March 1971: The emergence of a sovereign Bangladesh

It is only in the politically divided Bangladesh of today that such a surreal political debate over who declared independence for Bangladesh could continue

Bangabandhu’s response to the decision by Yahya to postpone the Assembly session was to call for a political mobilisation throughout Bangladesh through a program of non-cooperation.

The popular response in Bangladesh to his call registered a measure of support which remains without precedent in the history of democratic and liberation movements. The non-cooperation movement was spontaneously joined not just by the people of Bangladesh but by the administrative and judicial machinery, the forces of law and order, as well as the business community.

The non-cooperation movement eventually graduated into a formal shift of allegiance of the machinery of civilian government in Bangladesh away from the central government of General Yahya Khan to the authority exercised by Bangabandhu over Bangladesh.

Thus, the entire machinery of state located outside the military cantonments of Bangladesh, unanimously came forward to pledge their loyalty to the leadership of Bangabandhu.

By March 1970, Bangabandhu found himself the unchallenged ruler of Bangladesh with the entire machinery of administration in Bangladesh behind him. In no other independence movement has such a shift of loyalty emerged prior to the recognition of national independence.

Bangladesh’s de facto independence, thus, emerged as part of a process, where between March 1 and March 15, Bangladesh assumed all the correlates of an independent state.

So total was the non-cooperation movement that the economy and infrastructure of Bangladesh came near to collapse with life-threatening consequences for the people of this region.

Thus, Bangabandhu had, of necessity, to escalate the movement from non-cooperation to self-rule in order to restore economic activity and maintain law and order.

A rudimentary policy-making apparatus had to be established by Bangabandhu to take decisions about the selective revival of the economy and establishment of administrative authority.

A small cell was established where a number of Bangali professionals met every day with bankers and bureaucrats to discuss a variety of operational issues such as the steps needed to revive banking operations, revive exports, pay salaries of public employees, collect public revenues, resume public distribution of fertiliser as well as operate tube-wells, and to keep the transport within Bangladesh functional.

Suggested administrative actions to be taken in the name of the Bangabandhu regime were communicated every day by Tajuddin Ahmad and Kamal Hossain to a team of Bangali bureaucrats who had been elected by their colleagues to liaise with the Awami League and act as conduits for transmitting the orders of Bangabandhu to the administration.

Many ad hoc problems of an administrative, political, or commercial nature that needed urgent resolution were directly presented to Bangabandhu at his private residence on Road 32 in Dhanmondi which, in effect, became the seat of authority in Bangladesh during March 1971.

Delegations of businessmen met with Bangabandhu and selected colleagues to seek emergency decisions about how they should run their business during this period. The machinery of law and order was restored as the police began to take orders from Bangabandhu and to work in cooperation with Awami League political workers to restore a sense of security to the people of Bangladesh.

Whilst there were instances of persecuting non-Bangalis, the general law and order situation during March was remarkably stable and even non-Bangalis were extended protection.

By March 15, for all practical purposes, a functioning administration, operating under the direction of Bangabandhu and administered by key Awami League colleagues, had emerged as a de facto administration and political authority in Bangladesh.

However, it is arguable that Bangabandhu’s authority was not just de facto but could be termed legal since his leadership enjoyed electoral legitimacy, registered in the overwhelming vote of the population endorsing their political confidence in Bangabandhu.

This exercise of political and administrative authority by Bangabandhu over the entire geographical area of Bangladesh was more than enough to meet the criterion for sovereign recognition by a foreign government.

This exercise of authority by Bangabandhu throughout Bangladesh was projected before the world through a large contingent of the international press who were present in Bangladesh to cover what appeared to be the emergence of a new state.

Bangabandhu was, at the same time, communicating with government leaders, who were believed to exercise some leverage over the Pakistan government, to seek their assistance in persuading Yahya to accept the logic of the democratic process in Bangladesh.

However, it was the world press which projected Bangabandhu’s message to the ordinary people of these countries so that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, during March 1971, became one of the most globally visible personalities in the Third World.

When Yahya Khan arrived in Bangladesh in mid-March to resume political negotiations for a constitutional solution to the crisis he was, thus, no longer negotiating with a subject but with a political equal.

Bangabandhu, at that point, was not only sovereign in Bangladesh but commanded more authority in his own territory than Yahya did in West Pakistan.

If such negotiations between Bangabandhu and Yahya had been carried out on the basis of the political realities that prevailed on the ground in Bangladesh, a peaceful solution to the political crisis might have emerged. Such a solution may have ended in a loose confederal arrangement which may have eventually led to a peaceful parting of Bangladesh from Pakistan.

But Yahya, goaded by Bhutto and some of the hawks in the junta, still persisted with his delusion that a show of force would bring these middle-class Bengali leaders to their senses or that some of them would come forward over the dead bodies of their colleagues to seek a compromise with the military junta.

The junta did not believe that the Bangalis had the political cohesion, courage, tradition, or military capacity to sustain a war of national liberation. To the end they could not comprehend that a nation state had been forged within Bangladesh during March 1971 whose people would be willing to fight spontaneously to protect their sovereignty.

At the back of their minds, both Yahya and Bhutto believed that if worse came to worst, Pakistan would leave Bangladesh as scorched earth where the Bangalis would have to pay in fire and blood for their presumptions of sovereignty.

Bhutto believed that Yahya could not survive the loss of Bangladesh and that he (Bhutto) would emerge as the new shahinshah of what was left of Pakistan.

As it transpired, Yahya used the cover of political negotiations to move troops into Bangladesh to build up enough force to suppress the forces of Bangali nationalism. He projected such an act of force as a reassertion of the political authority of the central government of Pakistan over a province of Pakistan.

But by the time Yahya gave his final orders to General Tikka Khan to launch his genocide on the Bangalis on the night of March 25, 1971, it was Pakistan which was the usurper of authority from the democratically established sovereign state of Bangladesh.

Thus, the armed assault of the Pakistan armed forces on the Bangalis was seen as an act of military aggression by one sovereign state on another. This was how the Bangalis viewed the assault on their sovereignty and indeed how much of the world viewed the military aggression against Bangladesh.

During the month of March 1971, Bangladesh’s sense of national consciousness evolved into an awareness of their sovereign status through the assertion by Bangabandhu of the right to self-rule.

Thus, the concept of national consciousness, which was essentially an abstraction, consolidated itself through a political process which culminated in the emergence of an independent Bangladesh.

For the first time, since the Battle of Plassey, Bangalis awoke to the fact that they were ruling themselves through their freely elected representatives.

Bangladesh’s declaration of independence

By March 25, 1971 Bangladesh was already a sovereign state in the minds of its citizens. The proclamation of independence by Bangabandhu on March 26 in response to the military assault on the Bangalis ordered by Yahya Khan, was a juridical act recognising a de facto and legitimate authority.

The post-liberation debate over who declared independence of Bangladesh is thus a largely irrelevant debate. It is self-evident to anyone with common sense that the operative issue is not who declared independence but when Bangladeshis asserted their own independence, which they did during the month of March 1971.

In any case, a declaration of independence can only derive from a legitimate authority, otherwise any citizen could proclaim any part of the globe independent.

In the Bangladesh of 1971, it was unreal to imagine that an unknown army officer could proclaim independence for 75 million Bangladeshis without any authority to do so and could be expected to be taken seriously by anyone.

Indeed, such anonymous declarations could only generate apprehension in the international arena that Bangladesh was degenerating into anarchy. At that time, the only person who was invested with the credibility to declare independence, the legally acceptable sense of the term, was Bangabandhu, because he enjoyed both electoral legitimacy and had a total political mandate from the people of Bangladesh to speak for them.

This was recognised by the global community where Bangabandhu alone commanded the visibility derived from his unchallenged leadership of 75 million Bangalis to proclaim their sovereignty to the world.

Any local declaration of independence could, thus, only be accepted as a surrogate act on behalf of Bangabandhu.

It is only in the politically divided Bangladesh of today that such a surreal political debate over who declared independence for Bangladesh could continue for so long to perpetuate the myth that a declaration of independence could originate from any person who had a mind to make such a proclamation.

Bangabandhu and the legitimacy of the liberation struggle

The legitimacy derived from the unchallenged authority of Bangabandhu was crucial to the sustainability of the liberation war. At the time that independence was formally declared on March 26, 1971, Bangabandhu commanded what few, if any, leaders of independence movements have commanded during their phase of struggle with an imperial authority, the freely given and overwhelming electoral mandate to speak for Bangladesh.

Such a mandate was not available to Gandhi or Nehru, or Mao, or Ho Chi Minh, or Ben Bella, or Nkrumah, or Nyerere, or even to Mandela, all of whom obtained full electoral legitimacy only after independence.

Bangabandhu had already exercised de facto authority, in the eyes of the world, over the territory of Bangladesh when he proclaimed Bangladesh’s independence. It was this universally recognised authority which persuaded Bangali judges, bureaucrats, and diplomats to extend their support to Bangabandhu and for Bangali members of the armed forces of Pakistan to break their oath of service and pledge their allegiance to the liberation of Bangladesh.

It should be kept in mind that to the end, Vietnamese fought alongside the French to suppress their liberation movement, Algerians fought with the French to suppress the FLN, local troops, bureaucrats, and police were used by the British to suppress various independence struggles throughout the age of Empire.

It was only in Bangladesh that these servants of colonial rule repudiated the authority of the ruler and supported a “rebel” authority because they deemed its leader to  have a legitimate authority to speak for all the people of Bangladesh.

When the people of Bangladesh took their message to the international community after March 1971, they had no difficulty in commanding support at the popular level even when the governments of the day remained lukewarm in their support to the sovereignty of Bangladesh.

It was this popular groundswell of support in most countries of the world for the Bangladesh liberation struggle and against the genocide of the Pakistan army which compelled some national governments to demand restraint from the Pakistan government.


Today the genocide unleashed by Yahya and the Pakistan Army would have been condemned by many governments and there would have been a global outcry for the trial of Yahya and Tikka Khan as war criminals.

In 1971 most governments, with rare exceptions, still believed that a state, however weak its popular legitimacy, could massacre its own citizens with impunity.

Thus, in 1971 Bangladesh needed to invoke the support of the people of these countries who would, in the normal course of their lives, have never heard of  Bangladesh.

That ordinary people around the world took notice of the atrocities inflicted on the people of Bangladesh, owes in no small measure to the global recognition given to Bangladesh during March 1971 and the visibility and stature of Bangabandhu as the leader of Bangladesh.

Whatever may be said about the role of Bangabandhu and the Awami League after 1971, all Bangladeshis will have to come to terms with the fact that had Bangabandhu not united the people of Bangladesh by building up their national self-awareness, particularly prior to the liberation war, and had he not been able to draw upon their democratic mandate to speak for Bangladesh before the world, our liberation struggle could have turned out to be a much more protracted process.

Source: Dhaka Tribune


  1. The writer is indeed correct, without Bangabandhu’s unified movement against the rulers was the point that eventually made Bangladesh an independent nation. However, he has cleverly downgraded a “soldier” daring to declare it from a remote radio station in Chittagong, taking his life and the life of his fellow rebels to extreme danger. That soldier was Ziaur rahman. It is about time people like this writer should at least give credibility to all the freedom fighters who braved their life into the war for liberation of Bangladesh. He should take cognizance to the fact that, Bangabandhu was in a jail in Pakistan and therefore, had no contribution physically or otherwise for over 9 months. That does not downgrade his life-long contribution. We should give full credits to the bravery of the people who fought first hand “face to face” with the enemy while the Awami League cabinet and MPs were living comfortably in Mujibnagar or Calcutta with their families in the tow.


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