Sheikh Hasina spent an hour with me before the ceremony and another hour with the whole delegation at dinner afterwards. She was very cordial and friendly and spoke highly of her association with former President Abdul Kalam.
As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bangladesh and the centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, I recall three “Bangladesh Moments” in my life, which remain indelible in my memory. I had joined our mission in Bhutan just before the beginning of the war. Travelling through Siliguri and Phuntsholing before entering Bhutan, there was a palpable sense of the impending war. We naturally followed the war from Bhutan, primarily through the military officers of the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) in Bhutan and we were also glued to the All India Radio for the news broadcasts. We had no television in Bhutan those days.
Three days after the war started, India formally recognised Bangladesh as an independent nation on 6 December, a day which has been designated “Maitri Divas” by the two countries a few days ago. The news had come late in the evening and we were calling it a day when I received a call from the Foreign Minister of Bhutan, Lyonpo Dawa Tshering, a friendly and sophisticated person I could count as a personal friend. But what surprised me was that he wanted to see me in his office immediately. As I got ready to leave, I recalled stories of diplomats being summoned by Foreign Offices at night to convey unfriendly news or to indicate diplomatic displeasure.
Tshering received me warmly, prefacing that he had some good news to convey to me in the absence of Ambassador Ashok Gokhale, who was in Delhi. Then he read out a formal note conveying that His Majesty’s Government had decided to extend recognition to Bangladesh. I was overjoyed and said that Bhutan would be the second country in the world to recognise Bangladesh. Tshering said that it was the intention to express solidarity with India and Bangladesh. I could not wait to convey the message to Delhi and so I rushed back home, called up our wireless operated and sent a crash message to the Ministry. I slept only after hearing the main headline of the 9 pm news about this historic development. I felt fortunate to have received the news from the Bhutanese Foreign Minister.
The second moment was a totally unexpected turn of events by which I became one of the first Indian diplomats to be received by Gen Hussein Muhammad Ershad, who staged a coup on 24 March 1982 and later became President. On the day of his coup, I happened to be in Colombo as a part of a UN Council for Namibia on a mission to promote the cause of the independence of Namibia. Those were the days when the UN was flush with funds to promote decolonisation and we used to travel around several countries, whether they were supportive of Namibia or not. The delegation was led by the ambassador of Cyprus and I was designated as his Deputy. We were scheduled to fly to Dhaka the next morning, but when we heard about the coup, we sought permission to skip Dhaka and go directly to New Delhi, which was our next destination. We informed all concerned about our change in schedule before we went to sleep.
The first person who met us in the morning was the Bangladesh High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. He had come with a message from his government to say that we should stick to our schedule to visit Dhaka and that General Ershad would be happy to meet us and convey his support for Namibia. He was very persuasive and asked us to change our plans again. We realised that Bangladesh felt that the cancellation of the visit of a UN delegation would be seen as indicative of instability in the country, following the coup. We were not too happy to land up in Dhaka a day after the coup, particularly since we had two lady diplomats also with us. But Bangladesh had already approached our governments and the clearance for our visit to Dhaka came even before we asked.
The reception we received in Dhaka was much beyond the normal protocol requirements of a UN delegation and we were whisked away from the airport to the State Guest House reserved for Heads of States and Governments and we were given the best suites. Within hours, General Ershad received us warmly and also served us a fabulous lunch. He was particularly warm to me and asked me to convey his warmest greetings to PM Indira Gandhi and others. We confined ourselves to matters relating to Namibia, but before we left, General Ershad took me aside and said that the relations would be strengthened under his watch. I was able to convey this message not only to our High Commissioner in Dhaka, but also to PM Indira Gandhi herself when she received our delegation.
My third Bangladesh moment was the most memorable of all. As the Chief Adviser of Dr Kalam Smriti Advisory Council in Thiruvananthapuram, I was asked to address a letter to the Bangladesh High Commissioner in New Delhi, inviting Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to come to Thiruvananthapuram to receive the Dr Kalam Smriti International Excellence Award. The award was given every year to honour statesmen or leaders who have shown excellence in their fields to achieve the best for their countries. Earlier, the Presidents of the Maldives, Ghana and Mauritius received the prestigious award since its introduction in 2015.
The Bangladesh High Commissioner happened to be Muazzem Ali, who was my colleague in New York. He made a sincere effort to persuade the Prime Minister to include a visit to Kerala during her next visit to India, but it did not work out. Instead, the High Commissioner was asked to receive the award on her behalf. But he asked me whether I could travel to Dhaka to present the award to Sheikh Hasina, an offer we could not resist. A date was fixed and five of us from the Kalam Smriti International were invited to visit Dhaka.
We received an extremely warm welcome and a special function was held at the official residence of the Prime Minister. We were given very high protocol courtesies, though none of us was representing the government. Not only that, Sheikh Hasina spent an hour with me before the ceremony and another hour with the whole delegation at dinner afterwards. She was very cordial and friendly and spoke highly of her association with former President Abdul Kalam. “For an award for world leaders, in the name of such a person, we could not have thought of anyone better than Her Excellency Sheikh Hasina, a visionary, thinker and an inspiration for millions. The longest serving prime minister of Bangladesh is well on her way to build the Sonar Bangla her father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman dreamt of and died for,” I said.
Sheikh Hasina reminisced about Dr Kalam most affectionately, saying that her husband also was a nuclear scientist and that his transformation from a scientist to a statesman was amazingly smooth. It was obvious that she accepted the invitation readily because the award was in the name of Dr Kalam. “This award will inspire me and my government to strive for the achievement of greater inclusive development.” The event was widely publicised and we were also invited to visit the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Museum, his home, where he and his entire family were shot dead. Sheikh Hasina and her sister survived as they were abroad.
As a special gesture, Sheikh Hasina invited two of us to visit her in Delhi when she came a few weeks later on a state visit. She gave us an audience at the High Commissioner’s residence in Delhi and profusely thanked us for the award. Sadly, Muazzem Ali, the Bangladesh High Commissioner, who was most helpful to us, returned to Bangladesh a few days later and passed away soon after.
My Bangladesh moments were providential and unexpected. But there was some poetic justice in my being touched by the warmth in India-Bangladesh relations, which have now reached a new high point after the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
T.P. Sreenivasan is former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA, Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services, Director General, Kerala International Centre.