Sketched by Arafat Karim from a photograph of Bangabandhu's homecoming
Sketched by Arafat Karim from a photograph of Bangabandhu's homecoming Arafat Karim

“Rezai Karim, this is Sheikh Mujib,” the deep, familiar and long-awaited voice resonated from the other end of the telephone. It was about 5 o’clock in the morning on 8 January 1972 in London.

I was speechless, thrilled. The lost leader of the people of Bangladesh, who was face-to-face with death for nine months in a Pakistan, for whose release we strived tirelessly around the world, was finally free. He had arrived in London.

“How are you, how are you doing?”

“I am fine. What about you all?” came the reply, the exhaustion in his voice laced with a tangible sense of relief.

The British foreign ministry had given my phone number to Dr Kamal Hossain and he connected me to Bangabandhu. Kamal Hossain and his family, too, had come to London from Pakistan on the same flight. I was the acting head of the interim Bangladesh mission in London, in absence of the late Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury.

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I drove to the airport faster than I ever did in my life. I rushed into the room there and was stunned to see him. Bangabandhu was standing there. He looked weary and had his usual pipe in hand. He extended both his hands towards with a big smile.

“Have we really become independent?” Bangabandhu asked, managing to compose himself after a moment. “Yes, it is true,” I assured him unequivocally.

We talked about family, friends and followers of Bangabandhu and situation in the county. It was brief interaction since the British foreign secretary for South Asia Iain Sutherland entered. He welcomed Bangabandhu formally on behalf of the British government.

The first issue was where would Bangabandhu stay? Bangabandhu said, the hotel I stayed at two years ago wasn't bad at all. I recalled it was the President Hotel at Russell Square where mostly students stayed. I said, that's not right, and after consulting with Sutherland, I told him he would stay at Claridge's where General Yahiya Khan and Indira Gandhi had stayed.

“That's too expense, how will you afford it?” Bangabandhu exclaimed. For the first and last time in my life, I disobeyed an order or threat by any head of state. Sutherland booked the hotel over telephone.

After arriving in Claridge's, innumerable people, including Bengalis and the media, gathered there to see Bangabandhu. We made all arrangements with the cooperation of the dedicated mission staff. I contacted with Begum Mujib, other family members and his associates over telephone. Then I contacted Indira Gandhi. Among the VIPs who came to meet Bangabandhu at the hotel were former British prime minister Harold Wilson, Commonwealth secretary general Arnold Smith and former minister Peter Shore, many members of parliament and others. Then British prime minister Edward Heath had been on holiday at Chequers in Buckinghamshire. He returned to London hastily and met Bangabandhu at No. 10 Downing Street.

Journalists of different newspapers, radio and television from all over the world gathered at Claridge's. Everyone wanted an exclusive interview. If only some were granted an interview, the others would be unhappy so it was decided to hold a press conference. I hurriedly prepared the draft of the speech for Bangladesh’s founder and first president. Kamal Hossain finalised it. A list of possible questions, likely to come from the journalists, was read out to Bangabandhu. He listened, laughed and said you don’t need to tell me the answers. I have already now about all this. Everyone listened to the speech of the leader of the new nation eagerly.

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The British government arranged an aircraft to take Bangabandhu back to Bangladesh. The flight would halt at Cyprus to refuel en route Dhaka via Delhi. The date of Bangabandhu’s return was kept in the dark for security reasons.

It was about 5 o’clock in the early hours of the morning and was dark outside. We took Bangabandhu and his entourage to the airport through back entrance of the hotel. It was around 7 o'clock in the morning when the Comet aircraft of the British government finally took off took with Bangabandhu and the entourage.

Excerpt from “Obhiggotar Aloi’ by SM Rezaul Karim published from Pearl Publications in 2001. SM Rezaul Karim was the acting head of Bangladesh mission in the United Kingdom

This excerpt appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten by Hasanul Banna for the English edition