One of the most memorable events that took place in the history of Bangladesh was on the day when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman landed as a free man in the free land of the United Kingdom after having spent nine agonising months in Pakistani gaol. The date was January 8, 1972.
It was a cold frosty British morning. I could not press the accelerator of my Ford Cortina deeper in my impatience to reach the man under whose banner and in whose name we all, almost all, fought the Liberation War. He called me from the Alcock and Brown VIP Suite of London’s Heathrow airport to make the historic announcement that he had landed in freedom and was awaiting his representative. In the absence of Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, I was then acting as head of the unofficial Bangladesh Mission in London.
As soon as I arrived, the senior Pakistani Air Force officers and the crew of the PIA plane that transported Bangabandhu, withdrew. It was a highly emotionally charged moment, for both of us, when I addressed him, being first among his fellow citizens, as president of sovereign, independent Bangladesh. The tears that rolled down his cheeks were those of joy—he could see the leadership he had given to a movement that came to its natural fruition under the active leadership of his followers to achieve the inevitable—freedom for the nation. Those which went down mine were also of joy—at long last, our combined efforts to secure freedom of our leader were crowned with success.
The movement for an independent Bangladesh which gained wide popular support evoked sympathy of world leaders and prompted many of them to urge and even press for the release of the Bangladesh leader, Sheikh Mujib, from Pakistani prison. On the other hand, the treacherous arrest of Bangabandhu by the Pakistani junta on March 25 generated overwhelming support of foreign powers for the cause of an independent Bangladesh. The person who contributed most by his relentless efforts and judicious guidance to the success of this movement abroad was the late Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, Special Overseas Representative of the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, who was appointed as such by the exiled government at Mujibnagar.
I now wonder how I did what I did. But I did have the audacity to chide the great leader by raising my forefinger at him, albeit affectionately, when I defied his orders to take him to the President Hotel in Russell Square, a favourite joint for London students. Instead, I pleaded and succeeded in obtaining his consent to settle him at the same suite of the posh Claridges Hotel that used to be reserved for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Yahya Khan. Having worked as Political Counsellor at the Pakistan High Commission earlier, I was knowledgeable in these matters. My friend and Head of South Asian Division in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Sir Ian Sutherland, later came to the airport to receive Bangabandhu as Her Majesty’s government’s representative.
Bangabandhu decided to travel by my old car, with myself at the steering, instead of using the limousine provided by the British government. He listened intently to the story of the nine-month-long Liberation War, his first briefing of the glorious deeds of his people. I was sweating with nervousness, hoping that no mishap would befall us on the slippery rain-soaked route, thereby causing bodily harm to my valued passenger which could not have been done even by Pakistani troops or the junta so long.
At the hotel, the problem arose about how to accommodate requests of thousands of people to pay homage to Bangabandhu and those of the swarming journalists for an exclusive interview. We decided to allow groups of five persons to visit him at a time. My colleagues at the Mission worked relentlessly and rendered invaluable service to organise this and to make other necessary arrangements during this occasion which passed off successfully. The security factor constituted the most dominant concern for all of us.
The decision of holding a press conference, instead of exclusive interviews, caused some of my journalist-friends like Serajur Rahman of the BBC and the celebrated show-journalist David Frost to be most unhappy. The ballroom of the Claridges was packed like sardines with media personnel representing all parts of the globe. I had the great honour to introduce the person who needed no introduction and whose words the world was waiting most eagerly to hear. Bangabandhu read out the speech I had the privilege of drafting originally to be brushed up by his fellow traveller, Dr Kamal Hossain. Only change the leader made in the draft was to add the words, “people of the USA” to the list of the countries to whom he was to convey gratitude for their sympathy, support and assistance during the liberation war. I had also prepared a list of probable questions journalists could ask which he saw with interest but did not ask me to prepare its answers. The adroit manner in which he answered questions left us in delightful wonder.
Bangabandhu had a highly packed schedule and despite his travel fatigue he endured the stress and strain admirably well and, as a matter of fact, looked cheerful and happy. I had the great pleasure of connecting him on telephone to Begum Mujib and then to Prime Minister Gandhi. A stream of notable visitors came to pay respects to the leader of the newly-independent state. Among them were the former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Commonwealth Secretary-General Arnold Smith, great benefactor for Bangladesh (Lord) Peter Shore and a host of other legislators and sympathisers for our cause. Arnold Smith talked to Bangabandhu about the possibility of Bangladesh to be a member of the Commonwealth and received positive assurance. The process started immediately after recognition of Bangladesh by Britain and other countries and was completed shortly thereafter. In the afternoon, British Prime Minister Edward Heath cut short his customary weekend sojourn at Chequers and returned to 10 Downing Street to receive Bangabandhu. The talks comprised substantive matters.
The day and the better part of the night passed off amidst great commotion. Bangabandhu chose to fly by the British Comet, though people were told an Air India plane was to carry him home. It was a ploy for a decoy for the purpose of keeping secrecy in order to ensure security which was greatly warranted. Bangabandhu wanted me to accompany him back to Dhaka, as per requirement of protocol. But, following the advice of the Indian High Commissioner Appa Pant that I should stay back in London to calm down our compatriots for the unscheduled and hurried departure of Bangabandhu, the decision was reversed. At about 5 O’clock in the morning of January 9, I whisked Bangabandhu away by the rear service door of the Claridges, to evade publicity, for the airport. At about 6 O’clock, the British Comet took off for Nicosia, for refuelling, en route to New Delhi for its final destination of Dhaka, with the Head of British Foreign Office Sir Dennis Greenhill and myself waving goodbye and wishing a safe return home to the VVIP passenger.
Some friends asked me, being an adviser to the BNP, how did I dare write about Bangabandhu in glowing terms, without causing consternation and mistrust of fellow party members. My reply was simple. These events are historical facts and the truth will be duly vindicated. It would merely be a matter of time. In any case, one should aim to be fair and truthful, even in politics. Furthermore, can one deny that all those who participated in the war of liberation did so with Bangabandhu’s portrait or image over their head? The answer is in the negative. The notable participants included even the founder of the BNP, Shaheed President Ziaur Rahman, who made the declaration of independence in the name and on behalf of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. One must not forget that neither can the past be denied because of the present nor the present be ignored because of the past.
MM Rezaul Karim was a former foreign secretary of Bangladesh.
(First published by The Daily Star on January 8, 1998)