Bangabandhu had been captured by Pakistani forces on the night of March 25, 1971 at the onset of Operation Searchlight in an attempt to decapitate Bangladesh’s struggle for independence. But Sheikh Mujib’s foresight to delegate duties to his trusted deputies and faith in the people ensured they would not only wage one of the most fierce wars for independence, but also ensure victory.
Even when Bangabandhu was imprisoned in Pakistan, the military regime feared to execute him out of sheer terror of what zeal his death might inspire among the fighting Bangalis. When reigning dictator President Yahya Khan issued an order to execute Sheikh Mujib, the jailer of his prison refused to carry it out, instead opting to hide the charismatic leader and issuing false orders.
After Bangabandhu was released on January 8, he wanted to fly back to Dhaka immediately. But as Pakistani aircraft were banned in Indian airspace, Pakistan President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto recommended he fly to Tehran or another neutral location. Sheikh Mujib elected to fly to London, where he address world media in a sensational meet-and-greet at the Claridge’s hotel.
His first words to the media were but part-and-parcel of his immeasurable charm: “Gentlemen, as you can see, I am alive and well.” His words, when aired on BBC and BBC Bengali Services and reached the radio sets of the millions yearning to hear of his well-being, led to outbursts of joy and grateful prayers across the nation.
Edward Heath, the incumbent British prime minister, who was travelling, returned to greet the leader of the newly liberated country. While the United Kingdom could not recognize Bangladesh as an independent country out of concern for Bhutto and a fragile Pakistan, Heath’s sincerity and modesty in addressing Sheikh Mujib spoke volumes as to how highly Bangabandhu was regarded. Harold Wilson, the leader of the opposition, also met with Sheikh Mujib to congratulate him on his freedom from incarceration and liberation of the nation.
After a brief stop at Delhi to thank Indira Gandhi and her country for the assistance throughout the Liberation War, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned to a free Dhaka, to millions of restless and ecstatic Bangalis for whom his safe return was tantamount to total victory.
On a spring morning, a Royal Air Force aircraft landed in Tejgaon Airport carrying Sheikh Mujib and his entourage. Over 500,000 people lined up on the road from the airport to Shahbagh, to welcome their hero home. In a truck that was more laden with flowers than people, a weeping Bangabandhu experienced the jubilation that rolled over the crowds as they caught a glimpse of him.