A charismatic leader, dedicated and committed to the cause of Bangladesh, he encapsulated his vision for his new country at Palam Airport, New Delhi on 10 January, 1972. He described his journey to a free Bangladesh as 'a journey from darkness to light, from captivity to freedom, from desolation to hope'. He also reiterated that he was going back to his independent country 'not with hatred in my heart for anyone, but with the satisfaction that truth has at last triumphed over falsehood, sanity over insanity, courage over cowardice, justice over injustice and good over ill'.
Bangabandhu's magnanimity and belief in the people of Bangladesh was reflected in his optimism. It was also this spirit that would inspire him to face up to the many difficulties that he would have to overcome in the coming months not only with regard to reconstruction of war devastated Bangladesh but also pertaining to the unfolding paradigm of the newly independent country's engagement within the matrix of international affairs. He knew that he had to tread this difficult path with care and sensitivity.
A statesman, a gifted orator, Bangabandhu, quite naturally was overwhelmed with emotion after setting foot for the first time in independent Bangladesh. His speech delivered on 10th January at Suhrawardy Udyan (within a few hours of his arrival) was masterly in its pragmatic approach and in the advice for the victorious people of Bangladesh. At this first opportunity, he did not fail to warn that no one should 'raise' their 'hands to strike against non-Bengalis. At the same time, he displayed his concern for the safety of the 'four hundred thousand Bangalees stranded in Pakistan'. While re-affirming that he harbored no ill-will for the Pakistanis, he was also clear in pointing out that 'those who have unjustly killed our people, they will surely have to be tried'.
In another significant assertion in the same speech, he pointed out to the Muslim world (to counter false and contentious Pakistani propaganda that Bangladesh had ceased to believe in Islam) that 'Bangladesh is the second largest Muslim state in the world only next to Indonesia'. He also drew their attention to the fact that 'in the name of Islam, the Pakistani army killed the Muslims of this country and dishonored our women. I do not want Islam to be dishonored'. He also appealed to the United Nations 'to constitute an International Tribunal to enquire and determine the extent of genocide committed in Bangladesh by the Pakistani army'.
The above views were inter-related and demonstrated his determination not only to hold a war crimes trial but also to point out that Islam had been abused by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. It was also this outlook that led him later on to strongly express his regret on 10th February, 1972 (in a message sent to Tenku Abdur Rahman, Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation- OIC Secretariat) and admonish the OIC that 'during the last nine months (of 1971) when three million Bengalis were killed in cold blood by the West Pakistani forces you did not raise your voice to stop the killing of innocent Muslims and members of other communities in the second largest Muslim State'. This riposte was fired after the OIC Secretary General expressed his anxiety over the treatment of 'Biharis and non-Bengali Muslims' in Bangladesh.
It may be recalled that later, on 17 April, 1973, after the completion of investigations into the crimes committed by the Pakistan occupation forces and their auxiliaries, it was decided to try 195 persons for serious crimes, which included genocide, war crimes, crime against humanity, breach of Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, murder, rape and arson. It was also decided that the trials of such persons and others associated in planning and executing such crimes would be held in accordance with universally recognized judicial norms. This argument and the related judicial process were to be central till his murder in August 1975. Unfortunately, his death also resulted in the setting aside of the entire judicial process.
Bangabandhu took keen interest in foreign policy and encouraged the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to undertake initiatives not only for obtaining recognition of Bangladesh by other countries and in the establishment of diplomatic relations but also in Bangladesh becoming a member of important International Organizations. At every opportunity, during his own visits abroad, or that of the Foreign Minister, it was underlined that Bangladesh was determined to maintain fraternal and good neighborly relations, uphold secularism and adhere firmly to the basic tenets of non-alignment, peaceful co-existence, mutual cooperation, non-interference in internal affairs and respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty.
This vigorous effort enabled us to move forward in the arena of international relations very quickly. By 26 March, 1972, when we were celebrating our first anniversary of independence, 54 countries from Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America had already recognized Bangladesh (as opposed to less than 10 before his return to Bangladesh). It took time for the USA to accord recognition- it came about near the middle of 1972.
This smooth process of transition was however considered incomplete because of the stubborn decision by some countries not to recognize Bangladesh. The players in this short list included Pakistan and some of her major friends- the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, People's Republic of China, Iran, Turkey and the then Libyan Arab Republic. Pakistan drew the support of Iran and Turkey on the basis of these two countries having been partners with Pakistan within the paradigm of Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD).
The situation was particularly galling given the fact that the Islamic bloc had watched the tragic genocide in Bangladesh in 1971 from the sidelines and had kept quiet. Bangabandhu and many other members of his cabinet at that time, all pious, practicing Muslims felt especially frustrated because Bangladesh had spurned indirect offers by Israel offering de-jure recognition. Bangladesh had welcomed recognition from most Muslim countries and naturally felt that its emergence should have been welcomed by all other Arab states.
The opposition of China also had critical ramifications in Bangladesh obtaining membership of the United Nations.
This state of affairs was predominantly disappointing for the vast Muslim population in Bangladesh, who constituted the majority within the country. Absence of recognition from Saudi Arabia also meant that Bangladeshi citizens were unable to undertake Hajj, one of the pillars of Islam.
The number of States which recognized Bangladesh however increased sharply by the end of 1972. I believe this was largely due to the positive measures undertaken by Bangabandhu and also because of the fact that he was able to persuade India to withdraw its troops from the territory of Bangladesh.
Within a short time after that, Bangladesh became a member of the Non-Aligned Group, the Commonwealth, the ILO and the WHO and started playing an important role in the diplomatic arena. We obtained the status of Observer in the United Nations but were however unable to become a Member because of the veto power of China (a close ally of Pakistan). This was particularly disappointing for Bangabandhu as he held China with great respect and often recalled his own visit to that country in 1956.
Our not being a Member of the United Nations however did not deter Bangabandhu from seeking the humanitarian intervention of the then United Nations Secretary General Dr. Kurt Waldheim on 27 November, 1972 in arranging the repatriation to Bangladesh of innocent Bangalees detained in Pakistan in different camps. He did so because Pakistan was trying to politicize the issue and link their repatriation to the release of Pakistani POWs who had surrendered to the joint command of Bangladesh and Indian forces. This concern on his part was an example of his love for his countrymen.
These efforts on the part of Bangabandhu and indirect pressure from Egypt, the then USSR, Afghanistan, India, Iraq and Japan led to the UN Secretary General Waldheim visiting Bangladesh on 9 February, 1973 to discuss with Bangabandhu how to help Bangladesh in its reconstruction efforts. This eventually led to the formation of the United Nations Relief Operations, Dhaka (UNROD) and subsequently United Nations Relief Operations Bangladesh (UNROB ) after we became a Member of the United Nations in 1974.
Bangabandhu with his foresight understood that the best way forward would be to seek the direct support of Egypt, Iraq and Syria, whose leaders were significant in terms of the Arab League and the OIC whose headquarters was in Cairo, Egypt and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia respectively.
The necessary opportunity presented itself through the Egyptian- Syrian- Israeli war in 1973. Bangabandhu seized this opportunity to demonstrate Bangladesh's active interest in supporting the efforts of Egypt and Syria viz-a-viz Israel. It was this insight on his part that led Bangladesh to proactively engage with Egypt and Syria in this war. This was done consistent with Bangabandhu's directions to the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry that at every opportunity, in every international forum, particularly in meetings organized by the Non-aligned bloc, Bangladesh should continue to reaffirm that Israel should withdraw from Arab territories occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. This became a conscious principle of our foreign policy. Our participation in the Non-aligned Summit in Algiers from 5 to 9 September, 1973 also clearly indicated to the Islamic world that Bangabandhu and Bangladesh was not afraid to acknowledge the important role that President Fidel Castro was playing in Cuba.
On 27 August, 1973, Saudi Arabia announced a cut in the oil supplies meant for the USA. It was explained that this step had been taken to force a change of US attitude towards Israel. The situation continued to deteriorate and 13 September saw mass aerial dogfights develop high over the Mediterranean near the Israeli-Syria border. Israel claimed that 13 Syrian planes had been shot down and this was a form of warning for Syrian President Hafez Assad- who had just returned from talks in Egypt with President Anwar Saadat.
Matters came to a head on 6 October when Egypt under the leadership of General Shazly, its Chief of General Staff, and Syrian Armed Forces launched surprise attacks on two fronts against Israel. The Egyptians seized the opportunity of Yom Kippur, an Israeli religious festival for this action. It had affected Israel's level of alertness and enabled them to build pontoon bridges and cross the Suez Canal into Sinai. Syria also invaded the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and rapidly advanced 15 miles leading to the recapture of Mount Hermon. Israel responded by advancing into Syria proper, ending up within 20 miles of its capital, Damascus. The strategic situation gained further volatility on 17 October when the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) agreed to increase oil prices by 70 per cent and also cut back its production.
The connotations were becoming critical for a LDC country like Bangladesh struggling to find its feet after a devastating war in 1971.
On the direction of Bangabandhu an emergency meeting took place in his Office on 18 October. In addition to the Foreign Minister, the Acting Foreign Secretary and myself (in my capacity as Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with education in Arabic and past experience as a diplomat based in Cairo) the meeting was attended by some senior members of the Cabinet and a representative from the Army Medical Corps. After lengthy discussion it was decided by Bangabandhu that Bangladesh would dispatch a team of medical personnel from our Armed Forces to help the Syrian army personnel stationed near the Golan Heights and also provide a gift of tea for the embattled Egyptian troops in Sinai.
Bangabandhu pointed out that this decision had symbolic denotations and would establish the fact that Bangladesh with its Muslim identity was standing next to Egypt and Syria in their trial against Israel. The Bangladesh Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Civil Aviation were made the focal points. British Caledonian Airways from whom Bangladesh Biman had chartered an aircraft was used for carrying out Bangabandhu's instructions. Four tons of dried Bangladesh tea, in wooden boxes, available medicine and a contingent of medical personnel became passengers of the aircraft with Bangabandhu deciding that I would lead this delegation as representative of the Government of Bangladesh. This difficult task of transporting the tea and the medical team was completed on 19 October, 1973 with the help of the Egyptian Embassy in Dhaka and the Syrian Consulate in Libya. The plane landed in BenGhazi, Libya and from there by road the tea was sent to Cairo, Egypt and the medical team dispatched first to Egypt and then from there to Syria.
This courageous step by Bangabandhu and Bangladesh was greatly admired not only by Egypt and Syria but also by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan. It clearly demonstrated to those Muslim countries who were being misled by Pakistani propaganda that Bangladesh needed to be brought into the fold of the OIC and the Islamic bloc.
This foresight on the part of Bangabandhu and friendly gesture eventually led the King of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Algeria and Syria to exercise their influence on the OIC and Pakistan to not only invite Bangladesh to participate in the OIC Summit held in Lahore in February, 1974 but also for Pakistan to recognize Bangladesh on a reciprocal basis. On 22 February, 1974, an OIC Member State team led by Sheikh Sabah the then Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Kuwait (currently the Emir of Kuwait) arrived in Dhaka with a delegation and later informed Bangabandhu that Pakistan had agreed to recognize Bangladesh. Bangabandhu and a ten member Bangladesh delegation, that included me, subsequently went to Lahore, Pakistan on 23 February. The mutual recognition dynamics took place there. Bangladesh also became a member of the OIC.
This measure also meant Bangabandhu having bilateral meetings with the leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Turkey. It also encouraged Bangladesh to open its Embassy in Tehran, Iran on 24 July, 1974. The Bangladesh Mission was also accredited from there to Ankara, Turkey.
The second half of 1974 also witnessed several other significant movements forward in Bangladesh's foreign policy initiatives, particularly within the Islamic world.
On 17 September, 1974 during its 29th Session, Bangladesh became the 136th Member of the United Nations. This led to Bangabandhu addressing the United Nations General Assembly in Bangla on 25th November. During his historic speech he reiterated his belief in friendship towards all and enmity against none. This was greatly appreciated by Member States, particularly the Muslim bloc.
This respect for Bangabandhu was underlined during his official visit to Iraq on 8 October, 1974. While there he had discussions with President Hasan al Bakr and Vice Chairman of the Revolutionary Council Saddam Hussain. At that critical juncture the Iraq authorities provided Bangladesh with a loan of US Dollar 40 million to help in the import of food grains. This had special ramifications given the displeasure of the United States over the meeting between Bangabandhu and Fidel Castro. This greatly helped the Bangladesh government reduce the effects of famine that was creeping into certain regions of the country. The rest of the Muslim world also noted the fact that Bangabandhu prayed at the graves of Hazrat Ali and also at the grave of Hazrat Abdul Qader Jilani. This was re-affirmation of his piety as a Muslim.
This visit was followed soon afterwards with Bangabandhu going on a visit to Egypt on 6 November, 1974. This enhanced bilateral relations between the two countries, particularly in the area of bilateral cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries. The last four months of 1974 also saw Bangabandhu visiting the United Arab Emirates on the invitation of Zeid bin Sultan al Nahyan. This helped to promote bilateral relations pertaining to economic development. This process was also witnessed with the welcome visit to Dhaka, Bangladesh by King Abdul Halim of Malaysia. This visit was helpful in smoothing over bilateral relations between the two countries- suffering from the osmotic effect of the criticism by Bangabandhu on 10th February, 1972 of Tenku Abdur Rahman, former Prime Minister of Malaysia and Secretary General of the OIC Secretariat for failing to protest during 1971 when three million Bengalis were killed by the West Pakistani forces in Bangladesh.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman played a critical role in overcoming obstacles, in unifying the war affected population and branding Bangladesh throughout the world. A pious person, who believed in non-communalism and was averse to sectarianism, he became through his foreign policy the symbol of successful secularism throughout the Islamic world.
Muhammad Zamir is a former Ambassador and Distinguished Fellow, Bangla Academy is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at <[email protected].