On the cold morning of 8 January 1972, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman arrived in London after his release from incarceration in Pakistan.
On 22 December 1971, the Bangladesh government in exile came home to a liberated country. As the sun went down, Acting President Syed Nazrul Islam and Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad, along with the rest of the cabinet and other Awami League political figures, arrived at Dhaka's Tejgaon Airport from Calcutta.
On the same day in Rawalpindi, Pakistan's new President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ordered Bangabandhu's removal from his cell in Mianwali and transfer to a guest house near Rawalpindi. As Mujib would relate the story to the well-known Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar subsequently, a few days after he had been shifted to the guest house, Bhutto turned up there. It was a thoroughly surprised Bangabandhu who saw Bhutto stride towards him. He yet had no clear conception of what had happened in the country or outside it in all the nine months he had been in solitary imprisonment in Mianwali. But when for a few days his jailer, a friendly Pakistani who sensed some danger befalling his famous prisoner in the dying days of the war, had moved him to his own quarters, the Bengali leader guessed that some major developments had taken place.
There was little place, however, for the belief that Bangladesh had actually become a free country. Therefore, on that morning when Bhutto visited him, Bangabandhu wondered as to what might have happened, or gone wrong. As Nayar relives the drama of the moment in Distant Neighbours: A Tale of the Subcontinent, on seeing Bhutto arrive at the guest house, Mujib asked him, 'Bhutto, how are you here?' The new leader of Pakistan replied, 'I am the president of Pakistan.' The incredulity in the Bengali leader at Bhutto's revelation was unmistakable. There was a bigger surprise in the answer to his next question, 'How can that be? You know that position belongs to me.' Bangabandhu's claim on the presidency was a legitimate one, only he did not know of the circumstances that had placed Bhutto in power. 'As if to frighten me,' Mujib later told Nayar, 'Bhutto said, "I am also chief martial-law administrator."' That was the beginning of a new phase in the lives of the two men whose political differences had thrown up an entirely new equation in South Asia.
Over the next few days, the two men met over several rounds of talks at the guest house. The Bengali politician, still a prisoner of the Pakistan government, did not fail to understand the subtle pressure Bhutto was trying to exercise on him. Pakistan's new president did not appear to have acquainted him with the full details of the circumstances that had overtaken Pakistan after 25 March. He confined himself to explanations of how the Indian government had taken advantage of the breakdown in the Dhaka negotiations to send its forces marching into East Pakistan. But he did refer, without going into details, to the presence of an administration in Dhaka now led by Bangabandhu's close political associates. Bhutto's overriding purpose in talking to Bangabandhu was clearly one of extracting certain undertakings from him about the future state of relations between 'East Pakistan' and 'West Pakistan', as he still referred to the broken country. Mujib, who was once again assisted by Dr Kamal Hossain (the lawyer had been brought out of his own confinement and reunited with his leader), told Bhutto that he could not make any promises until he was free to return to Dhaka and judge conditions for himself. Deep in his heart, though, Bangabandhu was well aware of the fact that a sweeping transformation had come over the political landscape.
On the afternoon of 3 January 1972 as a rising chorus of demands from Bangladesh and elsewhere rose for Bangabandhu's freedom, Bhutto rose to address a public rally in Karachi. He meandered through his speech, the understandable goal being to rekindle faith in the crowd about the future. After the customary noises had been made and populist bugles sounded, Bhutto explained the situation relating to Mujib's captivity in Pakistan. Knowing as he did that Pakistanis were at that point ready to go along with whatever he decided about the future, Bhutto nevertheless resorted to drama once more. He worked up the assembled crowd by saying clearly that he would not go against their wishes, that indeed his government was a people's government that had brought an end to dictatorship. As the crowd cheered, Bhutto raised the question: 'Do you allow me to free Mujib?' Predictably, his audience roared its approval. Relieved at the response, though he had never doubted it would be thus anyway, the president thanked the crowd three times. The people of Pakistan, he was quick to remind everyone present, had taken a huge burden off his shoulders.
Four days later, late in the evening of 7 January, President Bhutto accompanied Bangabandhu, and Dr Kamal Hossain to Chaklala Airport in Rawalpindi, from where the Bengali leader would fly out of Pakistan. It had been agreed that Bangabandhu would fly to London, though Bhutto had earlier suggested that he travel to Tehran and from there make his way to Dhaka. Mujib's preference had, of course, been for a direct flight to the capital of Bangladesh but Bhutto did not appear too keen on it. One of the reasons could be that it was too early yet for an aircraft of the PIA to travel to Dhaka. Another and more probable reason was that it was Bhutto's intention that Bangabandhu survey the situation from neutral territory before making up his mind about his future course of action. Having known the Bengali leader for years, it was certainly naïve on Bhutto's part to entertain the notion that Mujib would have second thoughts, if any, about the course his people had taken.
It was a silent farewell that Bhutto and Mujib bade each other. The two men who had dominated politics in Pakistan for the better part of the previous decade or so had now found the means to go their separate ways, as leaders of their independent countries. Pakistan's new president knew that it was the president of an independent Bangladesh he was sending off to freedom that evening. Bangabandhu walked briskly up the gangway. He must have wondered at yet another momentous turn in his life. Nine months earlier, he had been brought to Pakistan as a prisoner, with little hope that he would ever return home. And now he was free to go home. Pakistan, as soon as the PIA aircraft took off, was finally behind him. With Bangabandhu and the Kamal Hossain family on the plane were officers from the Pakistan Air Force and PIA, responsible for escorting the Bangladesh leader safely to London.
Early in the morning on 8 January 1972, Heathrow Airport security scrambled to receive the aircraft carrying Mujib. The news of his impending arrival had already been passed on to the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices. For M.M. Rezaul Karim, the Bengali diplomat who had only months earlier defected from the Pakistani foreign service to be part of his country's independence struggle, it was sheer disbelief. He took out his own small car and drove furiously towards Heathrow. In attendance too at Heathrow were two other Bengali diplomats, Mohiuddin Ahmad and Mohiuddin Ahmed Jaigirdar as well as Ian Sutherland from the British foreign office. Arriving there and quite out of breath, the diplomats entered the VIP lounge to find Bangabandhu standing with his trademark pipe between his lips. Also present were Dr Kamal Hossain and his family as well as the Pakistani officers who had accompanied Bangladesh's leader on the long flight from Rawalpindi.
News of Bangabandhu's arrival in London spread quickly. Journalists, the general public, British officials and politicians and Bengali residents in the city made their way to Claridges. Everyone cheered the political figure who had paved the road to Bangladesh's freedom. News bulletins on the BBC and other media organisations made note of the Bengali leader's arrival in their headlines. By early afternoon, the Father of the Nation had met Prime Minister Edward Heath and opposition Labour leader Harold Wilson. He called Dhaka and for the first time since his arrest by the Pakistan Army in March, spoke to his family. A long conversation then followed with Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad. The conversations with his family and with Tajuddin were emotional affairs, but they nevertheless left Mujib thrilled. He now had a clear picture of all that had happened in his absence in Bangladesh. It gave him immense satisfaction knowing that he had truly liberated his people.
Bangabandhu's opening words at a crowded news conference that evening at Claridges was a touch poetic. He was happy to share, he said, the unbounded joy of freedom achieved by his people in an epic liberation struggle. Bangladesh, he told the assembled crowd, was a reality and would fulfill its obligations as part of the international community. Asked why he had decided to come to London instead of going home directly from Pakistan, he retorted, 'The decision was made by Mr Bhutto. I was his prisoner.' But Bangabandhu also made use of the opportunity to convey his gratitude to Pakistan's leader for saving his life. He then related the story of how Bhutto had prevented Yahya Khan from ordering his execution before the latter's handing over Pakistan's presidency to the PPP leader. For all his gratitude to Bhutto, however, Bangabandhu was not at all ambivalent about his own plans. He made the emphatic statement that Bangladesh would have nothing to do with Pakistan anymore. He wished Pakistan well and hoped that it in turn would wish Bangladesh the same. The Bangladesh leader made special mention of India, to whose prime minister and people he was thankful for the moral and material support they had provided to the people of Bangladesh. On the question of the genocide, he made it clear that the officers of the Pakistan Army would be tried for war crimes by his government.
Bangabandhu left London for Dhaka on the evening of 9 January 1972. On the way he would stop over in Delhi to convey his personal thanks to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and other Indian leaders for their assistance to Bangladesh. He was welcomed at Delhi's Palam Airport in the morning of 10 January by President V.V. Giri, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, West Bengal politician Siddhartha Shankar Ray and the chiefs of the Indian armed forces. Also on hand was Abdus Samad Azad, the new Bangladesh foreign minister sent to the Indian capital to escort him home. Bangabandhu stayed in Delhi for about two hours, in the course of which he addressed a public rally where he was profuse in his thanks to Mrs Gandhi and the people of India for the tremendous help they had provided to the Bangladesh struggle, especially the sanctuary given to the ten million Bengalis who had fled their homes when the genocide began in March.
Then it was on to Dhaka, where millions had begun to crowd before the airport and line the route leading from it to the Race Course, where Bangabandhu was expected to speak before joining his family at home. On the tarmac at Tejgaon Airport, badly damaged by Indian bombing during the war but sufficiently restored to welcome Bangladesh's founder home, soldiers of the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini were on standby to present Bangladesh's President with a guard of honour. Members of the wartime cabinet waited in the winter sun, as did a horde of newsmen. Sometime after 1:30 pm the Comet aircraft made available to Bangabandhu by the British government in London landed in Dhaka.
As soon as the doors of the aircraft opened, the discipline that had so long been maintained on the tarmac swiftly came apart. Some of the young student leaders who had in March 1971 played a pivotal role in pushing the message of independence forward went inside the plane and moments later emerged with a tired looking Mujib. It was clear he had lost weight in prison and had aged unmistakably in the nearly ten months away from home. A smile bathed his face as he swept back his hair with his right hand. Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad then moved forward and buried his head in his leader's chest. Both men broke down. Their tears soon led to moist eyes in nearly everyone else present around them. Colonel Osmany had his men clear the area somewhat for Bangabandhu to inspect a guard of honour. Once the formalities at the airport were completed, the Father of the Nation climbed aboard an open truck, with the Mujibnagar government figures and the firebrand student leaders crowding around him, and headed for the Race Course.
The two mile stretch of road would take the procession almost three hours to cover. At the Race Course, Bangabandhu wept at remembrance of the sacrifices Bengalis had made in the war against Pakistan. He told the million-strong crowd how the military junta had tried to intimidate him during his trial. 'I told them I was a Bengali and a Muslim, who only dies once.' He had defied the men who had put him on trial and had been ready to walk the gallows with his head held high. He then referred to Bhutto, to let him know that Bengalis had earned their freedom and would have nothing more to do with Pakistan. The people of Bangladesh, declared the nation's founding father, had acquitted themselves well. They had become the golden children of a Golden Bengal. Quoting the poet Rabindranath Tagore, who once had complained that the people of Bengal had remained mere Bengalis but were yet to become true human beings, Mujib told the jubilant crowd that the poet had been proved wrong. 'Come back, O poet,' he intoned dramatically, 'and see how your Bengalis are today transformed into worthy men.'
Moments later, as dusk and a winter haze settled over Dhaka, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman made his way back to his family, who waited for him at the house in Dhanmondi where they had been kept under house arrest by the Pakistan army throughout the course of the War of Liberation.