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Late Pranab Mukherjee's fond recollections of ties to Bangladesh

  • Published at 08:57 am October 19th, 2020
File photo of former Indian president Pranab Mukherjee UNB

Treated as a family member, Mukherjee traces warm ties with Sheikh Hasina

In June 1971, a young Member of Parliament stood up to initiate a discussion, calling for the government of India to accord diplomatic recognition to the Bangladesh government-in exile based in the Bangladeshi town of Mujibnagar that functioned as the provisional government, while its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was in a Karachi prison.

The MP, 36-year-old Pranab Mukherjee, spoke at length about the precedents to intervention in world history, and the brutal atrocities being carried out in Bangladesh that necessitated Indian action, reports Indian daily The Hindu.

“I am talking of a political solution which means categorically recognizing the sovereign democratic government of Bangladesh. Political solution means giving material help to the democratic, sovereign government of Bangladesh,” he said.

The speech and his memories of 1971 and the liberation war of Bangladesh are in one of the last long articles the former President completed before he died in August last, a part of an anthology of essays in honour of the birth centenary year of Mujib, as Bangladesh’s founding father is known.

The book, called Voice of Millions, was published earlier this year but is yet to be launched formally. What makes the essay more poignant is that Mukherjee was due to address another session of Bangladesh Parliament, this time a Special Session on March 22-23 to mark the Mujib centenary, and also to attend the book’s launch. However, the functions in Dhaka were put off due to the coronavirus pandemic, and when they are held, the former MP, minister and president will not be a part of them.

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According to the editors of the book, Mukherjee was the only foreign dignitary asked to contribute, and he readily agreed to their request.

“Mukherjee was invited to contribute to the book as a family member of the prime minister,” explained Asif Kabir, part of the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman centenary committee, referring to the close relationship he shared with Mujib’s daughter and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Mukherjee’s private secretary, Abhijeet Rai, said the essay, which was the last extensive piece penned by the late President, needed considerable research on Mujib’s life and political career and Mukherjee drew from Mujib’s own Unfinished Memoirs that were published years after his death by Ms. Hasina. Mujib was freed only after the Pakistan army surrendered in Dhaka in December 1971, and as recorded by Mukherjee, for many days he was kept unaware of the incidents, while Pakistan’s soon to be President, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, attempted to negotiate with him. Eventually, Bhutto gave up and Mujib returned to a triumphant welcome in Dhaka with a brief stopover in Delhi to thank Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for India’s support.

Hasina’s emotive essay

The book contains an emotive essay by Ms Hasina, entitled “My Brothers”, who along with her sister Rehana, were the only survivors when Mujib, his wife, all his other children and their spouses (15 family members in all) were gunned down at their home by Army officers a few years later in 1975. In later years, when Ms Hasina was in exile herself and lived in Delhi with her family, it was Mukherjee and his wife Suvra Mukherjee, who had lived in East Bengal before Partition, who became their closest friends.

“It’s so hard to lose one’s parents even when they have a natural death,” said Mukherjee’s daughter and Congress leader Sharmishtha Mukherjee. “It is unimaginable what Sheikh Hasina has gone through, and I think the bond between her and my parents was stronger because she needed emotional support at the time.”

Sharmishtha recalls incident

Ms Sharmishtha Mukherjee also recalled that during a visit to Delhi as prime minister, Ms Hasina wanted to visit Suvra Mukherjee at home. As he was a “stickler for protocol”, Pranab Mukherjee, who was then finance minister, conveyed his discomfort to Ms Hasina’s office. Ms Hasina’s reply was: “I am not visiting the minister, but my Boudi [sister-in-law in Bangla).”