March 7, 1971: The beginning of the end
MARCH of 1971 was a month that will go down in history because, beginning on March 1, the course of history of one Pakistan changed very fast. In the first general election of Pakistan since it was created in 1947, the Awami League (AL) led by Bangabandhu Sk. Mujibur Rahman won 167 seats out of 169 constituencies of East Pakistan (7 reserved seats for women); out of total 300 seats in the National Parliament of Pakistan.
The elections were held under a Legal Framework Order (LFO) announced by General Yahya Khan. The LFO directed that once the parliament was formed it would have to draft a constitution for Pakistan within 120 days based on the ideology of Pakistan, acknowledging its theocratic nature. It also said that if General Yahya was not satisfied with the contents of the constitution he would trash the draft.
AL fought the election on its Six-Point programme and announced that the constitution would be framed incorporating the programme that promised maximum autonomy for all the provinces of Pakistan. Many, including Maulana Bhashani, the chief of National Awami Party (NAP), questioned the propriety of participating in such an election under LFO. But Mujib was no revolutionary and believed in universally practiced democratic norms and that elections were the only means of going to power. The Bangalis did not make a mistake in choosing their leader and the party.
Under a democratic system it is the majority party that is called to form the government. But, on February 28, 1971, Bhutto announced that the 120 days time frame under LFO must be removed, and if Yahya Khan postponed the sitting of Parliament, which was scheduled to sit in Dhaka on March 3, 1971, he was willing to discuss the matters relating to Mujib's Six-Point programme and framing of the constitution. Unexpectedly, on March 1, 1971 it was announced that Yahya had decided to unilaterally postpone the sitting of the parliament. He was dancing to Bhutto's tune. Bhutto was the lynchpin in the conspiracy against the people of East Pakistan.
The postponement of the sitting of the parliament was the last nail in the coffin of a united Pakistan. Syed Shahid Husain, a civil bureaucrat from the then West Pakistan serving in Dhaka and witness to many events leading to March 25-26, 1971, writes in his memoir, What Was Once East Pakistan: "The decision to postpone the session of National Assembly triggered an immensely negative response. Dhaka Radio Station broadcast Mujib's call for public protest in the province against the postponement. But people were unable to restrain themselves and showed spontaneous and forceful resentment by coming out on the streets within half an hour of the announcement….About 150 people showed up in my office and respectfully asked me to order the closure of the office because their democratic rights had been violated. I ordered accordingly."
On March 3, Bangabandhu addressed a huge gathering at Paltan Maidan organised by Purbo Pakistan Chhatra League where a national flag of Bangladesh was formally hoisted and a manifesto of the proposed independent new nation was announced. The national anthem of the would-be new country was also declared. Bangabandhu announced that on March 7, 1971 he would give the formal directives to the nation at Ramna Race Course (present day Suhrawardy Uddayan) about the future course of action.
Before the March 7 address, the air of the country was pregnant with speculations about what Bangabandhu would announce. Would it be a unilateral declaration of independence or would he announce some sort of compromise? In the morning of March 7, leaders of Chhatra League proposed to him that he unilaterally declare an independent Bangladesh and take over the cantonments. The US Ambassador in Pakistan, Joseph Farland, met Mujib and in unequivocal terms warned him that if he declared independence the US would not endorse or support it.
Bangabandhu gave everyone a patient hearing but said very little. He knew exactly what his options were and their possible outcomes. By midday the vast Ramna Race course was teeming with millions to hear from the 'Poet of Politics,' a title given to him earlier by Newsweek. Syed Shahid Husain writes: "I had noted in my diary that Sheikh Mujib was likely to declare independence on March 7. As a matter of fact I had heard this on the BBC. On March 7, Mujib addressed a mammoth really but did not declare independence. Yahya must have been disappointed as he had probably hoped that Mujib would proclaim independence and thus provide him the justification to arrest the East Pakistan leader."
Bangabandhu arrived at the venue at 2.45 in the afternoon and spoke for only 18 minutes. It was electrifying 18 minutes. Not only the people of entire Pakistan and East Bengal were glued to their radios but the world was holding its breath. However, on orders from the central government, both the radio and the TV had to abstain from broadcasting the historic speech. In protest, the staff of the radio and TV walked out of their broadcasting stations. The speech was extempore, and became one of the memorable speeches ever given by a politician.
While Bangabandhu was speaking the Dhaka garrison was preparing for an assault on the unarmed civilians in case there was a declaration of independence. Bangabandhu did not disappoint the waiting millions, but said what he had to in an intelligent and statesman-like way. He ended his speech saying: "The struggle this time is for emancipation, the struggle this time is for independence." A straight declaration would have branded him a secessionist and he would have losst world sympathy.
Bangabandhu declared a programme of non-cooperation unless their demands were met, which included handing over power to the majority party (AL) in the parliament, lifting of martial law, pulling the army to the barracks, holding impartial enquiry for the killing of innocent civilians by the army. He directed the people not pay any taxes, and to observe complete shutdown. All transport vehicles would run, banks would remain open till 2 p.m. and all buildings would fly black flags. As a matter of fact it was Bangabandhu who was running the civil administration of East Bengal and not Yahya Khan. By all definition East Pakistan was lost and the world was witnessing the slow emergence of a new independent nation.
On March 15, 1971, Yahya arrived in Dhaka to talk to Bangabandhu. But it was too late. The die was cast. It was just part of the conspiracy to reinforce the Pakistan army to annihilate the Bengali nation. On March 25, 1969, when General Ayub Khan abdicated power in the face of massive student uprising in both wings of Pakistan, he made a speech saying that he could not preside over the destruction of Pakistan. He handed over power to General Yahya who did exactly that because that was the pre-determined destiny of Pakistan, a country created with a flawed ideology. Bangabandhu's speech on that afternoon has become synonymous with the history of Bangladesh. Long live the spirit of March 7, 1971.
The writer is a former Vice-Chancellor, University of Chittagong. Currently, he is teaching at ULAB, Dhaka.