bonn that the two daughters of Sheikh Mujib were being held against their wishes in Konigswinter. Sometime in the evening of August 15, some members from Deutsche Welle, the German Broadcasting Authority and reporters from Frankfurter Allgemaine Zeitung and Die Welt visited the house in Konigswinter but they could get comments from no one except from Ambassador Chowdhury. Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana were too distraught. Dr. Kamal Hossain refused to talk or meet with the reporters.

Eventually, Sheikh Rehana was persuaded to come down and confirm that they were not being held against their will. This was aired on the West German radio on August 16 and in the newspapers either on the next day (Saturday August 16 or on Monday August 18, 1975. Please note that Saturday August 16 and Sunday August 17 were the weekend in West Germany. The archives of Frankfurter Allgemaine Zeitung or Deutsche Welle (DW) on either August 16 or August 18 can be checked for confirmation).

Dr. Kamal Hossain and Ambassador Rezaul Karim left the next morning (August 16) for London. Now the question of guaranteeing the safety Sheikh Hasina and her family arose. They obviously could not return to Bangladesh. Thus, asylum somewhere was necessary. Naturally, Humayun Rashid Chowdhury being the Ambassador to West Germany as well as Austria would try for asylum in West Germany and Austria. But asylums take a long time to be processed in most countries. It can be fast-tracked if someone influential gets involved but even that takes some weeks. It can be processed in a matter of days only if so desired by head of government and usually only if the asylum seeker is a public figure. Note that until August 15, 1975, although Bangabandhu was an international figure, Sheikh Hasina, Sheikh Rehana and Dr. Wajid Miah were mere family members. Presumably, this is why the obscure Yugoslav offer of asylum, if such offer was indeed made, was not heard of before Sheikh Hasina and her family had left Germany for India.

Again the extraordinary Gisela Bonn, who knew everybody who was anybody in Bonn, and apparently in Vienna and Berne too, was contacted to assist. But nothing moved very fast.

As almost an afterthought, the question of asylum in India arose. At a diplomatic function in Bonn, Ambassador Chowdhury asked the Indian Ambassador to West Germany, a very suave but elderly Mr. Puri, if India would provide asylum to Sheikh Hasina and her family. Mr. Puri said that he would find out.

The next day he met with Ambassador Chowdhury in his office and said that he (Mr. Puri) would have to go through his Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi and the asylum process would be long. He came up with the idea that Ambassador Chowdhury had previously built up quite a reputation in New Delhi when he was the Chief of the Bangladesh Mission in New Delhi before independence and a few months thereafter. He (Ambassador Choudhury) was liked by the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi and her powerful advisors D.P. Dhar and P.N. Haksar. So in Puri's presence, Humayun Rashid Chowdhury booked a call to D.P. Dhar and P.N. Haksar (phone numbers provided by Ambassador Puri) but both were out of the country. He hesitated to call Mrs. Gandhi because of the difference in their status, she being the Prime Minister of India and he a mere Ambassador of Bangladesh. He indeed had met many times with Mrs. Gandhi in 1971 and in early 1972 but had no contact since. Three years is a long time in politics. Moreover, Mrs. Gandhi had a few problems of her own. Her infamous Emergency Rule of 1975-1977 in India had started only two months earlier.

But nothing was moving with any other country. So on August 18, he put in a call from the Konigswinter residence to Mrs. Indira Gandhi's office in New Delhi, not expecting to get beyond the Indian telephone operator. He was immensely surprised when Mrs. Gandhi actually received the call. He explained the predicament of Bangabandhu's daughters and Mrs. Gandhi immediately agreed to offer them asylum in India and make the necessary arrangements as soon as possible.

The Indian Ambassador, Mr. Puri, called Ambassador Chowdhury on August 19 to say that he had received instructions from his Foreign Minister in New Delhi to immediately prepare for the safe travel of Bangabandhu's daughters and their family to India from Germany.

But one further problem remained. Dr. Wajid Miah was studying on a fellowship at one of the prestigious research faculties at Karlsruhe, a picturesque town in South Germany not far from the French border. So he had to wind up his affairs there and the family had to pack all their belongings before leaving for India. A question of security after they would leave Konigswinter arose. Again Gisela Bonn was contacted and managed to get assurances for their security whilst in German territory, from the German Interior Minister the next day, August 20.

Thus, with assurances of asylum in India and of security whilst on German territory, Sheikh Hasina, Dr. Wajid Miah, Sheikh Rehana, Joy and Putul left Konigswinter on August 21 for Karlsruhe and after less than a day, flew to New Delhi.

The writer is the son of the late Humayun Rasheed Choudhury.

Published: 12:00 am Friday, August 15, 2014

TAGS: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Bangabandhu August 1975 National Mourning Day August 15

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