‘A tumultuous and triumphal homecoming’
On January 17, 1972, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was featured on the cover of Time magazine. The cover illustration used a yellow diagonal label that cuts across the magazine's iconic red title "TIME" to write: "Bangladesh: From Jail to Power". The image of a bold Sheikh Mujib donning a black prince coat with a splash of white collar peeking out of it complements his salt and pepper grey hair and moustache. His brown skin against the blue canvas makes the subtitle Sheikh Mujibur Rahman synonymous to Bangladesh under the new azure sky. For nine months, the country was incarcerated just like he was in a jail in Lyallpur, Pakistan. Mujib returned from jail on January 10 not only to assume power but also to make his people feel powerful in an independent country. The illustration depicts worries in the brown eyes of the charismatic figure that capture the tenor of the cover story.
"The rape of the country continued right up until the Pakistani army surrendered a month ago. In the last days of the war, West-Pakistani owned businesses—which included nearly every commercial enterprise of the country—remitted virtually all their funds to the West. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) left exactly Rs 117 (USD 16) in its account at the port city of Chittagong. The army also destroyed banknotes and coins, so that many areas now suffer from a severe shortage of ready cash. Private cars were picked up off the streets or confiscated from auto dealers and shipped to the West Pakistan before the ports were closed" (Time, January 17, 1972). The worries that are written on Bangabandhu's face then are no surprise.
Only days before the story was published, Bangabandhu was allowed to leave Pakistan for London on a special cargo flight of the PIA. As the flight took off, the newly appointed Pakistan President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who came to see him off at Islamabad Airport, told his entourage, "the bird has flown" (SA Karim Sheikh Mujib: Triumph and Tragedy, pg. 254). Why they didn't kill the bird while it was in the cage is an issue often used by the opposition to muddy the waters!
According to the Time story, Bhutto didn't have any choice but to set Mujib free. "A Mujib imprisoned, Bhutto evidently decided, was of no real benefit to Pakistan; a Mujib dead and martyred would only have deepened the East Bengali's hatred of their former countrymen. But a Mujib allowed to return to his rejoicing people might perhaps be used to coax Bangladesh into forming some sort of loose association with Pakistan" (pg. 6).
Bhutto held two meetings with the imprisoned Bangabandhu to "coax" him into maintaining future bonds. The first foreign secretary of Bangladesh SA Karim gives some insights into the days preceding Bangabandhu's return. Bhutto tried to befriend Bangabandhu by posing himself as a saviour figure who allowed him to be released from Mianwali jail—a place where he himself was imprisoned by the Ayub regime—and brought to the Sihala Rest House in Rawalpindi on December 26, 1971. Bhutto even quoted his predecessor General Yahya, who had to hand over power to him after the inglorious surrender of the Pakistan army, saying, "Mr Bhutto, I've made the greatest blunder (of my life) of not killing Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Now kindly allow me, before handing over power, to kill Sheikh Mujibur Rahman giving ante-date, back-date hanging and then hand over power" (pg. 251). Bangabandhu's "personal experience" of Bhutto allowed him to treat his counterpart's statements "with a certain amount of circumspections" (Karim pg. 252).
Bangabandhu at that point of time had no knowledge of Bhutto's meeting with the Nixon administration that envisioned "a stabilising role [of Mujib] in emerging Bangladesh" (pg. 250). The released documents of the US government show that Bhutto told the US Secretary of State and President Nixon that he did not see Mujib's influence lasting in Bangladesh for more than three months. A clever Bhutto hid the international pressure by orchestrating public opinion before freeing Mujib. He addressed a rally of his 100,000 supporters in Karachi, asking, "Do you want Mujib freed?" The crowd roared a resounding yes, and the President acted like Pontius Pilate while deciding the fate of Jesus to say, 'You have relieved me of a great burden.'"
Bangabandhu's return to Dhaka on January 10, in the words of Srinath Raghavan, is both tumultuous and triumphal (1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh). The day after India formally got engaged in the war, a military tribunal in Pakistan sentenced Sheikh Mujib to death. He was flown from Lyallpur jail to Mianwali jail in a helicopter, and was kept in a specially vacated accommodation in the female ward. The other Pakistani inmates stirred a raucous riot shouting they did not want to share their prison with "a traitor". From his cell he could hear the digging of a grave. The Pakistani officer denied the thought by saying that a trench was being dug in the event of aerial bombardments. Once the war was lost, Pakistan had to return Mujib—but they tried to hide the fact of their loss.
The Pakistanis decided to send Mujib to Dhaka through Tehran to avoid Indian air space. Later they decided to send him to London in an unscheduled flight at 5:20 in the morning on January 8, 1972. Mujib called up the acting head of the unofficial Bangladesh mission Rezaul Karim from the VIP lounge. The envoy could not believe his ears when he heard the voice that woke him up: "Rezaul Karim, this is Sheikh Mujib." It was from Rezaul Karim, he heard from the first time Bangladesh had won independence. Mujib wanted to stay in a small hotel in Russel Square, but the expatriate students sponsored for his stay in Claridge's as it was a better fit for a head of state.
In his 26-hour stay in London, Mujib suddenly became a leader of a potential Commonwealth country. The British PM Edward Heath returned from his weekend visit to Chequers to meet him at 10 Downing Street. A Royal Air Force jet was allocated to him for his return to Dhaka. The plane made a brief fuel stop in Cyprus before coming to New Delhi. At the Palam Airport, Indian President VV Giri and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi came to receive him.
A natural spokesman, Mujib addressed the crowd who came to see him, saying, "I decided to stop over in this historic capital of your great country, on my way to Bangladesh, for this is the least I could do to pay a personal tribute to the best friends of my people… I am at last going back to Sonar Bangla, the land of my dreams after a period of nine months. In these nine months my people have traversed centuries. When I was taken away from my people, they wept; when I was held in captivity, they fought; and now when I am back to them, they are victorious" (The Voice of Freedom, Bangla Academy, pg. 219).
Bangabandhu's diplomatic acumen is reflected in his polite refusal to take an Indian plane from New Delhi. He declined the suggestion by saying that it would be graceless for the RAF Comet to return to London without finishing its mission to return Mujib to Dhaka. On landing at Old Dhaka Airport, Bangabandhu received a tumultuous welcome. Instead of going to his residence, Bangabandhu went to the Race Course in an open Dodge truck, where he addressed a spontaneous gathering of thousands of people. Here in the race course, he told the Pakistanis, once and for all, "You have your independence. Let us have our independence."
Shamsad Mortuza is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.