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Bangladesh was ‘pushed…away by a conspiracy’

B.Z. Khasru - 6/13/2013

On 3 January 1972, two weeks after Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan after a nine-month civil war, Pakistan’s President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto met U.S. Ambassador Joseph Farland in Karachi. He told the envoy that he intended to announce in a speech on that day Bangladesh President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s unconditional release from prison in Pakistan.

During the 45-minute conversation, Bhutto shared some anecdotes with Farland. He revealed that the Bengali leader had been held in the same cell in which he had been detained once. Bhutto had Mujib removed from his cell and taken to a guest house, where he stayed one night en route to Rawalpindi.

Mujib, as the Bangladesh independence leader was popularly called, was arrested by Bhutto’s predecessor General Yahya Khan nine months earlier on sedition charges, leading the Bengali-majority East Pakistan and the Punjabi-dominated West into a civil war.

The war ended 16 December 1971, with West Pakistan’s military suffering a humiliating defeat. Bhutto, who led the strongest political party in West Pakistan, replaced Yahya Khan as president on 20 December.

Bhutto declined to give the ambassador details about his talks with his former nemesis, but said Mujib’s desires would have primacy. Mujib would be a free man upon his arrival in Rawalpindi. He could leave the city whenever he wanted.

Mujib had been virtually cut off from all outside information during captivity. He assumed that a major war had gone on and perhaps a part of East Pakistan had been occupied by India. He had no idea Pakistan had been defeated by India, nor did he know that his party, the Awami League, had assumed power in Bangladesh. Mujib seemed “almost stunned” by the changed circumstances in which he found himself, Bhutto told the envoy. He appeared highly despondent to learn that Indian troops had occupied East Pakistan.

Why Bhutto Released Mujib

Bhutto first met Mujib on 23 December – three days after replacing Yahya Khan as president. He had briefed Mujib as fully as possible about the whole situation. He had made available to him newspapers, radio and a television. He imposed no demands upon Mujib, neither did he ask for any commitments nor set preconditions for his return to politics.

In fact, Bhutto had little choice but to release him. A Mujib imprisoned was of no real benefit to Pakistan; a Mujib dead and martyred would only have deepened the Bengalis’ hatred of their former countrymen. But a Mujib allowed to return to his people could feel inclined toward forming some sort of a loose association with Pakistan.

When Bhutto met him the first time, according to Bhutto, Mujib agreed to form a confederation with West Pakistan. Mujib was rather vague when the two met again on 27 December.

Mujib, however, denied he ever promised to create a confederation with West Pakistan. The Bengali claimed Bhutto wanted him to agree that the three subjects – foreign affairs, defense and communication – would be managed jointly by Pakistan and Bangladesh. Mujib told him it was not possible. But when Bhutto went on pressing, Mujib said it was difficult for him to decide anything without consulting his people. There was yet another meeting, the last one between them. That time also Bhutto pressed for the same thing and asked Mujib to try his best. Mujib replied: “Let me see.”

Bhutto insisted he had let Mujib go “scot-free unnecessarily” to retrieve in the eyes of the world community at least something of Pakistan’s image. The army had shattered the country’s image by killing hundreds of intellectuals in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital. Bhutto was, however, inconsistent in his story. Three months later, he cited a different reason for freeing Mujib: He said he freed Mujib to appease India, because New Delhi “would find the going hard in Bangladesh without Mujib.”

Bhutto freed Mujib – his arch-rival for political power in Pakistan just a year ago – not merely because he wanted to curry favor with India or because he wished to restore Pakistan’s image in the international arena. He wanted to win over Mujib to keep a political link with Bangladesh and to get the Pakistani war prisoners back. He knew fully well that without Mujib he would face difficulty to achieve either one. Moreover, he came under foreign pressure, especially from Washington, which wanted stability to return to South Asia after the Bangladesh war.

Bhutto’s action reflected the desire of the superpowers. He had talked with American, Russian and Chinese ambassadors before releasing Mujib. Inside Pakistan, there were two opinions. One group wanted to use Mujib as a “trump card” to bargain with India and Bangladesh to free the Pakistani soldiers then being held in India. The other supported an unconditional release. Bhutto himself subscribed to the latter view.

Bhutto saw Mujib’s role pivotal in getting the war prisoners released. Their return would help Bhutto avoid potential trouble with the military and retain public support in Pakistan. By creating a soft corner in Mujib’s heart, Bhutto hoped to give his dream of forming a Pak-Bangla link a momentum.

How Mujib Left Pakistan

On 8 January 1972, five days after his meeting with Farland, Bhutto drove to Islamabad airport to see Mujib off to London aboard a chartered Pakistani jetliner. To keep utmost secrecy, the flight left at 3 a.m. Mujib’s secret departure was revealed to newsmen in Pakistan ten hours later. By then Mujib had reached Britain. He looked tired, but appeared to be in good health.

“As you can see, I am very much alive and well,” a beaming Mujib told journalists in London, puffing on his trade-mark tobacco pipe.

Shortly afterward, he talked by telephone with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in New Delhi and Bangladesh’s acting president, Syed Nazrul Islam, in Dhaka. Mujib then held a press conference in Claridge’s Hotel. He appealed for world recognition of Bangladesh and demanded that his new nation be admitted to the United Nations.

At the news conference, Mujib gave a glimpse into his time in captivity. He described his life “in a condemned cell in a desert area in the scorching heat” for nine months. He had no news of his family or the outside world. He said he was ready to be executed. “And, a man who is ready to die, nobody can kill.” He knew of the war because “army planes were moving, and there was the blackout.”

He spoke well of Bhutto, but emphasized he had promised no Bangla-Pak link. “I told him I could only answer that after I returned to my people,” Mujib said. A reporter asked why he had flown to London instead of Dhaka or some closer neutral point. “Don’t you know I was a prisoner?” Mujib snapped. “It was the Pakistan government’s will, not mine.”

Mujib’s arrival in London was unexpected indeed. British officials, including Prime Minister Edward Heath, were surprised when they learned that his plane was about to land at Heathrow. “We first heard of his release in a message from Islamabad, which was received when the aircraft carrying him was only an hour away,” Heath informed President Richard Nixon in a letter 13 January 1972.

Heath explained to Nixon how Mujib ended up in London. After his release from prison in Pakistan, “he had suggested that he should be sent to Dacca or handed over to the Red Cross or the United Nations. His ideas were not, however, acceptable to Bhutto. Mujib, who himself had refused to go to Tehran, finally agreed to come to London.”

Mujib had borne his imprisonment well. Obviously tired and not fully informed after nine months in solitary confinement, he still spoke with confidence and assurance. “He was anxious to reach Dacca as soon as possible, and we gave him an R.A.F. aircraft for the onward journey. It was his own choice that he should not transfer to an Indian aircraft in Delhi.”

He informed Heath that Bhutto had appealed to him for the retention of a loose federation between Bangladesh and West Pakistan. But he wanted no formal link with Islamabad. He had told Bhutto that the “time for this had passed.” Mujib emphasized to Heath that “any political link with West Pakistan was impossible and would result in another guerrilla war in Bangladesh.”

“In this, he has confirmed the position of the Bangladesh authorities in Dacca and our own assessment of the state of affairs in the East. However, although he spoke with understandable bitterness of the actions of the previous Pakistan regime, he showed no rancor towards Bhutto, and said that he wished to establish good relations with West Pakistan.”

“The new partition should be, in his words, ‘a parting as of brothers,’ ” but Bhutto must acknowledge Pakistan’s division. Relations between “Bangladesh and India would, of course, be much closer,” the British leader informed Nixon, quoting Mujib.

Confusion in Washington

Despite Mujib’s expressed opposition to having any ties with West Pakistan, the Americans got confused when TIME magazine correspondent Dan Coggin informed them in mid-January 1972 that the Bengali leader did, in fact, want to “establish some sort of link between Bangladesh and Pakistan.” He wanted to do so in an attempt to forestall any possible attempt by India to annex Bangladesh. Mujib was suspicious about India’s ultimate intention. He feared that the domineering Hindu neighbor could someday seek to annex Muslim Bangladesh. State Department officials initially ignored Coggin’s assertion.

But Coggin conveyed the same message again to the U.S. Consulate General in Kolkata on 19 February 1972. He claimed his information came directly from Mujib, whom he had met in Dhaka, and Yusuf Haroon, former West Pakistan governor and once a Mujib ally, whom Coggin had met in New York. While he made his wish known to Coggin, Mujib feared an attempt on his life if his position became known to the public.

He asked Coggin to tell the U.S. government that he wanted American economic aid to lessen Bangladesh’s dependence on India and the Soviet Union. He could get considerable aid from India and Russia. But he did not wish to do so because that would make Bangladesh too dependent on those nations. In passing, Mujib revealed that India was trying to convince him to sign a 100 million rupee contract to repair railway bridges in Bangladesh to boost the Indian engineering industry.

Coggin also reported to U.S. officials that Haroon, then vice president of Inter-Continental Hotels in New York, was responsible for Mujib’s decision to go to London from Pakistan after his release from prison. Haroon had flown to London and talked with Mujib about the future of Bangladesh and Pakistan. It was there that they first discussed the possibility of Mujib’s assassination. They decided that although the risk was great, the need for Mujib’s presence in Dhaka outweighed initial fears.

Haroon belonged to one of the twenty-two wealthiest families of Pakistan whose assets had been confiscated by the Bhutto government. He had longstanding enmity with Bhutto. Still Mujib looked upon him as a reliable channel to Islamabad, possibly because of his credentials. Haroon worked closely with Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah as his personal secretary. He was active in the movement against the British Raj to create the Muslim nation, as was Mujib.

Coggin informed the consulate that both Mujib and Haroon were “interested in the re-establishment of some sort of link between Pakistan and Bangladesh.” They told Coggin of their plans to bring the people of Bangladesh in favor of their idea within six to twelve months. They also told him that the re-establishment of ties was necessary for Bangladesh’s survival as an independent country. But they knew there was considerable opposition from Tajuddin Ahmed, war-time prime minister of Bangladesh, and his supporters on the one hand and India on the other.

“Both men [Mujib and Haroon], according to Coggin, feared that their efforts could result in the assassination of Mujib by an ‘Indian agent.’ Nonetheless, they believed the risk should be taken for the future of Bangladesh. Otherwise, it would soon end up as another Indian state,” the consulate reported to Washington on 24 February 1972.

The next day, on 25 February, the State Department advised the consulate general that it had received “very similar information” from Coggin in mid-January. “At that time, we discounted Coggin’s belief in Mujib’s support for a possible link since it ran counter to other available evidence, such as reports of meetings with Prime Minister Heath. We have subsequently received no information which would suggest the possibility that Mujib intends or would be able to bring the Bangladesh public to look with favor on the re-establishment of ties.”

When the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi received this message, it also dismissed Coggin’s claim. On 28 February, the New Delhi mission informed the State Department that “we have no reason from our perspective to believe Mujib could or would seek to re-establish ties with Pakistan within six to twelve months.”

The mission also questioned the authenticity of Coggin’s story. “While we can appreciate Mujib might wish to keep all options open, it is difficult to understand why he would air with an American newsman any such hypothetical as well as politically and, according to Coggin, personally dangerous notion.”

The embassy further reported that the Yugoslav charge d’affaires told the U.S. deputy chief of mission that Mujib assured Gandhi that he had no intention of establishing a Dhaka-Islamabad link of any kind. Gandhi responded that she had no desire to interfere in any Bangla-Pak talks to restore normal relations.

The U.S. Consulate General in Dhaka went one step further in dismissing Coggin’s information. “Coggin has been absorbed, almost to the point of obsession in our opinion, with East Pakistan, Bangladesh affairs, for the past few months, and he has shown signs of loss of balance and critical judgment.”

The consulate noted that neither Sydney Schanberg of The New York Times, nor Lee Lescaze of The Washington Post, who had equal or superior access to Mujib, found anything to indicate that the Bengali leader wanted a link with Pakistan. “Both their views and our own observations were diametrically opposed to Coggin’s views, and we were inclined to discount those,” Consul General Herb Spivack wrote on 28 February 1972.

Mujib possibly sent out the feeler through Coggin to elicit reactions from different quarters. His secret talks with Bhutto and other Pakistani leaders, including Shaukat Hyat Khan, opposition leader of the Pakistan National Assembly, in subsequent years only indicate his earnest desire to keep close ties with Islamabad. Mujib secretly met Hyat in Malaysia in 1973. He told Hyat he did not cause the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan. Rather, Bangladesh was “pushed…away by a conspiracy.”

Whatever his other failings, and he had many, Mujib was a master in the art of Bengali political maneuver. Mujib was never a devotee of Bangladesh's independence, even as late as March 1971. Like his mentor, H. S. Suhrawardy, he knew an independent East Bengal would be completely overshadowed by India. The events of 1971 changed the situation and confronted him and his country with the fact of Indian power. So keen was Mujib's sense of the immediacy of power that he has consistently pursued a policy of close official friendship with Delhi. Simultaneously, India faced growing howls from many levels of Bengali society.

India’s image in Bangladesh had worsened to a point within a short time after the new nation was born that even Delhi felt it would be wiser to let Mujib pursue a more openly independent course. Mujib never encouraged his countrymen's antipathy toward India, but he had seen the advantages of greater flexibility it offered him. He had profited from the paradox. Mujib had always been a capable tactician, but never got the chance to prove if he was as capable a strategist.

[This article is based on B.Z. Khasru’s upcoming book, The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link, which will be published by Rupa & Co. in New Delhi in July.]

B.Z. Khasru is editor of The Capital Express in New York and author of a bestselling book, “Myths and Facts: Bangladesh Liberation War – How India, U.S., China, and the USSR Shaped the Outcome.” His second book, “The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link,” will be published by Rupa & Co. in New Delhi in July.

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