Honorary Citizens of Bangladesh

Correction: Father Marino Rigon – a missionary priest from Italy, was given honorary citizenship of Bangladesh in 2009. That makes the total number of citizenship four, not three.

There are only three honorary citizens of Bangladesh, one from the USA, one from India, and one from New Zealand. One is a world-famous sports icon of the century, one is a world-renowned economist, and one is a doctor of the poor – almost unknown. Bangladesh has given these three people honorary citizenship as an admiration. A country bestows honorary citizenship to a foreign individual whom it considers to be especially admirable or otherwise worthy of the distinction. Honorary citizenship is such an extraordinary accolade that any country gives it rarely. The USA has granted such honor only to eight foreign nationals over the years. Canada has six honorary citizens.

Honorary citizens of Bangladesh are also rare. So far, only three foreigners – Heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali, Nobel laureate economist Dr. Amartya Sen and Dr. Edric Baker, a doctor for poor people in Bangladesh – were honored.

Muhammad Ali

Ali shows his Bangladesh passport
Ali shows his Bangladesh passport.

It is not clear who took the initiative to invite Muhammad Ali to go to Bangladesh. However, according to a UK-based filmmaker Reginald Massey, a Bangladeshi businessman named Ghiasuddin Chowdhury thought it would be a great idea to make a film on Bangladesh, which was a new country then. He needed some introduction on the world stage. They decided that the best person to project Bangladesh would be the Black Muslim boxer Muhammad Ali (‘The Greatest’), who was universally loved and respected.

Muhammad Ali was scheduled to travel to Bangladesh after Ali’s fight with Leon Spinks. Unfortunately, Ali lost his heavyweight boxing title to Leon Spinks. Not a happy time for the champ. Ali was not sure how his fans in Bangladesh would receive him after his defeat, but he was quickly assured that does not matter. People of Bangladesh love him no matter what! So, the world’s most famous boxing champion Muhammad Ali went to Bangladesh in February of 1978.

Ali’s visit lasted for five days. Ali traveled to the Sundarbans, Sylhet Tea Gardens, Rangamati, and Cox’s Bazaar. In Dhaka, Ali participated in a pre-arranged boxing match at Dhaka Stadium, where he lost a twelve-year-old Bangladeshi rival through an amazing knockout!

While in Dhaka, Ali was given a Bangladesh passport and made Honorary Citizens of Bangladesh by the then president of the country, Ziaur Rahman. “If I get kicked out of America, I have another home,” Ali quipped after receiving the passport.

Amartya Sen

Dr. Amartya Sen in Bangladesh
Amartya Sen in Bangladesh

Amartya Sen was born in the Manikganj area of Bangladesh (then in British-India) in 1933. His family moved to India in 1945. Dr. Amartya Sen received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998. On the way back to India after winning the Nobel Prize, he stopped over in Bangladesh to visit his birthplace and childhood school.

During his three-day stay in Bangladesh, Dr. Sen visited St. Gregory’s High School, where he spent a few years, where the old boys gathered to see the most famous alumni. Sen was accorded a civic reception at the Balda Garden in downtown Dhaka where Rabindranath Tagore was similarly honored after he won the Nobel. Dr. Sen delivered a keynote speech at an international conference, a public lecture open to guests, visited Muktijoddah Jadughar (Liberation War Museum), and his childhood home at Wari.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina handed over the certificate of honorary citizenship to the world-renowned economist at a simple ceremony at Ganabhaban. She also handed over a Bangladesh passport to the visiting Bengali scholar, Amartya Sen, saying: “You are ours.” While receiving the citizenship and passport, the being Nobel Prize winner said: “I am overwhelmed by the honor. I am happy to return to Bangladesh.”

The honor was a symbolic gesture such as this could have a practical value by increasing his desire to visit Bangladesh more often.

Edric Baker

Dr. Edric Baker in a meeting with his coworkers
Edric Baker in a meeting with coworkers

Dr. Edric Baker never came to Bangladesh just for a visit; he stayed in Bangladesh for 32 years and died there. A medical doctor from New Zealand heard the name of Bangladesh while working in Vietnam in the 1970s. He came to Bangladesh in 1983 and loved the country. He worked tirelessly and served the poor of Bangladesh until he died in 2015. He started Kailakuri Healthcare Project (KHP) – near Modhupur, about 130 km from the capital Dhaka, to give medical help to the poor and the disadvantaged people of the area. KHP has been treating around 30,000 to 40,000 patients each year, almost free of cost (taka 10/13 US cents for a new patient, 5 taka/6 US cents for an old patient).

Due to the lack of Bangladeshi doctor’s participation, Dr. Baker (also affectionately known as ‘Daktar Bhai’ or Doctor Brother) trained local people as the paramedic and gave them the responsibility to heal them. He walked and rode bicycles to patients’ families’ homes to check their health. To communicate with the patients, he learned to speak Bangla fluently. Dr. Edric Baker lived a thousand miles far from home, far from his family and remained unmarried, lived in a mud-hut, and wore ordinary lungis that poor people usually do in the villages, just for the sole purpose of treating the poor people of Bangladesh.

He went to New Zealand once every one or two years for his visa extension and collected money for the center. Almost all the funds to run KHP were collected from his friends, supporters, well-wishers in New Zealand, Europe, and the United States through private donations. ‘Doctor for the Poor’ once said in an interview: Our program runs on private donations from individuals who have heard about the project… visited the project, shared the news… almost all our funding comes from outside of Bangladesh… I would like to see these things change. If this project does not become almost entirely Bangladeshi in terms of funding and terms of medical supervision, then I would consider that my life has been wasted … we need to work out some way of finding Bangladeshi doctors, or they should find us.

Hanif Sanket, a popular TV presenter in Bangladesh, produced a TV segment in 2011 on Dr. Baker’s work, which raised his profile and led the Bangladeshi government to grant him honorary Bangladeshi citizenship. There is no other information available about his citizenship issue! Just one or two lines!

Out of the three honorary citizens of Bangladesh, two are already passed away. Muhammad Ali died in 2016 at the age of 74 in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Dr. Edric Baker died in 2015 at 75 in Bangladesh. He was laid at rest in Bangladesh, according to his final request. The last of Bangladesh’s honorary citizens, Dr. Sen, is 82 years old and lives in the USA. The honorary citizenship process in Bangladesh is not clear, not well documented. If documented, then it is not available to the public! Trying to find out information about how the process works are difficult. Giving citizenship is a political process, sometimes that needs to bend the law. According to one source, the legislation was changed to make Dr. Baker a Bangladeshi citizen! It might be interesting to know the actual process of granting Bangladesh’s honorary citizenship to a foreign national is?

Marino Rigon

Father Marino Rigon - honorary Bangladeshi citizen
Father Marino Rigon

A fourth person, Father Marino Rigon of Italy, was also granted honorary citizenship in 2009 for his contribution to Bangladesh Liberation War. Father Rigon came to Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1953 as part of missionary work. He worked for over 40 years, helped war refugees and freedom fighters in 1971 in Baniarchar Catholic Church’s parish, Gopalgonj. He provided food and shelter to refugees, offered treatment to injured freedom fighters even when his life was under threat. He also played a key role in poverty alleviation, the spread of education, medical service, and helping poor women. Father Marino Rigon was a fluent Bangla speaker and translated few Bangla books into the Italian language. Father Marino Rigon died in 2017 in Italy.

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