Memories come alive. History is rekindled in the mind, indeed in our collective consciousness, as we recall the tumultuous days of December 1971.
Events in Pakistan moved with dizzying speed after the surrender of its army in Bangladesh on 16 December 1971. Six days after General Niazi capitulated in Dhaka and four days after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto assumed the presidency of the country, the Pakistan authorities freed the imprisoned Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Mianwali and transported him to house arrest at a rest house outside Rawalpindi. It was 22 December, a day on which Bangladesh’s provisional Mujibnagar government that had waged an eventually triumphant war against Pakistan returned home to Dhaka. But, of course, neither Bangabandhu nor his colleagues in Dhaka knew at that point about one another’s whereabouts.
The decision to place Bangabandhu under house arrest was purely Bhutto’s. It was a dramatic move in that the Bengali leader had only weeks earlier been sentenced to death by a secret military tribunal on charges of waging war against Pakistan. Indeed, only moments before transferring power to Bhutto, a disgraced General Yahya Khan had asked the incoming Pakistani president for time to send Mujib to the gallows. A politically shrewd Bhutto had spurned the suggestion. He knew he needed to negotiate with the man who ought to have been Pakistan’s prime minister, given the results of the general elections held a year earlier but which elections had been nullified by the army action in East Pakistan in late March 1971, for there were the tens of thousands of Pakistani prisoners of war who would need to be brought back home.
Bangabandhu, it was clear on 22 December, was well on his way to freedom. The one reality for him, though, was that the nine months he had spent in solitary confinement in Pakistan were a period when he was denied access to newspapers, radio and television. He was delinked from the rest of the world. The thorough political being that he was, it is not hard to suppose that he did imagine the worst happening back in Bangladesh. But in concrete terms, he had no information at all about the ground realities in his homeland before he was taken prisoner in the early hours of 26 March 1971. When, therefore, Bangabandhu was transferred to the rest house from prison, he could easily guess that circumstances had changed somewhat, that the objective was for the Pakistanis to negotiate with him. He was, however, not in a position to know who would be talking to him. He had no idea that Pakistan had lost the war, that Bangladesh was free, that Yahya Khan had been replaced by Bhutto. The late diplomat M.M. Rezaul Karim, who would receive Bangabandhu at London’s Heathrow airport when the Father of the Nation arrived there from Pakistan in early January 1972, was to recount the many questions Bangabandhu peppered him with on his way to Claridge's hotel. Bangabandhu’s first question to Karim was whether it was true that Bangladesh had become independent.
That question was again a pointer to the misleading picture Bangabandhu had been given of developments in Bangladesh by Bhutto when Pakistan’s new leader turned up at the rest house to meet him. It was a surprised Bangabandhu who asked Bhutto (and this we have from Kuldip Nayar): ‘Bhutto, what are you doing here?’ Bhutto’s answer came in the form of a statement: ‘I am the President of Pakistan’. He added that he was also chief martial law administrator. As they sat down to talk, Bhutto apparently gave the Bengali leader to understand that ‘East Pakistan’ was, in so many words, under Indian occupation. Throughout the conversation between the two men, Bhutto expended all his efforts in trying to make Bangabandhu agree to a maintaining of links between Pakistan and Bangladesh, even if it was in the form of a loose confederation. Bangabandhu’s response, given the news blackout he had been subjected to for nine months, was to let Bhutto know that he could promise nothing without being free and without consulting his colleagues in Dhaka.
In those days of fast-moving developments in Pakistan, the Pakistan government also had the imprisoned Kamal Hossain, Bangabandhu’s constitutional advisor taken prisoner in April of the year, taken out of Haripur jail and brought to the rest house where Bangabandhu had been relocated. It is interesting to recall that when the Bengali leader, who had been declared President of Bangladesh by the Mujibnagar government in April 1971, was put on trial before a military court in Mianwali, he refused to accept the lawyer chosen by the Yahya Khan junta to defend him. The lawyer was the well-known A.K. Brohi. Bangabandhu asked that Kamal Hossain be brought in as his defence counsel. The Pakistanis were unable to fulfil that request, which reportedly made Bangabandhu wonder. Of course, he had no way of knowing that like him Hossain too was a prisoner of the Pakistanis.
It is a matter of record that between his arrest and the announcement relating to his trial on charges of treason, Bangabandhu’s whereabouts remained absolutely unknown. Apart from a photograph of him at Karachi airport, with two policemen standing guard on either side of him, released by the authorities in early April, the world knew next to nothing of what might have happened to him. It would later transpire, following Bangladesh’s liberation, that in the moments after he was arrested on 26 March, Bangabandhu was for some time made to wait on the steps of a yet to be fully constructed National Assembly building (later Bangladesh’s Jatiyo Sangsad) while a Pakistan army officer made contact with the cantonment. Big Bird, said the officer on a walkie talkie, was in the cage. A short while later, Bangabandhu was taken to Adamjee Cantonment College, where he was confined till early April before being flown to West Pakistan. Incidentally, it was the first time that he was being placed in prison, not in East Bengal. All his previous spells in jail had been on home ground.
It was not before 9 August 1971 that a bit of news was given out about Bangabandhu by the Pakistan government. In a terse statement, the government made it known that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would stand trial before a military tribunal two days later, on 11 August. It was obvious the trial would be conducted in secrecy. Presided over by Brigadier Rahimuddin Khan, who in subsequent years would rise to be a lieutenant general in the Pakistan army, the proceedings saw seven Bengalis, two of them journalists, produced before the tribunal to testify against Bangabandhu. Between the beginning of the trial and October, quite a few reports appeared in foreign newspapers on the proceedings, though all of them were sketchy. Towards the end of November, the tribunal passed a sentence of death on Bangabandhu. It is quite plausible that the outbreak of armed hostilities between India and Pakistan on 3 December prevented the Yahya regime from carrying out the tribunal’s judgment.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto met on 27 December, which was probably their second meeting in five days. Pakistan’s new president repeated his pleas for links to be maintained between Dhaka and Islamabad, even if those links were in the form of a very loose confederation. Bangabandhu refused to consider Bhutto’s suggestions. Meanwhile, with demands rising in Bangladesh and in the West for Mujib to be released, Bhutto began to feel the pressure. On 3 January 1972, at a public rally in Karachi, he sought, in a dramatic flourish, the consent of the crowd --- it was little more than a symbolic gesture --- for the Bangladesh leader to be freed and permitted to go home. The crowd roared its approval. Bhutto’s response was to say ‘shukriya’ (thank you) thrice.
But the Pakistani leader still hoped to extract some concessions from his country’s most famous prisoner. At a farewell dinner for Bangabandhu and Dr Kamal Hossain on the evening of 7 January (and this we have from Kamal Hossain himself), Bhutto appealed to Bangladesh’s leader to delay his flight out of Pakistan because, as he put it, Pakistan’s skies would be closed to flights since the Shah of Iran would be flying in early the next day. The meaning was not lost on Bangabandhu. Pakistan’s president clearly had a meeting between the Shah and Bangabandhu in mind, the objective being to have Mujib agree to a deal with his Pakistani interlocutor. Predictably, Bangabandhu refused to consider the suggestion and made it clear to Bhutto that as Pakistan’s leader, the latter could have the authorities clear his departure despite Pakistan’s skies being turned into a no-fly zone because of the Shah’s impending arrival.
A little while after the sombre dinner, President Bhutto and Pakistani government functionaries accompanied Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Dr Kamal Hossain to Rawalpindi’s Chaklala airport. It was a chilly January night. It was a moment encapsulated in the ironic and the poignant. Here was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, elected majority leader at Pakistan’s national assembly elections a year earlier and therefore poised to take charge as the country’s prime minister, saying farewell to Pakistan in his new position as Bangladesh’s President. And here was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose place at the elections qualified him to be the leader of the opposition and yet who had become president of Pakistan by default, accompanying Bangabandhu to the waiting Pakistan International Airlines jetliner.
As the aircraft took to the night skies, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto murmured, ‘The nightingale has flown’. It was late evening on 7 January 1972.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the author of biographies of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmad and writes on politics and diplomacy.