TO some Western observers, the scene stirred thoughts of Pontius Pilate deciding the fates of Jesus and Barabbas. "Do you want Mujib freed?" cried Pakistan President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, at a rally of more than 100,000 supporters in Karachi. The crowd roared its assent, as audiences often do when subjected to Bhutto's powerful oratory. Bowing his head, the President answered: "You have relieved me of a great burden."
Thus last week Bhutto publicly announced what he had previously told TIME Correspondent Dan Coggin: his decision to release his celebrated prisoner, Sheik Mujibur ("Mujib") Rahman, the undisputed political leader of what was once East Pakistan, and President of what is now the independent country of Bangladesh.
Five days later, after two meetings with Mujib, Bhutto lived up to his promise. He drove to Islamabad Airport to see Mujib off for London aboard a chartered Pakistani jetliner. To maintain the utmost secrecy, the flight left at 3 a.m. The secret departure was not announced to newsmen in Pakistan until ten hours later, just before the arrival of the Shah of Iran at the same airport for a six-hour visit with Bhutto. By that time Mujib had reached London—tired but seemingly in good health. "As you can see, I am very much alive and well," said Mujib, jauntily puffing on a brier pipe. "At this stage I only want to be seen and not heard."
A few hours later, however, after talking by telephone with India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in New Delhi and with the acting President of Bangladesh, Syed Nazrul Islam, in Dacca, Mujib held a press conference in the ballroom of Claridge's Hotel. While scores of jubilant East Bengalis gathered outside the hotel, Mujib called for world recognition of Bangladesh, which he described as "an unchallengeable reality," and asked that it be admitted to the United Nations.
Clearly seething with rage, Mujib described his life "in a condemned cell in a desert area in the scorching heat," for nine months without news of his family or the outside world. He was ready to be executed, he said. "And a man who is ready to die, nobody can kill." He knew of the war, he said, because "army planes were moving, and there was the blackout." Only after his first meeting with Bhutto did he know that Bangladesh had formed its own government. Of the Pakistani army's slaughter of East Bengalis, Mujib declared: "If Hitler could have been alive today, he would be ashamed."
Mujib spoke well of Bhutto, however, but emphasized that he had made no promise that Bangladesh and Pakistan would maintain a link that Bhutto anxiously wants to have. "I told him I could only answer that after I returned to my people," said the sheik. Why had he flown to London instead of to Dacca or some closer neutral point? "Don't you know I was a prisoner?" Mujib snapped. "It was the Pakistan government's will, not mine." While in London, he said, he hoped to meet with British Prime Minister Edward Heath before leaving for a triumphal return to Bangladesh.
Little Choice. Although Mujib's flight to London rather than to Dacca was something of a surprise, his release from house arrest was not. In truth, Bhutto had little choice but to set him free. A Mujib imprisoned, Bhutto evidently decided, was of no real benefit to Pakistan; a Mujib dead and martyred would only have deepened the East Bengalis' hatred of their former countrymen. But a Mujib allowed to return to his rejoicing people might perhaps be used to coax Bangladesh into forming some sort of loose association with Pakistan.
In the light of Mujib's angry words about Pakistan at the London press conference, Bhutto's dream of reconciliation with Bangladesh appeared unreal. Yet some form of association may not be entirely beyond hope of achievement. For the time being, Bangladesh will be dependent upon India for financial, military and other aid. Bhutto may well have been reasoning that sooner or later the Bangladesh leaders will tire of the presence of Indian troops and civil servants, and be willing to consider a new relation with their humbled Moslem brothers.
Bangladesh, moreover, may find it profitable and even necessary to reestablish some of the old trade ties with Pakistan. As Bhutto put it:
"The existing realities do not constitute the permanent realities."
Stupendous Homecoming. One existing reality that Bhutto could hardly ignore was Bangladesh's euphoric sense of well-being after independence.
When the news reached Bangladesh that Mujib had been freed, Dacca be gan preparing a stupendous homecoming for its national hero. All week long the capital had been electric with expectation. In the wake of the first reports that his arrival was imminent, Bengalis poured into the streets of Dacca, shouting, dancing, singing, firing rifles into the air and roaring the now-familiar cry of liberation "Joi Bangla." Many of the rejoicing citizens made a pilgrimage to the small bungalow where Mujib's wife and children had been held captive by the Pakistani army. The Begum had spent the day fasting. "When I heard the gun fire in March it was to kill the people of Bangladesh," she tearfully told the well-wishers. "Now it is to demonstrate their joy."
The people of Bangladesh will need all the joy that they can muster in the next few months. The world's new est nation is also one of its poorest.
In the aftermath of the Pakistani army's rampage last March, a special team of inspectors from the World Bank observed that some cities looked "like the morning after a nuclear at tack." Since then, the destruction has only been magnified. An estimated 6,000,000 homes have been destroyed, and nearly 1,400,000 farm families have been left without tools or animals to work their lands. Transportation and communications systems are totally disrupted. Roads are damaged, bridges out and inland waterways blocked.