Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has spoken of late Indian President Pranab Mukherjee as a friend of Bangladesh. It is a sentiment that is shared not only by Bangladesh's people but also by people across the frontier in India.
Mukherjee, who has died at the age of 84 from complications arising out of old age ailments, topped of course by Covid-19 infection, has always had a special place among Bangalees on this side of the political border. The beginnings of this affection in which we in Bangladesh hold Mukherjee date back to the War of Liberation in 1971, when as a significant cog in the wheel of the Indian government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, he made clear where he stood on the Bangladesh question.
It was certainly his Bengali heritage that helped in his identifying with the Bangalees of what was eastern Bengal before the partition of India sundered an influential province into two. More significantly, it was his clear perceptions of history, as a politician whose grounding was in democratic and therefore constitutional politics, which drove him into voicing support for the people of occupied Bangladesh.
We in Bangladesh did not overlook his contributions to our national cause, which was reason why it was our singular good fortune as a sovereign nation to acknowledge him as a precious foreign friend seven years ago.
As a member of the Indian cabinet, Mukherjee visited Bangladesh, dwelling on the various facets of mutual cooperation that Delhi and Dhaka could engage in. In his presidential term at Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi, he was always happy to welcome visitors from Bangladesh and move from the purely formal to the cheerfully informal in interacting with them.
Indeed, for Bangladesh's people it was consistently a matter of pride that a Bangalee had ascended to the high office of President of India. It was an achievement which assuaged Bengali pain somewhat in this country, vicariously of course, pain that had come earlier when another political stalwart, Jyoti Basu, was prevented by his own party from taking over as Prime Minister of India. In effect, therefore, to go through the experience of seeing Mukherjee rise to the highest position in the Indian political structure was a matter of sheer happiness for Bangladesh's people.
Pranab Mukherjee was a man of accomplishment, a talent that would be revealed with his appointment by Indira Gandhi to important positions in the government. When Mrs. Gandhi was assassinated in October 1984, it was the public expectation that Mukherjee, being at that point the senior-most member of the cabinet, would be called upon by President Zail Singh to take over. In the event, that did not happen. Much to people's stupefaction, the young Rajiv Gandhi was sworn in within hours as India's new leader. During the entirety of the Rajiv Gandhi administration, Mukherjee was out in the cold.
And then he marched back to prominence in the times of Manmohan Singh. He served as minister for defence, foreign affairs and finance – in that order – demonstrating a clear grasp of the issues that came before him in those pivotal positions in government. The ultimate prize was to come in 2012, when Mukherjee was elected India's President. As head of state, he reached out to all segments of politics and quickly earned a reputation as the statesman his country needed at that point. That reputation was to stay with him till the end of his life.
Pranab Mukherjee was in Dhaka two years ago to be honoured with an honorary DLitt by Chittagong University. It was a second achievement for him, given that earlier Dhaka University too had showered similar honours on him. He was the chief guest at an international Bangla literary conference in Bangladesh, which was a pointer to the multi-dimensional personality of the man.
He was an avid reader, a keen observer of developments in his country as also around the globe. The Mukherjee character was underlined by the sort of humility that can only come to one whom time has invested with wisdom. His was a dispassionate, intellectual attitude to life.
Pranab Mukherjee's career was one of intense action and profound thinking, a tale that was charmingly reflected in his writings. His secularism, his belief in an India of democracy resting on a composite heritage, his deep understanding of the cultures and politics of nations in the region will be the enduring marks of his statesmanship, of his place in history.
Bangladesh mourns the passing of a dear friend.