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Unforgettable band of friends

New Delhi, Oct. 18: Figure this one. What could be common to Joan Baez, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Erich Honecker?

Or to Edward Kennedy, Gen. J.F.R. Jacob and Jorge Luis Borges? Or Olof Palme, Nargis Dutt and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan? Or Jyoti Basu and Allen Ginsberg? Or C. Rajeswara Rao and Bob Dylan? Or All India Radio and Fidel Castro? Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw? Mark Tully and Kalpana Joshi? D.P. Dhar and George Harrison? Ravi Shankar and Sardar Swaran Singh? Pierre Trudeau and Nandini Satpathy?

Deposed communists and war heroes, freedom fighters and film stars, soldiers and senators, poets and patricians, rock stars and revolutionaries, diplomats and do-gooders, Prime Ministers dead and alive, what could it be that makes a confluence of such an eclectic gallery?

A clue: They aren’t random picks from a new Who’s Who in the works, although they could well have been.

Another one: They are protagonists of a theatre near you.

And yet another: It is actually not a theatre but a nation.

No? Perhaps it is time you considered taking a refresher course in contemporary history.

These are all people who in some way or other contributed to, or supported, the liberation of Bangladesh 40 years ago, a star list that Dhaka has formally designated — and resolved to honour — as “Friends of Bangladesh”.

Under way almost all year has been an elaborate thanksgiving under the aegis of the Awami government led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, daughter of Mujibur Rahman, slain father of the subcontinent’s youngest nation.

“We do not want to be remembered as an ungrateful nation, we want our friends to know we haven’t forgotten the debt of their efforts,” said Syed Muntasir Mamun, special assistant to the Bangladeshi high commissioner in Delhi. “This is to say thank you.”

The first lot of awardees were felicitated in Dhaka in March; the third, and probably final, lot will be honoured in December. Chapter Two of the ceremonies unfolds in the Bangla capital tomorrow.

It hasn’t surprised anyone the majority of awardees come from India, whose role in the liberation of Bangladesh was pivotal and involved support not merely from the government of the day but from large cross-sections of the polity, the intelligentsia and common people.

The 40th anniversary celebrations of the birth of Bangladesh were inaugurated with the nation’s highest honour — Bangladesh Swadhinata Sammanona (Bangladesh Freedom Honour) — conferred upon Indira Gandhi who, as India’s Prime Minister, went to war with Pakistan over the creation of Bangladesh. As daughter-in-law of the late Prime Minister, Sonia Gandhi travelled to Dhaka to accept the award last July.

As well as being a military conflict, the liberation of Bangladesh became a tense Cold War enactment that sparked contrary sentiment worldwide. US President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, despatched their navy’s Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal to scare off India’s military mission.

Indira didn’t blink. Part of her pre-war fortification was to acquire the Soviet security umbrella under the Friendship and Cooperation Treaty she signed with the general secretary of the USSR, Leonid Brezhnev; the Big Bear stood firm behind her.

Spurred by the Vietnam misadventure, anti-US sentiment was still a new-world vogue in the early 1970s. Washington was seen as aggravating another political and humanitarian crisis in East Pakistan at Pakistan’s behest. Protesters paraded for Bangladesh in world capitals, rock stars held concerts, poets and writers cried freedom and their call became a global echo.

Bangladesh is now turning to recognise anew — and reward — all of that. It has been a monumental exercise. Returning to the archives and identifying those that stood up to help, from heads of state and governments to barely known individuals. Then, the task of locating them in far pockets of the world and posting them the invites of honour. Many of them are no more; many are unable to travel. Their heirs have been identified, or credible legatees. Atal Bihari Vajpayee is, for instance, in no state to make the journey; they are looking for someone his family would assign.

And all that’s just the back-end of the job. The award ceremonies, The Telegraph learns, have been organised up close to the scale of state events with protocol detail assigned for each guest. The main event is a summit affair — President Zillur Rahman and Prime Minister Hasina personally greet and fete the chosen “Friends of Bangladesh”.

Bangladesh foreign office sources said: “These are men and women without whom we would not have been a nation; we can only give them the best welcome and hospitality we can offer.”

Among other Indians slated for honour are Jagjivan Ram, defence minister at the time of the Bangladesh war, Jayaprakash Narayan, who lobbied world opinion for the war, P.N. Haksar, Bhupesh Gupta, Kaifi Azmi, Waheeda Rehman and The Telegraph columnist Ashok Mitra.

But pegged on the past as it is, the “Friends of Bangladesh” may be an initiative that has half an eye on the future. It means good fence-building between neighbours with a chequered relationship.

Prime Minister Hasina hasn’t let the disappointment of a torpedoed agreement on Teesta waters come in the way of expressing gratitude; she may, in fact, be building new goodwill in the neighbourhood.

It is perhaps a thing to note that Dhaka has gone especially out looking for friends in India’s Northeast, a region not only contiguous to Bangladesh but also often convulsed by allegations of illegal immigration and infiltration.

Bhupen Hazarika is among those honoured, as are the current and former chief ministers of Tripura, Manik Sarkar and Nripen Chakraborty. Scour the list closer and you’ll find other, lesser known, names from the region.

One of them is a lady called Roshanara Sangma. Roshanara who? She happens to be the mother of Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma, and she happens to have been born a Muslim. When refugees began flooding across into India in 1971, fleeing the war, Roshanara was among the most active in organising relief and shelter along the frontier.

Mukul Sangma often says he learnt his fundamental lessons in “secular humanitarianism” from his mother. It cannot be Hasina’s recognition of Roshanara’s work has left the younger Sangma unaffected. Building Friends of Bangladesh, it would seem, is a work in progress.