• Friday, Dec 02, 2022
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The Father of the Nation: As I saw him

  • Published at 06:00 pm August 14th, 2021
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

'During his stay Sheikh Jamal became a very endearing member of the family by his spontaneous affection and simplicity. Among many memories I remember him often singing a popular Bangla song “Tumi keno ale na, kichu bhalo lage na” and he would say "abba (Bangabandhu) likes this song".'

The Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman inherited a war ravaged nation severely destroyed by the Pakistani military occupation, genocide, conflict and war. Bangabandhu took no time to realize that the Need Of The Hour was peace to implement the fundamental objective of Bangladesh Foreign Policy as laid down by him: ‘Friendship towards all and malice towards none’. Foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy. War or conflict is the vanishing point of diplomacy. Peace at home and beyond was the passionate commitment of Bangabandhu in the context of a polarized world divided by rivalry between the two Super powers, Russia and the USA; with rising Asian powers China and India next door.

For peace Bangladesh has to keep out of Super and big powers rivalry and conflicts. Hence Bangabandhu opted for a Non-Aligned foreign policy. This was no easy decision as one of the two super powers, the Soviet Union and its people had fully supported the liberation war of Bangladesh while the other, the government of USA was opposed to it for its global strategic interests; the people of USA were overwhelmingly in favor of the Liberation War of Bangladesh.

Bangabandhu, in keeping with Bangladesh’s commitment to Nonalignment and peace, sought recognition of China for the larger interest of Bangladesh and to realize its foreign policy objectives.

I am fortunate to be a witness to this glorious period of our history.

Bangabandhu instructed me to open the first Bangladesh Mission at the residence in Belgrade on 15th May 1972 and asked me to prepare for his visit to Belgrade. This was followed by formal instruction from the Foreign Ministry. The Mission was subsequently moved to hotel Yugoslavia when Ambassador ARS Doha joined the Mission.

Prime Minister Bangabandhu visited Yugoslavia in 1973. His formal meeting was with his counterpart, the Prime Minister of Yugoslavia Dzemal Bijedic. During the meeting the Prime Minister of Yugoslavia reaffirmed the support of his country to the policy of Nonalignment and for resolution of conflicts and differences particularly between the super and big powers through negotiations and diplomacy. He also stressed that Yugoslavia was fully committed to strengthening the independence, development, progress and stability of Bangladesh.

During the visit to Budapest, Hungary the Special Envoy briefed the Hungarian Prime Minister on the Tripartite Agreement signed between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh on 28 August 1973 for the ‘larger interest of peace and stability in the Sub-continent’.

During the meeting with President Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania the special envoy handed over a letter from Bangabandhu addressed to him. In the letter Bangabandhu stated that Bangladesh, in keeping with its Non- Aligned foreign policy orientation sought a ‘friendly, balanced and constructive relationship between the two emerging Asian powers, China and India’. The recognition of Bangladesh by China would help to achieve this important objective of Bangladesh foreign policy and diplomacy. In this context he requested President Ceaușescu to use his influence with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai for the purpose. President Ceaușescu was deeply impressed with the content of the letter of Bangabandhu. He phoned Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and requested him for the recognition of Bangladesh by China based on the letter of Bangabandhu to him.

Prime Minister Zhou Enlai responded positively in principle to the request for recognition of Bangladesh by China conveyed through President Ceaușescu in the light of Bangladesh’s quest for a balanced and constructive relationship between the great Asian neighbors, China and India.

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However, he added that the process of recognition would take some time in keeping with the Chinese policy structure involving the Communist Party of China and the Foreign Ministry.

Before leaving Belgrade Bangabandhu decided to leave Sheikh Jamal with us as President Tito offered him admission into the Yugoslav Army Training Academy. Yugoslav Army at that time was a very professional Army to defend Yugoslavia’s independence and Non-Aligned status.

During his stay Sheikh Jamal became a very endearing member of the family by his spontaneous affection and simplicity. Among many memories I remember him often singing a popular Bangla song “Tumi keno ale na, kichu bhalo lage na” and he would say ‘abba (Bangabandhu) likes this song’.

Prime Minister Dzemal Bijedic informed Bangabandhu that President Tito was looking forward to the Banquet hosted by Bangabandhu in his honor and that after the Banquet President Tito would leave for his resort island home of Brioni to receive Bangabandhu for the ‘crucial meeting’ between the two statesmen of the time.

Bangabandhu thanked the government and people of Yugoslavia for the unstinted support extended to Bangladesh during the War of Liberation and emphasized that his visit was to convey the gratitude of the government and people of Bangladesh to the government and people of Yugoslavia.

In the evening during the Banquet hosted by Bangabandhu in honor of President Tito the latter was touched by the warm hospitality extended by Bangabandhu to him and the delegation. President Tito was all praise for the Bangladeshi cuisine particularly the ‘delicious’ Biryani and other Bangladeshi dishes.

Bangabandhu requested Ambassador Doha in Bangla to ask his cook to come and pay his respects to President Tito for his appreciation of the cooking. Ambassador Doha informed Bangabandhu that the Biryani and other Bangladeshi dishes were cooked by the wife of the First Secretary Rashed Ahmed as the cook was ill. Bangabandhu then called for my wife. When my wife Nilufer came in the presence of President Tito, Bangabandhu was filled with pride and beaming with smile introduce Nilufer to President Tito ‘as the wife of my First Secretary who cooked the Bangladeshi dishes in your honor’. Bangabandhu never forgot this during his lifetime whenever I met him. Such was the greatness of the Father of the nation.

Next day we went to Brioni. On arrival at the sea port Bangabandhu was received by President Tito who said “It is my honor to receive the Father of the Bangladesh who fought and struggled all his life for the freedom and independence of his people”.

After the Banquet when Bangabandhu was filling his pipe with tobacco President Tito rushed to his bedroom, came back and filled the pipe of Bangabandhu with his ‘favorite tobacco’; an unforgettable gesture and moment of history. Two of the outstanding statesmen of the time struck close personal equation and mutual admiration for each other which paid rich dividends to Bangladesh for the realization of his foreign policy objectives.

Bangabandhu requested President Tito to sponsor Bangladesh for the membership of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) at the summit of NAM which was to take place at Algiers to which he responded positively and kept his promise.

When President Tito sponsored the membership of Bangladesh at the NAM summit in Algiers Bangladesh formally became a member of the NAM with overwhelming support of the member states.

The other significant event was the visit of the Special Envoy of Bangabandhu Mr. Mohiuddin Ahmed MP for meetings with the Prime Minister of Hungary and the Romanian President Nicolae Ceaușescu, who was a close friend of the Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai to seek recognition of Bangladesh by China. I was instructed to accompanied him which I did.

After few weeks of stay in Belgrade one day Sheikh Jamal said to me that he would prefer to go to Royal Military Academy Sandhurst which was ‘much more prestigious’. Soon After speaking to Bangabandhu he left Belgrade for Bangladesh. We sorely missed him.

Few months after Bangabandhu’s visit to Yugoslavia I got a phone call from Bangabandhu instructing me to leave for Kuwait within two weeks to open a Bangladesh Mission there and that formal orders will follow.

After I opened the Mission in Kuwait I got considerable help from the Bangladeshi community including an influential Bangladeshi popularly known as Hasan Saheb. I came to know from him that the government of Kuwait had decided to get several hundred drivers from different countries for the school buses. I then spoke to the Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah and requested him to get as many Bangladeshi drivers as possible as Bangladeshi drivers were few in numbers in Kuwait those days.

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Sheikh Sabah graciously responded to my request and instructed the concerned Ministry to take all the drivers from Bangladesh for the school buses.

When the drivers arrived from Bangladesh they held a Milad Mahfil at the Mission and prayed for Bangladesh and for Bangabandhu. The visit of Bangabandhu to Kuwait came within few months of the opening of the Bangladesh Mission.

During the discussion with the Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Jaber Al Sabah Bangabandhu sought support of Kuwait for recognition of Bangladesh by Saudi Arabia and stressed Bangladesh’s total commitment to the OIC.

While thanking the government of Kuwait especially the Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah for personally helping to get such a large number of bus drivers from Bangladesh he sought Kuwait’s help for various projects including in the areas of Energy, Infrastructure and other projects vital for the development of Bangladesh. The Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Jaber Al Sabah assured that Kuwait will try to help implement these projects from the Kuwait Fund for Development to strengthen the economic recovery and development of Bangladesh.

Bangabandhu’s visit laid a strong basis for friendly relationship between Bangladesh and Kuwait. In particular during his visit he struck a very close personal rapport with the Foreign Minister Sheikh Al Sabah, an influential member of the ruling Sabah family who subsequently became the Amir of Kuwait.

Before leaving Kuwait Bangabandhu instructed me to visit Qatar, Bahrain and Oman to try to help solve the problems of Bangladeshi workers in these countries.

During my visits to these Gulf countries with a representative from the Ministry of Home Affairs I found hundreds of Bangladeshi workers were facing the problem of not having Bangladeshi passports. When we interviewed them most of them working in the gas and oil companies did not have any documentary evidence of their Bangladeshi nationality. They said that if we did not give them passports they will eventually lose their jobs and would have to go back to Bangladesh.

From the interviews of the Bangladeshi workers it was clear to me that they were Bangladeshis from different districts of Bangladesh from their accents. Brushing aside the objection of the official from the Home Ministry I decided to give passports to all the Bangladeshi workers so that they could continue to live and work in these countries and send remittances to Bangladesh which the country so desperately needed.

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I was clear that it is one of the primary responsibilities of the Bangladeshi Missions to help our Bangladeshi workers to live and work without fear, and to do our best to increase their numbers abroad so that they can contribute to the development of Bangladesh.

When Bangabandhu came to know about my decision on issuing passports of the Bangladeshi workers he personally phoned to encourage me to continue to take such ‘bold decisions for the larger national interest ‘and not to be influenced by narrow bureaucratic approach’. ‘He advised me that rules were meant to help people and not for creating obstacles for them.’

Today the remittance of Bangladeshi workers abroad has become a crucial element of our development. History will record the singular contribution of the Father of the Nation in this respect who laid the foundation and direction of the foreign policy, diplomacy particularly Economic Diplomacy which helped the development of Bangladesh significantly.

After Bangabandhu left Kuwait for Bangladesh while we were working with new zeal and determination to fulfill Bangabandhu’s vision and commitment to overcome all hurdles to make Bangladesh a self reliant country the tragic news of the Bangabandhu’s assassination along with the family members present was devastating beyond words. It was a personal loss of a magnitude which is difficult to describe even to this day.

Bangabandhu’s precious legacy is being l carried forward with total dedication, courage, commitment and vision by his able daughter Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to raise Bangladesh from an LDC to a middle income country and to eventually pave the way for Bangladesh to become a developed country. This is the best tribute of the daughter to the memory of her father and of the Father of the Nation.

The writer served as UN Regional Administrator in Kosovo and Bangladesh Ambassador to Japan, among other diplomatic assignments

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