Civil war raged in the eastern region of Pakistan after the provincial leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, proclaimed the region an independent republic. President Yahya Khan outlawed the Sheikh's Awami League and denounced the Sheikh himself as a traitor whose crime “would not go unpunished.” Yahya told his countrymen over a radio and TV broadcast on the evening of March 26, 1971 from Islamabad in a husky voice with a couple of pegs of Scotch whisky down his throat. (The Times, 27 March, 1971) “As the Pakistani Army moved in force to crush Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's 25-day–old independence movement, all foreign journalists in East Pakistan, confined at gun point in the Intercontinental Hotel since the beginning of the fighting, were rounded up and deported to Karachi,” wrote Simon Dring in the The Daily Telegraph of London on March 27, 1971.
As a matter of fact, the then East Pakistan was teeming with dozens of foreign journalists since the devastating cyclone hit the southern part of the country on November 12, 1970 just weeks before the first ever general election was scheduled to be held on December 7, 1970 under universal adult franchise as announced by General Yahya Khan -- the then military dictator -- a year earlier. How many people died in this cyclone is anybody's guess but independent estimates put the figure around half a million. Mujib claimed the figure to be one million. He did not give the speculators any chance when he announced that the elections will be held on the specified days except in the cyclone devastated areas. By this time Mujib had become a larger than life leader in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Whatever he said the people and the government listened to and the outside world took notice.
The neglect of the central government towards the cyclone victims was too apparent to be ignored. General Yahya Khan travelled to Beijing through Dhaka but did not feel it necessary to visit the affected areas. On December 5, 1969 Mujib renamed East Pakistan as Bangladesh and on June 7 of the following year he announced that the upcoming general election will be seen as a referendum on the historic Six Point demand. The Six Point demand announced by Mujib in 1966 would once and for all put an end to the exploitation of the provinces by the central government sitting in Punjab. Mujib, who by then became known as Bangabandhu, was walking ahead of history. In fact, he was constructing history.
On March 30, 1970 Yahya unilaterally declared a Legal Framework Order (LFO) under which the newly formed Constituent Assembly would have to complete the compilation of the constitution -- embodying the spirit of Pakistan which meant preserving the theocratic character of Pakistan and upholding Jinnah's Two Nation Theory -- within 120 days. The LFO also emphasised that economic disparity must not be used as a political slogan during the election and if Yahya did not approve of the new constitution the parliament would automatically stand dissolved. Mujib declared that the constitution would be drafted incorporating his Six Point programme, Awami League's election manifesto. Many questioned the propriety of participating in such a straight jacketed election and asked Mujib to boycott the election. But Mujib had by then transformed himself from a political leader into a statesman. In a sense, Mujib was the first and last statesman of Bangladesh till now. There seems to be a debate about whether Mujib ever declared the independence of Bangladesh before he was arrested on the night of March 25-26, 1971. The irony is that even daily newspapers published from far away places like Argentina, Canada or Norway, in their reports, said, “Before Mujib was arrested from his Dhanmondi Residence on Road 32, he proclaimed the independence of Bangladesh.” Three US TV networks, the ABC, CBS and NBC, broadcasted the news to the world in their evening news on March 26, 1971 that Mujib had declared independence on the night of March 26 just before his arrest. The British journalist, David Loshak, in his book Pakistan Crisis, wrote, “Soon after darkness fell on March 25, the voice of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman came faintly through on a wave-length close to the official Pakistan Radio. In what must have been, and sounded like, a prerecorded message, the Sheikh proclaimed East Pakistan to be the People's Republic of Bangla Desh.” Loshak was cited by Major Siddiq Salik, the Pakistan Army's PRO in Dhaka, in his book Witness to Surrender. By the time the world knew about Mujib's declaration, Pakistan Army's 'Operation Search Light' to systematically annihilate Bangalis in Bangladesh was halfway through and just before dawn, about half a million innocent people lost their lives because of the lust for power of the civil-military clique of Pindi.
Mujib, before he was arrested, also sent out a message through the EPR transmitter shortly after midnight of March 25, 1971 saying, “This may be my last message. From today, Bangladesh is independent. I call upon the people of Bangladesh wherever you might be and with whatever you have, to resist the army of occupation to the last. Your fight must go on until the last soldier of the Pakistan occupation army is expelled from the soil of Bangladesh and the final victory is achieved.” On March 26, 1971 Defence Intelligence Agency sent a report to the White House situation room titled 'Civil War in Pakistan,' prepared by Major John B Hunt and released by Captain John J Pavelle, Jr., which read “Pakistan was thrust into civil war today when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman proclaimed the east wing of the two part country to be the sovereign independent people's Republic of Bangladesh.”
Pakistan's newspaper Dawn, India's Amrita Bazaar Patrika and Singapore's Strait Times all reported that “civil war has broken out in East Pakistan” and before the Pakistan Army moved in to crush the 'revolt' of Bengalis, Mujib had unilaterally declared independence of East Pakistan which he had renamed Bangladesh.
If the rulers of Pindi had respect for democracy and willingness to build a nation-state, the history of the region would perhaps have been different. Pakistan was created with the sacrifices and support of the Bengali Muslims hoping that they would be masters of their destiny and their exploitation by the Hindu landlords and zamindars would come to an end. As they would be the majority in the newly created Pakistan, they would have a bigger say in the destiny of the new country. But soon, they found out that they were wrong. Their position in the state structure was relegated even further and the discrimination they faced by the rulers of the west, especially by Punjab, was too exposed to be ignored by anyone.
During the partition in 1947, the only exportable items from Pakistan, jute and tea, were grown in the eastern wing but 80% of the export earnings were spent for the development of the west. Pakistan's first capital, Karachi, was shifted first to Rawalpindi and a new capital named Islamabad was carved out in the middle of nowhere, near Rawalpindi, all financed by the earnings from the export and revenue collections from East Pakistan. On March 23, 1956 Pakistan's first democratic constitution was adopted and it was expected that by the following year the country's first election under the new constitution would be held. But the civil-military clique of Punjab never wanted the constitution to become effective as it would undermine their power and they would have to serve under civilian rule. So started a new phase of Pakistan's well known spate of civil-military conspiracy in which they were unparalleled. Governments were formed in the morning and dissolved the following day.
On November 28, 1969 Yahya announced that a national election would be held based on a universal adult franchise in 1970 whose primary task would be to draft a constitution. The elections were held on December 7, 1970 and as expected, the Bangladesh Awami League won 167 seats out of 169, making all the speculations of political pundits and the civil-military intelligence reports absolutely redundant. Mujib, the people's Bangabandhu, emerged as the leader of the majority party of Pakistan. Bhutto managed to bag 88 seats and came out with an absurd idea that from now on Pakistan had two majority parties in the parliament. He put the first nail in the coffin of united Pakistan.
By January 17, 1971 the elections that were postponed due to the cyclone were complete and it was expected that within a few weeks, the constituent assembly would be convened as it was customary. But the conspirators sitting in Pindi had other ideas. The wheels of conspiracy began to run over time. Bhutto was on board.
Under the constant demands of Mujib and his party, Yahya finally declared on February 13, 1971 that the first session of the assembly would commence on March 3, 1971 in Dhaka. Ironically, many politicians took this as a good gesture from Yahya. Mujib, in unequivocal terms, declared on February 13 that Pakistan's constitution would be drafted based on the historic Six Point demand, nothing short of it. Bhutto declared that under the prevailing circumstances the sitting of the parliament is useless. By the end of the month, many elected representatives from West Pakistan, except those from Bhutto's People's Party, began converging in Dhaka to participate at the parliament session. On March 1, through a radio and TV broadcast, it was announced that the scheduled sitting of the parliament of March 3, 1971 was postponed. The final die was cast for complete disintegration of Pakistan. Yahya and Bhutto both miserably misread the psyche of Mujib and the people of Bangladesh.
Immediately the civilian rule of Bangladesh was taken over by Bangabandhu. On his directives, the provincial administration ran the country. On March 3, 1971, from a student's rally held at Paltan Maidan, Bangabandhu declared that he would give all necessary directives on March 7, 1971 from the historic Ramna Race course (Suhrawardy Uddayan). March 7 was virtually the end of Pakistan.
By mid-day the huge race course was bursting to its brim. Some say there were two million people at the rally; some say five million. In the morning, the US Ambassador to Pakistan Joseph Farland met Mujib at his residence and mildly warned him that if he declared unilateral independence, US would not support it. The student leaders came in and demanded that they will not take anything short of independence. Major General Khadim Hussain Raja, in his memoir A Stranger in My Own Country, writes, “Through emissaries I informed Sheikh Mujib that during his speech I would have the army armed with guns and tanks standing by at the cantonment, ready to move immediately. I would also have arrangements in place to listen to Sheikh Mujib's speech directly from the Race Course. In case Sheikh Mujib attacked the integrity of the country and proclaimed the Universal (sic) Declaration of Independence, I would discharge my duty without hesitation and with all the power at my command. I would have the army march in immediately with orders to wreck the meeting and, if necessary, raze Dhaka to the ground.” Again the West Pakistani generals undermined the intelligence of the statesman Mujib. Yahya came to Dhaka on March 15 with the pretext of defusing the situation. He was actually buying time to build up his arsenal for the final crackdown in Bangladesh.
The March 26 declaration can just be seen as a mere formality to let the world know that a new nation is born. The rest of the nine months were just spent reclaiming what was ours since day one. On this day, let us remember the great statesman Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the members of the Mujibnagar government, the three million martyrs and everyone else who sacrificed everything for the independence of the country. Long live Bangladesh.
The writer is a former Vice Chancellor, University of Chittagong. Currently he teaches at ULAB, Dhaka.