Recognition, as equals
Decem-ber 6, 1971. Three days into Pakistani pre-emptive strikes on Indian bases, the escalation of tensions in the subcontinent led Bhutan to accord diplomatic recognition to Bangladesh, followed by India only hours later.
This particular Indian reaction to the developments in our struggle for freedom came in response to successive appeals made from the highest level of the Mujibnagar Government to the Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, first on October 15, 1971 and later on November 23, 1971, to confer immediate recognition to the sovereign People's Republic of Bangladesh. This meant that a milestone had been achieved—while the nation was struggling to attain victory in a war that was still raging, its independence was recognised by two neighbouring nations.
For those who had been campaigning on various political fronts for international support for the armed guerrilla struggle in hitherto East Pakistan, the focus had now shifted to securing acknowledgement of its existence as the youngest nation in the world, which, in a bipartisan globe of the post-World War II era, would be no easy feat.
The military hostility between Bangladesh and Pakistan that ended on the evening of December 16, 1971 saw new battle lines being drawn. From day one, Pakistan engaged itself in a smear campaign against the true case of the emergence of Bangladesh. For decades since independence in 1947, Pakistan found themselves an ally in the United States of America, and a longstanding friend in China. Their role in the Muslim world was an important one, as it had been the most populous Islamic nation of that time.
In the military conflict that spanned between March 25, 1971 and December 16, 1971, India had been our closest supporter; on an international platform, it was followed by assistance extended by the Soviet Union. This alone was enough for the world to perceive that the foreign policy of the new nation, if it ever saw the light of day, might be aligned to the socialist block.
During the Liberation War of 1971, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi travelled extensively around the world to present the cause of Bangladesh, and as time went by, made a wholehearted effort to justify the impending military action. Upon his release from jail in Pakistan, post December 16, the stage was set for the hero to return home.
While in transit at London, Bangabandhu made a call to PM Gandhi, thanking her for the overwhelming support her administration and the nation of India had extended to Bangladesh and for the recognition that was accorded well in advance of eventual victory in the war. Upon his return to Dhaka, Bangabandhu took the oath as Prime Minister and unequivocally expressed his will that the nation shall maintain a non-partisan stance in international relations, along non-aligned lines. Bangabandhu expressed his desire to make Bangladesh the "Switzerland of the East".
By the time Bangladesh applied for membership of the United Nations in September 1972, it had already been recognised as an independent entity by most nations of the globe, including strategically important recognition coming from the United Kingdom and the USA as early as February and April 1972 respectively.
The first people to establish diplomatic relations with Bangladesh were the countries of Eastern Europe, particularly the signatories of the Warsaw Pact. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) took the lead on January 11; the USSR gave recognition on January 24.
This was followed by a series of successes with the nations of the European Union, and eventually countries from all over the world—including Australia, Canada, and Japan. Malaysia acted in late January, followed by other ASEAN nations. Senegal was the first African country, and by the end of 1972 all global political powerhouses except Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and China had extended the courtesy of official recognition.
Bangladesh joined the Commonwealth of Nations on April 18, 1972. It was the first major global platform that the nation decided to be a part of. In a situation when Bangladesh could once again use all the foreign help it could garner, joining the Commonwealth has always been seen as one of our decisive victories in foreign policy.
It may now seem contradictory to the principles of international relations that the nation was hoping to cling to, but even in the first summit attended by Bangladesh, following her entry into the Commonwealth, in Ottawa, Canada in 1973, Bangabandhu led the Bangladesh delegation and reiterated what this nation stood for when it came to global politics. In his statement, the Bangladesh Prime Minister highlighted the nation's keen desire to pursue a non-aligned policy, adding that these objectives had been formulated on the basis of our political, economic and socio-cultural aims and interests, keeping in mind the needs of the time. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman expressed the same logical view while addressing the fourth Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit at the Algerian capital, between September 5–9, 1973.
As a young politician, Mujib was quick to realise the dynamics of power and how the poor are taken advantage of. His acumen as a politician made him the undisputed leader of the new nation, and he realised that the bipolar Cold War reality of the world cannot benefit Bangladesh. He understood quite rightly that Bangladesh must remain neutral but embrace the hands extended in friendship, by whoever and whenever. This was the Bengali way, and one the new nation adopted as its foreign policy.
By the beginning of the year 1974, Bangladesh had joined important platforms and made allies among developing nations as well as developed countries. Despite the fact that the matter of the prisoners of war and stranded Bengalis had been resolved, Pakistan had not recognised Bangladesh as a sovereign nation. But that was about to change.
In February 1974, the Summit of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), most of whose members had already recognised Bangladesh, was scheduled to be held in Lahore. The OIC volunteered to make peace between Pakistan and Bangladesh and sent the then Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Shaikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Sabah to Dhaka. Negotiations continued as Bangabandhu insisted on and ensured mutual recognition of both Bangladesh and Pakistan, instead of only Pakistan recognising Bangladesh. Talks were fruitful, and the Bangladeshi delegation flew to Lahore.
Ever since September 1972, the country had attempted to become a member of the UN and for three consecutive years, China exercised its veto at the general council to prevent it. Although every failed attempt generated an air of discomfort in foreign relations, the entire experience generated no visible frustration on Bangladesh's part. The administration of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took rigorous measures to convince ally states to withhold recognition to Bangladesh; personal requests were made to several heads of states in this regard. At the prospect of Bangladesh gaining membership of the Commonwealth of Nations, Pakistan made a commitment to leave the forum if Bangladesh was indeed conferred membership. It was not until the 90s that Pakistan renewed its membership at the Commonwealth, after leaving it in 1972.
Pakistan also broke off ties with Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Poland as retaliation in the light of formal engagement at the highest level between the countries and Bangladesh. However, the nation had to back away from this belligerent tactic as more and more of its friends were impressed with the new leadership of the state of Bangladesh.
Between December 6, 1971and August 15, 1975—the day Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was brutally assassinated—the Father of the Nation and a group of young, enthusiastic diplomats ran a campaign that brought one victory upon another in foreign relations. Bangladesh was quick to prove that it was possible, even for a state ravaged by the brutalities of war, and a struggling country trying to make ends meet, to stand with heads held high and achieve what is rightfully theirs—a position to stand along all nations of the world as worthy equals.
Mannan Mashhur Zarif is a Senior Subeditor at The Daily Star.