As I write this piece on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for a Bangladeshi newspaper, I am transported back exactly half a century ago when in 1971, as a student of Allahabad University, I was seeped into the liberation war of Bangladesh. Originally from West Bengal, I had no relatives from or in East Bengal yet had the good fortune in the family as my father's Nana had served in Dhaka possibly as a Civil Surgeon and a Superintendent in the Mitford Hospital. Later, my Nana was sent as a District Magistrate Jashore and Nadia to handle the administration during the infamous Bengal famine in 1943. Again, in the same year, my father's elder brother was sent as SDO Madaripur, which took him to Tungipara too --- a place much in focus today during the Mujib centenary celebrations. It's perhaps more than a coincidence that in 1981, I was posted at the Indian High Commission, Dhaka, for nearly four years, exposing me live to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's life and times. It didn't end there. From 1992 till my retirement, and even later, I held several sensitive assignments directly linked to Bangladesh. That's the Bangladesh connection I have which seems to have been ordained and predestined.
Reverting to 1971, to a small but vibrant and intellectually enlightened city, that's Allahabad situated in Northern India, the whole nine-ten months of the liberation struggle had stirred an entire India from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and the name of Sheikh Mujib pulsated in almost every Indian heart, especially after Bangabandhu's historic speech delivered before a sea of humanity in the Race Course grounds, Dhaka on March 7, 1971. The high pitch rhetoric, though in Bangla, was broadcast by AIR Calcutta, reaching out to thousands of listeners. Sentences like "ebarer songram, muktir Songram, Swadhinotar Songram'' (this fight is for liberation, this fight is for independence ) sank in and Mujib was an instantaneous hero in the hearts and minds of Indians cutting across religious or caste lines. There was a natural trend of hero worship set in India. Another thundering part of his address "tomader kacche ja ja achey tai niye prostut hoye jao" (be in readiness with whatever you have in your possession). "rokto jokhon diyechi, rokto aro debo" (we have given blood and will give more), had a magical spell on the Indian minds and they prayed for Mujib's safety and success and cursed the Pakistani occupation forces for their highhandedness.
Noted Bangla radio commentator, Deb Dulal Bandopadhyay electrified the radio listeners all over by repeatedly airing Mujib's speech so much so that many households in India bought new transistors and recharged their batteries. Mujib was everywhere in India. That's the profound trail Mujib left amongst the Indians by the charisma of his persona and gift of the gab.
There was a pall of gloom in India when Mujib was whisked away by the Pakistani forces and lodged in the Mianwali jail in Rawalpindi. Seldom has history recorded that a mass leader of a foreign country's arrest inflicted so much pain and anguish as Mujib did to the Indians. All homes prayed for his safety particularly because of Pakistan's bloody track record of coups and brutality. That's the first noticeable interest the Indians evinced. All, like their fellow Bangladeshis, had feared for the worst. Thankfully the ominous feelings were over when finally the news about Mujib's release from the prison was announced in January 1972. In between, much water had flowed along the Padma and Bangladesh had become a free nation on December 16, 1971.
In Allahabad again, like other places in India, victory marches were held. We, as young university students, paraded through the streets and alleys shouting Joy Bangla and "Sheikh Mujib zindabad" slogans with banners in his praise. It was a historic occasion to a new generation of youth in India to whom Mujib was an icon though hitherto unknown. He carved a niche akin to Fidel Castro of Cuba, Che Guevara or Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam. Mujib transcended the borders of language and I noticed with interest how his charm had invaded even the Hindi belt of India.
After his release on Jan 8, 1972, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, euphoric with the news, used her good offices with the British government to bring Mujib to New Delhi by a British carrier and after a halt in the Indian capital, the Bangladesh leader would be flown to Dhaka. Earlier, immediately after his release from the Mianwali prison, a Pakistani aircraft had brought Mujib to London. With this initiative of Indira Gandhi, we can see the strong Indian connection reinforcing which had visibly begun with the start of the liberation struggle.
There was an extraordinary tumult in India when Mujib triumphantly transited through New Delhi. The entire who's who of Indian government was present at the airport and the optics was highly euphoric. By now, even after a long spell of incarceration, Mujib had carved a niche amongst the Indians. Indians, selflessly heaved a sigh of relief that Pakistan was now dismembered and Bangladesh under Mujib was now to reciprocate its warmth towards India.
Back home in Dhaka, Mujib took charge of the governance and began on a sound note. With India, he had already struck a bonhomie rarely found in the annals of history. There were a slew of agreements including the historic Land Boundary Agreement and other deals. While accommodating Indian geopolitical interests, Mujib never sacrificed Bangladesh's sovereign interests. That was his stature befitting a true statesman.
It's an irony of history that only at age 54, on august 15, 1975, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, (along with his family members ) was brutally gunned down snuffing out the life of the architect of Indo- Bangla friendship. The killers were all part of a larger blueprint schemed by anti-Bangladesh and anti-India forces. It's believed that Mujib was warned time and again by the Indian intelligence agencies about the notorious plans and conspiracy to cause him harm, but he loved his people so dearly that he ignored all such warnings and laid down his life for his country.
Indians couldn't reconcile to his tragic demise. He was such a darling in the Indian hearts. People started wondering about the future of a nascent Bangladesh. Entire India was in mourning and today, it's over 45 years since he passed away, Mujib's legacy lives on and he is remembered and missed more than often. Thankfully his daughter Sheikh Hasina as the Prime Minister has carried forward her father's legacy and diligently following his footprints to further put the Indo -Bangladesh ties on a more solid footing. Mujib's vision as the principal architect of the bilateral relationship shines with stellar brilliance on his centenary year coinciding with 50 years of Bangladesh independence where India had a laudable role to perform.
Shantanu Mukharji has been a Bangladesh-watcher for a long time and was also posted as a diplomat at the Indian High Commission in Dhaka