The Financial Express

A brief chronicle of freedom

| Updated: December 19, 2020 20:39:51

A brief chronicle of freedom

The indefinite postponement of the session of the Pakistan National Assembly marked the beginning of the Liberation War. The announcement was made at mid-day on March 1,1971. The official explanation was political parties needed more time to come to an agreement on the framework of the future constitution. The Awami League which had secured 167 seats emerged as the single largest party in the National Assembly. The Pakistan Peoples' Party led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became the second largest party with 85 seats in the Assembly. No PPP candidate participated in the election in East Pakistan. In the West Pakistan, there were handful of Awami League candidates who contested but none got elected. Muslim League, National Awami Party, Jamate Ulamae Islam and other political parties had about 52 members in the assembly. They were elected from West Pakistan. The political polarisation became conspicuous: in East Pakistan all but two seats were taken by the Awami League. No other political parties had any luck. No political party or leader emerged having command in both wings of the country. This made the relationship between the two wings more complicated.

The electoral outcome came as a surprise to the army and the ruling elite in West Pakistan. They were expecting that rightwing political parties would make some success and denied the Awami League of absolute majority in East Pakistan. This would have permitted a coalition of parties to make a constitution mostly in conformity with the 1956 Constitution. The PPP's emergence as the largest party in West Pakistan was not welcomed by the conservative parties. But in order to deny the power to Bengali leadership they extended support to Bhutto.

Banghabandu had witnessed in the past how Bengalis had betrayed Bengalis once they were in power. He remembered how Sher -e-Bangla had restrained Suhrawardy by siding with Iskandar Mirza and Choudhury Mohammed Ali. He witnessed how Maulana Bashani led an insurgency from within the Awami League challenging Prime Minister Suhrawardy's foreign policy that culminated in the breakup of the party and dismissal of Suhrawardy government. Banghabandu, in order to circumvent such betrayal, held an oath-taking ceremony at the Suhrawardy Udyan on January 3, 1971 at a grand rally attended by about a million people. All elected members of the National and Provincial Assemblies, belonging to the Awami League, took an oath that they would never betray the cause of the people and drift from the election manifesto of the party.

There were intense negotiations between the team led by Yahya Khan and the Awami League high command led by Banghabandu during the months of December, January and February. At one stage, Bhutto came to Dhaka with his team in January and held series of meetings with Banghabandu. In all these parleys Banghabandu had reiterated that the constitution would be framed based on "Six Points and Eleven Points program" as enshrined in the Awami League election manifesto. But he assured the leaders from West Pakistan that he would welcome their legitimate demands and suggested that the National Assembly would provide the best forum for the debate.

Bhutto was afraid that Banghabandu would get the constitution passed by sheer strength of majority in the assembly and he would have little opportunity to make the constitution drafted in the pattern of 1956 constitution. At a press conference in Lahore in January Bhutto claimed that as a majority leader in West Pakistan, "his consent was essential to any constitution." He also added that "by a new constitution we are going to keep Pakistan as one country as it has existed. You cannot reverse the historical raison d'etre of Pakistan."

Bhutto took an aggressive position against drafting the constitution based on Six Points programme from the beginning of February while many prominent leaders in West Pakistan publicly pledged that they would "fully cooperate with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in passing a workable constitution for the country. As the majority party in Pakistan, the Awami League was competent to frame the constitution." The PPP launched a vigorous campaign against the Awami League and Bhutto threatened, "if the constitution was framed on the 6-points we would launch a movement against such a constitution."

On February 15, Bhutto declared that his party would not attend the National Assembly session. On the following days Bhutto said his decision was unshakable and irrevocable. He told the newsmen that "any attempt to frame the constitution without the PPP would be futile, counterproductive and negative." Despite the threat about 45 elected members from West Pakistan declared that they would attend the National Assembly session and by the time postponement was announced, a good number of MNAs from West Pakistan had arrived in Dhaka.

The postponement came as a provocation to the people of East Pakistan. Students of the Dhaka University immediately came out, assembled in front of the Arts Building and burnt Pakistan national flag. On the following day, they held a meeting in the campus, passed a resolution declaring independence of Bangladesh and hoisted Bangladesh flag in the university buildings. All political parties in East Pakistan denounced the postponement of the National Assembly session. The Awami League declared country wide strike from March 3 to 6 and announced it would hold a mass rally at the Suhrawardy Udhyan on March 7.

Banghabandu announced four point demand at the grand rally on March 7. The demands were a) lift martial law, b) withdraw the army to the barracks, c) investigate into mass killings, and d) transfer power to the elected representatives. There was tremendous pressure on Banghabandu to make unilateral declaration of independence, but he characterised the on-going movement as struggle for independence, struggle for emancipation. A scrutiny of his speech, however, revealed that this was the "declaration of independence."

On the following weeks, while the parleys were taking place at different levels between the Yahya administration and the Awami League, the army transferred two infantry divisions from West Pakistan and deployed them in outlying districts. At one stage, Bhutto was asked to join the parleys. He came with his delegation but nothing tangible came out of these meetings because Yahya Khan had decided to take action and the army availed the time to get much needed reinforcements. In the evening of March 25, Yahya Khan left Dhaka in discreet. The army began its brutal action at mid-night.

The EPR in Peelkhana put up fierce resistance to the army but had to retreat due to superior fire power of the enemy. The Police Headquarters at Razarbagh also made severe resistance and continued to fire at the army till early morning. But as their stock of ammunition depleted they escaped discarding uniforms. The army also met resistance at the Dhaka University campus.

On April 17, Bangladesh government in exile was formed with Sayed Nazrul Islam as acting President and Tajuddin as Prime Minister. General M. A. G. Osmani was appointed Chief of Staff of the Liberation Army and Col. Rob, the Deputy Chief. The formation of the government in exile provided much needed legal acquiescence of the liberation war. At the oath taking ceremony at Mujibnagar (Meherpur), Tajuddin said "the united Pakistan lies buried under the heaps of the corpses of Bengalis."

Major General (Retd) Rao Farman Ali wrote in his book How Pakistan Got Divided, "Every Bengali unit had revolted. Major Zia killed his Commanding Officer Col. Janjua in Chittagong. East Bengal regiment moved out of Joydevpur after killing Pakistani soldiers and officers. A battalion in Khulna was decimated after suffering heavy casualties at the rebel hands. Except for the cantonment in Jessore, the entire area had fallen to the rebels supported by the East Bengal Regiment. Patuakhali, Barisal and Faridpur was under rebel control. The battalion in Sylhet had to vacate the town and shifted to the airport to maintain some link with Dhaka. Chittagong had been a critical area. A battalion from Comilla was ordered to move to Chittagong but it met with severe resistance all along, suffering considerable casualties including its Commanding Officer. The resistance offered by the rebels was unexpectedly stiff. During the period from March 25 to April 10, the rebels controlled most of the country. Pakistan army was confined to cantonment areas."

Major Ziaur Rahman, Major Shafiullah, Major Khaled Musharraf, Major Jalil, Major Chittarajan Datta, Major Azizur Rahman, Major Nazmul Huq, Major Mainul Hussain, Major Hafiz Uddin, Captain Gias began to organise the former police, EPR personnel, Bengali soldiers and youth into a combined resistance force. Gradually, they acquired striking capability and attacked the enemy outposts and positions. Their hit and run tactics paid off. The enemy stopped making movement after sunset.

From September onwards, the Mukti Bahini became more trained, organised and strategised. They were able to hit high value targets in and around major cities. Rao Farman Ali admitted that "The Chief Secretary along with other Secretaries had found it unsafe to stay in their bungalows and shifted to the Governor House. They stopped going to their offices in the Secretariat. No civil government existed after September 6. Dhaka was a ghost city. Most of the time it was under curfew due to the fear of Mukti Bahini activities."

As Mukti Bahini's assaults intensified, the Pakistan army began to withdraw from outlaying areas and retreated to towns. They were seeking reinforcements, but the High Commands had no means to support them. More and more areas became liberated.

The India-Pakistan war broke out on December 3. At the request of the US, UN Security Council met to discuss the situation. Bhutto stopped in London on way to New York to participate in the Security Council session, said, "A sovereign independent country is being dismembered by force alone and time is running out fast." Sardar Swaran Sing, India's Foreign Minister told the Security Council, "Golden Bengal belongs neither to India nor to Pakistan - it belongs to the people of Bangladesh and none else." The ceasefire resolution was vetoed by the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the Indian army and Mukti Bahini landed in Dhaka and General Niazi surrendered to the Joint Command on December 16, 1971 with 90,000 troops.

The writer is a former official of the United Nations.

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