Syed Badrul Ahsan
In those brief few seconds, on a cheerful January afternoon, I stared at the Father of the Nation. It was the second time that I was looking at him, up close. The first had been a year and a half earlier, when he gave me his autograph on a pleasant summer evening in distant Quetta. He had not taken the hand that I offered him. He placed his huge hands on my cheeks and pulled them lovingly. He had then made me sit beside him at dinner, even as he conversed with such prominent men as Abdus Samad Achakzai and Yahya Bakhtiar. I was a schoolboy, invited to the dinner by Mir Mohammad Khan Raisani, president of the Baluchistan Awami League. I ate little. I went on looking at Bangabandhu --- awed, happy, proud. It felt good being a Bengali.
And here I was again, on 10 January 1972, part of a million-strong crowd of jubilant Bengalis welcoming Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman back home to a land his leadership had caused to be liberated barely a month earlier. There was a sadness that enveloped him in the midst of that cheering crowd. As the truck carrying him and a whole phalanx of politicians and student leaders inched its way out of the old airport in Tejgaon, he seemed tired after all those months in solitary confinement in Pakistan. More than that, he was clearly overwhelmed by the ecstatic manner in which his people, the newly freed Bengalis of his Bangladesh, were welcoming him home. It could have been a scene out of an epic tale. It could have been an image shaped by the imagination. It was neither of those. It was truly happening before us. We had watched history being made in Bangladesh in the nine agonising months of Pakistani repression. And here, right before us, was the man whose inspirational leadership had finally thrown open the doors of freedom for us.
I watched Bangabandhu on that truck. He was leaner than he was when the Pakistan army abducted him and took him to Pakistan in March 1971. His hair was dishevelled. There was fatigue written all over him and yet there was the power in those eyes that held you in its gleam. I tried to get on the truck. No luck there, for it was already loaded with people. As the vehicle slowly went past me, truly in the manner of a snail, I thought I would climb aboard at the back. With one foot on the truck, the other grazing the road and my hands holding on to a chain on the side, I made a huge effort to have all of my sixteen year-old strength pushes me on to it. It was Colonel Osmany who then told me (he was on the truck) softly, 'khoka, neme porho?byatha paabe'. I didn't get down. With that one foot on the truck and the other dangling along the road, I made it all the way with Bangabandhu to the Race Course.
It was a million-strong crowd that welcomed the Father of the Nation back home that winter afternoon. He spoke of the millions who had been murdered by Pakistan, of the homes and villages and towns ravaged during the war. He bade farewell to Pakistan and wished Zulfikar Ali Bhutto well. He quoted Tagore. And he wept. For the first time in his public career, before the world, Bangabandhu shed tears in remembrance of the terrible ravages Bangladesh had gone through in the preceding nine months. And we in the crowd and across the country remembered, at that instant, how seventy five million Bengalis had worried about his safety, how they had prayed for his life and for him to return home. For nine months we had no way of knowing where he was or whether he was dead or alive. It was only Pakistan's defeat in Bangladesh and the surrender of its 93,000 soldiers in December 1971 that perhaps saved him. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, having played a diabolical role throughout the war and before it, nevertheless recognized the folly of keeping the leader of a now free nation imprisoned in alien land.
Late in the evening on 7 January 1972, Bhutto bade goodbye to Bangabandhu at Rawalpindi's Chaklala airport. As the aircraft took to the skies, Pakistan's new leader told no one in particular, "The nightingale has flown." Hours later, on the cold dawn of 8 January in London, the plane carrying Bangladesh's President, for that was what Bangabandhu had been since April 1971, descended at Heathrow. For the first time since the beginning of the war for Bangladesh's liberation, the world knew that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was alive. The Bengali leader cheerfully told a crowded news conference at Claridge's later in the day, "As you can see, gentlemen, I am alive and well." And then he went on to offer a near lyrical account of his sentiments on being a free soul once more:
"Gentlemen of the world press, I am happy to share in the unbounded joy of freedom brought about by an epic liberation struggle waged by the people of Bangladesh. No people have had to shed so much blood for freedom as my people have . . ."
Here at home, in the coldness of a January evening, we laughed in the joy of national rebirth. And then we wept, as we heard his voice once again. Bangabandhu was coming back home. As we leapt and skipped and ran, in that order, all the way home in the twilight glow of 10 January 1972, we knew we now inhabited a land 'where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free . . . where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection . . .'
It felt good to belong, with Bangabandhu, with the sovereign republic of Bangladesh.
Postscript: On an evening dripping with rain in 1973, I stood, as I had always stood, outside the gates of the old Ganobhavan, waiting for a glimpse of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. I always waved at him. He always waved back. On that evening, he had his vehicle stop outside the gate and beckoned to me. As I walked briskly to his car, he wanted to know why I spent time there every day. 'To see you', said I, in trepidation. He smiled and told me, 'prottek din amake dekhte hobe na' --- you don't have to see me every day. 'Go home and study.' He smiled again, as the car carrying him home pulled away. That was the last time I spoke to him. I went back home happy.
Twenty three years later, in the silence of a monsoon evening in Tungipara, I prayed at Bangabandhu's grave. The grass on his final resting place glistened in the interplay of fading sunlight and gathering rainclouds. A few feet away, on the veranda of his ancestral home, lay the coffin in which his bullet-riddled mortal remains had arrived a day after villainous men had taken the life out of him.
And I remembered the caring way in which he had softly pulled my cheeks, as he asked me, 'Bangladesh-e jaabi na?' That had been aeons ago.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer