Published: Friday, March 15, 2013

March 15, 1971

Yahya flies into Bangalee militancy

On this day in 1971, General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, chief martial law administrator and president of Pakistan, arrived in Dhaka for talks with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, president of the Awami League and majority leader in the newly-elected but yet to meet national assembly of Pakistan. The visit was to prove significant in a number of ways.
In the first place, Yahya came to Dhaka barely a fortnight after he had precipitated a grave crisis by postponing the national assembly session, earlier scheduled in the capital of what was then East Pakistan in the first week of March. In the second, his invitation to the Awami League leadership, made on March 3, to a roundtable conference on March 10 had been rejected out of hand by Bangabandhu. In the third, taken by surprise at the intensity of the non-cooperation movement sweeping the eastern wing of Pakistan, Yahya on March 6 announced a new date, March 25, for the assembly to meet in Dhaka.
This last move was influenced by fears that Bangabandhu would on March 7 declare East Pakistan’s independence as the sovereign republic of Bangladesh. When March 7 came, the Awami League chief did not declare independence but placed four conditions before the junta, on the acceptance or otherwise of which he would decide if he could attend the assembly session on March 25.
A few days before Yahya’s arrival in Dhaka, newsmen asked Bangabandhu if he would be willing to meet the president. Mujib’s answer was in the positive since Yahya would be “our guest”. The president, who had earlier gone for a postponement of the national assembly session following talks with Pakistan People’s Party leader ZA Bhutto in Larkana, Sind, was accompanied by senior military officers. He landed in a city where precious little sign of Pakistan remained.
Earlier in the month, Vice Admiral SM Ahsan, governor of East Pakistan, and Lt General Sahibzada Yaqub Khan, zonal martial law administrator, had resigned over differences in policy with the regime. They had been replaced by Lt General Tikka Khan. When Chief Justice BA Siddiky of the East Pakistan High Court refused to administer the oath of office of governor to Tikka, the general carried on as zonal martial law administrator.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and General Yahya Khan, along with their advisers, had on March 16 the first of what would be a series of meetings till nearly the end of the month. This meeting as well as subsequent ones were held at President’s House (which was later to become the Gono Bhaban as the Bangladesh prime minister’s office and today houses the Foreign Affairs Training Academy). The president’s team wanted the Awami League to be flexible over its Six- Point programme of regional autonomy. In response, Bangabandhu and his delegation made it clear that the Six-Point had, through the overwhelming electoral support of the people, become public property and could not be amended or remoulded.
Over the 10 days after Yahya’s arrival in Dhaka, East Pakistan remained in a state of ferment with Bangalees demanding that Mujib go for independence.
The Awami League leadership, for its part, explored the chances of a settlement that would turn Pakistan into a loose confederation on the basis of the Six-Point. As the talks dragged on (Bhutto and his team joined them on March 22), the Pakistan army remained busy bringing in reinforcements, in terms of men and materiel, from West Pakistan.
Bangalee militancy and Pakistani intransigence were in the air.