The main worry and concern now was the fate of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. There was anxiety about him despite the surrender in Dacca and the unilateral ceasefire coming into force in the western theatre of war.
Before recalling the high drama that attended Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s release by Pakistan and his return to Dhaka, note should be taken of the deliberate distortion of the causes of the war which had just concluded. It is important for the peoples of Bangladesh and India to remember that a number of Islamic countries viewed the Bangladesh liberation struggle as a confrontation between Islam and India, and not as a genuine liberation war launched by the Bangladeshis. Several Muslim countries gave Pakistan direct military aid. Saudi Arabia lent Pakistan 75 fighter planes, the Libyans another 60. Even The late King Hussain of Jordan, with the connivance of the United States, supplied Pakistan with ten American F-104 aircraft, circumventing the formal US embargo on American military supplies to Pakistan. Both Afghanistan and Iran provided temporary landing and storage facilities to Pakistani Air Force planes, providing them “defence in depth.” The Pakistani military’s continued crackdown on Muslim civilians and between March and December 1971 the genocide and the rejection of the political aspirations of Bangladeshis, a majority of whom are Muslims, found no sympathy or objective response from many Muslim countries. India and Bangladesh had to stand up not only to the hostility of the two superpowers of the US and China and to indifference of the western democracies but also to the uncomprehending opposition of Islamic countries. That they succeeded in resisting this combined pressure was entirely due to the deep commitment and grit of the freedom fighters of Bangladesh and India’s unswerving conviction that the cause of Bangladeshis was just.
The military victory liberated Bangladesh but it left many problems to be tackled, some of which have been mentioned earlier. None knew how the defeated military regime of Pakistan would deal with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Will they execute him in frustration? Will they keep him jailed for a long time? Will they release him and let him go back to Bangladesh? One waited for answers to these and many other questions. There was a great degree of uncertainty regarding Mujibur Rahman’s fate between December 16, 1971 and January 5, 1972. India had reports that the Americans and the western democracies were exerting considerable pressure on Pakistan to release Mujibur Rahman and let him return to Bangladesh. With the appointment of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as Deputy Prime Minister of Pakistan early in December, 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s fate rested more on Bhutto’s inclinations. Given the bitterness of Bhutto about Mujibur Rahman and the background of his opposition to Mujib becoming prime minister of Pakistan early in 1971, the Bangladeshi and Indian anxieties were only heightened. But being politically astute and having been subjected to pressures from the Americans and western democracies, Bhutto agreed to release Mujibur Rahman. An unconfirmed deal which was reported at that time was that Bhutto wanted Mujibur Rahman to persuade India to release the 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war with India. He also had asked Mujibur Rahman to prevent, to the extent possible, war crime trials of Pakistani officials in Bangladesh or India. These unconfirmed reports indicated that Mujibur Rahman’s response was fairly positive on the first demand—the release of Pakistan prisoners of war. About the second demand Mujibur Rahman was reported to have told Bhutto that he would have to examine the public mood and the legal position before deciding on war crime trials. He said the decision would not be purely on political and emotional grounds, arising from the liberation war and events preceding it.
I had come back from the Security Council meetings on December 24. I received information from our intelligence sources on the morning of January 7, 1972 that Mujibur Rahman had been released and flown to an unknown destination from where he was to make arrangements for his return to Dhaka. By monitoring Pakistani international telephone calls and through other sources, we learnt by the late afternoon of January 7 that Mujibur Rahman had been flown to Ankara in Turkey from where he was to go to London. By the morning of January 8 Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abdus Samad Azad along with a senior official of the newly constituted Bangladesh Foreign Office, Farooq Ahmed Chowdhury, arrived in Delhi. Samad informed DP Dhar that Mujibur Rahman would be flying back to Dhaka on January 9 afternoon. He also indicated that Mujibur Rahman would like to make a stop-over in Delhi en route to convey his thanks to the government and the people of India and to Mrs Indira Gandhi for the support which India had given to Bangladesh’s liberation struggle.
Under instructions from Mrs Gandhi, we asked our High Commission in London to convey to Mujibur Rahman that India would like to lay on a special Air India or Air Force flight to bring Mujibur Rahman from London to Delhi and then to take him on to Dhaka. Significantly, Mujibur Rahman refused this offer. He said he would fly back on a special “British Overseas Airways” aircraft. The signal was obvious and logical from his point of view. He did not wish to return to Dhaka in an Indian aircraft which would symbolise his dependence on India and would be interpreted that he was under Indian influence. He chose to travel by a British aircraft to assert his capacity for independent decision-making and also to indicate his inclination to establish independent links with other countries beginning with the UK whose colonial influence still affects the sub-conscious of sub-continental political classes. Mrs Gandhi and the Indian leadership were a little put off by this rejection of the facilities which India had offered.
Mujibur Rahman landed at the technical area at Palam airport early in the morning at 7:30 a.m. on January 9 and was received by Mrs Indira Gandhi and the entire Indian Cabinet. From Palam he moved to the Army Parade Ground in the Delhi Cantonment, nearly a hundred thousand people thronged the ground. Mujibur Rahman and Mrs Gandhi addressed this public gathering. Mrs Gandhi was moderate, thoughtful and analytical in her speech. She expressed her happiness and satisfaction at Bangladesh’s liberation and especially at Mujibur Rahman’s release. Mujibur Rahman was deeply emotional in his speech of thanks, a major portion of which was drafted by Farooq Ahmed Chowdhury who was wearing several hats in the emerging foreign office. He was Director General in charge of South Asia, and he was the chief of protocol. He was also functioning as Special Assistant to the Foreign Minister. I still recall the very pertinent inclusion of an ancient Hindu scriptural chant in Farooq Ahmed Chowdhury’s draft speech. He made Mujibur Rahman “in-tone” the prayer “let Bangladesh travel from untruth to truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.” It was a spontaneous flight of literary and spiritual feeling in which Farooq indulged.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman stopped over in Delhi for about three hours and then flew to Dhaka accompanied by his Foreign Minister, Abdus Samad Azad, and a number of Bangladeshi officials and politicians who had flown in to Delhi to receive him. Mujibur Rahman arrived at Tejgaon airport in Dhaka around 2:30 p.m. and was received by acting President Nazrul Islam, Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed and the Indian representative, AK Ray. He was taken in a procession through the city. Nearly two million delirious people welcomed his return home. He assumed office as president the same afternoon as he had remained the designated president of Bangladesh since the first day of the establishment of the Mujibnagar Government. In his public statements he affirmed that Bangladesh would make a new beginning as a member of the international community and would have no rancour or prejudice. He declared that he wished to have good relations with all countries of the world and he hoped that the international community would be sympathetic towards the needs, concerns and aspirations of the new state of Bangladesh.
JN Dixit was the first Deputy Commissioner of India in Bangladesh who later became the Indian Foreign Secretary.
This excerpt is taken from JN Dixit’s book “Liberation and Beyond: Indo-Bangladesh relations” (UPL: 1999).