7 June 1966: Revisiting the Six Points |
Syed Badrul Ahsan
FORTY years ago this week, the Bengalis of what then constituted the eastern province of Pakistan observed a full and unequivocal general strike as a way of demonstrating their support for the Six-Point programme of regional autonomy enunciated by the Awami League. Four decades on, it makes sense to travel back in time and relive the special excitement that characterised an era when the Bengali nation took what was certainly a quantum leap into the future. The leap, of course, had an uncertain tenor about it, seeing that at that point in time not many people were willing to entertain the notion that the people of East Pakistan would soon be making their way out of the state of Pakistan. But what did make the leap remarkable in itself was the very fact that it had been taken, and by a party whose younger elements (among whom were Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmed) were only too aware of the consequences of their action. For the Awami League, in that particular period of history and despite its critical mass being East Bengal, was an all-Pakistan party led by the veteran Punjabi politician Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan. It was not expected that the party's West Pakistani wing would support any political programme that could be seen to be striking a blow at the very foundations of the state carved out of a pre-1947 Indian subcontinental whole by Mohammad Ali Jinnah and his friends. More importantly, when Mujib decided to go ahead with an enumeration of the Six Points, he made certain that the senior Bengali leaders of the party in East Pakistan were kept at bay, for the good reason that not all of them were or would be inclined to throw their support behind a move that was as radical as it was indefensible from their perspective.
And yet there was, in early 1966, a special relevance about the Six Points. With Pakistan progressively turning out to be a particular instance of political regression, it was but natural for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to assume that Bengalis needed a change if their political role in the state was to be ensured. That change, based as it was on the growing belief that the two wings of Pakistan were pursuing two divergent economic paths, would surely raise hackles everywhere, as the formal declaration of the Six Points was to prove in early February 1966. When the national conference of Pakistan's political opposition in Lahore declined to permit Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to announce his programme at the meeting, the Bengali politician simply took it to the country, through direct interaction with the media. Once that was done, there was little question of a turning back.
But what if anyone other than Mujib had presented the Six Points to the country? Someone almost did. It was Mujib's feeling that Shah Azizur Rahman, who had joined the Awami League in 1964, would be doing a better job than he by raising the autonomy plan in Lahore. He was dissuaded by Tofazzal Hossain Manik Mia, who saw a whole lot of logic in Mujib's rather than Shah Aziz's presenting the Bengali argument at the opposition conference. The rest is, of course, history.
President Ayub Khan was quick, as was his wont, to dub the Six Points as a conspiracy against the integrity of Pakistan. His loyalists took the cue and simply echoed his warning that those who conspired against the state would be dealt with in the language of weapons. Governor Abdul Monem Khan then went to work with alacrity, through harassing the proponents of the Six Points. Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto challenged Mujib to a public debate over the Points at Dhaka's Paltan Maidan. It was Tajuddin Ahmed, clearly the most cerebral among the Awami League leadership, who offered to rebut Bhutto. The man from Larkana then failed to turn up. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, crisscrossing East Pakistan to drum up support for his programme, found himself spending an inordinate length of time obtaining bail in every town and city he visited before he could move on. His freedom came to an end on 8 May 1966 when the government took him into custody under the Defence of Pakistan Rules. The bail factor did not apply any more.
Between May and early June, almost the entirety of the Awami League leadership went behind bars. That did not seem to dampen the spirit of those left outside -- and free. A young Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury, already a member of the Pakistan national assembly, and Amena Begum, a fiery Bengali nationalist, went to work to ensure that the general strike called for 7 June in defence of the Six Points resonated all over the country. It did. The regime simply shot itself in the foot when it shot Monu Mia and a few others dead on the day. The spark was thus ignited. The repercussions would go far. Blissfully, Ayub Khan and his minions, naturally because of their poor grasp of history, did not or would not see the writing on the wall. They saw, instead, the hand of the CIA behind Mujib's programme; and the politically peripatetic Moulana Bhashani appeared to agree. On 16 June, the respected Manik Mia was carted off to prison. The next day, his newspaper Ittefaq was ordered closed. The language of weapons had begun to be deployed. Whether it was working was of course an entirely different matter altogether. The eventual 'discovery' of the Agartala conspiracy case was to prove the hollowness of the government's claim that it could defeat the Bengali 'separatists'. The rest, again, is historical truth.
It is well to inquire today, at this huge remove in time, what the Six Points meant to achieve and what they would in the long run have achieved. In terms of immediacy, the programme, considering the emphasis it placed on a functional federation with the federating units of the state exercising control over all subjects except foreign affairs and defence, palpably aimed at a radical redefinition of the Pakistan state. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not say it in so many words, but the implications of the Six Points revolved around the idea of a state created out of a communal approach to politics turning itself on its head and moving towards the adoption of a modern secular framework of governance.
To be sure, the dream of Islamic Pakistan transforming itself into a secular Pakistan was far-fetched, given that West Pakistan would not readily, if at all, agree to turn its back on the politics of its 'Quaid-e-Azam', Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The more plausible reality was that through the Six Points, the emerging new leadership of the Awami League (as opposed to the generation that identified by and large with the dead Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy) was sending out the message that a new generation of Bengalis, at once secular and privy to historical cultural tradition, had come of age. The purpose of this generation held to strike out on a new, definitively democratic course within the purview of Pakistan. It was, beyond and above everything else, the longer view taken by the Six Pointers that was significant.
Anyone perspicacious enough to read into the more profound aspects of the autonomy plan could well comprehend the future the Awami League was driving at, which was, first, a confederal Pakistan and, second and as a corollary to it, an eventual de-linking of East Pakistan from the rest of the country and its emergence as an independent state. A glimpse into the future was provided by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, after he became Bangabandhu, in December 1969. In future, said he, East Pakistan would be known as Bangladesh. Ostensibly, Bangladesh would remain Pakistan's province. In the ambience of the bigger picture, however, the statement was a meaningful pointer to the future.
Forty years after the Six Points made an entry into the public consciousness in Lahore (and do not forget that Lahore is also the spot where the formal movement for the establishment of Pakistan took off in 1940), the existence of a secular, sovereign People's Republic of Bangladesh serves as testimony to the fulfilment of a national need. Pakistan's ruling circles would have spared themselves much agony and humiliation had they opted for an acceptance of the Six Points and an eventual acknowledgement of the separation of East Pakistan from the rest of the country.
That they did not was unfortunate, and doubly so because of the havoc they wreaked and the ignominy they went through in the land of the Bengalis in 1971. And where would Bengalis be had the Pakistan army not launched its genocide in that year of tragedy and triumph? Let it be said only that if 1971 had not happened, East Pakistan would still go its separate way and would, probably by 1981 if not earlier, make a peaceful exit out of Pakistan.
The Six Points, when they were articulated in 1966, were a set of necessary national demands. Today they are looked upon, for all the right reasons, as a watershed in the history of the Bengalis.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Executive Editor, Dhaka Courier