‘Gentlemen, I am alive and well . . .’


Published on January 8, 2023
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Syed Badrul Ahsan:

The man rushed into the reception room of Bangladesh Betar, breathless and in a clear state of excitement. ‘Sheikh Shaheb ke paowa jachchhe na (Sheikh Saheb cannot be found)’, he said in a voice trembling with nervousness. Instantly everyone in the room — and it was close to the gate of the radio station in Shahbagh — stood up and began to talk in animated tones. Where could he have gone? We all converged around the bearer of the worrisome tidings. How do you know he is missing? Where did you come by such news? The questions came one after another. He was an employee of Bangladesh Betar. He told us he had just been listening to Radio Pakistan, which was telling its listeners that the Bengali leader, imprisoned in Pakistan for nearly 10 months, had flown out of Pakistan.

Anger touched with worry swept through the room. Bangabandhu surely must have been put on a Pakistani aircraft for his life to be put to an end? Surely Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had planned the entire drama out of spite for the Father of the Nation and for the newly triumphant Bengalis in the war against Pakistan? The moment was pregnant with suspense. I decided to go back home to Malibagh. I was there at the radio centre for an audition. Having applied for the position of an English language newsreader and having received a letter from the Bangladesh Betar authorities asking me to appear for a microphone test, I was in the reception room waiting to be summoned to the studio. I was not yet out of school, the year 1972 being the season when I would appear at the Senior Cambridge examinations in November. But I did want to earn some money, through reading the news, and be somewhat on my own instead of burdening my parents financially.

But on that morning of Jan 8, 1972, all thoughts of audition, of news reading, swiftly turned irrelevant, indeed redundant. Having witnessed the war and having become a citizen of a liberated country, it was unthinkable that I should wait there to be called to the interview when an entire nation was likely in uproar at the news about Bangabandhu. I think I ran rather than walked home, hoping some radio station would relay the news. At that point, everything was sketchy or even non-existent. The moment I stepped inside our home, I picked up the radio and began tuning in to all the stations I could possibly think of, on all the airwaves, that were there. Nothing happened. No news of Bangabandhu’s flight from Pakistan was there. I did my best to tune in to Radio Pakistan, but unfortunately nothing came of my attempt.

On the streets, the talk was of Bangabandhu’s ‘disappearance’. Every one of our neighbours was making his own assessment. No one seemed prepared to think that he was perhaps on his way to safety somewhere. For my part, ever since the Pakistan army had surrendered to the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Command in December, I had regularly listened to news broadcasts from Radio Pakistan. The reason was simple: I needed to find out, if at all that was possible, if the Pakistan authorities said anything about the incarcerated Bangabandhu. Not until 3 January 1972, when Pakistan’s new President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto addressed a public rally in Karachi (the speech was broadcast live by Radio Pakistan) did we know anything about the fate of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Bhutto, with a dramatic flourish, asked the crowd if he had their consent to freeing the Bengali leader in the interest of maintaining links with ‘our Muslim brothers’ in what he still referred to as East Pakistan. The crowd roared a ‘Yes’ to his question. Bhutto’s response was one of apparent relief. ‘Shukriya! Shukriya! Shukriya!’ He said it thrice.

That was all. Over the next few days, nothing more was heard about Bangabandhu or his probable freedom. And here, five days later, was 8 January. Everyone was aware as the day progressed that Bangabandhu was on a flight out of Pakistan, but no one knew exactly where he was headed or where he was being sent to by the Pakistan government. All afternoon and till dusk, people discussed his whereabouts with growing worry. And, of course, on the streets the young raised full-throated slogans of Joi Bangla every now and then.

At 6 pm, I turned the knob of the transistor which we had brought over from Quetta in July 1971 when our family made it back to Dhaka, at that point a city under occupation. It was nearly impossible for me to contain my state of excitement when the very first news headline came on the BBC World Service:

‘The East Bengali political leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has arrived in London.’

That was it. I called out to my father, who came rushing into the room. We heard the details and spread the news to our neighbours. My mother raised her hands in prayer, thanking the Almighty that our leader was safe.

Later that evening, on the BBC Bengali Service, for the first time since March of the previous year, we heard Bangabandhu’s voice loud and clear:

‘Gentlemen, as you can see, I am alive and well.’

Bangabandhu was appearing before the global media. With him, among so many others, were Dr Kamal Hossain, who had flown into London with him; the senior-most Bengali diplomat MM Rezaul Karim (who had rushed to Heathrow to receive the Father of the Nation once he was informed by the British foreign office of his impending arrival) and his young colleague Mohiuddin Ahmed.

And then came Bangabandhu’s opening statement prior to the question-answer session at Claridges Hotel. He spoke of the joy of freedom in an epic liberation struggle waged by his people. He paid tribute to the martyrs of the war. Asked why he had chosen to come to London rather than go to Dhaka from Pakistan, he made it clear that he had been a prisoner, that the decision to send him to London had been Bhutto’s. He spoke of his meetings with British leaders after his arrival:

‘I have spoken to Mr Heath. I have spoken to Mr Wilson. And I am happy.’

Edward Heath was at the time Britain’s prime minister. Harold Wilson was leader of the opposition.

Prior to speaking to the media, Bangabandhu spoke on the phone with his family in Dhaka, with Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad and with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

In Bangladesh, exuberance was in the air. The night promised a new, sunlight-drenched dawn.

We waited for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to come back home. He had given us a new world. He was our world. We had touched the stars . . . because he was around.