The Bangladesh Liberation Struggle

Background I was Leader of the Liberal Group on the Leeds City Council from 1968 to 1981 and was on the staff of the Joseph Rowntree Social Service Trust (now the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust) from 1970 to 1975. As a consequence I was much involved in domestic and international politics.

One of the individuals supported by the Rowntree Trust was the Labour politician and community activist, Donald Chesworth, with whom I formed a close and enduring friendship. Donald was more a "backroom" than a "frontline" politician and was one of the best political "fixers" I ever knew. There is a long list of his successful campaigns and projects, and, in fact, he died suddenly in 1991 on his way to a campaign planning meeting on behalf of the Iraqi Kurds.

Donald was a supporter of Bangladesh independence and he was in touch with Abu Sayeed Chowdhury in London. Donald called me in late 1971 and asked if I was available to be a member of a three person delegation - the third member was John Stonehouse MP - to go out to the embryo Bangladesh under the auspices of the British Bangladesh Trust to investigate atrocities committed by the Pakistan army during the civil war. I immediately agreed and the three of us flew to Calcutta on 4th January 1972.

It took a couple of days to get the necessary clearance to take the elderly 'plane that was shuttling between Calcutta and Dhaka but we finally arrived on 6th January and immediately began our mission. The evidence before was appalling. There were large wells filled with bodies that had simply been thrown in, the victims of mass murder. There were skeletons in rivers and streams with their wrists and ankles tied together. Families testified about the violence and of relatives murdered. I was given film, shot clandestinely from behind a curtain, of intellectuals at the university being taken out and shot. I managed to get this film back to the UK and had it shown on the Eurovision network. I have since repatriated the film to the national archive in Dhaka.

John Stonehouse was a curious individual. He had two very different personalities; on the one hand he was a genuine anti-colonialist and a supporter of Bangladesh independence, but on the other hand he was a manipulator of his contacts for personal financial advantage - including having postage stamps printed in London for sale for the independent Bangladesh. During our stay in the country he would tell Donald Chesworth and me to go on visits on our own "in order to cover more ground," while he was, in fact, doing deals with banks in Dhaka!

Stonehouse was very angry that the British High Commission was not doing as much as was clearly needed to show support for the new government, particularly as the various communist regimes were actively chatting up the interim administration headed by Tajuddin Ahmad. Stonehouse therefore hired the large ballroom at the Intercontinental Hotel (now the Sheraton) and ordered a veritable banquet for the whole government and for many heads of diplomatic missions. Afterwards he simply sent the bill to the British High Commission, telling them that they should have been holding such a function themselves!

Almost three years later he forged the passports of two dead constituents in order to provide himself with a new identity and pretended to disappear from a beach in Australia. The police found him a month later! He resigned his parliamentary seat in August 1976 after being found guilty of a number of fraud charges. Long after his death it was revealed that for many years he had been a spy for the Czechoslovak Communist regime!

We were preparing to take a 'plane to Sylhet to continue our mission there when the news broke in Dhaka that Bangabandhu was alive and, what was more, was returning to Bangladesh. Our visit to Sylhet was immediately cancelled as we joined with the ecstatic Bangladeshis preparing to welcome back the Father of the Nation.

We were treated as VIPs and were taken to meet and to shake hands with Sheikh Mujibar Rahman on his arrival at the airport. I took photographs of him meeting us and, at Sheikh Hasina's request, I presented them to her in her Prime Ministerial office in 2000. Following the emotional celebrations at the airport we were taken to the racecourse where we were on the platform for the huge rally.

Dr Kamal Hossain
Dr Kamal Hossain had also been imprisoned in Pakistan and was released at the same time as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and flew back to Dhaka with him. He had spent time in the UK practising law and was known to Donald Chesworth. Having managed to make contact with him following his arrival in Dhaka, he generously met with us and gave us much information on what had transpired on his release from custody.

The return
He told us that when it became clear to the Pakistani authorities that, thanks to the efforts of the Mukti Bahini guerillas and the internationally supported intervention of the Indian Army, the war was lost and that it was not going to possible to maintain its hegemony over what had become Bangladesh, they had approached Sheikh Mujib and him and said that they were going to release them. They asked Sheikh Mujib where he would like to go. He replied "Dhaka," but the Pakistan authorities said that, in the current military and political circumstances, it was simply not possible to land a Pakistan 'plane there. He then asked to go to Delhi, but he was told that it was similarly impossible to take him there. He then asked what choices he had and was told, "Istanbul, Tehran or London," whereupon he chose London.

They landed at Heathrow airport very early in the morning completely unannounced and the two men were walking on their own along one of the interminable corridors at the airport when they saw a somewhat agitated airport official hanging on to a telephone in the corridor and looking anxiously down the line of passengers. When Bangabandhu and Dr Hossain reached him he asked, "are you Mr Mujib?" Bangabandhu replied in the affirmative whereupon the man handed him the 'phone. A harrassed sounding British Foreign Office official told him that he had only just been informed of their arrival and he was rapidly putting his trousers on and would be at the airport as soon as possible!

Bangabandu wanted to stay in his usual small hotel in Bloomsbury but the UK security forces would not permit it and he had to stay at Claridges.

The RAF put one of its Comet airliners, used for such VIP missions, at Sheikh Mujib's disposal and he and Dr Hossain were flown to Delhi for a brief stopover. There was apparently a heated argument going on at Delhi airport on the tarmac. The provisional Bangladesh government had chartered a 'plane to bring Bangabandhu back to Dhaka; the Indian government had a 'plane waiting there and the Soviet Union had also a 'plane ready - all vying for the honour of bringing the Father of the Nation back to his home country.

The argument continued for some time until it became clear that there was no way of resolving it amicably. Bangabandhu was therefore asked to make a personal decision. He said that, given that all his things were on the aircraft that had brought him to Delhi, he would prefer to stay with the RAF. The whole affair had taken so long that it was no longer feasible to stopover at Calcutta where thousands of Bangladeshis forced into exile there by the war were waiting to greet him. The time it

The next problem was whether it was possible to land such a large aircraft at Dhaka airport, given that part of its runway had been destroyed during the war. We were told that a British High Commission diplomat was despatched to the airport to pace it out and to transmit the information as to how long it was! This no doubt explained why the 'plane circled overhead a few times at Dhaka, presumably to permit the pilot to have a good look at the remains of the runway!

We remained in Dhaka for a further few days, enjoying the celebratory and optimistic atmosphere before duties in the UK meant that we had to return. I travelled part of the way back as the only passenger on the RAF Comet that had brought Sheikh Mujib from London.

I have maintained my interest in Bangladesh politics ever since and have been delighted to come back on a number of electoral and parliamentary missions over the years. I have also been pleased to renew my acquaintance with Dr Kamal Hossain. My copy of the English version of the Bangladesh Constitution was given to me, and inscribed, by Dr Hossain. Its beautiful language bears witness to his facility in English.

1 January 2013