Prelude to Liberation War

Bily I Ahmed

The Liberation War that lasted roughly for nine months in 1971 culminated in Bangladesh's independence on 16 December 1971. The prelude to war includes many factors, which are mentioned below.

Economic exploitation
West Pakistan, consisting of four provinces: Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and North-West Frontier Province, dominated the divided country and received more money than the more populous East. See table.

Between 1948 and 1960, East Pakistan's export earnings had been 70 per cent while it only received 25 per cent of import earning.

East Pakistan had 11 textile mills while West had 9. In 1971, the number of textile mills in the West had grown to 150 while that in the East had only gone up to 26.

A transfer of 2.6 billion dollars (in 1971 exchange rates) worth resources was also done over time from East Pakistan to West Pakistan.

Language factor
In 1948, Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared in Dhaka that "Urdu, and only Urdu", a language that was only spoken in the West by Muhajirs and in the East by Biharis, would be the sole official language for all of Pakistan. Bangla was spoken by the majority of people.

East Pakistan revolted and several students and civilians lost their lives on February 21, 1952. The day is revered in Bangladesh and in West Bengal as the Language Martyrs' Day.

Bitter feelings among the East Pakistanis never ceased to grow, especially with repeated arrivals of military rulers. Later, in remembrance of the 1952 killings, UNESCO declared February 21 as the International Mother Language Day.

The Bengalis faced economic, linguistic and political difference and this difference reached a climax when in 1970 the Awami League, the largest political party in East Pakistan, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won a landslide victory in the national elections winning 167 of the 169 seats allotted for East Pakistan and a majority of the 313 total seats in the National Assembly. This gave the Awami League the right to form a government.

However, the leader of Pakistan People's Party, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, refused to allow Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Instead, he proposed a notion of two Prime Ministers. Bhutto also refused to accept Mujibur Rahman's Six Points.

On 3 March 1971, the two leaders (of the two wings) along with the President General Yahya Khan met in Dhaka to decide the fate of the country. Talks failed. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called for a nation-wide strike.

Military preparation for genocide
General Tikka Khan was flown in to Dhaka to become the Governor of East Bengal. East-Pakistani judges, including Justice Siddique, refused to swear him in.

MV Swat, a ship of the Pakistani Navy, carrying ammunition and soldiers, was harbored in Chittagong Port and the Bengali workers and sailors at the port refused to unload the ship. A unit of East Pakistan Rifles refused to obey commands to fire on Bengali demonstrators, beginning a mutiny of Bengali soldiers.

Between 10 and 13 March, Pakistan International Airlines cancelled all their international routes to urgently fly "Government Passengers" to Dhaka. These so-called "Government Passengers" were almost exclusively Pakistani soldiers in civil uniform.

Bangabandhu's speech of 7 March
On March 7 1971, Bangabandhu (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) gave a speech at the Racecourse Ground (now called the Suhrawardy Udyan). In this speech he mentioned a further four-point condition to consider the National Assembly Meeting on March 25:
-The immediate lifting of martial law.
-Immediate withdrawal of all military personnel to their barracks.
-An inquiry into the loss of life.
-Immediate transfer of power to the elected representative of the people before the assembly meeting on March 25.
He urged "his people" to turn every house into a fort of resistance. He closed his speech saying, "The struggle this time is for our freedom. The struggle this time is for our independence."

Operation Searchlight
On the night of 25 March, Pakistan Army began a violent effort to suppress the Bengali opposition. Before carrying out these acts, all foreign journalists were systematically deported from Bangladesh. Bengali members of military services were disarmed. The operation was called Operation Searchlight by Pakistani Army and was carefully devised by several top-ranked army generals to "crush" the Bengalis.

Although the genocide focused on the provincial capital, Dhaka, the process of ethnic cleansing (elimination) was also carried out all around Bangladesh. Residential halls of the University of Dhaka were particularly targeted.

The only Hindu residential hall the Jagannath Hall was destroyed by the Pakistani armed forces, and an estimated 600 to 700 of its residents were murdered.

Hindu areas all over Bangladesh suffered particularly heavy blows. By midnight, Dhaka was literally burning; especially the Hindu dominated eastern part of the city. Time magazine reported on August 2, 1971, "The Hindus, who account for three-fourths of the refugees and a majority of the dead, have borne the brunt of the Muslim military hatred."

Sheikh Mujib was arrested on the night of March 25-26, 1971 at about 1:30 a.m. (per Radio Pakistan's news on March 29, 1971), which means effectively on March 26, 1971.

Declaration of independence
On 26 March, the nation waged an armed struggle against the Pakistani occupation forces following the killings of the night of 25 March. The Pakistani forces arrested Sheikh Mujib, who, through a wireless message, had called upon the people to resist the occupation forces [source: The Daily Star, March 26 2005]. Mujib was arrested on the night of March 25-26, 1971 at about 1:30 a.m. (per Radio Pakistan's news on March 29, 1971), which means effectively on March 26, 1971. On 26 March 1971, M A Hannan, an Awami League leader from Chittagong is said to have made the first announcement of the declaration of independence over radio.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signed an official declaration that read:

Bangladesh is a sovereign and independent country. On Thursday night West Pakistani armed forces suddenly attacked the police barracks at Rajarbagh and the EPR headquarters at Pilkhana in Dhaka.

Many innocent and unarmed people have been killed in Dhaka city and other places of Bangladesh. Violent clashes between EPR and Police on the one hand and the armed forces of Pakistan on the other are going on.

The Bengalis are fighting the enemy with great courage for an independent Bangladesh. May God aid us in our fight for freedom. Joy Bangla.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman 25 March 1971
(Source: "The History of the Liberation Movement in Bangladesh" by J. S. Gupta)

A telegram reached some students in Chittagong. They realised the message could be broadcast from Agrabad Station of Radio Pakistan. The message was translated to Bangla by Dr Manjula Anwar. They failed to secure permission from higher authorities to broadcast the message. Failing to secure the permission the students crossed Kalurghat Bridge into an area controlled by East Bengal Regiment under Major Ziaur Rahman. Bengali soldiers guarded the station as engineers prepared for transmission. At 19:45 on 26 March, 1971, Major Ziaur Rahman broadcast another announcement of the declaration of independence on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which is as follows.

This is Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro. I, Major Ziaur Rahman, at the direction of Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman, hereby declare that the independent People's Republic of Bangladesh has been established. At his direction, I have taken command as the temporary Head of the Republic. In the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, I call upon all Bengalis to rise against the attack by the West Pakistani Army. We shall fight to the last to free our Motherland. By the grace of Allah, victory is ours. Joy Bangla.

Kalurghat Radio Station's transmission capability was limited. The message was picked up by a Japanese ship in Bay of Bengal and then re-transmitted by Radio Australia and later the British Broadcasting Corporation.

26 March 1971 is hence considered the official Independence Day and according to all Bangladeshi sources, the name Bangladesh was in effect henceforth.

Indeed, the Bengalis with the assistance of Mitra Bahini- the allied forces, freed their motherland from the Pakistani oppressors. By His grace the victory was ours - Joy Bangla.
Bily I Ahmed is a columnist and researcher

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