The Moment East Pakistan Became Bangladesh
Syed Badrul Ahsan
When as a schoolboy I met Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — and that was on a warm July day in 1970 in Quetta, Baluchistan — he put his hands on my cheeks, pulled them with much affection and asked me if I did not want to go home. Deshe jaabi na? That was the way he put it in Bengali. The question quite perplexed me. I was in Pakistan, wasn't I? And Pakistan was my country, wasn't it? Before I could stammer an answer, he rephrased the question: Bangladesh-e jaabi na? Won't you go to Bangladesh? And that was it. For the first time in my life — and I was yet in my teens — I was hearing our paramount leader call the eastern part of Pakistan Bangladesh. The thrill was not so much in the use of the word 'Bangladesh' but in actually hearing Bangabandhu say it. After that day, in school, I dropped 'East Pakistan' from my vocabulary and insistently referred to Bangladesh at every conceivable opportunity.
Bangabandhu released after the withdrawal of the Agartala Conspiracy Case, under public pressure. Photo: Archive
But, of course, the name 'Bangladesh' had earlier and, I might add, formally been offered to the Bengalis of Pakistan by Bangabandhu at the end of 1969. The year, for those of us who lived through it or who have had cause to relive it through references to historical documents, was decisive in that it gave us a clear new perspective on our political aspirations as a nation. A determined drive to push Field Marshal Ayub Khan from power came through a sustained mass upsurge which lasted from January to March. In the process, the regime was compelled, under public pressure, to withdraw the so-called Agartala conspiracy case unconditionally and free all thirty five Bengalis accused, among whom was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as accused number one. That was on February 22. The next day, at a huge public rally at the Race Course, the freed Bengali leader, already famous for the decisive manner in which he had placed his Six Point programme of regional autonomy before the two wings of Pakistan in February 1966, was conferred the honorific 'Bangabandhu' by the radical student leader Tofail Ahmed.
It was on December 5, 1969 that Bangabandhu told a rally in commemoration of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy on the latter's sixth death anniversary that East Pakistan would henceforth be referred to as Bangladesh. His reasoning was simple: if the federating units of West Pakistan could separately call themselves Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province, Bengalis had all the right in the world to call their province Bangladesh. But, of course, the term 'Bangladesh' was not a new coinage. It had been part of the Bengali consciousness, even if in abstract form, for ages. Rabindranath Tagore clearly used 'Bangladesh' in his songs. Our parents' generation, in their conversations, spoke of Bangladesh. It was another matter, of course, that the idea of Bangladesh had been sundered by the partition of 1947, leaving in its trail the Indian state of West Bengal and the Pakistani province of East Pakistan. Even so, Bengalis across the divide were careful not to let thoughts of the old Bangladesh vanish into time. An emotional Sher-e-Bangla made precisely this point when he visited Calcutta after the triumph of the electoral Jukto Front in 1954. His administration was soon turfed out by an infuriated West Pakistani political elite.
In the run-up to the general elections of December 1970, Bangabandhu and his political organisation, the Awami League, consistently referred to Bangladesh in their political pronouncements. That raised hackles in West Pakistan, yes, but the nationalist sentiment among Bengalis was growing at such a fast pace that the regime really had no way to clamp a check on it. But note that the term 'Bangladesh', at the time and even till the end of the War of Liberation, did not follow the format in which it comes to us today. During the non-cooperation movement initiated by Bangabandhu in early March 1971, a recurrent slogan, having militant as well as literary connotations, was Bir Bangali Ostro Dhoro Bangladesh Shwadhin Koro (brave Bengali, take up arms and free Bangladesh). In both Bengali and English, the name of the province, soon to be a country, was put across as Bangla Desh. It was only after the leadership of the Mujibnagar government returned home from exile on December 22, 1971 that Bangla Desh officially became Bangladesh.
Once Bangladesh emerged as a free nation, some people raised the pretty pertinent question of where that left West Bengal in the Indian Union. Perhaps it would be called, simply, Bengal. Or maybe there would be no change in the name. It was the latter option that Indians went for, though not many of them were quite able to come to terms with what they saw as a commandeering of Bangladesh by the Bengalis of East Bengal.
Sometime in January 1972, soon after his return from incarceration in Pakistan, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was asked by a foreign newsman if he envisaged West Bengal someday becoming part of a greater Bangladesh. The Father of the Nation paused, smiled, took a puff on his pipe and then softly told the newsman: “I am happy with my Bangladesh.”
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
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