Published:  03:00 AM, 14 January 2021

Foreign policy in Bangabandhu's era


On a September day in 1974, the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, stood in the cavernous hall of the United Nations General Assembly and spoke for us, in our very own Bengali language, before the world. It was a moment of pride for all of us. That moment forms a rich part of our history.

The Father of the Nation 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. 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 for the Bangladesh cause in 1971 that Bangabandhu paid an official visit to Moscow in March 1972. 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.

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. 

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. Bangladesh's efforts to obtain a place in the United Nations were decisively blocked through an exercise of the veto by China. 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.

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, the government was critical of the Nixon-Kissinger tilt toward Pakistan during the war, a position which clearly militated against the Bengali war of liberation.

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.

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. All these years after 1971, the principles on which Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman shaped Bangladesh's foreign policy are in absolute need of reassertion.




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