Sheikh Mujib’s perception of India

[This is an excerpt from B.Z. Khasru’s upcoming book, The Bangladesh Military Coup and the CIA Link, which will be published by Rupa & Co. in New Delhi in July.]

When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman met the British Prime Minister in London on 9 January in 1972 upon his arrival in Britain from prison in Pakistan, the Bengali independence leader informed Edward Heath that Z. A. Bhutto, Pakistan’s president, had appealed to him to keep a loose federation between Bangladesh and West Pakistan.

Mujib wanted no formal link with Islamabad; he had told Bhutto the “time for this had passed.” He emphasized to Heath that “any political link with West Pakistan was impossible and would result in another guerrilla war in Bangladesh.”

“In this, he has confirmed the position of the Bangladesh authorities in Dacca and our own assessment of the state of affairs in the East. However, although he spoke with understandable bitterness of the actions of the previous Pakistan regime, he showed no rancor towards Bhutto, and said that he wished to establish good relations with West Pakistan,” the British leader informed U.S. President Richard Nixon in a letter on 13 January 1972.

“The new partition should be, in his words, ‘a parting as of brothers,’ ” but Bhutto must acknowledge Pakistan’s division. Relations between “Bangladesh and India would, of course, be much closer,” Heath added, quoting Mujib, who had been in prison in West Pakistan during the nine-month Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.

Confusion in Washington

Despite Mujib’s expressed opposition to having any ties with West Pakistan, the Americans got confused when TIME magazine correspondent Dan Coggin informed them in mid-January 1972 that the Bengali leader did, in fact, want to “establish some sort of link between Bangladesh and Pakistan.” He wanted to do so in an attempt to forestall any possible attempt by India to annex Bangladesh. Mujib was suspicious about India’s ultimate intention. He feared that the domineering Hindu neighbor could someday seek to annex Muslim Bangladesh. State Department officials initially ignored Coggin’s assertion.

But Coggin conveyed the same message again to the U.S. Consulate General in Kolkata on 19 February 1972. He claimed his information came directly from Mujib, whom he had interviewed in Dhaka, and Yusuf Haroon, former West Pakistan governor and once a Mujib ally, whom Coggin had met in New York. While he made his wish known to Coggin, Mujib feared an attempt on his life if his position became known to the public.

He asked Coggin to tell the U.S. government that he wanted American economic aid to lessen Bangladesh’s dependence on India and the Soviet Union. He could get considerable aid from India and Russia. But he did not wish to do so because that would make Bangladesh too dependent on those nations. In passing, Mujib revealed that India was trying to convince him to sign a 100 million rupee contract to repair railway bridges in Bangladesh in an attempt to boost the Indian engineering industry.

Coggin also reported to U.S. officials that Haroon, then vice president of Inter-Continental Hotels in New York, was responsible for Mujib’s decision to go to London from Pakistan after his release from prison. Haroon had flown to London and talked with Mujib about the future of Bangladesh and Pakistan.  It was there that they first discussed the possibility of Mujib’s assassination. They decided that although the risk was great, the need for Mujib’s presence in Dhaka outweighed initial fears.

Haroon belonged to one of the twenty-two wealthiest families of Pakistan whose assets had been confiscated by the Bhutto government. He had longstanding enmity with Bhutto. Still Mujib looked upon him as a reliable channel to Islamabad, possibly because of his credentials. Haroon worked closely with Pakistan's founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah as his personal secretary. He was active in the movement against the British Raj to create the Muslim nation, as was Mujib.

Yusuf Haroon advised Mujib?

Coggin informed the consulate that both Mujib and Haroon were “interested in the re-establishment of some sort of link between Pakistan and Bangladesh.” They told Coggin of their plans to bring the people of Bangladesh in favor of their idea within six to twelve months. They also told him that the re-establishment of ties was necessary for Bangladesh’s survival as an independent country. But they knew there was considerable opposition from Tajuddin Ahmed, war-time prime minister of Bangladesh, and his supporters on the one hand and India on the other.

“Both men [Mujib and Haroon], according to Coggin, feared that their efforts could result in the assassination of Mujib by an ‘Indian agent.’ Nonetheless, they believed the risk should be taken for the future of Bangladesh. Otherwise, it would soon end up as another Indian state,” the consulate reported to Washington on 24 February 1972.

The next day, on 25 February, the State Department advised the consulate general that it had received “very similar information” from Coggin in mid-January. “At that time, we discounted Coggin’s belief in Mujib’s support for a possible link since it ran counter to other available evidence, such as reports of meetings with Heath. We have subsequently received no information which would suggest the possibility that Mujib intends or would be able to bring the Bangladesh public to look with favor on the re-establishment of ties.”

When the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi received this message, it also dismissed Coggin’s claim. On 28 February, the New Delhi mission informed the State Department that “we have no reason from our perspective to believe Mujib could or would seek to re-establish ties with Pakistan within six to twelve months.”

The mission also questioned the authenticity of Coggin’s story. “While we can appreciate Mujib might wish to keep all options open, it is difficult to understand why he would air with an American newsman any such hypothetical as well as politically and, according to Coggin, personally dangerous notion.”

The embassy further reported that the Yugoslav charge d’affaires told the U.S. deputy chief of mission that Mujib assured Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that he had no intention of establishing a Dhaka-Islamabad link of any kind. Gandhi responded that she had no desire to interfere in any Bangla-Pak talks to restore normal relations.

The U.S. Consulate General in Dhaka went one step further in dismissing Coggin’s information. “Coggin has been absorbed, almost to the point of obsession in our opinion, with East Pakistan, Bangladesh affairs, for the past few months, and he has shown signs of loss of balance and critical judgment.”

The consulate noted that neither Sydney Schanberg of The New York Times, nor Lee Lescaze of The Washington Post, who had equal or superior access to Mujib, found anything to indicate that the Bengali leader wanted a link with Pakistan. “Both their views and our own observations were diametrically opposed to Coggin’s views, and we were inclined to discount those,” Consul General Herb Spivack wrote on 28 February 1972. 

Mujib possibly sent out the feeler through Coggin to elicit reactions from different quarters. His secret talks with Bhutto and other Pakistani leaders, including Shaukat Hyat Khan, opposition leader of the Pakistan National Assembly, in subsequent years only indicate his earnest desire to keep close ties with Islamabad. Mujib secretly met Hyat in Malaysia in 1973. He told Hyat he did not cause the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan. Rather, Bangladesh was “pushed…away by a conspiracy.”

Whatever his other failings, and there were many, Mujib was a master in the art of Bengali political maneuver. Mujib was never a devotee of Bangladesh's independence, even as late as March 1971. Like his mentor, H. S. Suhrawardy, he knew an independent East Bengal would be completely overshadowed by India. The events of 1971 changed the situation and confronted him and his country with the fact of Indian power. So keen was Mujib's sense of the immediacy of power that he consistently pursued a policy of close official friendship with Delhi. Simultaneously, India faced growing howls from many levels of Bengali society.

India’s image in Bangladesh had worsened to a point within a short time after the new nation was born that even Delhi felt it would be wiser to let Mujib pursue a more openly independent course. Mujib never encouraged his countrymen's antipathy toward India, but he had seen the advantages of greater flexibility it offered him. He had profited from the paradox. Mujib had always been a capable tactician, but he never got the chance to prove if he was as capable a strategist.

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