FORTY years ago, the People's Republic of Bangladesh made its entry into the United Nations as its newest member-state. The event was not only a reaffirmation of the country's determination to play an active role in the international community as a sovereign nation but also an acknowledgement by the global body that the aspirations of seventy five million people, as Bangladesh's population was at the time, could not be ignored.
Bangladesh's arrival at the UN was not a sudden event. Indeed, since the beginning of the War of Liberation in late March 1971, its leaders had been pressing the world body to take cognizance of the tragedy unfolding in the occupied country owing to the brutalities resorted to by the Pakistan army. As the UN prepared for its General Assembly session in autumn 1971, the Bangladesh government-in-exile appeared ready to send Foreign Minister Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed, accompanied by a team of Bengali politicians and diplomats, to New York to speak for the country.
But Moshtaque would in the event be compelled to stay at Mujibnagar. The reason was simple and grave. It had been revealed that in New York, the foreign minister of Bangladesh would in all probability decide, on his own, that Bangladesh was ready for a confederation or similar links with Pakistan as a way out of the crisis. His rightwing views had manifested themselves earlier on when he told a group of Bengali luminaries that the choice was between getting Sheikh Mujibur Rahman freed and having Bangladesh achieve liberation. His contacts with American diplomats in Calcutta only reinforced the suspicion that once in New York, Mostaque would torpedo the entire course of the War of Liberation.
Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad, in a shrewd move, decided what needed to be done. He stopped Moshtaque from proceeding to New York and entrusted Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, formerly vice chancellor of Dhaka University and at the time directing Bangladesh's diplomacy in London, with the responsibility of speaking for Bangladesh at the United Nations. Justice Chowdhury did travel to New York, where he sought an opportunity to address the UN General Assembly on the Bangladesh issue. For understandable reasons and since a very large number of UN member-states considered the crisis an internal matter for Pakistan, Chowdhury was not permitted to speak at the UNGA. Asked later by newsmen if Bangladesh's cause had been pushed aside, he replied that he did not think so. He was sad, though, because 'we have not been heard.'
In a curious move of its own, the Pakistan military junta of General Yahya Khan thought that one way of deflecting attention away from the Bangladesh war would be to have a Bengali head the Pakistan delegation to the UNGA. It was the rightwing politician and at that point a fervent supporter of the military repression in Bangladesh, Shah Azizur Rahman, who was chosen leader of Pakistan's UN team in 1971. With Shah Azizur Rahman was Syeda Razia Faiz, who had served as a member of the Pakistan national assembly in the Ayub Khan era. Ironically, in post-1971 times, both Shah Aziz and Razia Faiz would find places in Bangladesh's politics. The former would be prime minister under General Ziaur Rahman, with the latter serving as a minister under General Hussein Muhammad Ershad.
Towards the end of 1971, the Bangladesh issue became a matter of intense concern at the United Nations, especially after India and Pakistan went into direct military conflict on 3 December. The war would turn out to be a swift, surgical affair with Pakistan's forces in occupied Bangladesh getting a battering from the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini. Pakistan's air force was destroyed in Bangladesh by Indian bombing. On the western front, Indian soldiers were making deep inroads into Pakistani territory. As town after town stood liberated in Bangladesh, a number of moves were made at the United Nations Security Council to have a ceasefire take effect. Resolutions to that end were proposed and then rejected. It was the Soviet Union which vetoed all resolutions that called for a halt to the conflict. To Bangladesh's intense gratitude, the Soviet leadership made sure that all resolutions be thrown aside until Dacca (as it was spelt then) was liberated. And that is precisely how things happened.
At the UNSC sessions, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (who had been appointed deputy prime minister and foreign minister by President Yahya Khan in a cabinet led by the Bengali Nurul Amin as prime minister), put on a show of amusing theatrics. Irked by reports that Pakistan's soldiers were losing the war, he told the UNSC that Pakistan would fight for a thousand years and emerge victorious. It was real life drama at its worst. Bhutto tore up what was given out as a copy of a proposed UN resolution for a ceasefire and stomped out of the Security Council chamber. Bangladesh stood liberated on 16 December. Bhutto returned to Rawalpindi four days later, to be sworn in as truncated Pakistan's new president and chief martial law administrator.
For all its triumph on the battlefield, though, Bangladesh would not become a member of the United Nations until three years later. Soon after liberation, the process of the country's entry into important global bodies --- the Commonwealth, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Non-Aligned Movement, International Labour Organisation --- would be undertaken and implemented. But Pakistan's friendship with the People's Republic of China, which itself had attained UN membership in 1971 after decades of American opposition to its entry, precluded Bangladesh's admission into the world body. Pakistan still considered Bangladesh its eastern province of 'East Pakistan'. Taking Pakistan's emotions into consideration, China exercised its veto on Bangladesh's entry into the UN twice --- in 1972 and 1973. In 1973, UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim visited Bangladesh for talks with Bangabandhu. Only after Pakistan recognized Bangladesh as an independent state in February 1974 did Bangladesh's UN objectives find fulfillment. At the UN General Assembly in September 1974, with no country making use of the veto on its membership application, Bangladesh became a member of the global organization. Foreign Minister Kamal Hossain raised Bangladesh's flag, among the panoply of flags representing other UN member-states, at the UN plaza in New York.
On 25 September 1974, the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, spoke to the world in his native Bengali --- from the podium of the UN General Assembly --- of a peaceful world order his people dreamed of.
In subsequent years, Bangladesh would seek and attain membership of the UN Security Council. Humayun Rashid Chowdhury would serve as president of the UN General Assembly. The country would become a major partner in UN peace keeping operations worldwide.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.