From The Archives
Countdown to Freedom
Forum takes you back to the days leading up to March 26, 1971
|Bangabandhu-4 (1993): Shahabuddin
This month we commemorate March 26, 1971, Bangladesh's independence day, the day we threw off the yoke of foreign domination and emerged on the world stage as a proud and independent nation, the day we set into motion a nine-month long war that would lead, through despair and devastation, ultimately to liberation.
Since its debut in November 1969, the original Forum quickly established itself as a leading voice of Bangladeshi nationalism, and in the pages of the original Forum we can chart the progress of the anti-autocracy movement as it evolved into the movement for self-determination and, ultimately, the liberation struggle.
In the following pages, we reproduce for our readers the central pieces from the three issues of Forum that came out in March 1971. To read them is to read history unfold before one's eyes.
The first two pieces came out on March 6 and capture the drama of those heady days leading up to the historic March 7. The next two pieces, one from the March 13 issue and one from the March 20 issue, vividly and unforgettably capture the evolution of the nationalist project as it escalated and intensified, uncontrollably and unstoppably, into the war for independence.
To read these four pieces, the prelude to the crackdown of March 26 and the subsequent nine-month long war, is to be transported back in time to that seminal month of March 1971, when a new world lay waiting to be born and the possibilities before us as a people were limitless.
March 6, 1971
Over the precipice
Ever since Mr. Bhutto's decision to boycott the assembly, confrontation has been in the air. The movement of anti-aircraft guns into strategic positions outside the airport a week ago had already generated consternation amidst the public that something was afoot. There was a report that ex-governor Ahsan cancelled his visit to Pindi at the last minute, but this was put at rest when he left the next day to attend the governor's conference in Pindi. As a backdrop to this, Mr. Bhutto and President Yahya had held emergency discussions in Pindi. To crown it all came the abrupt dismissal of the cabinet.
Following the meeting of Martial Law administrators and governors, Lt. Gen. Yakub, Gov. Ahsan, and Lt. Gen. Peerzada flew to Karachi, first for talks with Mr. Bhutto, and then onward for talks with Sheikh Mujib. Whilst these three emissaries were in Karachi, news of Sheikh Mujib's press conference, giving his reactions to Mr. Bhutto's political posture and underlining the dangerous implications of any further postponement of the National Assembly beyond March 3, came over the wires. The statement broke a long and deliberate policy of restraint by the Sheikh on Bhutto's histrionics and appears to have been inspired by concern that Bhutto's intransigence may well have pressured the president into postponement.
Following this statement, President Yahya's emissaries appeared to have detoured back to Pindi for more consultations with him. Ahsan and Yakub then flew into Dacca. Peerzada was also expected and some newsmen even went to the airport to meet him, but he did not come at all.
In Dacca, it appears that Governor Ahsan indicated to Mujib in his last and fateful meeting of a possible postponement. Mujib warned him in no uncertain terms of the dangerous consequences of such a move. In the meantime, the Awami League MNAs were in closed door session since February 27 to discuss the party's constitutional draft. President Yahya had also flown to Karachi en route to Dacca. West wing MNAs from Baluchistan, NWFP, Punjab, and even the tribal areas were all on their way to Dacca for the National Assembly session which on all counts was scheduled for March 3. On February 27, the emergency electrical generator was moved into place next to the President's House, indicating the imminent arrival of the president.
Incoming passengers from Karachi reported that President Yahya was booked to fly on the afternoon plane to Dacca. All security precautions had been made at Karachi Airport. Passengers reported two hours in advance, as is customary when they have such august company. But the president did not catch his flight, and the plane flew without him into the conflagration which was spreading like wildfire throughout Bangla Desh.
At 1.05 pm on March 1, a statement was issued in the name of President Yahya, which, contrary to all precedent, was read by an announcer on Radio Pakistan. Half an hour after hearing of the postponement of the assembly sine die, crowds aroused to spontaneous outrage were converging from all parts of Dacca towards Hotel Purbani, where the AL MNAs were in session. Many had armed themselves with bamboos, iron rods, and even hockey sticks.
They were joined by the crowd at Dacca stadium who were watching the fag end of a boring cricket match. The moment the news came through, the play was suspended, shops were closed, and people, depending on their class and disposition, had either fled homewards or had armed themselves and headed for the Purbani.
At 2.30 Mujib flanked by his grim-faced high command held a hurried press conference in which he declared that the postponement would not go unchallenged. He called a two day hartal on the 2nd for Dacca, and on the 3rd for the whole of Bangla Desh.
From Purbani the crowd converged on Paltan where it was addressed by Tofail Ahmed and Mannan of Jatiyo Sramik League. The mood was militant and the crowd demanded action.
On March 2 they got it. The hartal was, of course, total. Not even a bicycle could move in any corner of Dacca. On all the main roads barricades had been set up to obstruct movement of security forces. This provoked the first clash. At Tejgaon at the entrance of the Second Capital, the most formidable barricades had been set up by Tuesday morning. These were guarded by a highly militant populace. The police from Tejgaon thana were asked to remove the barricades, but after taking a look at the menacing crowd went back to the thana, from where they refused to budge in spite of the exhortations of their officers.
After a while, a detail of security forces appeared from the airport side. When they attempted to remove the barricades, the crowd shouted slogans at them, and they took up action stations. At that stage another security force came up in a jeep from the Second Capital.
On being confronted by the crowd, the force suddenly opened fire. Estimates indicate two dead and five injured, but there is no way of confirming the accuracy of this figure.
Since then this has been a trouble spot and there was firing again that night when curfew had been imposed at 8 pm.
In other areas of the city, reports of clashes went on. In Jinnah Avenue goonda elements attempted to cash in on the situation and indulge in some free loot from putatively non-Bengali shops. Awami League city chief rushed to the spot with volunteers and caught some looters with goods from Razzak, a local shirt shop. They were made to return the goods and soundly beaten. In Nawabpur similar cases of looting occurred by local goondas, and there were some communal clashes which seem to have been confined again to the local goondas.
Tension and militancy mounted throughout the day. The barricades, slogans, and sounds of gunfire gave the city the air of a battlefield. In other parts of East Pakistan, cities and towns had spontaneously come to a standstill. A strike by PIA employees had effectively cut East Pakistan off from the rest of the world.
The curfew imposed from 8 pm therefore promised more clashes. By 9 pm there were reports of crowds in the streets in many areas of Dacca. The chatter of gunfire could be heard throughout the night in many areas of the city. Next days toll indicated that in the Medical College alone there were 35 dead and 113 injured, other casualties went to Mitford Hospital or were placed in Iqbal Hall at Dacca University.
On Wednesday, March 3, the atmosphere was electric. The crowds were out, the barricades up in Dacca, as the whole of East Pakistan came to a total standstill. In Dacca, news had spread that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would address the meeting called that afternoon at Paltan Maidan by the Student League. By 3 pm, Paltan overflowed. Most were armed and ready at a call to march into hell. This was the union of the middle class students, the working class of the industrial areas, and the shorbohara of the street and slums. The mood was revolution. Gone was the comfortable middle class ambience of such meetings. This was the people in the raw -- and demanding action.
The preliminary speeches by the Student League leaders and Mannan went all the way in their demands, making Six Points into a positively reactionary slogan. Sheikh Mujib, faced with this armed and militant crowd, was faced with his own moment of truth.
In a unique display of crowd management, which put his charisma to the supreme test, he lowered the temperature of the crowd. He stopped short of the demands voiced earlier and asked instead for a peaceful transfer to the elected representatives of the people following the withdrawal of Martial Law. He guaranteed to enforce law and order if curfew was lifted. He warned looters and pledged his protection to the life and property of all people. This was designed to put confidence into the panic stricken non-Bengali population who had felt that the movement had taken a communal turn.
The Sheikh gave the regime till March 7 to come to terms. Till then he called a continuous hartal and enjoined the people to go in for a peaceful non-cooperation movement including nonpayment of taxes.
The crowd which left the meeting was subdued and this was reflected in the tempo the next day where the military was more contained and less shooting took place.
That was significant because that very morning A. Mannan, MNA, Tangail, chief whip of the ALPP and publicity secretary of the party, had been beaten by security forces and had his shoulder shattered. Ashrafuddin Chowdhury of the party who was with him was forced at gun point to clear a barricade at Outer Circular Road. More such confrontations were imminent, but were obviously subdued after the meeting. This did not still prevent firing that night, but on a reduced scale from the previous night.
President Yahya's announcement of an RTC on March 10, appeared in this atmosphere to be almost surrealistic. It completely ignored the climate of opinion in the province which was hardly propitious for detached conversation with tribal maliks and the sole representatives of such prehistoric entities like the Jamaat and even the Convention Muslim League, not to mention Mr. Bhutto himself.
Mujib's refusal to attend RTC did not require much discussion. By this time the situation was becoming untenable for the regime as the authority of the administration ground to a halt and its influence extended only within the range of its guns. Not only had the hartals brought the province to a standstill, but the administration itself began to join the people in the non-cooperation movement.
Civil servants, judges, and other government officials were willingly staying away from work and their representatives bodies were actively pledging their loyalty to the people's representatives. This reached its climax when not even a judge could be found to administer the oath to the new governor, Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan on his arrival. The extent or unity behind Sheikh Mujib and the degree of non-cooperation with the rulers is without parallel even in the history of the freedom movement in this sub-continent and must be a sobering thought to the rulers.
Sobriety, however, takes time to have its impact. Meanwhile, the killings went on. Firing on unarmed workers in Tongi, on demonstrators in Jessore, Khulna, and other outlying areas, continued to add to the pantheon of martyrs.
Whilst some looting and communal disturbance went on, the security forces rarely got to the scene on time, and it was left to Awami League volunteers to apprehend and attempt to restore loot to the owners. By the third night their volunteers, at least in Dacca, had enforced a degree of law and order which had proved quite beyond the capability of the gun-toting military convoys who had formerly policed the city.
The withdrawal of the security forces from the centre of the city to strategic redoubts around the airport and cantonment was thus as much a reflection of reality on the ground as it was a tribute to the sense of discipline of the people.
The gradual collapse of authority and the unanimous and resolute response of the people in support of their leaders and against the oppressors was expected to invoke a rational response from the regime. Instead, in his broadcast of March 6, which first surprised and then outraged the whole populace of Bangla Desh, he attempted to blame the leaders of the people and attributed this uprising to the act of a handful of arsonists, vandals, and murderers.
The fact that the progenitor of the crisis, Mr. Z.A. Bhutto, got off scot-free in this blanket indictment, indicated that his tactic of closing ranks with the ruling elite had paid off. Bangla Desh's demands were now confronted with the language of weapons, as one of the reputedly most hawkish elements in the power elite was pulled in as governor to replace Admiral Ahsan who had refused to carry the responsibility for the consequence of the postponement any longer.
The military capability is being reinforced and an attempt may be made to enforce authority on the renegade administrators whose allegiance is now pledged to the people. Sheikh Mujib's response to Yahya's challenge in his rally on March 7 has set the stage for another showdown.
Despite considerable pressure from his rank and file, Mujib has, however, managed to keep the door open for an amicable solution to the crisis. The public mood wants much more than a mere dialogue which threatens to be frustrated by the LFO, reiterated once again as a challenge by Pres. Yahya. Mujib has thus put his own leadership to the test in deferring the holocaust which must follow the inevitable confrontation with the reinforced hawks. In this, he had to balance the urged for compromise by the middle class elements already feeling the pinch from the hartals and fearful of the chaos to come against the student-proletarian base which now dominated the mood on the streets.
His speech was thus less than what the militants demanded from the dais, but was no craven capitulation either. He succeeded in returning the challenge to Pres. Yahya and to place the responsibility of genocide and national disintegration solely on those who wield power today.
His demand for an end to Martial Law, the withdrawal of troops, and power to the people is no more than a request to come to terms with the de facto situation in Bangla Desh today. Killing, loot, and arson has stopped, and the majority has shown itself fully capable of coping with the situation. What exists of the administration is already being run by them, all officials willingly take orders from them to see that the province does not degenerate into chaos. To attempt to reverse this situation by attempts to recapture the administration under Martial Law can only bring the province to a state of total collapse.
The capability of the regime therefore only extends to the point where they can shoot down unarmed civilians and impose a reign of terror. But they can never hope to get the economy and administration of this province functioning again without the people's consent. If they are therefore serious about their search for a viable solution to the nation's future, the least they must do is to accept Sheikh Mujib's terms. Whether this will be enough to convince the people that the nation can be held together will depend on whether the assembly will cede the minimum demands of the people or whether they are merely deferring a showdown.
As it stands it is not certain if even Six Points is saleable any longer in Bangla Desh. Mr. Bhutto is reported to have said he saw no difference between Six Points and disintegration. He is now being given a practical demonstration that an entire new world lies beyond Six Points and that the authors of Six Points were, ironically perhaps, the last true integrationists left in Pakistan.
Today the nation can hang together only by the freely given consent of the people of Bangla Desh. The power of weapons is no more capable of ensuring the integrity of the country than it was in keeping India under the British or united. Sheikh Mujib has recognised this point and risked his entire political life in buying time for a final answer. In this simple act he has shown that if the nation does break it will lie on the heads of those who pull the trigger.
Rehman Sobhan was the Executive Editor of the original Forum.
March 6, 1971
Ever since March 1, Dacca has been a city under siege. On one side were the machine guns and artillery; on the other bamboo poles, iron rods, and improvised weapons. With such an uneven display of weapons, the outcome of the combat was predictable.
It came all too soon with the announcement of curfew on the night of March 2. At night, waves of demonstrators marched out bravely to defy the insanity of such an order. All night they came, wave upon wave, their cries of Joy Bangla shattered by the dull rattle of gun fire. The shouts and the cries continued all night. Finally, after 2 am all was quiet, though the traces of blood could not be washed away.
With the break of curfew, waves of wounded, the living and the dying, moved into the hospitals. Ambulances were grudgingly allowed to move during curfew, nevertheless, some of those who fell victim to the firing did manage to make it, even before curfew broke, to medical help. Of the many others who couldn't there is no record.
It is pointless to talk of the number of dead or wounded (as the Martial Law press note issued four days after the incident does, while searching desperately for some justification for their action, giving the numbers of 172 dead and 258 injured.) Counts of such incidents can never be conclusive. Besides, when it was not necessary to kill even one individual, why gloat that there were no more than 172 dead.
On Wednesday afternoon, a visit to only one of the hospitals in Dacca: the Dacca Medical College Hospital: revealed 113 patients admitted into the wards on the night of March 2. According to their reports 35 had died. The number that had received immediate medical attention in the emergency room could not be ascertained. And this was by no means the final count. For, during the course of the next three days, there was a continuous drift towards the hospitals.
In the Medical College Hospital, beds were emptied quickly in wards 6 and 7 to accommodate the incoming patients. They spilled out all over the corridors. The dead bodies were not kept for post mortem, as no doubt there was neither the time nor the staff to cope with the dead when so many of the living demanded attention.
Every hour on the hour stretchers kept rolling into the emergency room. At about 3 pm A. Mannan, MNA and chief whip of the ALPP limped into the emergency room, supported by a friend. On refusing a sentry's peremptory order to clear the rubble which had been piled high as a barricade, the sentry battered his shoulder with the butt of his rifle. On arrival at the hospital he was rushed immediately to the x-ray department for it looked too serious to be handled on the spot. Just then we learnt of the death of Iqbal Faruk, a student of a local college, who had been shot point blank when he led a procession past the sentries and dared to shout Joy Bangla near them.
Of the many other young men who lay moaning in the hospital beds, 75% had received bullet injuries. Talking to them, one gathered that most of them had been shot at during the night when they joined the swelling demonstration that gathered all over the city to defy the armed might. The answer came swiftly with a shower of bullets.
These were not men who had ransacked shops, they had been nowhere near the shopping area. They had not looted, they had only defied the armed force. In fact only two of the patients who were there had stabbing wounds indicating that they were victims of the much talked of "breakdown of law and order."
On Friday afternoon, while the radio was still announcing incidents of law and order in Nawabpur, in the heart of the city, from Tongi, an industrial area at the other extreme end of Dacca, came ambulances screeching through, bearing 14 more patients, again victims of shooting. Two had died on the spot, while two others died in the hospital. This shooting incident was inspired by no case of looting. It was merely that the armed guard who had come to use the telephone exchange felt insulted when the darwan on duty at the telephone exchange told him that he had no knowledge of telex and his colleagues were on hartal. A severe blow followed by screams brought some of the workers who were participating in a procession to the site. This only resulted in random shooting. The numbers wounded on the spot were shown in the hospital reports, but there was no record of those who died in protest within the Meghna Textile Mill which the army used as their headquarters.
By Wednesday, wards number 6 and 7 were coping with over 130 patients. Their clothes were blood-stained and torn where the bullet had seared through. The hospital records indicated that about 20 of these patients were in serious condition; 14 of them had amputations, either of a leg or an arm, and six were still lying in the post operative room.
Hospital supplies were already running low, especially such essential dugs as pethedine and combiotics. Already on Tuesday blood supplies were running low, and there was a danger that it may not last the increasing demand. Immediately a message was sent to the Paltan Maidan, where Sheikh Mujib was addressing a Student League meeting. On his appeal to the crowds, the blood bank at the hospital was besieged by voluntary donors. But the hospital's storage capacity was too limited to accept them all.
Reacting to the emergency, a group of medical students had opened their own control desk in an empty room of ward number 4, where they received donations, food supplies and badly required medicines. By Thursday this was operating smoothly. Under the joint cooperation of the hospital staff and student volunteers the hospital seemed to be coping in these two wards which overflowed generously into the corridors.
Medical treatment is an immediate problem for the hospital staff. Immediate relief is being given by private agencies, and from the funds of political parties. But what happens when they leave the hospital? Those who are cured can go back to work. But what of the many others who will emerge into the world with limbs missing. They have large families to support, and in some cases they were the only wage earners. To contemplate dole for the rest of their lives is not a pleasant prospect either for the individual who suffered or for society. Some measure will have to be taken immediately for their welfare, and in the long run more planning will need to be done for their rehabilitation.
Hameeda Hossain was the Editor of the original Forum.
March 13, 1971
From non-cooperation to people's raj
There are few precedents for what is going on in Bangla Desh today. In a matter of one week a de facto transfer of power from the Islamabad government to the people's representatives has been effected. This has not been achieved by any spectacular victory on the battle front or by foreign invention or a formal surrender of power by the rulers, but largely by peaceful means. One says this in spite of the massive death toll in the past week because these deaths were at the cost of the people of Bangla Desh and the forces of oppression.
The unique feature of this condition springs from the fact that peaceful non-cooperation has been taken a stage beyond to active cooperation with the people's representative. In most freedom struggles, non-cooperation was a vital element in the struggle. This was designed to paralyse the economy and administration and make life for the rulers untenable. Such a move could not be sustained indefinitely because the ruling power could always depend on a class of collaborators from the ranks of the administration, business, and property owning classes.
These elements have made it possible for even the French to enforce their writ in Indo-China at the height of the resistance and even the Germans and Japanese to keep the society functioning during the period of occupation in Europe and South East Asia. In the freedom struggle in India, the civil service judges and other elements were always available to keep the show on the road and the police force was there to enforce law and order at all times. Only very rarely were troops required and this too in support rather than in substitution of the local administration.
What is therefore unprecedented for Bangladesh is the fact that non-cooperation with the rulers in Islamabad is total. For the last week not a single element in the administration has been available to collaborate, from the chief justice of East Pakistan to the chief secretary. This has never happened, to my knowledge, in any other country in contemporary history. Where, on occasion, a senior official attempted to pass on routine information to his controlling office, his own subordinates tore up the papers and sent him home.
In the extraordinary case of Radio Pakistan, when the military arbitrarily suspended the broadcast of Sheikh Mujib's speech at the Race Course, after having given prior permission, the staff simply closed shop and went home. This created a major crisis in the districts where the abrupt cancellation of an announced broadcast threatened to create a law and order situation, as people suspected that Mujib had been arrested.
When this prospect was intimated to the military authorities along with the fact that no news at all would henceforth be broadcast from any radio station in Bangladesh, they agreed to let the news be broadcast on the 8th morning. On such terms did the radio network here resume operations and continue to operate their own news bulletin from Dacca Betar Kendra, leaving Radio Laos from Karachi to tell us all about news in Laos and the Middle East -- anywhere but about Bangla Desh.
Non-cooperation was, however, only a first step. Even more remarkable has been the evolution from non-cooperation with Islamabad to cooperation with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Whilst the Eden Building remains a mausoleum for lost hopes, administration has come to life on Road 32, Dhanmondi, the residence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
From March 4, policy statements designed to restore normalcy in the province began to emanate from Road 32. The first decrees permitted banks to re-open from March 5 between the hours of 2.30 and 4.30 where they were permitted to cash cheques to a limit of Rs. 1,500. The next day this was elaborated to permit encashment of cheques for payment of wages and salaries, but these required authentication by the trade union leader of the establishment.
These steps were dictated by the fact that the common man was beginning to feel the pinch. The breaking of the crisis coincided with payday in many factories and establishments, and workers were faced with starvation unless they had some cash in hand.
The revival of banking has not been without problems. To begin with there was a run on the banks for fear that banks may close again rather than any threat of imminent bankruptcy. In outlying districts, branches could not open because they had exhausted their cash reserves, and could not replenish this from their head office in Dacca due to the breakdown of communications. This has been partially normalised with improvements in the communications network. It is expected that very soon people's preference for cash will decline and the run on the banks will be reversed.
The operation of the banks for only two hours, however, restricted the activities of the banks and a further decree on March 8 enabled them to operate longer.
The decree permitted banks also to make disbursements for raw materials for the operation of factories, since the factories had been permitted to operate from March 5 but were put into difficulties because of banking restrictions.
All these measures were dictated by the need to revive the economy and mitigate and hardship for the workers. The main problem was, however, to restrict a run on the banks and a flight of capital from Bangla Desh.
In the same way, the decree of March 9 permitted a selective revival of government activities. Parts of the State Bank, to serve the banks, were opened up. Farmers were feeling the pinch so the Agricultural Development Corporation was opened to resume supply of fertiliser to farmers and operate power pumps to water the winter crop. Jute and rice seed distribution was permitted. Movement of food grains and operation of food godowns was also permitted, as were operation of utilities and arterial transport. For the rest, the Eden Building, courts, kutcheries remained closed. Another and most elaborate decree of March 12 carried the principle of selective non-cooperation a stage further.
This, however, did not mean that all civil servants were sitting idle. They were carrying the struggle from its phase of non-cooperation to active cooperation with the Awami League. Groups of officials accepted the task of identifying problems and presenting them to the party for decision. A sort of improvised secretariat was in operation where streams of businessmen and civil servants were visiting in search of solutions to problems, consultation, and reassurance. The conditions of work were difficult, but decisions were being made and in many cases more rapidly than within the Eden Building. This left much to be desired in the organisation of apparatus, conditions of work, and modus operandi. The lack of experience of the decision markers itself is a constraint. But work went on.
Today, as a result, the writ of the people's representatives covers the four corners of Bangla Desh. Secretaries, deputy commissioners, circle officers, policemen are all taking orders from them. Police operate in conjunction with the AL volunteers to enforce a degree of law and order which is unusual considering the troubled times. Local authorities in the mofussil have began to collaborate with the Sangram Parishad (Resistance Committees) and take directives from them. Today, in fact, effective power and decision making within the administration emanates from one source -- the Awami League.
Whilst the collaboration of the administration provides a unique dimension to the present situation, it is, in terms of effectiveness, far less significant than the response of the people.
The sanctions on the senior administrators for instance are in practice being exercised by their own subordinates, the Class III and IV employees. Their over-zealousness in safeguarding any attempt to sabotage party decisions has occasionally paralysed those areas where administration has revived and sent officials weeping to Dhamondi for assistance in imposing their own authority. Effective power has now moved from the secretary to his subordinate, and even when normal lines of authority are restored, the relationship between the boss and his subordinate can never be the same again.
In private banks and offices, again as in factories, it is the workers who are safeguarding the interests of Bangla Desh from evasion and possible sabotage by the top executives. Whilst many of these have collaborated either out of a genuine sense of commitment or simple fear of their subordinates, some have attempted to use the relaxations permitted by the decree to secrete money out of the system. That it is not much worse must owe to the patriotism and vigilance of their own employees.
The movement has in effect released untold resources from within the people. Today in law there is no government in Bangla Desh nor the sanctions which go with it. The limited decisions and authority exercised by the Awami League are not enforceable in any court of law nor is there any effective machinery to put their decisions into effect. If they pass a decree prohibiting private banks from remitting money out of Bangla Desh or withdrawals for unauthorised purposes, there is none to enforce it for them.
This extraordinary set up is thus predicated on the unstinted loyalty and co-operation of the common man with the people's representatives. We have seen how in offices it is the clerks and lower division workers who act as custodians of the public interest. Outside, in spite of some initial anarchy which found expression in loot and communal vandalism, normalcy has returned. Even the escaped convicts seem to be acting with patriotism and restraint. Police report an actual decline in the crime rate from normal times. Today they collaborate with the green-capped Awami League volunteers to police the towns, not just against a recrudescence of violence, but generally to ensure law and order. In Gulshan and Dhanmondi, where middle class nerves are particularly on edge, volunteers have been visiting houses and making their presence felt.
This not to say that some peaceful nirvana has descended upon Bangla Desh either. It is reported that chemicals for explosives have been taken away from the Dacca University laboratories and the PISCR laboratories by armed bands. Sentries of VIPs have been overpowered and their weapons seized. The other face of the struggle is going on, and one can be sure that in any future upsurge violence will not be one-sided.
Militancy is reflected in the spontaneous acts of resistance against the security forces. Their own press note reported that supplies to their base areas in Sylhet and Jessore were interrupted. It took 18 hours for a supply convoy to get from Khulna to Jessore because of cuts in the road by peasants.
In Chittagong, MV Swat, carrying the first reinforcements from West Pakistan, had been partially unloaded into wagons. But workers, taking their own initiative, suspended unloading and saw that no was available to remove the becalmed wagons. All this reflects the spontaneous response of workers, peasants, and the common man to what they feel is a struggle for survival.
In this context, all attention is directed to Yahya who is expected any day, Lt. Gen. Yakub left Dacca on the 9th and was replaced by the governor designate, Tikka Khan. It is reported that he had no stomach for killing people whose language he learnt and culture he admired, in support of a lost cause.
The security forces were apparently staying within barracks avoiding confrontation. Indications are that they are marking time for Yahya's arrival.
And what does this promise? His strategy over the last week indicates the use of the carrot and the stick. Whilst the tone of his broadcast on the 6th was designed to give maximum offense to Bangladesh, in substance, the declaration of a date for the assembly without preconditions was a climb-down. But then his reference to LFO and his despatch of a reputed hawk to replace Yakub indicated that he brandished a big stick. But again, Tikka Khan has shown relative restraint since his arrival.
Now we find the great chairman shedding a few crocodile tears for his dead victims and talking the language of conciliation in his cable to the Sheikh.
The well-springs of bitterness and frustration generated by recent events invoke only suspicion within the people. Many see this as a gesture to buy time before the final showdown. This is envisaged as taking place when Yahya vetoes a Six Points based constitution. By this time sufficient reinforcements will be at hand to cope with all eventualities.
But another school sees Yahya coming to terms with reality in Bangla Desh. For effective power is now irrevocably out of the hands of Islamabad and any attempt to re-establish it will require the reconquest of the whole province piece by piece. Nor can they expect people to merely play the role of live targets, for the movement has advanced light years between March 1 and 10.
In this situation, Yahya may well cede Mujib's demands de facto . He will let him continue to exercise power in Bangladesh, he will keep his troops in the barracks, he will in effect end Martial Law by the simple expedient of not enforcing it. This will then be presented as an exercise in restraint and good faith which should be sufficient to let Mujib come to the National Assembly.
Mujib would then have to decide whether demand for de jure rather them de facto power was sufficient to precipitate confrontation or whether he should go ahead and join the constitutional debate whilst consolidating his hold on Bangla Desh. He must have realised by now that in any system controlled from Islamabad provincial power has limited attractions. He has no control of domestic revenues, foreign exchange, or aid. He will also face the risk of veto once he passes his draft unless Yahya has realised that Six Points is the best of all evils he faces in his confrontation with Bangla Desh.
If Mujib can get Six Points carried he may possibly be able to contain his own hawks and keep the polity together. If, however, Yahya vetoes or Bhutto again sabotages the Assembly, then Mujib will have no option but to seek a showdown on the streets. With his middle class base becoming progressively more irrelevant, he is becoming more dependent on the people to sustain his present confrontation and to lead any future movement. Here he will have to decide between leading their struggle in a full-fledged people's war or making himself redundant in their next and final upsurge.
Rehman Sobhan was the Executive Editor of the original Forum. This piece was originally written under the pseudonymous by-line of Rashed Akhter.
March 20, 1971
Negotiating from strength
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. 11,000 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 quartermaster 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 NSC 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.
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 route from 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 Omar, security boss of the services, though ex-law minister Justice Cornelius flew in on March 17in 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 his 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 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.
In this period, the economy continued to remain precariously poised between standstill and revival. A consolidated decree of regulations issued by the Awami League on March 15 carried on the task of selective revival of the administration and full revival of the economy. The assertion of control over Bangladesh was carried a step further by extending the no-tax campaign into one of collecting taxes for the "Government of Bangla Desh." All central provincial and local taxes were designated for payment into special accounts to be opened by the only two banks with their headquarters in Bangla Desh, and the State Bank of Pakistan and Treasury remained immobilised. Pending export bills were also designed to these two banks for negotiation.
State Bank and all commercial banks continued to function at the direction of the Awami League. This did not prevent the run on banks from continuing, but there were some signs of the situation improving as more relaxation on the controls over banks was permitted.
All this is not to suggest that this extraordinary metamorphosis of the movement from non-cooperation to people's raj was not causing some problems. The banking system began to acquire a lopsided appearance as local banks gained deposits at the expense of non-local banks. Their principals in turn in Karachi seemed to be reluctant to respond to their local offices' calls for transfer of funds so that the local State Bank was forced into the role of lender of the last resort to non-local banks to enable them to meet the run on their deposits.
The phenomenon was one of neurosis without any immediate foundation in fact, and corrective measures were being supplied through call lending by the local bank to those who were facing a run. Thus the possibly inspired fear that non-local banks would close their doors did not have any real basis at all. Once this awareness sinks in there is some prospect of a restoration of normalcy within the banking system, notwithstanding motivated attempts to build up emotions in favour of local banks.
On the industrial front, however, uncertainties kept production below normal due to residual absenteeism and lowered efficiency. This again reflected the contradictions between non-cooperation and people's raj. Party exhortations to now resume work with redoubled vigour for the cause of Bangla Desh had as yet not got through to the work floor. Apart from the absence of any operational machinery to translate party directives into specific action on the ground, workers may still be sceptical about a system where the prosperity of Bangla Desh is co-terminus with the prosperity of their factory owner.
Whilst this unique situation continued to pose new problems every day, the one certainty remained the irrevocable break-down of Islamabad's authority over the affairs of Bangla Desh. With each day and directive this authority has receded, and today any attempt to restore it will appear to the people as being little different from a British effort to reoccupy the sub-continent.
In this context, the sole power of the Islamabad regime appears to be its capacity to inflict death on the people and to attempt to precipitate economic chaos, as is evident by the diversion of food ships from Chittagong to Karachi. The question may therefore well be asked as to why they find themselves in this untenable position where their only option to coming to terms with Sheikh Mujib's demands is to unleash genocide.
The answer, as with most wars of aggression, appears to lie in miscalculation. Those who initiated confrontation by the postponement of the Assembly session believed that the public response would be small and localized, and would succumb to a swift and effective application of force. Mr. Bhutto is reported to have told visitors that reaction to the postponement would be confined to a few intellectuals and students in Dacca, and the army would soon bring them to their senses. No one dreamt that within seven days not only would the people vigorously resist attempts at mass murder but would bring central authority to a complete standstill. Perhaps no one within the Awami League could have even believed that non-cooperation could be so total as to place them in command of Bangla Desh within a week of their call for action.
The second miscalculation came from the belief that Mujib would not gain sufficient command of the situation to bring the law and order situation under his control quickly so that even the excuse of wanton loot and mayhem which was serving as a fig leaf for operation genocide was not available to them. Yahya's reports of loot and murder as the justification for killings by March 6 had ceased to bear any relation to reality. The calm which prevails in Dacca since his arrival is evidence enough of Mujib's authority. Within West Pakistan itself the front began to crumble. Chairman Bhutto had been assigned the role of rousing the masses against Bangladesh. He went around circulating the totally tendentious canard that Six Points meant the perpetual domination of West Pakistan by Bengalis when in fact it meant a repudiation of this very principle.
In this task it was expected that Mr. Bhutto would use his control over the masses to intimidate other parties in West Pakistan into boycotting the Assembly so that confrontation would be total.
This task had a temporary success, but by the end of February the attempt. was facing disaster and the only which had joined the boycott was the Qayyum Muslim League. This party had all along been receiving support or patronage from a certain section of the administration who now pressured them into lining up with Bhutto.
It is well known that Rizvi, director of central intelligence, had openly persuaded prominent figures to join the QML and that Maj. Gen. Omar was also soliciting support for this party in the election along with Nawab Qizalbash. Rizvi and Omar along with Maj. Gen. Akber, the services intelligence chief, appear to have switched their support to Bhutto after the QML's debacle, and there is evidence that Omar actually canvassed MNAs outside the PPP and QML against attending the Assembly.
When even three members of the QML booked their seats for Dacca, and Bhutto faced the threat that more than half of his Sindhi MNAs and some from Punjab would also take the flight, the Omar-Akber axis, buttressed by Bhutto's new adviser and intimate M.M. Ahmed, had to intervene. They seem to have mounted sufficient pressure to bail Bhutto out by having the Assembly session postponed.
It is not certain if the additional time was desired to firm up the crumbling West wing front behind Bhutto to ensure a total confrontation with Bangla Desh or whether they wanted to sabotage the entire attempt to restore democracy.
The totally unprecedented resistance to this move within Bangla Desh has led to the inevitable reaction within West Pakistan. Whilst many political figures in the West began by supporting the postponement, by the end of the second week of people's raj in Bangla Desh all bar the PPP were demanding that Yahya concede Mujib's Four Points in toto. Bhutto who remained apologetic and on the defensive ever since March 1 was thus compelled to further expose his ambition in Karachi on March 14. Here he introduced West Pakistan for the first time to the concept of the Two Nation theory and demanded that power be handed to the two majority parties of Pakistan, namely the Awami League in Bangla Desh and People's Party in West Pakistan.
Bhutto's drive towards becoming "shahinshah" of West Pakistan had, of course, been exposed in the columns of Forum some time ago, though none would have thought that he would be crass enough to proclaim his ambition at such a psychologically unfavourable moment. Needless to say, the reaction in the two regions, NWFP and Baluchistan, where his writ does not run, was the most unfavourable. To them, this was a clear attempt to re-impose Punjabi domination on them through the agency of Mr. Bhutto.
Even within the PPP there were serious misgivings not only at Mr. Bhutto's present posture but his entire strategy. Whatever their misgivings about Six Points, they must have awakened to the fact that the price of resisting Six Points and also imposing their will on the Baluch and Pathan was a permanent partnership with the likes of Gen. Omar. Far from PPP being the champion of democracy in West Pakistan they would merely degenerate into the civilian front of another junta.
Whilst the events of last month has exposed Mr. Bhutto for what he is, and perhaps in the process inflicted serious damage to the progressive cause in West Pakistan, it is not certain whether the wings of the hawks have at all been clipped. Whilst no man of whatever persuasion in West Pakistan could now doubt the Himalayan blunder implicit in the act of postponement and fail to be aware of the near fatal damage to the concept of national integration this inflicted, it is yet to be seen whether the right lessons will be drawn from the experience.
A sensible general as much as a sensible leader, having miscalculated, attempts to recoup his losses by trying to come to terms with the people's representatives in Bangla Desh and handing over power to them in order to create an atmosphere where [illegible] of the country can be examined [illegible].
On the other hand, both generals [illegible] leaders have also been known to compound their own blunders, thus converting simple folly into [illegible] disaster.
Rehman Sobhan was the Executive Editor of the original Forum. This piece was originally written under the pseudonymous by-line of Rashed Akhter.