The road to March 1971: Birth Pangs of a Nation
by R. Chowdhury 27 March 2019
March 1971 carries a special significance for Bangladeshis. This eventful month saw the culmination of the Bengalis’ movement for self-realization and independence. It also saw Pakistan’s heinous military crackdown on the unarmed Bengalis of then-East Pakistan with far-reaching consequences: Pakistan lost its significant half.
After the Awami League, under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, swept to victory in the elections in December 1970, it was the general feeling amongst the East Pakistanis that they would see an end to the 23-year-long domination of West Pakistanis. I was in the western part of Pakistan then and had the opportunity to observe a feeling of frustration among the Punjabis that their days of bullying the Bengalis were coming to an end. A few of them seemed to have accepted reality. However, the hawkish political and military leadership found it difficult to digest and started hatching conspiracies to maintain their absolute command and authority.
I believed that President General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan was not involved in the conspiracy in the beginning. I felt he genuinely wanted Pakistan to return to the civilian rule. Perhaps his only desire was to continue as president under the new administration. I gave him positive marks for the following:
He disbanded the one-unit of West Pakistan and restored the provinces of Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and North West Frontier Province (NWFP). That made East Pakistan the largest province, thus ending the parity formula of former president Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan.
Yahya introduced implemented, the adult franchise, the one-person, one-vote system. That gave East Pakistan 164 parliamentary seats to West Pakistan’s 136, based on population, from the previous 150:150 parity. The system made it possible for the Awami League to be the majority party in the Parliament (that scenario never materialized, however).
During his two-year tenure, Yahya increased the induction of Bengalis into the military and administration. He ordered the suspension of the recruitment of soldiers in West Pakistan while accelerating enrollment in East Pakistan. Bengali cadet intakes in the military academies also increased. In the 1950s and mid-1960s, Bengali cadets were 5% or less. In 1971, the number rose to almost 25%. Statistics in the civil services were similar.
Since the elections in December 1970, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been forcefully advocating that he won a mandate on his 6-Point formula, and would amend the Pakistani constitution accordingly. He administered a terse oath to all the 417 elected Awami representatives of the central and provincial assemblies, to the effect that they would not betray the 6 Points. West Pakistani leaders, on the other hand, perceived the 6 Points as an obvious move for the eastern wing to secede. They also suspected that Pakistan’s archenemy, India, had a hand in it, more so because of Sheikh Mujib’s intimate connections with the Indian leadership.
Though the Awami League won the absolute majority in the elections, it failed to win any seat in the western wing. On the other hand, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto secured 82 National Assembly seats, but none in East Pakistan. That gave the two major parties regional portrayals, rather than all Pakistan-based, and put them at political loggerheads.
For Yahya, the problem was how to bring the two major bickering political forces together to a common ground. He had been urging Mujib and Bhutto to meet and come to an understanding. Mujib insisted he was the majority leader, so the president should listen to him, while Bhutto contended that he was the absolute leader in the western wing, and could not be ignored.
Yahya met Mujib in Dhaka on January 13, 1971, but could not reach an understanding, as the latter remained rigid on his 6 Points. The president cautioned Mujib that people in the western part might find it difficult to go along with his formula. Yahya also pointed out that, as the future leader of Pakistan, Mujib would represent all Pakistan and needed to care about everybody’s opinion and feelings, not just the East Pakistanis. Mujib responded that he would manage, but the generals remained unconvinced.
Yahya left Dhaka the next day, somewhat disappointed. To the questions of the journalists at the airport before his departure for Karachi, an angry president retorted, “Go and ask these questions to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He is the next Prime Minister.” Bhutto could not take this remark lightly. He thought the president had reached an understanding with Mujib bypassing him. He started planning his revenge.
Larkana Conspiracy: Birth of Operation Searchlight
Upon arrival in Karachi, Yahya accepted Bhutto’s invitation to go duck hunting at Larkana. Army Chief of Staff General M A Hamid, Chief of the Intelligence General Akbar, among others, were also called to join in. Bhutto entertained his guests lavishly. There at Bhutto’s lush palace, in the commonly known “Larkana Conspiracy,” the blueprint of Operation Searchlight was taking shape. While Bhutto and the top generals were doing the homework, the president mostly remained busy with what he liked the most—the two ‘W’s. From then on, the president was said to be reduced to a signatory or front man only, while the real authority rested in the military junta headed by Hamid and General S G M Peerzada, chief of the general staff to the president and a close friend of Bhutto.
On January 26, Bhutto came to Dhaka to explore the possibility of a compromise. He, too, found Mujib uncompromising on his 6 Points and left Dhaka the next day. The Larkana Conspiracy gained momentum. Bhutto maintained his contact with the president and the junta, mostly through his pal Peerzada.
On February 13, President Yahya announced that the first session of Parliament would sit in Dhaka on March 3, 1971. Bhutto refused to go to Dhaka “just to endorse the 6 Points” and threatened to “break the legs” of any other West Pakistani parliamentarians who would dare to go to Dhaka.
On March 1, it was announced that the National Assembly session had been postponed, without scheduling a new date. Dhaka reacted violently. Clashes between the military and Bengalis erupted everywhere, with loss of lives. As the non-Bengali Biharis sided with the military, they too faced the wrath of the local Bengalis.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called for total non-cooperation with Islamabad and became the de facto ruler in East Pakistan. He issued administrative orders on a day-to-day basis and called for a mammoth rally at Suhrawardy Uddyan on March 7. Radical leaders and student activists pressed Mujib to make the unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) on March 7, but he was hesitant to do so, considering its implications. However, a couple of significant developments took place in the meantime.
On March 6, president Yahya had a telephone conversation with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Yahya reportedly asked Mujib not to do anything from where “there would be no return.” As an olive branch to the Bengalis, he announced that the Parliament would sit in Dhaka on March 25, 1971. That same evening, Mujib had a meeting with his AL-high command. Demand for UDI was prominent.
At midnight on March 6, Mujib sent two personal emissaries to Dhaka GOC Major General Khadim Hussain Raja, with a message that he was under tremendous pressure from the extremist elements to make the UDI. He was in a dilemma– doomed if he did, doomed if he didn’t –so let the military take him to custody. General Khadim Raja did not buy the idea. Arresting Mujib at that juncture would be the worst thing to do; it would make him a martyr. Khadim responded that as a politician, Mujib should be able to handle the situation. He also threatened that he would do his duty as a military commander if there were any UDI. (Ref: Witness to Surrender by Siddiq Salik).
On the morning of March 7, US Ambassador Joseph Farland at Islamabad warned Mujib not to count on the US if he made any declaration of independence. Mujib was really in a fix!
The So-Called Master Speech
The 17-minute speech of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the Suhrawardy Uddyan on March 7, 1971, was great, though somewhat confusing to the public. He did not make any UDI. Instead, he put forward four demands to the authorities: The lifting of the martial law; the military’s return to barracks; an enquiry into the civilians’ killings, and immediate transfer of power to the elected representatives. Then, watching a kind of impatience and disapproval among the stick-wielding crowd, he finally roared the magic words: “Ebarer songram swadhinatar songram, ebarer songram amader muktir songram….Tomra ghore ghore durgo gore tolo. Rokto jokhon diyechi, proyjoney aaro rokto debo. Ei desher manushke mukto korey charbo insha-allah. (This time our struggle is for our independence, our freedom. Make a fortress of your house. We have given blood before, and will give more, if needed, yet I will liberate our people, Allah willing.)” He left the podium immediately without talking to anyone. The crowd dispersed, somewhat disappointed. (According to a source, the speech was drafted by the famous “Nucleus” composed of the top student leaders who later formed the Mujib Bahini during the war under Indian Intelligence).
Independence Declaration Controversy
Sheikh Mujib’s followers and Awami leaders maintain that Mujib’s March 7 speech was itself the announcement or call for independence. The main reason for this version is to undercut the announcement made by Major Ziaur Rahman of 8 Bengal Regiment at the Chittagong Radio Station on March 27, 1971. There appear to be a few contradictions surrounding those views.
First, if the March 7 speech was the ultimate call for independence, then why did Sheikh Mujib engage himself in long parlays with Yahya, Bhutto and other Pakistani leaders from March 16 to 24, ostensibly to save Pakistan? After the talks on March 24, Mujib angrily retorted to the inquisitive journalists that if there was no progress in the discussion, he was not a fool to continue the talks. He further informed them that he had an exclusive meeting set with Yahya the next morning (See the Ittefaq and other newspapers of March 25/26, 1971). Little did Mujib know that Yahya left for Karachi the next day (March 25), after giving the “go ahead” signal to the “Operation Searchlight,” to start that midnight. The operation was aimed at total annihilation of Bengalis.
If the March 7 speech was the declaration of independence, as contended by the Awami League and its followers, there was no need for a separate declaration on March 25/26, 1971. Why then is there so much talk about sending a written declaration to Chittagong to M A Hannan or Zuhur Ahmed Chowdhury, who supposedly made the announcements? And, from where that announcement was made? Who heard it? None.
Why was it difficult for Sheikh Mujib to understand that the Dhaka talks from March 16-24, 1971, were a smokescreen and a time-buying exercise by the Pakistani junta so that sufficient military strength could be at hand in East Pakistan for the “Operation Searchlight” massacre? Landings of planes and shiploads of troops and military wares at Dhaka and Chittagong ports were no secret. Wasn’t it ominous? Could we avert such a massive catastrophe in men and materiel if our political leaders had made the right decision at the right time? Definitely. Unfortunately, the leadership failed.
Reportedly, Captain (later Major General) Amin Ahmed Chowdhury came from Chittagong and conveyed to Colonel (later General) M A G Osmany, military adviser to Mujib, that Bengali soldiers were disarmed in preparation for an impending crackdown on the Bengalis. Mujib did not give any credence to the information. Never in his life had Mujib taken the military seriously!
On the night of March 25, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was repeatedly asked by fellow AL leaders to go into hiding, or at least leave his residence. Awami League Secretary-General Tajuddin Ahmed requested him to declare independence and lead the war. Mujib declined on the ground that Pakistan would use its evidence of treason against him. He chose to surrender instead, after assuring the safety and maintenance of his family by the Pakistan military. Ambassador Farland said to have acted as the conduit. All Pakistani newspapers on April 1, 1971, carried the picture of a pensive Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the lounge at Karachi Airport, surrounded by police guards.
Ziaur Rahman made the first announcement in his name. A few local Awami leaders requested that for wider acceptability he could make it in the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It was so done. A nearby Japanese merchant ship picked up the announcement and relayed it to the whole world.
The Bengalis received a direction and started the war of Independence. After traversing a sea of blood, they won victory on December 16, 1971. A new country Bangladesh appeared on the world map.