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March 1971 Diary: Over the precipice

  • Published at 02:10 pm March 14th, 2021
File photo Professor Rehman Sobhan
File photo of eminent economist Prof Rehman Sobhan Rajib Dhar/Dhaka Tribune

This extract is the fifth 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. This was first published in Forum on March 6, 1971

On Wednesday March 3, the atmosphere was electric. The crowds were out, the barricades up in Dacca, as the whole of East Pakistan came to a total standstill.

In Dacca news had spread that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would address the meeting called that afternoon at Paltan Maidan by the Student League.

By 3 pm Paltan overflowed. Most were armed and ready at a call to march into hell. This was the union of the middle class students, the working class of the industrial areas, and the shorbohara of the street and slums.

The mood was revolution. Gone was the comfortable middle class ambience of such meetings. This was the people in the raw and demanding action.

The preliminary speeches by the Student League leaders and Mannan went all the way in their demands, making Six-Points into a positively reactionary slogan. 

Sheikh Mujib, faced with this armed and militant crowd, was faced with his own moment of truth.

In a unique display of crowd management, which put his charisma to the supreme test, he lowered the temperature of the crowd. He stopped short of the demands voiced earlier and asked instead for a peaceful transfer to the elected representatives of the people following the withdrawal of Martial Law.

He guaranteed to enforce law and order if curfew was lifted. He warned looters and pledged his protection to the life and property of all people. This was designed to put confidence into the panic-stricken non-Bengali population who apprehended that the movement had taken a communal turn.

The Sheikh gave the regime till March 7 to come to terms. Till then he called a continuous hartal and enjoined the people to go in for a peaceful non-cooperation movement including non-payment of taxes.

The crowd which left the meeting was subdued and this was reflected in the tempo the next day where the military was more contained and less shooting took place.

That was significant because that very morning A. Mannan, MNA, Tangail, chief whip of the ALPP and publicity secretary of the party, had been beaten by security forces and had his shoulder shattered.

Ashrafuddin Chowdhury of the party, who was with him, was forced at gun point to clear a barricade at Outer Circular Road.

More such confrontations were imminent but were obviously subdued after the meeting. This did not still prevent firing that night but on a reduced scale from the previous night.

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