Intriguing as well as interesting happenings began to be noted in Pakistan once the country’s army had surrendered in Dhaka and Bangladesh had emerged as a sovereign state on 16 December 1971.
In Rawalpindi on the day, government officials went around distributing papers spelling out plans for a new constitution envisaged for Pakistan by the Yahya Khan regime. The papers were distributed to local and foreign journalists in an upscale hotel. In Dhaka, the army had surrendered, but there was hardly any sign that the regime had been affected by the disaster.
President Yahya Khan was too inebriated to speak to Pakistanis on radio and television on 16 December. However, his rambling speech in which he promised to restore Pakistan’s dignity and to go on waging war was broadcast on radio the next day. It was a recorded speech and the general did not appear on television.
Speculations about the Fate of Bangabandhu
Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, Bengalis speculated about the fate of their leader, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, about whom nothing, save an announcement in August 1971 regarding his trial before a military tribunal, had been heard. Bangabandhu had been arrested, or more appropriately abducted, by the army early on 26 March and a few days later was flown to (West) Pakistan and placed in solitary confinement in a prison in the Punjab.
It was subsequently known that the Bengali leader, Father of his Nation, had been sentenced to death in November. Earlier in October, if Yahya Khan’s version is to be believed, before his departure for Iran to attend the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy arranged by the Shah, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto asked that prior to the general’s departure Sheikh Mujibur Rahman be executed.
Bhutto never disputed that account, but as he prepared to take over as President of a rump Pakistan on 20 December — and this is his account — Yahya Khan expressed his wish to see Bangabandhu walk the gallows before Bhutto was installed as Pakistan’s leader. Bhutto vetoed the idea, arguing that if Mujib was hanged, not a single Pakistani soldier of the 93,000 already prisoners of war in Bangladesh and being moved to India would come back alive to Pakistan.
An Account of Bangabandhu's Quick Engagement with Z.A. Bhutto
Two days after Bhutto took over, on 22 December, his government shifted Bangabandhu from solitary confinement to house arrest outside Rawalpindi. In the nine months of the war in Bangladesh, Bangabandhu had no access to newspapers or radio or television and consequently was kept removed from what had been happening and what had happened in Bangladesh. Placed under house arrest too was Dr Kamal Hossain, the Awami League’s constitutional advisor who had been imprisoned in the North-West Frontier Province, today Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, since his arrest in April 1971.
On 23 December 1971, Bhutto turned up at the rest house where Bangabandhu had been placed, surprising the Bengali leader. As the journalist Kuldip Nayar would relate in his book, ‘Distant Neighbours: A Tale of the Subcontinent’, Bangabandhu flung a question at Pakistan’s new leader: ‘Bhutto, how are you here?’ Bhutto replied that he was Pakistan’s President. To that statement, Bangabandhu said, ‘How is that possible? I won the election.’ As if to frighten the Bengali leader, Bhutto said, ‘I am also chief martial law administrator.’
In his discussions with Bangabandhu on the day, Bhutto conveniently concealed the fact that Bangladesh had become independent. All he said was that ‘East Pakistan’ had been occupied by Indian troops and that it was important to keep Pakistan’s two wings united. It would be reasonable to conclude that Mujib was too astute a politician not to gauge from Bhutto’s words that Pakistan had suffered grievously and that a huge change had come over Bangladesh.
Bhutto met Bangabandhu a second time on 27 December and pleaded with him that some link, even a loose one, be maintained between Dhaka and Islamabad. It was a clear indication from Bhutto that Bangladesh had emerged, but Bangabandhu promised nothing. He only demanded that he be freed. Obviously, the Bhutto government had failed to extract any promise from Bangabandhu on future links between Bangladesh and Pakistan.
The dramatic streak in Bhutto, a characteristic he flaunted at regular intervals in his career, came to the fore once again on 3 January 1972 when he asked a crowd at a public meeting in Karachi if he had its permission to release Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. When the crowd roared back its approval, Bhutto thanked it, saying ‘shukriya’ three times.
Flight to Freedom
On the evening of 7 January 1972, President Bhutto hosted a farewell dinner for Bangabandhu, who at that point was independent Bangladesh’s President. The dinner was attended by Kamal Hossain and senior ministers of the Bhutto government. While the dinner went on, Bhutto dropped a bombshell, informing Bangabandhu that his flight to freedom would be postponed for some time. A surprised and suspicious Bangabandhu asked why, to which Bhutto responded that since the Shah of Iran was scheduled to arrive in the morning, Pakistan’s skies had been closed off to all air traffic.
It did not take long for Bangladesh’s leader to draw the conclusion that it was a ruse by Bhutto to have the Shah meet him and try to bring about a compromise on the Bangladesh question. Bangabandhu was having none of it. He told Bhutto — and Dr Kamal Hossain was witness to it — that he would not go on with the dinner unless Bhutto, as Pakistan’s President, agreed to let his aircraft take off. His gambit having failed, Bhutto quickly agreed to let Bangabandhu fly to freedom.
In the early hours of 8 January, President Bhutto of Pakistan accompanied President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh to Rawalpindi’s Chaklala airport. The special PIA aircraft, with Bangabandhu, Kamal Hossain and Hossain’s family on board, took to the skies minutes later, bound for London.
A few hours later, back at Chaklala to welcome the Shah, Bhutto told waiting newsmen when they sought to know about Bangabandhu’s flight to freedom, ‘The nightingale has flown.’
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would arrive at London’s Heathrow airport early on the cold morning of 8 January 1972. Nearly ten months after his arrest in March 1971, he was breathing in the air of freedom again.
The World Service of the BBC made Bangabandhu’s arrival in London its lead headline: ‘The East Bengali political leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has arrived in London.’
About the Author
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Chief Editorial Adviser of The Confluence; a journalist and author. He previously served as the Press Minister at the High Commission of Bangladesh, London and authored a biography on the Founder of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman entitled From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.