It is time, in March 2018, to recall the tumultuous March we went through in 1971.
Two years after Yahya Khan took charge of it as its military leader, Pakistan teetered on the verge of disintegration. And the responsibility for such a situation rested squarely on the mess the president had already made of it.
Having organized general elections in December 1970, an exercise which saw the Awami League emerge as the majority party with 167 of the 313 seats (and that included the seven seats reserved for women in East Pakistan) in the National Assembly, the regime quickly proceeded to commit the blunders that would jeopardize the very existence of the country, eventually to lead to its break-up.
The chaos which defined Pakistani politics effectively began on February 15, 1971, the day ZA Bhutto, leader of the People’s Party and putative leader of the opposition in the National Assembly on the strength of the 88 seats his party had come by at the elections, publicly declined to attend the parliament session called by President Yahya Khan for March 3 in Dhaka.
In late January, Bhutto had flown to Dhaka to meet Mujib and, more importantly, to explore the possibilities of a coalition between the PPP and the Awami League at the centre.
On March 1, 1971, two days before the National Assembly was to meet in Dhaka, Yahya Khan postponed it indefinitely owing to what he called the differences among political parties. The reaction among Bengalis was one of outrage.
A cricket match, in progress at Dhaka stadium, drew to a premature close as spectators joined the crowds on the streets to protest the postponement of the parliament session. For the first time in Bengali history, slogans demanding independence for Bangladesh, the name Bangabandhu had already popularized for East Pakistan, were heard.
“Bir Bangali ostro dhoro Bangladesh shwadhin koro
” -- courageous Bengalis, take up arms and free Bangladesh -- was a battle cry that came in tandem with others, for instance Tomar amar thikana Padma Meghna Jamuna
-- your and my destination is the Padma, Meghna, and Jamuna. Mujib and his lieutenants huddled to deliberate on a course of action. It would come soon.
The next day, March 2, students of Dhaka University under the banner of the Chhatra Sangram Parishad formally raised the flag of a free Bangladesh at the Arts Faculty building of the university. Politics assumed a distinctly radical turn and on March 3, Bangabandhu called a non-violent non-cooperation movement in the province. By that day it had become clear that political authority in East Pakistan had passed into Mujib’s hands.
On the same day, Yahya Khan, taken aback by the severity of the reaction to the postponement of the National Assembly session, invited the leaders of ten political parties to a Round Table Conference in Dhaka on March 10.
Bhutto accepted the invitation with alacrity. Mujib, for reasons not hard to understand, rejected it. After all, he was de facto leader of the administration in East Pakistan. Neither the governor, Vice Admiral Syed Mohammad Ahsan, nor the zonal martial law administrator, Lt Gen Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, could have the writ of the Pakistan government run in the province.
On the streets, civilians were mown down. Rickshaw pullers were done to death on their three-wheeled vehicles. Operation Searchlight was on
The call to freedom
On 7 March, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman combined courage with political acumen to highlight his vision of the future. He told the regime that it needed to fulfill a set of preconditions before he could consider taking part in the National Assembly session, which by now had been rescheduled for 25 March.
Among the preconditions were his demand that martial law be lifted and power handed over to the elected representatives of the country. It was his concluding words, “The struggle this time is the struggle for emancipation -- the struggle this time is the struggle for independence,” that defined the electricity of the moment.
Pakistan was in decline and Bengali resurgence was clearly the order of the day.
‘I am the government’
There was no end to irony in those weeks of drama. General Yahya Khan, unable to exercise authority over East Pakistan, expressed his interest in travelling to Dhaka to talk to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The Bengali leader’s response was crisp and sharp. President Yahya Khan, said he, would be “our guest.” That certainly rankled with the military-led establishment, which spotted seeds of separatism in the statement.
A couple of days later, asked by a foreign journalist if he planned to go for a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI), Mujib sounded ambiguous. “Independence? No, not yet,” he said. At around the same time, when another foreign newsman questioned Mujib’s challenging of the authority of the Pakistan government in the province, the Awami League chief snapped, “What do mean by government? I am the government.”
By March 22, the concept of a united Pakistan had dwindled, owing to the stiff position adopted by the Awami League, to the issue of a confederal arrangement for the two wings of the country.
The talks, at this point, converged on the theme of the National Assembly bifurcating itself, with the two parts of it meeting separately in Rawalpindi and Dhaka, drafting two separate sets of a probable constitution and then meeting as a single legislative body to finalize a deal.
Meanwhile, reports began to emanate of power being transferred, through a presidential proclamation, to the provinces, with the central government remaining, for the time being, in the hands of President Yahya Khan.
The Bengali leadership sensed that the end of Pakistan was nigh and yet remained conscious of troop movements from West Pakistan to Bangladesh. The Awami League submitted a draft of what was considered its final proposals regarding a transfer of power to the Yahya Khan team on the day. General Peerzada promised to get back to the AL the next day. Nothing happened on March 24.
And throughout March 25, rumours flew around of imminent military action against the Awami League, indeed against the population. By the evening, senior leaders of the party, including Syed Nazrul Islam and Tajuddin Ahmed, had either gone underground or were preparing to do so.
Sometime after sunset, General Yahya Khan flew off to Karachi on a secret Pakistan International Airlines flight. A little while after midnight, as March 26 commenced, a message of independence for Bangladesh from Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was passed on to Chittagong Awami League leader MA Hannan.
At around 1pm, an elite force of the Pakistan army shelled and surrounded the Bengali leader’s home in Dhanmondi and took him into custody. At around the same time, soldiers attacked the residential halls and teachers’ quarters of Dhaka University, murdering students and academics with impunity.
On the streets, civilians were mown down. Rickshaw pullers were done to death on their three-wheeled vehicles. Operation Searchlight was on.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto watched from the window of his suite at the Sheraton and saw the offices of The People newspaper blazing.
As evening descended on March 26, Bhutto arrived back in Karachi, to tell waiting newsmen, “Thank God, Pakistan has been saved.” In the evening, General Yahya Khan addressed Pakistanis to announce an outlawing of the Awami League and a determination to punish Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for his “act of treason” in challenging the authority of the government of Pakistan.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.