Bangabandhu will live forever in Bangladesh—the country he founded. One can kill a man but one cannot kill a spirit. Bangabandhu instilled in the hearts of millions the spirit of Bangali nationalism that inspired them to fight against all odds for their freedom and emancipation. Bangladesh is a sovereign and independent country today and it is primarily due to his bold and courageous leadership. All efforts of the reactionary elements to undermine him in the past have failed. One cannot draw a circle without a center nor can one write the history of our independence struggle without acknowledging Bangabandhu’s pivotal role. He is at the heart of Bangladesh and will always remain there.
The emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign and independent state is one of the remarkable developments of the 20th century. It is an epic tale of how an unarmed but determined people defeated a well-armed repressive machinery. Three million people were killed, 10 million took shelter in India, and countless others were subjected to the worst forms of persecution in the hands of the occupation army. This genocide had little parallel in history. Finally justice and truth triumphed over injustice and falsehood.
Our armed struggle lasted for nine months, but our movement for freedom and independence had been more than two decades long. It passed through various phases, movements for protecting our language and our ethnic identity, for grant of autonomy on the basis of Six Points, mass upsurge of 1969, elections of 1970 and finally, our glorious war of independence. Bangabandhu played a central role in all these phases. Some elaboration is needed to put our movement for independence in its correct historical perspective.
The Muslims of Bengal had passionately supported the Pakistan movement as they had believed that the creation of a separate Muslim homeland would emancipate them from British colonial rule as well as economic domination. Unfortunately, the ruling Pakistani clique turned out to be the new exploiters which had no interest in the welfare of the Bangalis. Their only interest was to economically exploit the Bangalis, and to obliterate their linguistic and cultural identity.
Soon after the creation of Pakistan, Urdu, the language of the minority in the western wing, was declared as the sole state language over Bangla—the language of the majority, who lived in the eastern wing. In the historic language movement, Bangabandhu played a central role to protect our mother tongue Bangla. Bengalis are the only nation in recorded history who had laid down their lives to protect their language. The Pakistani authorities had to bow down to public demand and restore Bangla’s due national status. The conspiracy, however, continued.
The Pakistani ruling clique dissolved four western provinces and created an amalgamated West Pakistan and renamed East Bengal as East Pakistan with a strong central government. Bangabandhu, as the elected representative of the people to the constituent assembly, protested against the Pakistani design to wipe out our ethnic identity. He demanded that Bengal’s ethnic identity must be respected and that a referendum or a plebiscite should be held to seek public mandate to this change of name.
Bangabandhu fought against the military regime of Ayub Khan and continued to press for grant of full autonomy to East Bengal. His historic Six Points demand for autonomy provided the “charter of survival” for Bangalis. The Pakistani ruling clique opposed it and even tried to intimidate Bangabandhu by starting the Agartala conspiracy case against him. He was undeterred. In the face of mass upsurge of 1969, the Ayub regime caved in and released Bangabandhu unconditionally. They invited him to a political dialogue to extract a concession from him on the question of autonomy, but he flatly refused.
On Dec. 5, 1969 at a public meeting, Bangabandhu underlined that “there was a time when all efforts were made to erase the word Bengal from this land and map. The existence of the word Bengal was found nowhere except in the term Bay of Bengal.” He announced at that meeting that “East Pakistan” henceforth would be called “Bangladesh.” From that moment, creation of Bangladesh became the Bangalis’ cherished goal and they never looked back.
His charismatic and bold leadership inspired millions and they gave him and his party, Awami League, absolute majority at the National Assembly elections in November 1970. The new Pakistani military ruler Yahya Khan tried to entice him with all kinds of offers, including the Prime Ministership of Pakistan but he refused to betray the trust and confidence reposed in him by his people.
When Yahya postponed the National Assembly session at the behest of the West Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Bangabandhu, in his historic Seventh March speech categorically told his people: “The struggle this time is the struggle for emancipation; the struggle this time is the struggle for our independence. Since we have given blood we will give more blood. God willing, the people of this country would be liberated. Turn every house into fort; face the enemy with whatever you have… Victory shall be ours. Joy Bangla!” The people responded to this clarion call wholeheartedly.
Before the occupation army arrested him and started the genocide, Bangabandhu sent a message to the nation: “This may be my last message; from today Bangladesh is independent. I call upon you, the people of Bangladesh, wherever you might be and whatever you have, to resist the army of occupation to the last. Your fight must go on until the last soldier of the Pakistan occupation army is expelled from the soil of Bangladesh. Final victory is ours.” This call was carried by the Reuters and was published in the international press.
People fought bravely against all odds and Bangalis paid the heaviest price for freedom and independence. Bangladesh was born and soon thereafter, Bangabandhu returned after nine months of captivity. Dhaka went delirious and millions were on the streets to receive him. Before landing, the British comet, which brought him from London, circled for 45 minutes over the countryside, in deference to Bangabandhu’s desire to see his “Shonar Bangla.”
As a freedom fighter diplomat posted in Washington DC in 1971, I must recall here with deep appreciation and gratitude, the wholehearted support and cooperation that we had received from the Government and people of India during the critical period of our nationhood. The emotional bond that was established in 1971 remain a dominant factor in the country’s political, cultural and social wave and guide us in establishing close and cooperative ties with our largest neighbor, India.
Bangabandhu suffered more than anybody in the hands of Pakistanis and their cohorts and yet, in his first speech, he asked his people to exercise restraint and not to take revenge against them. If Bangabandhu had not returned, many feared that there would have been a bloodbath in Bangladesh. Alas, these reactionary forces were behind his killings three years later.
At the international level, Bangabandhu had a unique position. It is largely due to his personal appeal that nearly 100 countries, including most of the major powers, recognized Bangladesh within a few months. Again, due to his personal interceding with the Indian leadership, India withdrew its troops within three months from Bangladesh. This is an unprecedented event in contemporary history. The United Nations, even before Bangladesh was admitted as a member, set up UNROD (subsequently UNROB after Bangladesh’s admission)—the largest international relief and reconstruction efforts under its aegis.
On the basis of Bangabandhu’s foreign policy based on peaceful coexistence and “friendship to all and malice towards none,” Bangladesh was able to establish close and cooperative ties with all the countries of the world, and Bangladesh joined the Non-aligned Movement (NAM), the Commonwealth, the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), and finally the United Nations. At his speech at the UN, he announced that “peace is an imperative for the survival of mankind. It represents the deepest aspirations of men and women throughout the world. Peace to endure, however, must be based on justice.”
At home, the country was largely able to restore its totally devastated economic infrastructure; millions of refugees returned home from India and thousands of stranded Bangladeshis returned from Pakistan. The country adopted its first constitution providing the basic guideline of the newly independent state. The country’s first five-year plan was adopted which inter alia, gave primary emphasis on education, health, agriculture, and rural development. The basic aim of the plan was to alleviate poverty and build Shonar Bangla.
On Aug. 15, 1975, Bangabandhu and members of his family were murdered. His two daughters Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana survived as they were abroad at that time. Bangabandhu may have been killed by the assassins, but his indomitable spirit still inspires his countrymen to build Shonar Bangla. It is a matter of great satisfaction that Bangladesh, under the dynamic leadership of his able daughter Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has made giant strides during the recent years and the country aspires to reach the middle income level status within a matter of years. Bangladesh today is not a “bottomless basket” but it is one of the fastest economies in the world. That day is not too far when Bangabandhu’s dream of Shonar Bangla will be fulfilled.
Long live Bangabandhu!
The writer is a former Foreign Secretary of Bangladesh. This article was earlier published in a publication of Bangladesh High Commission in India in 2018.