Published:  01:58 AM, 10 January 2023

When Indira Gandhi Received Bangabandhu at Palam

When Indira Gandhi Received Bangabandhu at Palam
Sashanka Banerjee

50 years ago on January 10, a British Royal Air Force Comet aircraft flying from London carrying Sheikh Mujibur Rahman landed in Delhi to a remarkable reception at Palam Airport. The entire Indian cabinet led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was on the tarmac to receive him. It was the climax of a cooperation between India and the freedom fighters in East Pakistan – a territory that had now become Bangladesh.

25 days earlier – on December 16 – Indian armed forces liberated Pakistan’s eastern wing and obtained the surrender of 93,000 Pakistani servicemen from generals to foot soldiers. Two day before his descent on Delhi or January 8, under irresistible international pressure, Pakistan was compelled to release Mujib, who had been incarcerated in West Pakistan for nine months and sentenced to death for allegedly waging war against Pakistan.

London-based Indian diplomat Sashanka Banerjee, who was deputed to accompany Mujib as an officer on special duty on the flight, recalled: “After about an hour of small talk, ‘Bongo Bondhu’ stood up and started singing ‘Aamar Shonar Bangla, Aami Tomaye Bhalobashi’ (Oh my golden Bengal, I love you dearly). I was seated next to him, and as he started singing, I too stood up as he did. Mujibur Rahman asked me to join him in singing the song with him, which I did.”

He went on: “At the end, he turned towards me and asked what I thought of the song. I had understood that Mujib wanted the song to be the national anthem or ‘jaatiyo shongeet’ of Bangladesh. Who could deny that it was a beautiful song fit to be the Jaatiyo Songeet of Bangladesh. ‘You are right’, he said, ‘that was what I was thinking too. Good then, that will be the song that will be the national anthem of Bangladesh’.”

Composed by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore in the first decade of the 20th century, it was duly adopted as such.

After arriving in the Indian capital, Mujib rested for a while before formal discussions with Gandhi. Banerjee informed the Prime Minister that Mujib desired withdrawal of Indian forces from Bangladesh be advanced to March 31 from June 30. She, according to Banerjee, asked him to communicate back to Mujib that this be officially mentioned at the ensuing meeting. This Mujib did bring up, and she immediately accepted the request.

British Prime Minister Edward Heath was holidaying in the country when Mujib was flown from Rawalpindi to London. He quickly returned to his official residence-cum-office at 10 Downing Street to meet him. The talks lasted about an hour and Mujib asked Britain to recognize Bangladesh. Following this, Heath told the House of Commons: “We would do our utmost to help Bangladesh in the present situation.” Less than a month later, the United Kingdom announced the establishment of full diplomatic relations with Dhaka.

Mujib also requested Heath to persuade the US � which had nakedly supported Pakistani General Yahya Khan’s junta in their brutal repression of East Pakistan � to acknowledge Bangladesh as a sovereign nation. Heath argued before Nixon: “If we delay too long, the Communist countries will get a start on us.” The US duly fell in line in the spring of 1972.

Heath shared with Nixon: “He (Mujib) was anxious to reach Dacca (as Dhaka was then spelt) as soon as possible and we gave him an RAF aircraft for the onward journey.” Mrs Gandhi had arranged an Air India plane for the purpose but now agreed with Heath that the British jet would stop in Delhi en route to Dhaka. The Sheikh heartily endorsed this.

After spending a few hours in Delhi, Sheikh Mujib returned home to a tumultuous welcome. Banerjee’s eye-witness account portrayed: “Over a million people had gathered to receive the Bangladesh leader at the Romna Maidan, echoing slogans of ‘Joy Bangabandhu, Joy Bangla’. Raising his very masculine voice, Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal) declared standing on the podium: ‘My countrymen, rejoice. Bangladesh is now a sovereign, independent nation’.”

Sashanka Banerjee is a former
Indian diplomat.

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