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March 1971 Diary: Too little and too late

  • Published at 12:09 am March 10th, 2021
File photo of Prof Rehman Sobhan - Mahmud Hossain Opu
File photo of Prof Rehman Sobhan Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

This piece is the first in a series that will run until March 25, in which we reproduce Rehman Sobhan’s contemporaneous account of the events of that momentous month in Bangladeshi history, originally written for Forum magazine. This piece was first published in Forum on March 6, 1971, and we publish it in two parts. The concluding part of the article will follow tomorrow.

The crisis long predicted in these columns and which we along with many others throughout the country had tried so hard to avoid is upon us. The future of this nation is at stake. If it survives this moment of peril it can never be the same again.

The people of Bangla Desh have had to take to the streets to re-win the right to self-government they had sought to establish three months ago at the polls. Then they did indeed speak their minds unequivocally. And today those same people are in the streets, armed with only primitive weapons but sustained by indomitable courage and faith in the justice of their cause. 

The interests that have provoked this conflagration are the same as those which attempted to preserve the nation as a playground for their greed and ambition. It is however only fitting that the instrument for their design should be none other than Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, chairman of the People’s Party, pledged to emancipate the people from these same vested interests. 

Less than a month ago there was hope in the air. The polls had made it sufficiently clear that Bangla Desh was solidly committed to Six--Points. The victors in West Pakistan had no campaign commitments against Six-Points which could have inhibited a settlement with the Awami League and which could prevent them from honouring their economic commitments to their electorate. 

A constitution based on Six-Points, but taking care of the special problems of West Pakistan, could have been jointly framed without prejudice to the rights and interests of the common people of West Pakistan. 

A peaceful transition to a democratic order, which for the first time in two decades would have put inter-wing bickering at an end and left parties free to get on with the task of engineering social revolution, was distinctly possible. 

All these hopes are ashes. Mr. Bhutto’s refusal to attend the Assembly indicated that he has made common cause with the “hawks” in the power elite, and had the strength to force the postponement, sine die, of the Assembly. 

The long delay between election time and the summoning of the Assembly had already generated enough tension so that March 3 was not a day too soon. Anyone with the slightest notion of the mood in Bangla Desh knew this would push the self-restraint of the people over the brink. 

The reasons put forward by the great chairman for not attending the National Assembly were too puerile to be taken seriously. The notion that a National Assembly is merely a ratification chamber for clandestine agreements is part of the Byzantine politics which the chairman learnt for 8 years at the feet of his spiritual father. 

If a parliament is not meant to discuss basic issues, to examine them closely in committee sessions, to seek settlement and to vote on them if positions are irreconcilable, why was so much blood shed in the cause of parliamentary democracy? 

All this Mr. Bhutto knew and had made clear to him, not just on his visit to East Pakistan but by the powers-that-be, when he ignited the flames of crisis. It was therefore a cold-blooded act which could have no other end than the death of peasants, workers and students in the streets of Bangla Desh. 

He has worked hand and glove with the hawks who have now come up with their proposal of a National Assembly held under the shadow of the gun. A five-hour session with the president before his provocative broadcast has proved this collusion without a shadow of doubt. His so-called progressive supporters should take note of the role of their chairman’s collaboration with the forces of oppression. 

Dictatorship has been given a new lease of life and they would do well to realise that their own freedoms may be trampled in the dust along with the blood of workers and students in Bangla Desh. 



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