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March 1971 Diary: From non-cooperation to People’s Raj

  • Published at 06:00 pm March 20th, 2021
Bangladesh refugee children in their camp school, 1971
Bangladesh refugee children in their camp school, 1971 MANABENDRA MANDAL

This extract is part of a series that will run until March 25, in which we reproduce Rehman Sobhan’s contemporaneous account of the events of the momentous month of March 1971. This was first published in Forum magazine on March 13, 1971

In this context, all attention is directed to Yahya who is expected any day. Lt. General Yakub left Dacca on 9th and was replaced by the governor designate Lt. General Tikka Khan.

It is reported that Yakub had no stomach for killing people whose language he learnt and culture he admired, in support of a lost cause. The security forces were apparently staying within barracks avoiding confrontation. Indications are that they are marking time for Yahya’s arrival.

And what does this promise? Yahya’s strategy over the last week indicates the use of the carrot and the stick. Whilst the tone of his broadcast on the 6th was designed to give maximum offence to Bangla Desh, in substance, the declaration of a date for the assembly, without preconditions, was a climb down. But then his reference to LFO and his dispatch of a reputed hawk to replace Yakub indicated the brandishing of a big stick. But again Tikka Khan has shown relative restraint since his arrival.

Now we find the great Chairman Bhutto shedding a few crocodile tears for his dead victims and talking the language of conciliation in his cable to the Sheikh.

Also Read - March 1971 Diary: From non-cooperation to People’s Raj

The wellsprings of bitterness and frustration generated by recent events invoke only suspicion within the people. Many see this as a gesture to buy time before the final showdown. This is envisaged as taking place when Yahya vetoes a Six-Points based constitution. By this time sufficient reinforcements will be at hand to cope with all eventualities.

But another school sees Yahya corning to terms with reality in Bangla Desh. For effective power is now irrevocably out of the hands of Islamabad and any attempt to re-establish it will require the reconquest of the whole province piece by piece. Nor can they expect people to merely play the role of live targets, for the movement has advanced light years between March 1 and 10.

In this situation Yahya may well cede Mujib’s demands de facto. He will let him continue to exercise power in Bangla Desh, he will keep his troops in the barracks, he will, in effect, end martial law by the simple expedient of not enforcing it. This will then be presented as an exercise in restraint and good faith which should be sufficient to let Mujib come to the National Assembly.

Mujib would then have to decide whether demand for de jure rather than de facto power was sufficient to precipitate confrontation or whether he should go ahead and join the constitutional debate whilst consolidating his hold on Bangla Desh.

Also Read - March 1971 Diary: From non-cooperation to People’s Raj

He must have realised by now that in any system controlled from Islamabad, provincial power has limited attractions. He has no control of domestic revenues, foreign exchange, or aid. He will also face the risk of veto once he passes his draft unless Yahya has realised that Six Points is the best of all evils he faces in his confrontation with Bangla Desh.

If Mujib can get Six Points carried he may possibly be able to contain his own hawks and keep the polity together. If however Yahya vetoes or Bhutto again sabotages the Assembly then Mujib will have no option but to seek a showdown on the streets.

With his middle-class base becoming progressively more irrelevant, he is becoming more dependent on the people to sustain his present confrontation and to lead any future movement.

Here he will have to decide between leading their struggle in a full-fledged people’s war or making himself redundant in their next and final upsurge.

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