From death row to deafening cheers
The date January 10, 1972 will remain etched forever in golden letters in the history of Bangladesh. On this day, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the dreamer, the architect, and the supreme commander of the historic War of Independence of Bangladesh, returned to the country after spending 290 days in a Pakistani prison.
Getting Bangabandhu out of the prison was no easy job. One episode of drama unfolded after another in Rawalpindi, especially in the cantonment, where senior generals put extreme pressure on General Yahya Khan to start his trial in a military tribunal. They all wanted to hang him on charges of waging war against Pakistan. Accordingly, a military court was formed, and the trial of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman started on August 11, 1971. Two British lawyers wanted to represent him in the trial, but the Pakistani government did not entertain their request. The court declared the verdict on December 4, sentencing him to death.
It is obvious that at that crucial juncture of history, Bangabandhu's life was poised perilously below the proverbial Sword of Damocles. Gallows was being prepared, and a grave was being dug for the brave Bengali—who still stood tall and towering over his captors. But time was slipping away fast every minute.
Sensing the urgency of the situation, a vigorous international diplomatic campaign was set in motion by the powerful leaders of friendly countries and the Bangladesh government in exile, to put pressure on the military generals. Meanwhile, after the defeat of the Pakistan Army in the erstwhile East Pakistan, Pakistan's new prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, deposed Yahya Khan and put him under house arrest. Powerless, Yahya expressed his anger saying he should have hanged Mujib long ago.
The Pakistan government and the generals were in an indignant mood after their ignominious defeat in Bangladesh on December 16, 1971, and having to surrender in Dhaka along with over 90,000 soldiers to the joint command of Bangladesh and India. They were still wrathful enough to find an opportunity to kill Bangabandhu. But, when last-minute diplomacy failed, and the US ambassador at Rawalpindi met with Bhutto on January 3 to talk about his release, the Pakistani generals finally realised that they had been completely ditched by their so-called friends like the US and China.
Despite pressure from the blood-thirsty army generals, a clever Bhutto sensed correctly that he needed to use Bangabandhu to negotiate the return of 90,000 Pakistani soldiers from India. That was needed to consolidate his power in the country.
Therefore, with their backs against the wall, the Pakistanis had no other option but to swallow their pride and free Bangabandhu on January 8, 1972. Like a wounded predator, they watched their prize catch walk away to freedom.
The news of Bangabandhu's release and journey towards Dhaka reached the people in Bangladesh on January 9. Rifle fires and machine gun bursts and "Joy Bangla" slogans kept the residents of Dhaka awake throughout that night. In the early morning of January 10, people started to walk towards the airport in Tejgaon in groups. Senior leaders of the Awami League's wartime government, headed by Tajuddin Ahmed, managed to reach the airport in a number of cars. Senior military, police and civil administration officials were also present at the airport.
There was an overwhelming presence of the local and international press at the airport. We had never seen so many foreign correspondents at one place before. We talked with some of them and learnt that they had flown in from Kolkata and New Delhi in the morning to cover the big event.
The sun began to incline towards the western sky, and we began to worry whether Bangabandhu was really coming today or there had been some kind of miscommunication. Finally, in the afternoon, a shining aircraft of the Royal Air Force of Britain appeared in the sky over Dhaka, and the huge crowd shouted in a thunderous voice, "Joy Bangla," "Joy Bangabandhu." The long wait was over.
As the plane touched down and taxied to the marked spot at the airport, Bangabandhu came out of the door and filled his lungs with the sweet air of his beloved country. We heard the boom of the 21-gun salute given by the artillery regiment of the Bangladesh Army to mark the homecoming of the supreme leader. He waved at the crowd, came down the stairs and stood on the soil of a free and proud country. He smiled as he listened to the thundering roar of a million people outside… "Joy Bangla," "Joy Bangabandhu."
The people were caught in the frenzy of the magical moment with broad smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes. Many could not believe their eyes as they saw Bangabandhu walking towards the car waiting for him on the tarmac. Witnessing the whole episode was a lifetime experience for us.
Millions had walked to the airport from different corners of the city, and now they walked alongside the car carrying their beloved leader to the Ramna Race Course venue. Everything else stopped on the track; nature paused to listen to the invigorating slogans of "Joy Bangla," "Joy Bangabandhu."
At the Race Course Maidan (now Suhrawardy Udyan), Bangabandhu spoke to his countrymen in an emotive voice. He narrated how he was arrested on the fateful night of March 25 and taken to Pakistan. He shared some of his experiences in jail and the uncertainty of the last couple of days. He mentioned the heroic role each Bengali played during the nine-month Liberation War, facing colossal odds. He talked about the brutality of the Pakistani soldiers throughout the length and breadth of Bangladesh, and lamented the deaths of millions of Bengalis. He cried while talking about the female victims who had suffered in the hands of the barbaric Pakistani soldiers.
Bangabandhu, while recalling the contribution of every countryman during the war, urged the people to help him rebuild the war-ravaged country. Millions of hands went up in the air to assure Bangabandhu of their support.
The timing of his return was of the essence. The country was badly in need of cash currency, food and relief goods to feed 75 million people who had lived hand to mouth for nine months. With Bangabandhu at the helm, relief started to pour in every day. The friendly countries were also waiting for his return to formalise the issue of recognising Bangladesh. Recognition of major countries provided Bangladesh with the political clout it needed to negotiate terms in various world forums. He successfully motivated the heavily armed freedom fighters to lay down their weapons and go back to normal life. He also had to address the internal affairs of the Awami League and form a new cabinet.
When we look back, we remain convinced that Bangabandhu's presence was of utmost importance as remnants of enemy forces were still holing up in the country, and their armed collaborators were still active with illegal weapons in their possession. Decisive actions were required to neutralise those anti-state elements. And the government needed to establish a firm control over the administration, which had not been amalgamated as yet. The issue of the return of the Indian forces could only be addressed by Bangabandhu.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's return to his base was the final chapter in the epic War of Independence of the country.
Shahnoor Wahid is a senior journalist.