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March 1971: A state collapses, a republic rises

  • Published at 11:49 am March 26th, 2021
Freedom fighters 1971 liberation war

Fifty years on, the message of liberty sounded in Bangladesh and heard around the world resonates in us in all its magnificence

On the afternoon of February 23, 1974, the Bangladesh flag fluttered at Lahore airport as a Pakistan army band played "Amar Shonar Bangla." As Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, flanked by Pakistan’s President Fazle Elahi Chaudhry and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, took the salute, it was one of those moments when Bangalis back home and around the world felt proud of the struggle they had waged for freedom three years earlier. 

In Pakistan, a day after Islamabad accorded diplomatic recognition to Dhaka, the Father of the Nation would speak for Bangladesh at the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). That flag and that playing of Bangladesh’s national anthem, coupled with General Tikka Khan saluting Bangabandhu, was a broad indication of how far the Bangali nation had come in shaping a new destiny for itself.

Half a century after Bangabandhu’s declaration of independence on March 26, 1971, there is a paramount need for reflection on the path history took in a year that in nine months was to stand transformed from an annus horribilis to an annus mirabilis.

The state of Pakistan made mistakes, terrible mistakes, when its ruling junta opted to go for a genocide in its eastern, most populous province. Had the Islamabad-based ruling circles and their political allies in the shape of ZA Bhutto’s People’s Party not brought their negotiations with the Awami League to a sudden, brutal end, a constitutional path to a new arrangement between Pakistan and Bangladesh could have been arrived at. 

Let it be remembered that on March 24, which as it turned out was the last time the Awami League team met with the junta, Bangabandhu had instructed his colleagues to inform the generals that the Bangali demand was now no more one of a solution within a federation of Pakistan but through a wholly new route, toward a confederation between Bangladesh and Pakistan.

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No response came to the proposal, though General SGMM Peerzada told Dr Kamal Hossain that he would get back to the Awami League. Bangabandhu and his team waited all day on March 25 to hear back from President Yahya Khan and his delegation. Nothing of the sort came. In the evening, Yahya Khan and his team, comprising Peerzada, Justice AR Cornelius and others, quietly and stealthily flew back to Karachi. By around 11:30pm, the Pakistan army went into action all over Dhaka, launching assaults on Dhaka University, Rajarbagh Police Lines, East Pakistan Rifles Headquarters in Peelkhana and Bangabandhu’s residence at Dhanmondi Road 32. Moments before his arrest in the early hours of March 26, Bangabandhu passed on his declaration of in dependence to his party colleague MA Hannan in Chittagong.

For the state of Pakistan, it was irony which defined circumstances as day passed into night on March 25. The irony was simple and yet telling: in August 1947, Pakistan had come into existence through a bloodbath of Hindus and Muslims in the 12 months preceding the partition of India. Two million people, Hindus and Muslims, lay dead in the Punjab and Bengal as Pakistan emerged on the global map. In March 1971, it was once more bloodletting that Pakistan had begun to go through, for reasons that had nothing to do with the Bengalis of its eastern wing but everything to do with the myopia of its ruling classes.

This was the truth: born in bloodshed in 1947, the state of Pakistan would end in 1971, in East Bengal, in bloodshed. The proof would soon come to pass, with Pakistan’s soldiers capitulating on a December afternoon at the Race Course in Dhaka.

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By going for military action, through adopting a policy of murder, rape and pillage in Bangladesh, Pakistan’s military regime not only violated human rights and repudiated the results of a general election that had been free and fair, but also brought humiliation upon itself. Wisdom dictated, as the political negotiations went on from March 16 to March 24 --- including exclusive meetings between Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto --- that the political process should be deliberated on in all earnestness. Conditions had reached a boiling point necessitating a grant of autono my to Bangladesh on the basis of the Six Points of the Awami League. 

That Bangabandhu and his colleagues were amenable to addressing the concerns of the junta was never in any doubt. That the Six Points would sooner rather than later pave the path to Bengali independence, through peaceful means, was a given. It is today reasonable to suppose, at this distance in time, that had 1971 not been forced on the Bengali population, a sovereign Bangladesh would have emerged in the subsequent decade, if not earlier. Again, had the ruling classes agreed to an acceptance of the Six Points, Pakistan as it was in its western wing would have gone for a healthy and necessary reconfiguration of its polity, with the Punjab, Sind, North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan gaining a remarkable degree of autonomy.

In the event, General Yahya Khan and ZA Bhutto upended the negotiations and closed off all doors to a political solution to the crisis. The Dhaka negotiations were a good opportunity for the three parties to arrive at a politically acceptable solution to the issues and could have involved the smaller political parties in West Pakistan. In other words, when it had become evident that the Pakistan concept had become extremely diluted among the Bangalis, it made sense for the regime and its friends to hammer out an honourable, face-saving deal for themselves. West Pakistan’s failure to rise to the occasion was suicidal.

Also Read  - Pakistani major: Operation Searchlight opened gates of hell

Taking the leader of the majority party into detention and putting Dhaka and then the entirety of Bangladesh to the torch were self-inflicted wounds that precipitated the death of Pakistan in its eastern province. Where wisdom was called for, the regime went for perfidy.

Troubling for researchers and historians has been the sheer ignorance, the abysmal failure of the regime and its collaborators to read the writing on the wall. With 75 million Bangalis having lost faith in Pakistan, having demonstrated little inclination to remain part of it, it should have given pause to the rulers, should have made them negotiate purposefully with Bangabandhu. The Bangali leader, to his credit, refrained from going for a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) on March 7, 1971. He would not go for secession, was unwilling to be branded a separatist. But, yes, independence was his overriding objective. 

In the post-colonial era, he remained focused on bringing to an end the neo-colonialism that Pakistan had been exercising on Bangladesh for the 23 years since the partition of India.

Operation Searchlight speeded up Bangabandhu’s cause, as made manifest through his declaration of independence. Reason was on his side and so was history. The Pakistan army had pounced on the people of Pakistan’s eastern province. And that was the moment when the state of Pakistan revealed itself as a foreign power intent on suppressing a people not part of it anymore. 

At 11:30pm on March 25, therefore, the Pakistan army with alacrity dwindled into being the Pakistan occupation army. Bangabandhu knew the moment of decision had arrived. His declaration of Bangladesh’s independence minutes into March 26 laid out in broad strokes the emergence of a sovereign republic.It was a nation-state forming the core of his declaration. The road to liberation had been taken.

Fifty years on, the message of liberty sounded in Bangladesh and heard around the world resonates in us in all its magnificence.

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