Sheikh Mujibur Rahman believed Bangladesh could be the Switzerland of the East. It is time to reclaim that belief
Syed Badrul Ahsan | 06 Mar, 2020
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Photo: Alamy)
THE PEOPLE OF Bangladesh prepare to observe the centenary of the birth of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founder, on March 17th this year.
With extensive programmes undertaken by the government to celebrate him and hail his seminal contributions to the making of Bangladesh’s history, Dhaka prepares to welcome high-profile visitors from abroad on the occasion. High on the list is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on whose watch ties between India and Bangladesh have warmed to increasingly comfortable levels. Moreover, inviting the Indian leader is a reassertion of the gratitude Bangladesh’s people have always demonstrated to India in light of New Delhi’s moral and material support to the Bengali cause in 1971.
Born in Tungipara village in Bangladesh’s Faridpur district on March 17th, 1920, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman—revered as Bangabandhu, friend of Bengal, by his people—spent a total of 13 years in prison in Pakistan before leading his nation to freedom at the age of 51. At 55, he was assassinated by renegade soldiers in the Bangladesh army (along with almost his entire family in a coup d’etat on August 15th, 1975).
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was larger than life, yet remained rooted to his land all his life. The pipe was his trademark. No matter where he happened to be—in prison, at home, at conferences or meeting foreign heads of government—that pipe was his constant companion. Bangabandhu was fond of his pipe, which he filled with Erinmore tobacco. In his conversation with the celebrated British television host David Frost in early 1972, he made it a point to let the latter know just how important that pipe was to him. And he smoked it in style, with grandeur. To his already pronounced gravitas, the pipe only added more, with a dash of elegance befitting a statesman.
It was a habit that suited the Mujib personality only too well. Tall for a Bengali—he stood above 6 feet—with a thick moustache that strengthened his hold on public imagination, with a voice deep and profound, with thick, old-fashioned spectacles, the leader of the Bengali nation mesmerised audiences both at home and abroad. On his way back home from London by way of Delhi in January 1972, as he rose to address an Indian crowd come to see him after all those months of war in his newly independent Bangladesh, he began his remarks in English. The crowd, almost all of which was non-Bengali, was in the mood for his famous public-speaking skills in Bengali. Indira Gandhi, sensing the desire of the crowd, requested him to speak in his native Bengali.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was unequivocal about the foreign policy Bangladesh would pursue under his leadership. He defined it in simple terms. The new country would base its ties with the world beyond its frontiers on the principle of friendship for all and malice towards none
The result was a powerful declamation about his thoughts on politics, his struggling country, India’s contribution to Bangladesh’s efforts to free itself of foreign subjugation.
It was quintessential Mujib. Nearly 10 months in solitary confinement in Pakistan, with no access to newspapers, radio or television, had not dimmed his ardour when it came to a discourse on politics. He spoke without notes, as he always did, captivating his audience. That too was part of his character. His oratory was all. He stood tall and erect as he spoke, moving his head from side to side, as if telling the crowd he had them all in his vision, that everyone was part of the occasion. And then there was that famous finger which rose steadily in the air as he spoke, to emphasise the point he was making. The raised finger symbolised his grit and determination.
Mujib made it a point to look his visitors or hosts in the eye as he conversed with them. Not for him a shifty attitude, not for him any nervousness or shyness. At the Round Table Conference in Rawalpindi in February 1969—and that was only within days of his release from the Agartala Conspiracy Case—he looked at his tormentor Ayub Khan directly as he shook hands with him. It was Ayub who was unable to match Mujib in that moment of drama in the history of Pakistan. Confidence was natural to Mujib. At the White House in 1974, he sat with his legs crossed, puffed on his pipe as he spoke to US President Gerald Ford. The old charisma was there. Indeed, his charisma never went away, never died. He lit up a room, any room, he made his way into. There was little of the formal about him, but much of garrulity. It was his voice which boomed across the space, wherever he happened to be. When to that voice was added humour, the result was electric. Mujib’s sense of humour was legendary. He could crack jokes; he could mimic other politicians. And he had the ability to laugh at himself. In conversation, his laughter came from deep within, loud and reverberating. There was something deeply natural about it. He was the life of the party.
Music was a passion for Bangabandhu. In music, he sought deeper meanings for his politics and those meanings came from Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. Tagore’s ‘Amar Shonar Bangla’ , which became the national anthem of Bangladesh, was deeply embedded in his soul. Nazrul’s songs of rebellion were part of his political repertoire. In the rivers of Bangladesh, he spotted cadences of melody as he travelled by boat from one part to another. In his trek through the villages, hundreds of them, he felt the music that spoke of freedom for an oppressed people. He was the poet who added to the melody.
Tall for a Bengali—Mujibur Rahman stood above 6 feet—with a thick moustache that strengthened his hold on public imagination, with a voice deep and profound, with thick, old-fashioned spectacles, the leader of the Bengali nation mesmerised audiences both at home and abroad
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman respected people. At the approach of academics, scholars and so many others, he rose to his feet as a mark of his respect for them. His office was more a room for a congregation of people and ideas; his visitors were a mix of the great and the humble. As a man of the people, he never differentiated between individuals and between classes. Humility was his strength.
SHEIKH MUJIBUR RAHMAN was unequivocal about the foreign policy Bangladesh would pursue under his leadership. He defined it in simple terms. The new country would base its ties with the world beyond its frontiers on the principle of friendship for all and malice towards none. It was this axiomatic thought, with its roots in the politics of Civil War-era American President Abraham Lincoln, which Bangladesh adopted as core policy in the early years of its nationhood. In the years in which Mujib was in office, till his assassination in August 1975, a sense of dynamism coupled with a huge dose of idealism was what constituted Bengali diplomacy soon after liberation in December 1971.
The foreign policy adopted by Bangabandhu’s administration necessarily took into account the support, in moral as well as material terms, provided by those nations which clearly looked upon the genocide committed by the Pakistan occupation army in the country with dismay and derision. In early April 1971, Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny left hardly anything to the imagination when he wrote to Pakistani junta leader Yahya Khan that the crisis in Bangladesh, which at that point in time was still being referred to as East Pakistan in the outside world, called for a political settlement.
Yahya Khan, of course, spurned the suggestion and indeed looked upon the Soviet advice as interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs. Islamabad’s negative feedback was thus instrumental in a hardening of Moscow’s stance towards Pakistan and the subsequent role it played in the creation of Bangladesh. The new government in Dhaka, conscious of the decisive Soviet role at the UN Security Council, where Moscow vetoed all resolutions that looked about to prevent the fall of Pakistan in Bangladesh, certainly understood the need for close ties with the Soviet Union.
Mujib believed that in order for India and Bangladesh to reinforce the links forged during the war, it was important that Indian troops went back and let the new country get on with its work. Dhaka was not in the mood to be seen as being under Delhi’s influence
It was against such a background of Soviet support to the Bangladesh cause in 1971 that Mujib paid an official visit to Moscow in March 1972. This was one occasion where the Bengali political leadership, for the very first time, came in touch with the leaders of the communist state, a move which led to a strengthening of economic as well as educational ties. A constructive outcome of such close Dhaka-Moscow links was the facilitating of higher academic programmes for Bengali students at Soviet universities, a reality that was to add enormously to the promotion of excellence in education. And, of course, Soviet assistance in clearing Chittagong port of the remnants of the 1971 war and helping to rebuild it were greatly to the advantage of a country which had had its economy battered and its infrastructure destroyed by the conflict.
Equally important in Bangladesh’s foreign policy were relations with India. The generosity of spirit with which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Government came to the support of Bangladesh’s people in 1971, especially in accommodating 10 million Bengali refugees, providing space for the Mujibnagar government to operate in and wage a diplomatic campaign in Bangladesh’s support, were acknowledged with gratitude by the people and government of Bangladesh. More importantly, the entry of Indian forces in the war in December 1971, following the attack on Indian territory by Pakistan, and the eventual surrender of the Pakistani forces before the joint command of the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini were a re-assertion of the growing links between the two countries. Therefore, a strong, constructive bonding with India was in order.
And Mujib believed that in order for the two countries to reinforce the links forged during the war, it was important that Indian troops went back and let the new country get on with its work. A singular contribution of Bangabandhu’s government was thus the return of India’s soldiers from Bangladesh. Dhaka was in little mood to be seen as being under the influence of Delhi. Indian soldiers trooped back to their country a few days before Indira Gandhi paid an official visit to Dhaka in March 1972. And then came a defining moment in relations between the two neighbours when Bangladesh and India initialled a 25-year treaty of friendship that would have them come to mutual support in the event of hostilities imposed by other nations on either of them.
The period between 1972 and 1974 can justifiably be regarded as a bright era in Bangladesh’s diplomacy. Mujib’s government earned, in those two critical years, the rare honour of seeing most nations in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas accord it diplomatic recognition. That Bangladesh was committed to pursuing a secular democratic structure was a powerful factor in persuading other nations of the need to give the new nation its rightful place in the councils of the world. It was a policy that led to the Bangladesh cause, after liberation, being looked upon with a greater degree of support and empathy.
It can be argued, therefore, that Bengali secular democracy, having been acknowledged by the world as Bangladesh’s defining diplomatic principle, led to a swift opening of doors everywhere. The country made its entry to various global organisations, particularly those linked to the UN. Again, though Bangladesh had little political reason to be part of the Commonwealth, it nevertheless made it be known that it was ready and willing to play its full part in the organisation. Dhaka’s membership of the organisation certainly riled Pakistan, which immediately quit the Commonwealth (only to go back a few decades later).
BANGLADESH’S EFFORTS TO obtain a place at the UN were decisively blocked through an exercise of the veto by China in 1972. Indeed, through 1972 and 1973, the Chinese leadership refused to let Dhaka take its place on the world body, clearly out of an unwillingness to let Pakistan down. The Chinese action surely dismayed Bangabandhu. Yet, he was unwilling to be critical or condemnatory of Beijing’s position.
It was political pragmatism which came into play. For, Mujib, together with Foreign Minister Kamal Hossain, was in little doubt that until Bangladesh and Pakistan reached a deal on issues that put up roadblocks to a normalisation of ties between Dhaka and Islamabad, Beijing would go on playing the veto card Such an assessment entailed, of course, a powerful requirement for a change of perceptions where links with Pakistan were concerned. The change came in February 1974, when Bangladesh’s entry into the then Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) threw up a new dimension to its diplomacy. Indeed, the OIC summit, held in Lahore, was instrumental in burnishing Bangladesh’s image on the global scene.
Mujibur Rahman was convinced that nothing short of non-alignment would enable the global community to steer away from the hard choices it would have to make between the Soviet bloc and American policy
That was for two reasons. The first related to Pakistan, which had been in a state of denial regarding Bangladesh’s emergence as an independent state but which now was forced to accord official recognition to the new country if it wished to make a success of the Islamic summit. Bangladesh’s secularism notwithstanding, the country was home to a population with a Muslim majority, which could not be ignored. The second was Bangladesh’s diplomatic opening-out, at virtually one go, to the Islamic world. The perception at the time was that through joining the OIC, Bangladesh had filled a major gap in its diplomacy and was therefore now equipped to forge ahead with exploring trade and other possibilities with the Islamic world.
Bangladesh’s foreign policy regarding the US, in the initial stages, was informed by a couple of positions. First, Bangabandhu and his government were grateful to the American people for their unqualified support to the Bangladesh cause in 1971. Second, it was critical of the Nixon-Kissinger tilt towards Pakistan during the war, a positionthat clearly militated against the Bengali war of liberation. It was not easily forgotten that where American politicians like Senator Edward Kennedy were loudly rooting for Bangladesh in 1971, the Richard Nixon administration consistently explored the chances of a negotiated settlement between the Yahya Khan regime and the Bengali political leadership even when the opportunity for such a settlement did not exist after March 25th, 1971.
The lengths to which the US administration was prepared to go towards promoting a settlement within the Pakistani federal structure were soon revealed through reports of Khondokar Moshtaque, the Mujibnagar government’s foreign minister, being ready to make a departure from the position of the government and lend his support to the American plan during his projected trip to New York. The intrigue, for so it was, was neutralised through the government’s preventing of Moshtaque from traveling to New York. His place was taken by Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, the self-exiled Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University then serving as a special envoy of the Mujibnagar government.
The Bangladesh government’s diplomatic successes were surely capped by Washington’s recognition of Bangladesh in April 1972. Though ties between the two countries were somewhat soured by the American position regarding Bangladesh’s trade deals with Cuba, the government in Dhaka was careful not to let slip the opportunity of building on its newfound links with Washington. Bangladesh made a significant move through making contact with the World Bank, a step that demonstrated the government’s determination to pursue an independent foreign policy through an exercise of pragmatism in its dealings with foreign nations in an era yet constricted by the Cold War.
In much the same manner, Bangabandhu and his government were convinced that nothing short of non-alignment would enable the global community to steer away from the hard choices it would have to make between leaning towards the Soviet bloc and aligning itself with American policy. Bangabandhu was keenly aware of the damage done to Pakistan through its membership of such anti-communist blocs as SEATO and CENTO; and because he was, it was his observation that the path traversed by Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sukarno and Josip Broz Tito in the 1950s was one his country needed to take if its goal was to carve a distinctive niche for itself in the world.
The principles on which Sheikh Mujibur Rahman shaped Bangladesh’s foreign policy are in absolute need of re-assertion. Bangladesh’s founder believed, out of conviction and moral belief, that Bangladesh could be the Switzerland of the East. Given the trauma the Bengali nation has faced in the years since his assassination, the relevance of that belief rises out of the mists of time. The message is patent and unmistakable: Bangladesh is in need of reclaiming the goodwill and respect of the international community, sentiments which once came its way through the nobility of its cause and the sagacity of its leadership. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman personified that cause and that sagacity. The legacy is today being upheld by his daughter, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.