First phase of Foreign Policy of Bangladesh under Bangabandhu

First phase of Foreign Policy of Bangladesh under Bangabandhu

We are observing 43 years of our independence on March 26 and it is appropriate to look briefly the foreign policy pursued under the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Foreign policy is not formulated in a vacuum but is based on certain ingredients such as, history, geography, religion, culture and natural resources.

Being endowed with a small land territory compared to a huge population of the country, foreign policy needs to be devised on an objective assessment of Bangladesh’s strength and weakness. It is inextricably connected with promotion of national interests, reflected through national aspirations and wishes.

Bangladesh people fought the Liberation War in 1971 to achieve emancipation from deprivation and uplift their economic advancement to make the society egalitarian in a democratic and non-communal political entity where multi-religious, multi-cultural and multi-lingual people would live in peace and harmony.

Contemporary practice acknowledges that although governments do not bear the whole burden of bilateral relations, governments lay down policies and remain responsible for responses to issues between countries.

Pillars of Foreign Policy:

The foreign policy stands on three pillars: security, development and cooperation with international community.

Security means not only territorial security but security of energy, food, water, environment and persons.

Development means creating an environment and infrastructure where foreign investment and trade with foreign countries is accentuated and national budget and official development assistance are used for removing poverty, malnutrition, availability of primary health care, human resources development and creating employment. On the whole development does not mean only economic growth but socio-economic development of all people in the country.

International cooperation means Bangladesh needs to resolve regional and global issues through the international governmental organizations including the UN. Bangladesh’s involvement in the UN peace-keeping missions is a reflection of this cooperation.

Ist phase of foreign policy & difficulties:

When Bangladesh provisional government was formed on 10th April 1971, during the difficult period, India and the Soviet Union with its allies lent their support to the War of Liberation of the people of Bangladesh, while China and the US Nixon administration supported Pakistan.

Naturally, the provisional government had aligned with India and Soviet Union and its allies in East European countries. Bangladesh government leaders and people were grateful to these countries for the assistance they extended to them during the War of Liberation. The role of China and of the US was disappointing and public was not in a mood to enter into government to government relationship immediately with these countries.

Bangabandhu’s return:

Sheikh Mujib declared that Bangladesh would be the “Switzerland of the East” and by this declaration he meant that Bangladesh would steer clear from the Cold War andwould remain non-partisan in the tug of Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.

However, the Indo-Soviet support has an impact on Bangladesh foreign policy after independence. Relations with India and Soviet Union became more consolidated with the passing of each day after independence.

Immediately after birth of the country, Bangladesh had sent its Ambassadors to India, Soviet Union, German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and Yugoslavia, signalling Bangladesh’s close engagement with these countries.

The Western countries were slow in recognising Bangladesh compared to the East European communist countries. Among the Western countries, Australia and New Zealand were the first to accord recognition to Bangladesh. The only neutral country which accorded recognition, during the early period, was Burma, now renamed as Myanmar. The Islamic world and African countries took their own time to recognise Bangladesh.

Many countries were hesitant to recognise Bangladesh and thus it was difficult for Bangladesh to become an integral part of international community. Some of them misconceived Bangladesh Liberation War against Pakistani military junta and did not recognise because they had been subject to secessionist forces within their territories.

Islamic countries did not come forward to recognise Bangladesh partly because they appeared to have misunderstood secularism enshrined in its constitution as one of the fundamental principles of policy of Bangladesh. They seemed to have confused secularism with atheism and Pakistan was able to fully exploit this misperception. Furthermore they might be annoyed with Bangladesh for dismembering the Islamic Pakistan.

Bangladesh at first did not realise that confusion over secularism prevailed in many Islamic countries and was not able to explain that secularism did not mean abandoning religion but making politics separate from religion, (non-communal).


During the period, Bangladesh was confronted with largely four foreign policy issues:(a)

repatriation of Bengali civilian and military officials, held up in Pakistan in camps, to

Bangladesh (b) recognition from foreign states (c) admission into the UN and (d) trial of

the 195 Pakistani military prisoners of war, alleged to have committed genocide and

crimes against humanity on Bengali population.

These issues were found daunting because of global environment, partly created by Pakistan and certain countries that were not reconciled to political independence of Bangladesh and disintegration of United Pakistan.

Except the trial of Pakistani military officials, Bangladesh steadily and patiently pursued a pragmatic policy to integrate the country with international community as an equal

partner. With the admission of Bangladesh into the UN in September 1974, Bangladesh leaders had succeeded their goal in putting the country in international stage.

Pakistan recognized Bangladesh in February 1974. The Trilateral Agreement of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan of April 9, 1974 led Bangladesh to grant “clemency” to the 195 Pakistani prisoners of war held in India to be repatriated to Pakistan having regard to the appeal of the “Prime Minister of Pakistan to forgive and forget the mistakes of the past”.( Paragraph 15 of the Agreement).

Widening relations with other countries:

Sheikh Mujib was found to be keen to develop friendly relations with the USA and in January 1972 granted full diplomatic status to the US Consul General who was stationed in Dhaka, although the US had not recognized Bangladesh at that time. (The US recognized Bangladesh in April, 1972). Sheikh Mujib knew that main source of aid to the new country would come from the USA. His visit to Washington in September, 1974 sent a strong message to the world that Bangladesh had moved away from the perceived Indo-Soviet alliance.

His attendance to the Non-Aligned Conference in September 1973 in Algiers and his participation in the conference organized by Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Lahore (Pakistan) in March 1974 were motivated by his desire to widen and broaden relationship with other developing countries including Islamic nations. (It was believed that India was not happy that Bangladesh joined the conference of OIC).

Sadly on 15th August 1975, he was assassinated cruelly by misguided army officers, encouraged by Khandkar Moshtaque Ahmed who succeeded as the President of Bangladesh.

China and Saudi Arabia which did not recognize Bangladesh so long accorded recognition to Bangladesh after 15th August. India became cool towards the leaders of Bangladesh and adopted a hard line policy.

Thus, after August 1975, the foreign policy of Bangladesh went through a metamorphosis and was dramatically shifted towards China, Pakistan and Islamic countries, moving away from Indo-Soviet bloc.

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