It was leadership as it was meant to be. The head was held high. The mind was without fear.
It was the quintessential Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman greeting the crowd, in his baritone, with the Joi Bangla salutation. Seconds later, he was informing the world's media, all packed in that hall at Claridge's, "As you can see, gentlemen, I am alive and well." And then came that poetic opening to his statement: "Today, I am free to share the unbounded joy of freedom with my fellow countrymen, who have won their freedom in an epic liberation struggle."
There was that unmistakable epic quality in him. Nearly ten months of imprisonment had not dimmed his commitment to his politics. The resolve was obvious. The voice was firm. The future glowed in the eyes. The sense of triumph, of his people under his guidance, was palpable. He was informing the world that Bangladesh had arrived, that he was there to take charge of its future as he had been at the helm of its recent past.
On 8 January 1972, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the subject of deliberations around the world. His release by the government of truncated Pakistan's new leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a fulfillment of the War of Liberation. His colleagues, the men he had trained in nationalistic leadership, indeed had groomed to take charge of the nation should he not be around, had done a splendid job. They had organized resistance to the enemy and in his name, inspired by his charismatic, principled stewardship of the nation, had lived up to his faith in them. They had liberated the country, Bangabandhu's country.
On that morning in cold, grey London, Harold Wilson, the leader of Britain's Labour opposition and once-and-future Prime Minister, turned up at Claridge's, to welcome him. Wilson addressed him not as 'Sheikh Mujib' but as 'Mr President'. As Bangladesh's President, on his first day in freedom, Bangabandhu engaged in talks with Prime Minister Edward Heath at 10 Downing Street. In the manner of the rest of the world, Heath demonstrated the highest respect for Bangladesh's leader: as Mujib stepped out of the British leader's residence, Heath held the door of the car open for him. "I have talked to Mr Heath. I have talked to Mr Wilson. And I am happy", Bangabandhu told the media at Claridge's.
He was the nightingale, freed from the darkness his enemies had kept him confined in for months. Hours earlier, as he was escorted by Bhutto to the aircraft that would fly him out of Pakistan and to freedom, it was a moment when history took a new dimension. Here were two men --- one victorious in war, the other defeated on the battlefield; one who had decisively won an election, the other who had conspired to repudiate it through helping an army commit genocide --- coming to a final and formal parting of the ways. "The bird has flown," Bhutto would tell newsmen a few hours later at the same airport, where he waited to welcome the Shah of Iran. The bird, in London, prepared to fly again. Impatient to see his people, he flew again, on the evening of the next day.
Hours later, Bangladesh's liberator stepped out of the Royal Air Force jetliner taking him home at Palam airport in Delhi. Every inch a leader, every inch a statesman, he needed to express his gratitude to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was there with President V.V. Giri and her government to welcome him. That Bangladesh and India were united in friendship on the foundational principles of democracy, secularism and socialism was the message that went out from him to the cheering multitudes of Indians waiting for a glimpse of the Bengali leader. He spoke in the beauty of the Bengali language that was so much a part of his oratory. Nearly ten months after emerging into freedom, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had lost none of his touch. In Delhi, he touched chords in millions of Indians, of people around the world, with his clear enunciation of how he saw his Bangladesh moving into a future free at last of the suffocating knots of colonialism.
And then the nightingale of freedom took to the skies one more time. He was on his way home, to the country which he had last seen being put to the torch as he was led away to detention by the Pakistan army. Early in the afternoon, the RAF jetliner was spotted gleaming over the skies of Dhaka. A million Bengalis waited beyond the perimeters of Tejgaon airport, the same airport from where he had been flown to prison ten months earlier. All over the city and all across Bangladesh, the seventy-five million citizens of a land battered and bruised in war and yet reaching out to the future, waited for the Leader. History gathered new meaning as Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman emerged from the aircraft, to be gathered in an emotional embrace by the leaders who had brought to fruition his promise of freedom. Tajuddin Ahmad wept and so did the Father of the Nation. Syed Nazrul Islam's eyes were moist. In the eyes of citizens were tears of joy. Here was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman --- abducted by a crude junta, tried by the Pakistan army in camera, handed down a sentence of death, expecting to be hanged any moment --- back among his people.
For three hours the truck conveying Bangabandhu to the Race Course inched its way through the welcoming crowds. Men, women and children who had prayed for him, prayed that he be alive in those gloomy months of organized repression and murder, cheered him on that road and from all the rooftops along the way. As the winter afternoon slowly declined to evening, the Father of the Nation spoke to us, to the world, of the future he envisioned for his country. He wept at the sacrifices of the millions in the war; and we wept with him. Bangladesh had come to stay, he told the world. Bangladesh would stay, in all the beauty of freedom. And we cheered in unrestrained manner.
As evening descended on 10 January 1972, as another day lost itself in time and space, we walked and leapt and ran home in sheer joy. Ours was a nation united in a great fraternity of souls, Bengali souls, festive in its rediscovery of heritage. In the appearance of the earliest of stars in the sky, we espied a rainbow taking form and substance over the landscape of our collective dreams. Life was poetry. And Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, our Bangabandhu, the father of our people, was back --- to compose new poetry.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior columnist, journalist and political commentator.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.