March of 1971 is a historic month for us because beginning 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 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won 167 seats out of 169 constituencies of East Pakistan (seven reserved seats for women), of a 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 Sheikh Mujib was no revolutionary and believed in universally practised 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-day timeframe 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 Sheikh 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 a witness to many events leading up 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 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 Sheikh 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 eager 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 BBC. On March 7, Mujib addressed a mammoth rally 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 an electrifying 18 minutes. Not only were the people of entire Pakistan and East Bengal glued to their radios but the world too was holding its breath. However, on orders from the central government, both the radio and TV stations had to abstain from broadcasting the historic speech. In protest, the staff of radio and TV channels walked out of their broadcasting stations. The speech was extempore, and became one of the most 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 lost 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, and holding an impartial enquiry for the killing of innocent civilians by the army. He directed the people not to pay any taxes, and to observe complete shutdown. All transport vehicles would run, banks would remain open till 2pm 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 definitions, 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 simply a part of the conspiracy to unleash the Pakistan army to annihilate the Bengali nation. On March 25, 1969, when General Ayub Khan abdicated power in the face of a massive student uprising in both wings of Pakistan, he delivered 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 upon 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.
This is a reprint of an article first published in this daily on March 7, 2015.
Prof. Abdul Mannan is Chairman, University Grants Commission (UGC) of Bangladesh, and a former Vice-Chancellor of University of Chittagong.