From March to March: Pakistan's final years in East Bengal
Syed Badrul Ahsan recreates in vivid detail the events of the fateful months of March 1969 and 1971 that led to independence
A couple of significant facts emerged from the Round Table Conference of Pakistan's political leaders in Rawalpindi in March 1969. And they had to do with the collapse of the negotiations that had begun earlier, at the end of February. The collapse came on March 10, and with it came the certainty that the country's politics had been pushed into a state of new uncertainty by the inability of the ruling and opposition classes to reach a deal on a constitutional settlement for Pakistan in the future.
As the DAC collapses
The first fact about the collapse of the RTC was the polarization that developed between Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Awami League and the other components of the Democratic Action Committee (DAC) led by Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan. It was a bitter and visibly angry Mujib who pulled out of the DAC. He made it clear that his fellow Bengali politicians in the coalition, among whom were Nurul Amin and Hamidul Haq Chowdhury, had failed to support his demand for regional autonomy based on his party's Six Points program of regional autonomy.
With the Awami League out of the DAC, the group simply fell apart. It was a moment when the Awami League branched out on its own and would in time stamp its own authority on Bengali politics. Over the coming weeks and months, it would adopt an increasingly radical position on the issue of Bengali autonomy within Pakistan. In effect, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was in a sense relieved that his hands were not tied any more by the DAC. He was ready to take the Six Points as a credible charter of Bengali emancipation to his people in East Bengal/East Pakistan.
The second notable fact emerging from the abortive RTC was a confirmation of the popular belief that the regime of President Mohammad Ayub Khan had finally run out of steam.
Ayub and his cohorts of course demonstrated little sign of their imminent departure, but for the rest of the country it was now a matter of days or weeks, certainly not months, before the regime would go. The question was one of how, constitutionally speaking, it would go about handing over power to a successor government. There were rumours, some quite plausible ones, of the way the weakened president had approached the issue.
One was purportedly an approach to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the man whom he had till only days earlier called a conspirator against Pakistan's territorial integrity, to take over as Pakistan's prime minister. The idea was that with Ayub as president and Mujib as prime minister, the volatility of the political crisis would be defused and normality would return to Pakistan. Mujib predictably spurned the offer and instead re-emphasized his commitment to his Six Points. On March 10, therefore, the decade-old Ayub regime demonstrated all the tell-tale signs of descending into terminal illness.
A haemorrhaging regime
In the event, though, the regime dragged itself along for a fortnight more. What was becoming clear with each passing day was Ayub Khan's reluctance to quit office despite the haemorrhaging his regime was going through. At the closing session of the Round Table Conference, he had of course made two concessions to the opposition. The first was his agreement to take Pakistan back to the parliamentary form of government it had enjoyed in the years before the October 1958 coup d'etat which brought the military to power.
The second was the deal on adult franchise, a political reality Ayub had pushed aside through introducing his Basic Democracy system in the early 1960s. Under Basic Democracy, voters in East and West Pakistan would elect 80,000 Basic Democrats -- 40,000 from each province -- who would then serve as an electoral college to elect the president of the country and the members of the national and provincial assemblies. Besides, Ayub had already agreed not to be a candidate for re-election to the presidency at the elections scheduled for 1970. He had beaten Fatima Jinnah, sister of Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and nominee of the Combined Opposition Parties (COP) at the last presidential election in January 1965.
The concessions, while satisfying a section of political leaders that included Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, Chowdury Mohammad Ali, Mian Mumtaz Daultana, Nurul Amin, et al, were unable to stem the agitation that went on in the streets, especially those in Dhaka. Again, as a team, Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, went on whipping up anti-Ayub frenzy in the two wings of Pakistan. But clearly the most dominant presence was that of Mujib's supporters, ranging from the students to the various professional classes, especially in East Bengal. For the very first time in its history, the Bengali middle class was beginning to coalesce as a large, vocal group around the personality of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Ayub violates his constitution
For Ayub, the dilemma was between taking back control of the country from the protestors on the streets and walking away into the twilight. He appeared to opt for the former, through mulling over such means as placing Pakistan under a second spate of martial law under his direct leadership. His honest expectation was that General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, the commander in chief of the army he had put in place over a few more senior officers, would go along with him. His shock, therefore, at knowing that Yahya was quite willing to impose a military solution on the country but without Ayub Khan being in charge was great. And Yahya Khan, an ambitious man despite his notoriety relating to wine and women, had meanwhile been goaded into refining his thoughts on the future by such men as Lt. General SGMM Peerzada and Lt. General Abdul Hamid Khan.
When Ayub Khan finally handed over power to Yahya Khan on March 25, 1969, he clearly violated the provisions of the constitution he had imposed on Pakistan in 1962. Under the normal scheme of things, he could have handed over authority to the speaker of the National Assembly, Abdul Jabbar Khan. It is interesting to recall that every time the president left the country on official visits abroad, the speaker, first Fazlul Quader Chowdhury and then Abdul Jabbar Khan (Moulvi Tamizuddin Khan had died in 1963) quickly assumed charge as acting president of Pakistan. It was therefore with much amazement that the country discovered that Ayub Khan did not engage in talks with the Bengali Jabbar Khan over a possible transfer of power to the latter. On the evening of March 25, Pakistan's first military ruler went on air to inform the country that since he could not preside over what he called the disintegration of Pakistan, he had decided to hand over the country to General Yahya Khan.
In the earlier part of the next day, March 26, Yahya Khan, combining in himself the roles of chief martial law administrator and army commander in chief, addressed the nation and duly held out assurances that his job was to create conditions conducive to the holding of general elections in Pakistan. There was something of an olive branch held out to politicians that came through in the speech. No political leader was taken into custody; and over the next few months Yahya, by now also president of Pakistan, would reach out to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and others in his search for a political solution to the issues.
Another March, another tale
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 leaderof 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.
Bhutto had the recent instance of West Germany's grand coalition between the CDU's Kurt-Georg Kiesinger and SDP'sWilly Brandt to hold forth as a model for Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, the Awami League spurned the offer. Moreover, Mujib and his colleagues were giving the clear impression that they would not accept any compromise on the Six Points.
It was even being suggested among AL quarters that the federating units of West Pakistan were free not to accept the Six Points as part of their autonomy programme, but that East Bengal/East Pakistan was determined, now that Bengalis had voted overwhelmingly in support of the Six Points, to adopt them as a way of life for itself.
Gathering Bengali militancy
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.
Yaqub Khan soon resigned and was replaced by Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan. Only days later, Ahsan quit as governor, to be replaced on March 6 by Tikka, who now was, therefore, governor and zonal martial law administrator. Tikka, known for an earlier demonstration of ferocity bordering on ruthlessness, had already earned a reputation as Butcher of Baluchistan. There was thus something of the portentous about his arrival in Dhaka. But such was the degree of political passion in the province that Justice B.A. Siddiqui, chief justice of the East Pakistan High Court, refused to swear Tikka in as the new governor. For the moment, therefore, Tikka was compelled to remain content with being martial law administrator for the province.
The round table conference, Rawalpindi, 1969.
Mujib's freedom speech
On March 7, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman addressed a million-strong crowd at the Race Course in Dhaka to spell out his policies on the on-going impasse. The more radical among his supporters clearly hoped he would declare Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan, but that certainly was not the way Mujib wished politics to take shape.
To be sure, he had come to accept the inevitability of independence for Pakistan's eastern province, but he was not going to be hustled into a position where he would be seen as a secessionist rather than as a leader who had been grievously wronged through conspiracy at the highest levels of the state.
On March 7, therefore, he 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 March 25. 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." 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."
President Yahya Khan arrived in Dhaka with his team (generals Peerzada, Hamid and Umar, and bureaucrats MM Uquaili and Roedad Khan, among others) on March 15. The next day, Bangabandhu called on Yahya at the President's House. On March 17, leading newspapers in both East and West Pakistan ran special supplements on the 51st birthday of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, making it obvious that Pakistan's future as a unified state now depended on a swift hand-over of power to the Bengali leader.
Wali Khan, NAP leader of Pakistan, comes to meet Sheikh Mujib at his residence
Talks in Dhaka
Negotiations between the regime and the Awami League went on till March 20. In Karachi, Bhutto waited to be called to the talks (the Awami League leadership had shown little inclination to have him take part in the negotiations even as he made it clear that any deal between the government and the Awami League would need his consent since he represented the largest party in West Pakistan). On March 21, with Bangabandhu finally consenting to Bhutto's joining the talks, Yahya Khan had him come over to Dhaka. Angry crowds of Bengalis dogged Bhutto and his team all the way to the Sheraton.
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 finalise 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.
It was March 23, officially Pakistan Day in commemoration of the adoption of the Lahore resolution by the All-India Muslim League in March 1940, that turned out to be a defining moment for the state of Pakistan. Throughout its eastern province, flags of a future Bangladesh were hoisted atop homes and offices. At his residence in Dhanmondi, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman raised the Bangladesh flag, to the cheers of the crowd gathered on the road outside his gate. It was the Bangladesh flag that was displayed on his car as it wound its way through the streets and into the President's House for a fresh round of negotiations with President Yahya Khan.
The end approaches
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 M.A. Hannan.
At around 1 pm, 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.
|Asghar Khan with Sheikh Mujib at the round table conference, Rawalpindi,1969
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.
In Dhaka, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a prisoner at Adamjee College and would soon be transported to a prison in West Pakistan. Tajuddin Ahmed, Syed Nazrul Islam, A.H.M. Quamruzzaman, M.Mansoor Ali, and Col. M.A.G. Osmany were all making their separate ways out of the city. Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed took refuge in a clinic. The Awami League's constitutional advisor, Kamal Hossain, would be taken, days later, into custody by the army and flown off, with his family, to West Pakistan.
"Iman taaza ho giya"
On the morning of March 26, as the chief of Pakistan's inter-services intelligence, Brigadier A.R. Siddiqi was to recall, Tikka Khan, Hamid Khan, Mitha Khan and the civilian Roedad Khan happily breakfasted in the Dhaka cantonment. Roedad told Siddiqi: "Yaar, iman taaza ho giya (Pal, faith has been revived)." It was an understatement. Outside the breakfast room, Pakistan was in its death throes. But it yet would groan on, until the death of three million Bengalis came to pass.
On the subdued urban streets and in the sleepy, frightened villages of Bengal, the endless desolation paradoxically resonated with the idea of Bangladesh. As Bengalis streamed into India in search of shelter and Bengali young men organized themselves into the Mukti Bahini, Bangladesh inexorably moved from abstraction and into being a reality through nine months of a spirited War of Liberation.
In March 1940, Pakistan was accorded formal shape as an idea by the Muslim League. By March 1969, the state of Pakistan was beginning to totter in its eastern province. In March 1971, it had little way of saving itself from a humiliating end in the land of the Bengalis. Pakistan Zindabad was no more a rallying cry. Joi Bangla was.
Photos: Rashid Talukdar
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.