Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was unequivocal about the foreign policy Bangladesh would pursue under his leadership. He defined it in simple terms. The new country would base its ties with the world outside its frontiers on the principle of friendship for all and malice toward none.
It was this axiomatic thought, with its roots in the politics of the Civil War-era American President Abraham Lincoln, which Bangladesh adopted as core policy in the early years of its independent nationhood. In the years in which Bangabandhu was in office, till his assassination in August 1975, a sense of dynamism coupled with a huge dose of idealism was what constituted Bengali diplomacy soon after liberation in December 1971.
The foreign policy adopted by Bangabandhu’s administration necessarily took into account the support, in moral as well as material terms, provided by those nations which clearly looked upon the genocide committed by the Pakistan occupation army in the country with dismay and derision.
In early April 1971, Soviet President Nikolai Podgorny left hardly anything to the imagination when he wrote to Pakistani junta leader Yahya Khan that the crisis in Bangladesh, which at that point in time was yet being referred to as East Pakistan in the outside world, called for a political settlement.
Yahya Khan, of course, spurned the suggestion and indeed looked upon the Soviet advice as interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs. Islamabad’s negative feedback was thus instrumental in a hardening of Moscow’s stance toward Pakistan and the subsequent role it played in the creation of Bangladesh.
The new government in Dhaka, conscious of the decisive Soviet role at the United Nations Security Council, where Moscow vetoed all resolutions that looked about to prevent the fall of Pakistan in Bangladesh, certainly understood the need for close ties with the Soviet Union.
It was against such a background of Soviet support to the Bangladesh cause in 1971 that Bangabandhu paid an official visit to Moscow in March 1972. This was one occasion where the Bengali political leadership, for the very first time, came in touch with the leaders of the communist state, a move which led to a strengthening of economic as well as educational ties.
A constructive result of such close Dhaka-Moscow links was the facilitating of higher academic programmes for Bengali students at Soviet universities, a reality that was to add enormously to the promotion of excellence in education. And, of course, Soviet assistance in clearing Chittagong port of the remnants of the 1971 war and helping to rebuild it were hugely to the advantage of a country which had had its economy battered and its infrastructure absolutely destroyed by the conflict.
Equally important in the Bangladesh foreign policy scheme of things were relations with India. The generosity of spirit with which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her government came to the support of Bangladesh’s people in 1971, especially in accommodating ten million Bengali refugees, providing space for the Mujibnagar government to operate in and waging a diplomatic campaign in Bangladesh’s support, were naturally acknowledged with gratitude by the people and government of Bangladesh.
More importantly, the entry of Indian forces in the war in December 1971, following the attack on Indian territory by Pakistan, and the eventual surrender of the Pakistani forces before the joint command of the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini were a strong reassertion of the growing links between the two countries. Obviously, therefore, a strong, constructive bonding with India was in order.
And Bangabandhu believed that in order for the two countries to reinforce the links forged during the war, it was important that Indian troops go back home and let the new country get on with its work. A singular contribution of Bangabandhu’s government was thus the return home of India’s soldiers from Bangladesh.
Dhaka was in little mood to be seen as being under the influence of Delhi. Indian soldiers trooped back to their country a few days before Mrs. Gandhi paid an official visit to Dhaka in March 1972.
And then came a defining moment in relations between the two neighbours when Bangladesh and India initialled a 25-year treaty of friendship that would have the two countries coming to mutual support and friendship in the event of hostilities imposed by other nations on either of them.
The times between 1972 and 1974 can justifiably be regarded as a bright era in Bangladesh’s diplomacy. Bangabandhu’s government earned, in these critical two years, the rare honour of seeing most nations in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas accord it diplomatic recognition.
That Bangladesh was committed to pursuing a secular democratic structure was a powerful factor in persuading other nations of the need to give the new nation its rightful place in the councils of the world. It was a policy which led to the Bangladesh cause in the times after liberation being looked upon with a huge degree of support and empathy.
It can be argued, therefore, that Bengali secular democracy, having been acknowledged by the world as Bangladesh’s defining diplomatic principle, led to a swift opening of doors everywhere.
The country made its entry into various global organisations, particularly those linked to the United Nations. Again, though Bangladesh had little political reason to be part of the Commonwealth, it nevertheless made it known that it was ready and willing to play its full part in the organization.
Dhaka’s membership of the organization certainly riled Pakistan, which immediately took itself out of the Commonwealth (only to go back to it a few decades later).
Bangladesh’s efforts to obtain a place in the United Nations were decisively blocked through an exercise of the veto by China in 1972. Indeed, through 1972 and 1973, the Chinese leadership refused to have Dhaka take its place in the world body, clearly out of an unwillingness to let Pakistan down. The Chinese action surely dismayed Bangabandhu. Yet he was unwilling to go critical or condemnatory, of Beijing’s position on Bangladesh.
It was political pragmatism which came into play, for Bangabandhu, together with Foreign Minister Kamal Hossain, was in little doubt that until Bangladesh and Pakistan reached a deal on the issues that put up roadblocks to a normalization of ties between Dhaka and Islamabad, Beijing would go on playing the veto card and so keep Pakistan in good humour. Such an assessment entailed, of course, a powerful requirement for a change of perceptions where links with Pakistan were concerned.
The change came in February 1974, when Bangladesh’s entry into the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) threw up a new dimension to its diplomacy. Indeed, the OIC summit, held in the Pakistani city of Lahore, was instrumental in burnishing Bangladesh’s image on the global scene.
And that was for two reasons. The first related to Pakistan, which had been in a state of denial regarding Bangladesh’s emergence as an independent state but which now was forced to accord official recognition to the new country if it wished to make a success of the Islamic summit. Bangladesh’s secularism notwithstanding, the country was home to a majority population comprising Muslims, which reality could not be ignored.
The second was Bangladesh’s diplomatic opening out, at virtually one go, to the Islamic world. The perception at the time was that through joining the OIC, Bangladesh had filled a major gap in its diplomacy and was therefore now equipped to forge ahead with exploring trade and other possibilities with the Islamic world.
Bangladesh’s foreign policy regarding the United States, in the initial stages, was informed by a couple of positions. First, Bangabandhu and his government were grateful to the American people for their unqualified support to the Bangladesh cause in 1971. Second, it was critical of the Nixon-Kissinger tilt toward Pakistan during the war, a position which clearly militated against the Bengali war of liberation.
It was not easily forgotten that where American politicians like Senator Edward Kennedy were loudly rooting for Bangladesh in 1971, the Nixon administration consistently explored the chances of a negotiated settlement between the Yahya Khan regime and the Bengali political leadership even when the opportunity for such a settlement did not exist after 25 March 1971.
The lengths to which the US administration was prepared to go toward promoting a settlement within the Pakistani federal structure were soon revealed through reports of Khondokar Moshtaque, the Mujibnagar government’s foreign minister, being ready to make a departure from the position of the government and lend his support to the American plan during his projected trip to New York.
The conspiracy, for so it was, was neutralized through the government’s preventing Moshtaque from traveling to New York. His place was taken by Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, the self-exiled vice chancellor of Dhaka University then serving as a special envoy of the Mujibnagar government.
The Bangabandhu government’s diplomatic successes were surely capped by Washington’s recognition of Bangladesh in April 1972. Though ties between the two countries were somewhat soured by the American position regarding Bangladesh’s trade deals with Cuba, the government in Dhaka was careful not to let slip the opportunity of building on its new-found links with Washington.
Bangladesh made a significant move through making contact with the World Bank, a step that demonstrated the government’s determination to pursue an independent foreign policy through an exercise of pragmatism in its dealings with foreign nations in an era yet constricted by the Cold War.
In much the same manner, Bangabandhu and his government were convinced that nothing short of non-alignment would enable the global community to steer away from the hard choices it would have to make between leaning toward the Soviet bloc and aligning itself with American policy.
Bangabandhu was keenly aware of the damage done to Pakistan through its membership of such anti-communist blocs as SEATO and CENTO; and because he was, it was his observation that the path traversed by Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ahmed Sukarno and Josip Broz Tito in the 1950s was one his country needed to take if its goal was to carve a distinctive niche for itself in the world.
Forty seven years after 1971, the principles on which Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman shaped Bangladesh’s foreign policy are in absolute need of reassertion. The Father of the Nation believed, out of conviction and moral belief, that Bangladesh could be the Switzerland of the East. Given the trauma the Bengali nation has faced in the years since his assassination, the relevance of that belief rises out of the mists of time.
The message is patent and unmistakable: Bangladesh is in sore need of reclaiming the goodwill and respect of the international community, sentiments which once came its way through the nobility of its cause and the sagacity of its leadership. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman personified that cause and that sagacity.
On a personal note, this writer came across former British prime minister Edward Heath at a reception in London in the late 1990s. On being informed by the writer that he was from Bangladesh, Heath stopped for a while; there was a twinkle in his eyes and a smile on his lips. “Ah”, said he, “Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s country.”
And that said volumes about the era of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The writer Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor-in-Charge, The Asian Age
16 November 2019, The Asian Age link