Conversation with Lawrence Lifschultz: The American reporter who investigated the assassination of Mujibur Rahman

there are indications that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia may have had prior knowledge that the coup d'etat would take place. Both countries recognised the "Islamic Republic of Bangladesh" very soon after Mujib's death. Clearly, this represented some level of coordination between Islamabad and Riyadh. The coincidence is simply too coincidental...
Lawrence Lifschultz has been writing on Bangladesh in diverse journals and newspapers from the Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong) to The Guardian (London), the Economic & Political Weekly (Mumbai), and The Nation (New York) for nearly four decades. In this recent interview with Anisur Rahman, Chief Reporter BSS, he reflects on his first meeting with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1970 and the events surrounding Sheikh Mujib's death. Lifschultz once again brings new details of this tragic history to light. (Special to The Daily Star)

Anisur Rahman (AR): Could you recall your personal memories of Bangabandhu during your Dhaka visit in 1970? Lawrence Lifschultz (LL): The first time I visited Dhaka was in July 1970. I travelled overland to East Pakistan from Kolkata via Benepole and then on to Dhaka by road and ferries. The previous year I had lived in Gaya District in Bihar working on a rural agricultural development project run by the Sarvodaya Movement founded by followers of Mahatma Gandhi. I came to India when I was 19 on a programme sponsored by Yale University where I was an undergraduate. It was known as the Five Year BA Fellowship.

It was a remarkable programme because it encouraged those who were selected for the Fellowship to get jobs with organisations working in the third world that were seeking to make a difference among the poorest communities of the world. After this year in India I began a six-month journey through southeast Asia. Most of my time in this period involved a long road and boat trip through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos at the height of the Indochina War but the first stop on my journey was East Pakistan (of the time). When I arrived in Dhaka, I found a very inexpensive hotel in the Old City. I began exploring Dhaka. One day I made my way to New Market to find a pharmacy to buy some medical supplies.

When I entered New Market, I was asked to sit and have a cup of tea. A member of the family who owned the pharmacy was a man named Nurul Huda.
Nurul was absolutely appalled I was living in this cheap hotel in the Old City. I told him my philosophy was to travel as simply and inexpensively as possible. I insisted that in this way I would get a better view of the world and the societies that I passed through on my journey. Huda Sahib said that was a very good philosophy, but he insisted that I come stay with him and his family in Banani. Ultimately, he persuaded me to take up his offer and I lived with his family for several days before continuing my journey onto Chittagong. The Huda family were very gracious to me.

During our first meeting in New Market and after listening to my descriptions of life in southern Bihar, Nurul Huda told me he wanted me to meet someone. He didn't say who it was at first. He just told me to get on the back of his motorcycle and we would we see if the man he wanted me to meet was at home. I think my comments about Jayaprakash Narayan, one of the Gandhian leaders I had come to know, and the village level work I had been doing in Bihar intrigued Nurul Huda. I suppose I wasn't your typical tourist in South Asia.

Nurul Huda drove me to Dhanmondhi and we dismounted at Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's house. He asked Mujib's staff to call Sheikh Mujib and explained to them that he wanted to introduce a foreign visitor to Sheikh Sahib. Mujib came out to greet me. Nurul and Mujib clearly knew one another. He explained to Mujib how we had met and what I had been doing in India. Mujib greeted me warmly and invited me in. Nurul drove off. Mujib and I went up to his study.

I knew something about the political situation in East Pakistan but at that stage I was not well informed. However, I knew enough to be able to ask questions. Mujib and I spoke over an hour and that soon turned into an invitation for lunch. We had a rather interesting conversation. He asked me a great deal about the project I had worked on in Bihar and my impressions of Jayaprakash Narayan. In response to my questions he explained to me the Awami League's political platform and the hope that elections would finally bring the necessary reordering of economic and social priorities that had been impossible to achieve during years of military dictatorship.

I recall asking Mujib what his views on socialism were. He described himself as essentially a social democrat and indicated his admiration for the accomplishments of countries like Sweden that had addressed the issue of economic deprivation within the framework of economic planning and a democratic society based on strict adherence to elections.

What I remember all these years later is how the conversation proceeded in a relaxed, casual and unhurried manner. Mujib was very much at ease. He was enjoying our talk. In this meeting there was no trace of any arrogance or self-righteousness. Moreover, as I look back I'm also struck about the kindness and hospitality that was involved in sitting with a young traveller, simply exchanging ideas.

For me, the irony is that in July 1970 I sat for two hours quietly talking with a man I had never met before but whose death would come to preoccupy me five years later. After his murder in the same house where he served me lunch, I would be drawn into an investigation as a reporter and a journalist trying to unravel and piece together the myriad linkages that went into the making of the coup d'etat that took his life and so many others on August 15, 1975.

AR: Can you recall how you came to know about the August 15 assassinations? What was your reaction at that time? LL: In July 1975, I arrived in New Delhi to take up my position as South Asia Correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review. During 1974, I had lived for a year in Dhaka as the Review's Bangladesh correspondent. The Review was a remarkable magazine in terms of its quality of reporting and the exceptional knowledge of much of its staff. On the morning of August 15, 1975, I was seated with other reporters at the Red Fort in New Delhi attending India's Independence Day celebrations. Indira Gandhi was there that day and had begun her Independence Day speech. It was a tense and controversial time. 

This was the time of the Emergency and more than a hundred thousand of Ms. Gandhi's opponents were under arrest. This also included the Gandhian leader, Jayaprakash Narayan. While listening to Ms. Gandhi's speech, a messenger from Reuters news service found me in the press section. He had a telex for me from my Editor, Derek Davies, in Hong Kong. It said that Mujib and his family had been killed by army personnel. 

In those days my office in Hong Kong communicated with Review correspondents through local Reuters' offices. The telex instructed me to proceed to Dhaka immediately to report on what happened. The Reuters messenger looked at me. "It's terrible," he whispered. I said, "Yes. It says the whole family has been killed." He nodded. I touched the elbow of my companion, showed her the telex, and said we had to leave. Following my friend from Reuters we made our way out of the Red Fort. I made immediate preparations to depart for Dhaka….

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