British policeman to Bangabandhu: We had been praying for you

Publish: 7:17 PM, January 10, 2021 | Update: 7:17:PM, January 10, 2021

DHAKA, – A sense of fright had gripped the nation about the fate of Bangabandhu in Pakistani captivity in 1971. But as he reached London hours after his freedom, an anonymous British police officer there made a simple one-line remark, suggesting that his safety was actually a concern of the ordinary people across the globe, as well.

“Sir, we had been praying for you.”

One of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s major aides in pre-independence years Dr Kamal Hossain told BSS in a recent interview about the background of the above remark as he was entering into Heathrow airport’s VIP lounge.

Hossain, who accompanied Bangabandhu in a Pakistani aircraft to the British capital on way to home in just liberated Bangladesh, recalled that the ordinary policeman on duty there was in tearful eyes as he uttered the words.

“As we were escorted from the plane to the VIP lounge in London, I cannot forget the remark of the British officer on duty outside the VIP lounge,” Hossain said.

“Suddenly addressing Bangabandhu, with tears in his eyes, he said, Sir . . . we had been praying for you .”

As the Nation revisits the memory lane coinciding with the 49th anniversary of Bangabandhu’s Homecoming Day, the testimony of a former senior Pakistani air force officer depicted animatedly how Bangladesh’s founder made his way out of that country after nine months of captivity.

Former Pakistani air chief Air Marshal Zafar A Chaudhry, who was Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) chairman at that time, wrote in his memoirs that he had escorted Bangabandhu from Rawalpindi’s Chaklala airport to London.

He recalled Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who just assumed power, saw Bangabandhu off at the airport, where, Chaudhry said, a sense of tension still prevailed as he watched from distance Bangladesh’s founder exchanging his last words with the Pakistani leader.

According to him, the tense situation continued for some more hours even after the PIA flight took off while a sense of unease was visibly gripping Bangabandhu since as the aircraft was yet under the Pakistani authority’s command.

Chaudhry recalled the situation, however, eased after the dinner was served after few hours as the plane was on its way to London.

“I went near his (Bangabandhu’s) seat and introduced myself . . . thereafter Sheikh Mujib himself kept on talking”, emotionally describing the Bengalis love for him.

The then PIA chief recalled that the breakfast was served early in the morning and subsequently a steward brought gifts for the “esteemed guest”.

“There were two pipes and a prayer mate for Sheikh Mujib on behalf of PIA,” Chaudhry said, adding that Bangabandhu stood up and shook hands with him accepting the gifts.

Chaudhry recalled that Bangabandhu then asked him to seek the presence of British foreign office representatives at the London airport to receive him.

The air marshal recalled in line with Bangabandhu’s request he sent a message to the Heathrow Airport authorities.

“At about 6 am we landed in London and placed the plane a little away from the main terminal, as some officials boarded the aircraft,” wrote Chaudhry, who breathed his last in December, 2019.

“I told Sheikh Mujib these people are protocol officials of VIPs and they will escort you to the VIP Lounge where British foreign office officials are waiting for you,” the air marshal recalled.

He said as he proceeded to the VIP lounge, Bangabandhu asked him if he could ask him for another help to call some of his friends in London.

“Most of them were owners of Bengali restaurants. In the early morning all the restaurants were closed and none responded to the phones,” Chaudhry said.

But, he recalled that eventually one of Bangabandhu’s family friends Mahmud Harun received the phone when “he silently moved away so I can’t hear their conversation”.

“Sheikh Mujib (then) told me, air marshal, thank you very much for what you have done for me, now I will meet my men who came from Bangladesh mission as I am their leader – the people’s man,” Chaudhry wrote.

Kamal Hossain said Pakistan’s the then high commissioner to Britain Nasim Ahmed was present at the VIP lounge who told Bangabandhu that he was there to welcome him.

“‘Sir, I am here to welcome you. Please let me know what I can do for you” . . . Bangabandhu replied, ‘you have done enough, thank you very much’,” he recalled.

Hossain, who later served as Bangabandhu cabinet’s law minister and subsequently the foreign minister, minutes after reaching the Heathrow airport British foreign office’s senior representative Sir Yan Sutherland reached the scene and conveyed his government’s warm welcome to him.

He said the British government arranged his accommodation at Claridge’s Hotel, where foreign heads of states were normally accommodated.

Bangabandhu, he said, thanked the British representative, but asked if a relatively modest hotel could be arranged for his brief stay so the ordinary Bengalis living in Britain could meet him.

“Sir, this is the only thing I cannot arrange, because HEADS of STATES security could only be provided at Claridge’s Hotel. But we will see that any number of people who want to see you can do so, subject to the security measures,” Hossain recalled him as saying.

As tens of thousands of emotion-choked people rallied at the then Dhaka International Airport to receive Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman week’s after Bangladesh’s victory, the global media treated the event as an important episode of the world history.

“An important phase of Bangladesh story came to an end today,” the then NBC television commentator uttered as the plane carrying the leader landed at the airport in Tejgaon.

The report dubbed Bangabandhu as “George Washington of Bangladesh” and described the reception as the “most touching outburst in the most emotional part of the world”.

It simultaneously revealed that the American naval taskforce, which earlier came in support of Pakistani junta, “stemmed out of the Bay of Bengal as he was returning to Dhaka”.

“Before landing the Sheikh’s plane circled Dacca; he had the opportunity to see the estimated one million people who waited for him,” another influential channel ABC TV reported on that day.

In its January 17, 1972 issue Newsweek wrote “Amidst tight secrecy, the Pakistani President escorted Mujib to Rawalpindi Airport in the middle of the night and put him abroad a chartered plane”.

“…Mujib’s plane arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport, and the world got its first look at the 51-year-old Bengali leader since he was thrown in jail last spring by Pakistan’s former President Mohammed Yahya Khan,” read the Newsweek article.

It titled: “Mujib Flies to Freedom”.