Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: My Personal Experience

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: My Personal Experience

I had the privilege to work with Bangabandhu from 1973 to 1975 while I was a senior official at the Bangladesh Foreign Office.

Bangladesh government at the time was small and there were only about 26 Joint Secretaries, no Additional Secretaries and a few Secretaries. That was why a Joint Secretary or an official with the same status could meet the head of the government for explaining official briefs on state matters..

Incidentally, one fact is correct that Bangabandhu does not forget names of individuals and whenever I met him, he called my first name. It was a wonderful feeling inside me which to this day I remember.

We, all officers, are comparatively younger in age and were dedicated to make Bangladesh a success story. We all worked hard even during nights. We were determined to make use whatever resources we had in the country to their optimum use. When we felt resources were not available in the country, we were allowed to go abroad to collect relevant resources/documents to make our position stronger against delegations from foreign countries. We often visited India Office Library in London where the British government kept all the documents from Lord Clive to 1947 when British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan..

I had the honour to meet him first in London in 1959 when I was a law student carrying out my studies to become a Barrister at the Linclon’s Inn. Bangabandhu met the students from East Pakistan while he was in London and he told us about the exploitation of East Pakistan resources for the welfare of West Pakistan. We could see in him an indomitable spirit and courage to liberate from the injustices perpetrated on the people of East Pakistan which was majority in Pakistan by the leaders of West Pakistan.

It is noted that from East Pakistan no one ever became either the Finance Minister or Defence Minister in Pakistan or until 1969 there were no single Bengali Secretaries in the central government of Pakistan. Only 5 Bengalis were made Secretaries in 1969 in the Central government because of pressure created by the Six- Points movement by Bangabandhu.

The last time I met him on 13th August at the Ganabhavan before I was scheduled to leave for Myanmar (Burma) for sea boundary talks. First I met President’s Secretary Abdur Rahim (who was earlier IG of police) who confirmed that I had an appointment with Bangabandhu. I waited in his room and when he got green signal from the President, I went inside the President’s office. The office was moderately large and he sat with no files on the desk.

He was an easy person to deal with and he allowed us to speak as long as we wished. He was very affectionate and affable person. This I gathered because at that stage of my life I was putting on weight and Bangabandhu asked me to reduce my weight.

My purpose was to brief him on the Bangladesh position on the maritime boundary against Myanmar. A big map was hanging behind the President and I explained Bangladesh position as against the Myanmar position on the delimitation of the sea boundary in the Bay of Bengal and he approved it. ( the issue was settled in Bangladesh’s favour in March 2012 with Myanmar by the Hamburg-based UNCLOS Tribunal to which the government of Sheikh Hasina, Bangabandhu’s eldest daughter, referred the sea boundary issue for judgment in October 2009)

However my visit had to be cancelled after the tragic assassination of Bangabhandu on 15th August and I felt very much saddened on the national tragedy , especially because that I saw him only two days ago and I found him so lively and in high spirits.

There are two instances below which I will describe to demonstrate that Bangabandhu firmly believed in self-respect and independence of Bangladesh and did not tolerate any slight diminution of it.

In 1973, Indian delegation came to Dhaka to sign a bilateral Air Agreement for operating commercial airlines between the two countries-(meaning how Air India/Indian airlines and Bangladesh Biman would operate through each other’s territory on their flights to overseas.)

Indian delegation handed over a draft agreement to us and it was found natural that the delegation which drafted the agreement had a few hidden clauses beneficial to them and put the other delegation at a disadvantage. We were aware of it and when I had examined the draft I found a grave loophole in the draft which did not allow Bangladesh Biman to fly to London from New Delhi/Bombay. This is known as Fifth Freedom of air services agreement. I examined a few Air Services Agreements signed by India with other foreign countries and all air agreements included the Fifth Freedom of air.

When I asked the Indian delegation on the missing of the Fifth Freedom of air from the draft, the Indian delegation replied that it would do for Bangladesh and Fifth Freedom was not necessary. That meant that Bangladesh Biman would be allowed to operate only from Dhaka Delhi/ Bombay and back and not to London. For London, Air India would provide services for the citizens of Bangladesh. This draft appeared to me was the one not between two independent countries but between a protectorate and the protecting power. (Britain was the protecting power of Bhutan until 1947.)

The draft was totally unacceptable to us but we did not disclose it to the Indian delegation. . We told the Indian delegation to allow us some time to scrutinise the draft and would meet them in the afternoon. The meeting was adjourned.

First we went to meet the Shipping and Airways Minister General Osmany. He appreciated our position and he thought that all of us must meet Bangabandhu on this issue because India was involved. We found out that Bangabandhu , the Prime Minister, was having lunch with President Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury at the Bangabhavan. Minister Osmany contacted Bangabhavan and told the military Secretary to the President that he would like to meet urgently Bangabandhu for state matters.

We all went to Bangabhavan. Bangabandhu was advised about our presence and he soon came out and met us at the office of the President. We explained the position of Bangladesh to him and the decision from him came out quickly and decisively. He told us “ Show them the Tejgaon Airport”. We understood what he meant.

We came back and told the Indian delegation in the afternoon that the draft was not acceptable to us and we amended it to include the Fifth Freedom Clause but Indian delegation could not accept it because the delegation had no mandate from New Delhi. We said that we would meet them at New Delhi at a mutual convenient time. (By the way it took another one and half year to conclude a proper bilateral air services agreement)

The second instance was also related to India regarding delimitation of sea boundary with India in the Bay of Bengal. In 1974 April, an Indian delegation came to Dhaka for resolving the sea boundary between Bangladesh and India. Initially we were heartened to read in an Indian media that the head of Indian delegation expressed a view that it would be resolved soon.

When the Indian delegation argued that boundary line was to be based on the equidistance method, we knew that it was highly disadvantageous for us because of the concavity of the coast of Bangladesh (crescent shape). If India and Myanmar drew the boundary line on that basis, Bangladesh would have only 130 miles and not 200 miles of economic zone. Consequently Bangladesh would be a “sea-locked state”.

I had a feeling that India was misguiding us on the law or method to be applied under this geographical situation of Bangladesh. Equidistance method is generally applicable between opposite states (Sri Lanka and India) and not between adjacent or lateral states (Bangladesh and India) in drawing boundary on the economic zone of 200 miles in the Bay of Bengal.

I was allowed by the government to visit to meet my Professor of Law in Cambridge who taught us International Law in London. (Late Professor R.Y. Jennings, who much later became the President of International court of Justice) I met him at his residence at Cambridge and he told me that India did not disclose the latest maritime law which the International Court of Justice decided in 1969 in the North Sea Continental Shelf case between Germany and the Netherlands and Denmark. There the Court did not support the equidistance method for drawing boundary line between Germany and other States.

This disclosure by the Professor surprised me because India put their case in 1974 to us without disclosing the judgment of the International Court of Justice of 1969. Why did they not disclose the judgment of 1969?

I returned from London and met the Indian delegation in Dhaka and argued strongly about the method of equitable principles to draw the sea boundary in the Bay of Bengal. India did not agree and again with the permission of Bangabandhu we told the Indian delegation that Bangladesh could not accept their position.

I was asked to meet Bangabandhu in April 1975 at the Frankfurt airport from Geneva where I was attending the Law of the Sea Conference as he was scheduled to attend the summit of the heads of Commonwealth states in Jamaica.

He would meet Indian PM Indira Gandhi at the summit. I prepared a draft for Arbitration to resolve the issue but I was later advised that Mrs. Gandhi did not accept Bangladesh’s proposal for Arbitration.

( On 7th July of this year, the Court of Arbitration decided in favour of Bangladesh rejecting the Indian position of equidistance method for drawing boundary of economic zone of 200 miles in the Bay of Bengal and credit goes to the government of Sheikh Hasina for putting the issue before the Court of Arbitration at The Hague on October 2009 under the provisions of UNCLOS)

The two instances establish that Bangabandhu was never pro-India as some believe he might have been. He resolutely held the independence of Bangladesh against all odds. It may be recalled when he returned to Dhaka from London on 10th January 1972 he chose the British plane instead of Indian one which Mrs. Indira Gandhi sent it to London for use of Bangabandhu. He did not want Bangladesh to be seen influenced in any way by India and asserted the sovereignty and independence of Bangladesh in all his actions.

By Barrister Harun ur Rashid

Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva

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