Road to March 1971: Birth Pangs of a Nation

March 1971 carry a special significance for Bangladeshis. This eventful month saw the culmination of Bengalis’ movement for self-realization and independence. It also saw the Pakistan’s heinous military crackdown on the unarmed Bengalis of then East Pakistan with far reaching consequences.


After the Awami League, under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, swept to victory in the elections in October 1970, it was the general feeling amongst the East Pakistanis that they would see an end to the 23-year long domination of West Pakistanis. I was in the western part of Pakistan then and had an opportunity to observe a feeling of frustration among the Punjabis that their days of bullying over the Bengalis were coming to an end. A few of them seemed to have accepted it as a fiet accompli. However, the hawkish political and military leaders found it difficult to digest. They started hatching conspiracies to maintain their absolute command and authority.

I believed President General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan was not involved in the conspiracy, at least in the beginning. I felt he genuinely wanted Pakistan to return to a civilian rule. Perhaps, his only desire was to continue as the president under the new administration. I tend to give him some positive marks for the following:

He disbanded the one-unit of West Pakistan and restored the provinces of Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and North West Frontier Province (NWFP). That made East Pakistan the largest province, thus ending the parity formula of former president Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan.

Yahya introduced the adult franchise, the one man one vote system. That gave East Pakistan 162 parliamentary seats to West’s 138, basing on population, from the previous 150:150 parity. The system made possible for the Awami League to be the majority party in the parliament (that never materialized).

During his two-year tenure, Yahya increased the induction of Bengalis into the military and administration. He ordered suspension of recruitment of soldiers in West Pakistan while accelerating the same in East Pakistan. Bengali cadet intakes in the academies also increased. In the 50s and mid 60s, Bengali cadets were 5% or less. The number rose to almost 30% in 1971. Similar perhaps was the statistics in the civil services.

6-Point Program

Since elections, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been forcefully advocating that he won a mandate on his 6-Point formula and would amend the Pakistani constitution accordingly. He administered a terse oath to all the 417 elected Awami representatives of the central and provincial assemblies to the effect that they would not betray the 6 Points. West Pakistani leaders, on the other hand, perceived the 6 Point as an obvious move for the eastern wing to secede. They also suspected that Pakistan’s arch enemy India had a hand in it, more so because of Sheikh Mujib’s cozy connections with Indian leadership.

Though Awami League won absolute majority in the elections, it failed to win any seat in the western wing. On the other hand, Pakistan Peoples’ Party of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto secured 82 National Assembly seats but none in East Pakistan. That gave the two major parties totally regional portrayals, rather than all Pakistan based, and put them at political loggerheads.

For Yahya, the problem was how to bring the two major bickering political forces together to a common ground. He had been urging both Mujib and Bhutto to meet and come to an understanding. Mujib insisted he was the majority leader, so that the president should listen to him, while Bhutto contended he was the absolute leader in the western wing and could not be ignored.

Yahya met Mujib in Dhaka on January 13, but could not reach an understanding as the latter remained adamant on his 6 Points. The president cautioned Mujib that people in the western part might find it difficult to go along with his formula. He also pointed out that as the future leader of Pakistan, he would represent the whole Pakistan and needed to care everybody’s opinion and feelings, and not just that of East Pakistanis. Mujib responded that he would manage, but the generals remained unconvinced.

Yahya left Dhaka the next day empty handed. To the questions of the journalists at the airport before his Departure for Karachi, a somewhat unhappy Yahya responded, “Go and ask these questions to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He is the next Prime Minister.” Bhutto could not take this remark lightly. He thought the president reached an understanding with Mujib without him; so he started planning his game.

Larkana Conspiracy: the Birth of Operation Search Light

Upon arrival at Karachi, Yahya accepted Bhutto’s invitation for a duck shooting at Larkana. Army Chief of Staff General M A Hamid was also called in to join the team. Bhutto entertained his guests lavishly. There at Bhutto’s lush palace, through the ‘Larkana Conspiracy’, the blueprint of Operation Search Light was taking shape. While the homework was being done by Bhutto and the top generals, the president mostly remained busy with what he liked the most—the two ‘W’s. Then on, the president was said to be reduced to a signatory or front man only, the real authority rested on the military junta headed by Hamid and General S G M Peerzada, chief of the general staff to the president and a close friend of Bhutto.

On January 26, Bhutto came to Dhaka to explore possibility of a compromise. He, too, found Mujib pretty rigid on his 6 Points and left Dhaka the next day. The Larkana conspiracy gained momentum and Bhutto maintained his contact with the president and the junta, mostly through his pal Peerzada.

On February 13, President Yahya announced that the first session of the parliament would sit in Dhaka on March 3, 1971. Bhutto refused to go to Dhaka ‘just to endorse the 6 Points’ and threatened to ‘break legs’ of other West Pakistani parliamentarians who would dare to go to Dhaka.

On March 1, it was announced that the National Assembly session was postponed, without giving any fresh date. Dhaka reacted violently. Clashes between the military and Bengalis erupted everywhere with loss of lives. The non-Benglali Beharis sided with the military, so they faced the wrath of the local Bengalis too.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called for a total non-cooperation with the Pakistanis and became the de facto ruler of East Pakistan. He issued orders to run the administration on a day to day basis. He also called for a mammoth rally at Suhrawardy Uddan on March 7. Radical leaders and student activists pressed Mujib to make the unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) on March 7, but he was hesitant to do so, considering its various implications. However, couple of significant developments took place in the meantime.

On March 6, president Yahya had a telephone conversation with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Yahya reportedly asked Mujib not to do anything from where ‘there would be no return’. As an olive branch to the Bengalis, he announced that the parliament would sit in Dhaka on March 25, 1971. The same evening, Mujib had a meeting with his AL high command. Demand for UDI was prominent.

In the midnight on March 6, Mujib sent two personal emissaries to Dhaka GOC Major General Khadim Hussain Raja with a message that he was under tremendous pressure from the extremist elements to make the UDI. He was in a dilemma– he was doomed if he did, he would be doomed if he didn’t. So let the military arrest him. General Khadim did not buy the idea. Arresting Mujib at that juncture would be the worst thing to do; it would make him a martyr. He responded that as a politician Mujib should be able to handle the situation. He also threatened he would do his duty as a military commander if there was any UDI. (Ref: Witness to Surrender by Siddiq Salik)

On March 7 morning, the US ambassador Joseph Farland warned Mujib not to count on the US if he made any declaration of independence.

The Master Speech

The 17-minute speech of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the Suhrawardy Uddan on March 7, 1971 was his masterpiece. He did not make any UDI; rather put forward 4 demands to the authorities: lifting of martial law, military’s return to barracks, enquiry into the civilians’ killings and immediate transfer of power to the elected representatives. Then watching a kind of impatience and disapproval among the stick wielding crowd, he finally thundered with the magic words: “Ebarer sangram muktir sangram, ebarer sangram swadhinatar sangram….Tumra ghare ghare durga gore tolo. Rokto jakhan diyechi, proyjoney aaro rokto debo. Ei desher manushke mukto korey charbo insha-allah. (This time our struggle is for our emancipation, our freedom. Make a fortress of your house. We have given blood before and will give more, if needed, yet I will liberate our people, Allah willing.)” He left the podium immediately without talking to anyone. The crowd dispersed, somewhat disappointed.

Independence Declaration Controversy

Sheikh Mujb’s followers and Awami leaders maintain that Mujib’s March 7 speech was itself the announcement or call for independence. Main reason for this version is to undercut the announcement made by then Major Ziaur Rahman of 8 Bengal Regiment at the Chittagong radio station on March 26/27, 1971. There appear a few contradictions surrounding those views.

Firstly, if March 7 speech was the ultimate call for independence, then why did Sheikh Mujib engage himself in lengthy parleys with Yahya, Bhutto and other Pakistani leaders from March 16 to 24, ostensibly to save Pakistan? After the talks on March 24, Mujib angrily retorted to the inquisitive journalists that if there was no progress in the discussion, he was not a fool to continue the talks. He further informed them that he had an exclusive meeting set with Yahya the next morning (Please see the Ittefaq and other newspapers of March 25/26, 1971). Alas, little did Mujib know that Yahya had boarded a plane for Karachi next morning, leaving instructions for the implementation of “Operation Search Light”, that is, wholesale crackdown on the Bengalis.

If March 7 speech was the declaration of independence, as contended by the Awami League and its followers, there was no need of a separate declaration on March 25/26, 1971. Why is then so much talk about sending written declaration to Chittagong to M A Hannan or Zuhur Ahmed Chowdhury, who supposedly made the announcements? And, from where that announcement was made and who heard that?

Relevant Questions

Why was it difficult for Sheikh Mujib to understand that the Dhaka talks from March 16-24, 1971 was a smoke screen and time-buying exercise by the Pakistani junta so that sufficient military strength could be at hand in East Pakistan for the ‘search light’ killing? Landings of plane and ship loads of troops and military wares at Dhaka and Chittagong ports were no secret. Wasn’t it ominous for anyone to understand! Could we avert such a huge catastrophe in men and material if right decision was taken at the right time by our political leaders?

Reportedly, Captain (later Major General) Amin Ahmed Chowdhury came from Chittagong and conveyed to Col (later General) M A G Osmany, military adviser to Mujib, that Pakistani elements of the military were making preparations for the crackdown on Bengalis. When conveyed, Mujib did not give any credence to the information. Never in his life, had Mujib taken military seriously!

General Amin, as well as Major Rafiqul Islam (later Advisor, AL Minister and presently an AL MP) who was an EPR (East Pakistan Rifle) captain in Chittagong and one of the pioneers of our liberation war) can throw some light on this.

According to a source, ASM Abdur Rab, the fiery student leader and a few of his associates went to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at his Dhanmondi residence around 10 pm on March 25, 1971 with the request to make the declaration of independence immediately, because they learnt the military crackdown had already started in the cantonments. Mujib was still hesitant on various pretexts. Rab said if ‘Bangabandhu’ couldn’t agree to do it, they would make the announcement themselves on his behalf. Noting Rab’s aggressive demeanor, Mujib asked for a paper to draft the declaration. Rab took out a paper from his pocket and said he had already prepared it and Mujib had to sign only. It was then decided to send the message to Chittagong through Pilkhana BDR Headquarters where Rab had a few reliable telecommunication personnel to help.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was repeatedly asked by fellow AL leaders to go in hiding or at least leave his residence. He chose to stay at home and face arrest, which was done soon afterwards and he was taken to West Pakistan. All Pakistani newspapers on March 27, 1971 carried the picture of a pensive Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the VIP lounge of Karachi airport.

It was, however, not known if the said message could be transmitted to Chittagong. One version was that none of the top leaders could be traced in Chittagong— not unlikely due to the onset of ‘search light’ crackdown. Second version was that the message was conveyed to AL leader Zuhur Ahmed Chowdhury, but he chickened out and failed to take any action on that. Rumor had it that Z A Chowdhury, an otherwise mediocre person, was made a minister in Sheikh Mujib’s cabinet on condition that he would acknowledge the receipt of Sheikh Mujib’s message of independence declaration. Rab is still alive and can clarify the matter.

As for Zia’s declaration, General Mir Shawkat Ali, General Haurn Ahmed Chowdhury, Brigadier Chowdhury Khaliquzzaman, Col Oli Ahmed, Major Shamsher M Chowdhury are alive and can throw light on it. All these officers were with Ziaur Rahman at that time. According to Col Oli, Ziaur Rahman first made the announcement under his own name. Oli and others pointed out that to make the announcement more acceptable, it should be made it in the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Oli said to have drafted the announcement. He denied to have received any communication or independence declaration note from any quarter, as suggested by some.