He began as a nobody from a remote backward village, Mirati, of the Birbhum district in West Bengal. Imagine that boy, who used to walk miles after miles through muddy roads for his primary education, reached the glittering chandeliers of the national capital of India. The boy, nicknamed Poltu, made a long journey for five decades to reach the top of Raisina Hill as the first citizen of India. He was Pranab Mukherjee. His journey was like a steeple race at the Olympics, full of success and disappointment, which made him reach the seat of power in mighty India. His was a journey of a common citizen fulfilling his political dream. Ultimately, it was realised by the Government of India led by Narendra Modi, when he was awarded the highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna, for rendering outstanding public service for the nation.
Pranab Mukherjee served in the office of almost all the important ministries of the Indian cabinet. But it was the Bangladesh liberation struggle which made a huge political turn in his life. Out and out a thorough Bengali, not by heart alone but also in practice, the plight of the Bengali population of the then East Pakistan touched his heart. Whenever Mr Mukherjee was in some political meeting, he would wear the typical Bengali dhoti and kurta and became popular as “dada” for everyone. In the All India Congress Committee meetings, he always wore a Gandhi cap as a committed Congressman. The same Mukherjee, when he reached his office, was seen in bandhgala suits and shoes. A golden chain was also seen hanging from his breast pocket always, which was a watch gifted to him by his late father, Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee.
On 17th June 1971, as a junior MP, Pranab Mukherjee had moved a resolution seeking support to recognise the provisional independent Bangladesh government in Mujibnagar. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been so moved by his fiery argument that she sent him to visit many European countries to create an opinion in favour of sovereign Bangladesh. Later, Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina also recognised his contribution and awarded Mukherjee the second highest award of Bangladesh when he visited Dhaka as President of India.
Pranab Mukherjee came in close contact with Sheikh Hasina’s family when she was given political shelter by then PM Indira Gandhi after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and his nearest family members. At that time, Sheikh Hasina was with her family, travelling to Germany. Mukherjee became their unofficial local guardian in New Delhi.
In India, Mukherjee rose gradually to the position of number two in the cabinet when the Dr Manmohan Singh-led government was formed in 2004. It is true that Mukherjee never became the Prime Minister of India, but on several occasions, his name was considered. Ultimately, he became the 13th President of India.
As Mukherjee became a ‘blue-eyed boy’ of the allpowerful Indira Gandhi because of his commitment to sovereign Bangladesh, he never forgot the well-being of the country and became a close friend of Hasina’s family. PM Hasina called her “dada” throughout her association with him. He used to get great appreciation from the people of Bangladesh and all of them made a point to visit his residence as a pilgrimage. Ultimately, he earned the prestige of being called the unofficial guardian of Bangladesh.
After the infamous 1/11, Mukherjee, who was the External Affairs Minister then, played a crucial role for holding the general elections in the country. Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed, leading the army-backed Bangladesh government came to Delhi to attend the 14th SAARC Summit in 2007, and during that time, Mukherjee had a brief discussion with Ahmed. However, crucial talks were held in 2008 when the then Army Chief Moeen Ahmed visited Delhi. Mukherjee bluntly told him to create a situation for general elections and release all political prisoners, which eventually happened.
After becoming president, Pranab Mukherjee chose Dhaka as the destination for his first official visit, and even after demitting office, he went to several places in Bangladesh. What I am trying to say is that Bangladesh remained a very dear issue for his whole political life. Therefore, his departure is not only a loss for India but also a major loss for Bangladesh. They have now lost their guardian forever.