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March 1971 Diary: Negotiating from strength

  • Published at 12:00 am March 22nd, 2021
File photo Professor Rehman Sobhan
File photo of eminent economist Prof Rehman Sobhan Rajib Dhar/Dhaka Tribune

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 the final issue of the Forum magazine on March 20, 1971. The Forum offices were closed and the magazine shut down by the Pakistan Army on March 26

The movement for Bangla Desh is completing its third week. By now the transfer of power within Bangla Desh to the people’s representatives is total. The opposite side of the coin, non-cooperation with Islamabad, continues. 

No civilian official went to receive the president on his arrival. MLR directives to civilian employees of the security forces to join work on March 15 were ignored in spite of the contingent hazard of 10 years’ RI, and workers donated a day’s salary to the Awami League Relief Fund. Eleven thousand civilian employees of the ordnance factory at Joydebpur joined them in a boycott of work. 

The population continues its refusal to provision security forces and the quarter master general of the army has had to personally fly into Dacca to examine the supply position and make alternative arrangements, which, it is reported, included the flying of tinned provisions from West Pakistan by giant C-130 transport planes. 

On the other hand, the military build-up goes on. Additional troops have been flown in though it is not certain if the N5C cargo of 7,500 auxiliaries have as yet disembarked at Chittagong. From Comilla the SSG commando unit has reportedly been brought into Dacca and tanks designed for securing our borders have been brought down to Dacca from Rangpur. 

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

It was in this atmosphere that Yahya flew into Dacca unannounced at 2:30pm on March 15. In fact, All India Radio announced the news of his departure for Dacca before Radio Pakistan. 

His arrival however was hardly secret, since a massive contingent of police, EPR, and army lined the airport to President’s House and provided him with an escort of exceptional ferocity. 

It is not clear precisely what all this was about but Yahya’s drive was greeted only with stony silence and the still black flags which bedecked his route. 

There was much speculation about his entourage and some suggestion that the entire war cabinet including Generals Hamid and Gul Hassan had accompanied the president. 

It is confirmed that he was accompanied by Lt. Generals Peerzada, principal staff officer to the president, and Ornar, security boss of the services, though ex-Law Minister Justice Cornelius flew in on March 17 in his new capacity as legal adviser to the president. 

In fact, the chief of Inter Services Public Relations, Brig. Siddiqui, was at great pains to impress newsmen that there was no special complement of generals accompanying the president, though this did not put speculation at rest that Hamid and Gul Hassan were holed out in the cantonment keeping a watching brief on the talks. 

Talks with Sheikh Mujib commenced next morning at President’s House when Mujib, flanked by his bodyguards, but otherwise alone, drove into the lion’s den. The first talks lasted two and a half hours. They met again the next morning for an hour. 

What has come out of the talks awaits revelation, but some optimism derived from the fact that they went on for several days and that a legal expert rather than an artillery expert had been sent for. This did not however suppress much anxious speculation in the province which included the untrue rumour that Mujib had walked out of his first meeting in a great rage. 

Indeed, the barometer in Dacca continued to fluctuate, with the nervous middle class moving to the villages in order to get out of the way of a possible shooting war and the militants keeping up the tempo with local drilling and other more meaningful preparations. 

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