January 10, 1972, shall remain a historic milestone in the annals of Bangladesh's political history because on this day the towering patriarch, fondly called Bangabandhu (Friend of Bengal) by ever grateful Bangalis, came home to his people after suffering nine months of illegal incarceration in Pakistani prison. It was indeed a painful journey from all-enveloping darkness to bright light and freedom. The homecoming of Bangabandhu assumed special significance because the military victory on December 16, 1971, happened when the progenitor and emancipator of our liberation struggle was away in hostile distant land in unknown conditions. Thus, when the supreme leader came home as a freeman in an emotion-charged situation, the joy of the people knew no bounds.
Bangabandhu's homecoming was significantly different from that of Ayatollah Khomeini's return from France to Iran in 1979 or even the release of Nelson Mandela from 25 years of captivity in South Africa because his return meant the commencement of an epoch-making march of a new nation, which suffered one of history's worst genocide. A fledgling nation, badly bruised both physically and psychologically by nine months of unprecedented savagery of a rogue military junta, needed a commanding and caring stewardship. Fortunately, Bangladesh enjoyed providential blessings in having Bangabandhu in the tumultuous immediate aftermath of liberation, to provide the urgently required stability that in turn ensured Bangladesh's international recognition as a sovereign entity.
It is worth recalling that Bangabandhu never wilted for a moment during his captivity in Pakistani prison and did not compromise his stance even when approached by the then president of Pakistan for retaining some links with that country. We also need to know that on his historic journey to Bangladesh via London and New Delhi he displayed statesmanlike acumen and farsightedness.
On January 8, 1972, at a news conference in London, Bangabandhu said that an independent Bengali nation was now "an unchallengeable reality" and appealed to all countries to recognise the new government and provide aid so that "millions of my people may not die". Prime Minister Edward Heath who was out in the country, quickly returned to 10 Downing Street to meet Bangabandhu. They talked for an hour and. Heath promised Britain would do all she could to help in the economic emergency.
In the following press conference, Bangabandhu said: "Gentlemen of the press, today, I am free to share the unbounded joy of freedom with my fellow countrymen. We have earned our freedom in an epic liberation struggle. The ultimate achievement of the struggle is the creation of the independent, sovereign peoples' Republic of Bangladesh, of which my people have declared me president while I was a prisoner in a condemned cell awaiting the execution of a sentence of hanging."
Before reaching home Bangabandhu made a brief stopover in New Delhi where he was welcomed as the president of Bangladesh. Seventy five million jubilant Bangalis watched their head of state inspect an honour guard before setting off for the historic Race Course Maidan, the same venue where echoes of his March 7, 1971 clarion call to liberty was still being heard. The nation needs to know that during this brief stay in New Delhi, Bangabandhu succeeded in obtaining Indian premier's assurance about the expeditious withdrawal of Indian troops from the soil of Bangladesh. By all accounts, this was an extraordinary feat of statesmanship.
Reaching Bangladesh on January 10, 1972, Bangabandhu once again delivered a memorable speech at the same Race Course Maidan where he gave the clarion call for emancipation and independence on March 7, 1971. While the March 7 speech was heralded as the declaration of the struggle for emancipation and independence, the January 10 speech drew up guidelines for the new nation, on how to realise the spirit of those struggles with courage and patriotism.
Bangabandhu said that his life's desire has been fulfilled as the people of Bengal have been liberated and Bengal would remain free. In an emotion charged voice he said: "I did not know I was sentenced to death by hanging. A grave was dug for me beside my cell. I prepared myself. I said I am a Bangali, I am a Man, I am a Muslim—who dies once, not twice. I said, if death comes to me I will die laughing. I will not die dishonouring my Bengali nation, I will not beg your pardon. And will shout while dying, Joy Bangla, Free Bangla, Bengal is my nation, Bangla is my language, the land of Bangla is my abode."
One can see the extraordinarily unbounded love and deep commitment of the Poet of Politics, as Bangabandhu was portrayed by the western media, to his people. Quite explicit in the speech was Bangabandhu's firm realisation of his ethnic and religious identity. His humane self and vision was brilliantly manifest when speaking about the Urdu-speaking non-Bangali population stranded in Bangladesh, he said firmly, "I am saying to my brothers, do not mistreat them. We are humans, we love humans."
Bangabandhu also said, "my brothers, you know, we have a lot of work to do. I want all my people to begin work on the construction of the roads where broken. I want you all to go back to the field and cultivate paddy." He concluded by saying that, "We will remain independent if Allah wills. The struggle shall continue as long as a single living soul exists in Bangladesh."
The magnificence of Bangabandhu's persona continues to evoke enviable admiration from many despite the ill-conceived efforts of a mischievous quarter to downplay and erase him from public memory. History, however, has conferred such an immortal honour on Bangabandhu that long after his sad demise he exerts an authority over the nation which is unparalleled and majestic in its solitary history. He confronted life with a tight-lipped courage and his unquenchable spirit was to set sail beyond the sunset. The walls were crumbling and an obstinate military junta collapsed while Bangabandhu stood like a heroic figure at the gates of dawn challenging the new day.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP of Bangladesh.