It is only logical that on our Victory Day on 16 December, one remembers the significant role played by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in fostering not only the reconstruction of a ravaged war-torn country but also in promoting Bangladesh’s position in the external world through a responsible, pro-active foreign policy.
A charismatic leader, dedicated and committed to the cause of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu had encapsulated his vision through the following observation for his new country at Palam Airport, New Delhi on 10 January, 1972. On his way back to Dhaka from London after being released from internment in Pakistan, 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 when 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 Uddyan was masterly in its pragmatic approach and in the advice for the victorious people of Bangladesh. He did not fail to warn that no one should ‘raise’ their ‘hands to strike against non-Bangalees’. 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 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’.
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, although his assassination resulted in the setting aside of the entire judicial process, it was revived later by his daughter Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who initiated the necessary legal measures for this purpose.
Bangabandhu took keen interest in foreign policy and 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 by Bangabandhu, a pious, practicing Muslim. He felt especially frustrated because Bangladesh had spurned indirect offers by Israel offering de-jure recognition. Absence of recognition from Saudi Arabia also meant that Bangladeshi citizens were unable to undertake Hajj, one of the pillars of Islam. Those refusing to recognize Bangladesh included- Saudi Arabia, People’s Republic of China, Iran, Turkey and the then Libyan Arab Republic. 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. 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.
However by the end of 1972 the number of States which recognized Bangladesh increased sharply. 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 of 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.
Our participation in the Non-aligned Summit in Algiers from 5 to 9 September, 1973 also clearly indicated to the Islamic world that Bangabandhu was not afraid of either the USA or China.
In addition, Bangabandhu with his foresight also understood that Bangladesh needed to move forward within the Islamic bloc and that this was only possible with 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 October 1973. Bangabandhu seized this opportunity to demonstrate Bangladesh’s active interest in supporting the efforts of Egypt and Syria viz-a-viz Israel. On 18 October 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’s 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. This courageous step by Bangabandhu and Bangladesh was greatly admired not only Egypt and Syria but also by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan. This foresight on the part of Bangabandhu and friendly gesture 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.
Bangabandhu and a ten member Bangladesh delegation, that included me, subsequently went to Lahore, Pakistan on 23 February, 1974. 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.
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 (this happened for the first time in the history of the United Nations) on 25th November. During his historic speech he reiterated his belief in friendship towards all and enmity against none.
The growing respect for Bangabandhu was underlined during his official visit to Iraq on 8 October, 1974 where he met President Hasan al Bakr and Vice Chairman Saddam Hussain. Iraq 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 last four months of 1974 also saw Bangabandhu visiting Egypt on 6 November and 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.
Bangabandhu played a critical role 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, a former Ambassador and Distinguished Fellow, Bangla Academy, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance