Bangladesh: Recalling 1969 Mass Uprising

by R. Chowdhury 29 January 2020

In the book A Soldier’s Debt (ASD), the author thought Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon was the greatest event of 1969. He then quickly added the following lines: 

“One hundred and twenty-five thousand miles below that historic moon walk, the Bengalis of East Pakistan started a renewed but aggressive, at times violent, march for their rights. It was a show of their outrage against the central rulers never seen before. Hundreds of thousands, mostly youth and students, paraded the streets daily with festoons and placards, shouting anti-government slogans and bringing traffic to a standstill. Leaders ranted fiery speeches at downtown Paltan Maidan, Race Course, Baitul Mukarram, Mowchak Bazar and Gulshan market. The crowd echoed their support with raised fists. Loudspeakers on pillars, electric poles, building corners, even taxis and rickshaws, continuously buzzed with messages venting their demands. The public was forced to tolerate the deafening noise continuously, day in and day out.

“For some participants, it was not all about politics. Some joined the processions for fun; some attended the assemblies as a pastime, or simply had nothing better to do. I saw ragtag women and street urchins among the crowd. ‘They have been hired to show strength,’ explained the man next to me at a Paltan gathering. Thugs availed themselves of the opportunity to pickpocket citizens or loot shops during the occasional chaos.

“Clashes with police were inevitable. With the sounds of gunfire, pandemonium ensued. Hitherto brave demonstrators ran for shelters. Teargas, jets from water guns and smoke from cocktail bombs filled the streets. Casualties crammed the city hospitals and clinics. Coffins on pushcarts soon joined the procession, with a view to further inciting the public against the police actions. Similar volatile scenarios prevailed in other parts of the province.

“However, the batons, bullets and teargas did not stop the movement, which, over the days, weeks and months to follow, intensified.”.

Police action in Agartala Conspiracy Case in 1969

That was what the author of ASD experienced in early January 1969 during a short visit to East Pakistan from his military life in western half. The immediate demands of the protesters were the withdrawal of the Agartala Conspiracy Case (ACC) and the release of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a popular Bengali leader

The ACC, a sedition case, was instituted by the government of President Ayub Khan a year ago and the trial was underway for six months at the Dhaka military base. If guilty, the accused could face death sentence.

Banglapedia ( http://en.banglapedia.org/index.php?title=Mass_Upsurge,_1969) traces the current round of uprising to 1968 when the students rebelled “against the tyrannical rule of Ayub Khan.” Some analysts see it as part of the ongoing political movement generated by the Six Points advanced by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1966. The Six-Point formula sought economic independence and political autonomy for East Pakistan. “The movement soon engulfed the whole of the then East Pakistan,” says the Banglapedia. “Indeed, this mass upsurge was the greatest mass awakening ever since the creation of Pakistan.” By the end of 1968, the anti-Ayub Movement was in top gear in East Pakistan.  

On January 4, 1969, leaders of the East Pakistan Students’ Union (Menon Group), East Pakistan Students’ League, East Pakistan Students’ Union (Matia Group) and a section of the National Students’ Federation (NSF) had formed the Students’ Action Committee (SAC) and declared their 11-point program.” Shortly afterwards, almost all major political parties formed the Democratic Action Committee (DAC), an anti-Ayub front. It supported SAC’s 11 Points that included Mujib’s 6 Points. Octogenarian and respected leader, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani of the National Awami Party (NAP), provided leadership to the group.   

Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, leader of the 1969 Movement among the people

A number of fatalities–prominent among them were students Asaduzzaman, Matiur Rahman and Professor Shamsuzzoha — at the hands of government forces took the movement to the point of no return. When ACC accused Sergeant Zahurul Haq was shot dead by the military on February 15, 1969, Bhashani intensified his agitation program and declared that they would forcibly free Mujib, if the authorities did not release him forthwith. On February 22, 1969, President Ayub Khan succumbed. He ordered withdrawal of the ACC and release of all accused unconditionally. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman became a hero and was given the title “Bangabandhu” (Friend of Bengal/Bengalis) by the students.

(During my training at Pakistan Air Force Base, Kohat in 1963-64–prior to my transfer to army– then Corporal Zahurul Haq was a drill instructor. The tall, tough guy had an incredible voice. His sudden loud scream could cause an embarrassing accident to a nervous trainee.)

Freed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman 

The movement in East Pakistan soon turned a catalyst in an anti-Ayub Uprising all over Pakistan. Army chief General Yahya Khan found it convenient to ease his boss Ayub Khan out and take over on March 25, 1969. The legacy of the Bengalis’ Mass Uprising catapulted Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League to victory in the December 1970 elections, which he fought largely on the Six-Point program. The rest is both painful and joyous. Painful because the ruling junta declined to honor the popular verdict of the election and decided to unleash the military on the Bengalis who dared to demand their economic and political rights. Happiness because the people of East Pakistan were forced to fight for their independence from Islamabad and won victory on December 16, 1971. 

In an article “The 1969 Mass Uprising in East Pakistan: As I saw it,” Dr. Taj Hashmi gave an eye-witness account of the movement during its climax period in January-February 1969. Hashmi was a student of the Dhaka University at the time and took part in the students’ activities from January 17 to February 22, 1969, which he called the crucial “37 Days.”  (http://southasiajournal.net/the-1969-mass-uprising-in-east-pakistan-as-i-saw-it/ )

Dr. Hashmi’s article evoked considerable interest among readers. However, his limiting the movement to “37 Days” and giving sole credit to the students (of Kamran Chowdhury group of the NSF) came under criticism. Some readers also could not accept his portrayal of Bhashani as a stooge of Pakistan and an arsonist.  

The author subsequently modified his stand on some points in e-mail communications. On January 22, 2020, he posted, “Apparently, it might appear that I have denied Bhashani’s contributions to the 1969 Movement and the Freedom Movement of Bangladesh, but actually I have NOT denied his contributions to either.” On January 23, he went a step further saying: “HE (Bhashani) was DEFINITELY a HERO of the 1969 Movement, but he became so after 24th January.” The timeline did not appear correct to some, and the controversy sustained. 

According to Banglapedia, “The student agitation of 1968 turned into a Mass Upsurge when Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani asked his followers to join the agitation and gherao program. His NAP was very active from early December 1968 in the Gherao–not “Gherao-Jalao”– program.  

On Dr. Hashmi’s limiting the Movement of 1969 to the Karman Group, Zoglul Husain, a political analyst of repute, posted an email on Jan. 21, 2020, saying that there was a “wider view if one sees it from the perspective of all the student organizations involved i.e. university campus as a whole. And there even is a more comprehensive view if one sees it from the perspective of the whole country.” Quoting Banglapedia, he also believed that Maulana Bhashani was the main leader of the Movement that brought “the downfall of the Ayub regime.” (Please see paragraph Nine above). 

Dr. Hashmi insisted, in a post on January 23, 2020, that the “Direct Action” initiated by Kamran Chowdhury was responsible for the success of the movement. A day earlier, Researcher and Playwright Dr. Abid Bahar contended that minor figures rarely counted in history. By inferring that Mujib was not the sole formulator of the 6 points, nor did he write the speech of March 7, yet he got the adulation for both, Mr. Bahar implied, “So was the case with Bhashani`s leadership in the 1969 Uprising.” Professor Bahar made extensive research on Bhashani and perhaps understood him better. He thought lack of deeper understanding of the elderly leader at times made people utter unfounded statements about him. Acknowledging writer’s “quest for the root of fascist forces in Bangladesh,” Dr. Bahar pointed at the criminal activities of Rakkhi Bahini, Chatro League, Lal Bahini and other outfits created by Sheikh Mujib. Maulana Bhashani opposed their activities.  

Dr. Hashmi’s assumption that “had there not been 1969, there would have not been any 1971” was also contested. While acknowledging the importance of the movement in 1969, which brought the downfall of the Ayub regime through the ACC route, I could not consider it to be the sole precursor of 1971. I thought the independence of Bangladesh had a larger and longer connotation than of the past two years. It had many fathers: the foolish ruling junta (of Pakistan), the ambitious and mischievous Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Indian hegemonic interests, the global players and the Bangladeshi freedom fighters on whom it was imposed. (I wish to deal with the subject separately).

On Maulana Bhashani’s role, I reminded him that with Mujib in jail, he was the only top and acceptable leader available to propel the snowballing movement to victory. Students alone couldn’t have done it. However, I also agree with Professor Hashmi that 1969 movement united the people of East Pakistan and they spoke in one voice for the first time. 

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4 Comments

  • Taj Hashmi
    January 30, 2020, 1:18 pm

    My Response to R. Chowdhury’s Rebuttal to my Article “The 1969 Mass Uprising in East Pakistan: As I Saw It”

    Taj Hashmi
    Dear R. Chowdhury:

    You have simply missed the main (or maybe the only) argument of my article, which is about as to how the Movement took off the ground on 17th January in and around Dhaka University Arts Building, and actually reached (what should have been) its “culmination” on 22nd February 1969. Most importantly, my longish piece in more than 5,000 words is not an essay on the “1969 Movement”. It is rather my eyewitness account of the Movement from ground zero, as an active participant too.

    Maulana Bhashani and others MOST DEFINITELY matter, but minions and small fries also matter in history. The NSF was the junior partner of the Student Action Committee (formed on 4th January 1969). However, the DUCSU General Secretary Nazim Kamran Chowdhury stared the DIRECT ACTION with a handful of NSF boys and after others joined him on the 19th, what followed is history. I have highlighted here, while pro-Awami league student leaders, including Tofael Ahmed, who was the DUCSU VP in 1969, first opposed to coming out on the street, and later joined the movement two days after we had already started it on the 17th.

    I strongly believe the Movement should have been called off after the release of Agartala Convicts, especially Convict #1, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, on 22nd February. Ayub Khan virtually abdicated on 21st February, with his public declaration that he would not be a candidate in the following Presidential Election; and that he was going to hold an All-Party Meeting to find out the future course of action to transfer power to a civilian government. However, Bhashani not only boycotted the All-Party Convention – along with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was another maverick politician, from West Pakistan – but Bhashani also continued his violent, anarchic movement well-beyond 22nd February, especially in rural East Pakistan, which took the form of an all-out disorganized class war in the countryside. Bhashani also boycotted the Pakistan national assembly Elections in December 1970. Not only that, he raised extremist/anarchic slogans, such as “Voter Agey Bhat Chai” (We Want Food Before the Elections), and asked people to support his “gherao” (“Encircle” mills, factories, public and private offices, and businesses) and “jalao” (“Burn Down”) movements. Thanks to Bhashani’s love for unbridled violence, East Pakistan witnessed unprecedented anarchy in late January through late March, eventuating the second military takeover in Pakistan, under General Yahya Khan on 25th March 1969.

    As I have mentioned in my article, pro-Bhashani mobs killed many Muslim League party (of Ayub Khan) leaders and workers in small towns and rural areas. There were instances of mobs burning down properties, burning people alive, and gouging eyes of alleged criminals. And, there is no reason to justify Bhashani’s misdirected class war, in the name of his utopian Islamic Socialism across Pakistan. No wonder, Western media, including the Time magazine, called him the “Prophet of Violence” and the “Fire-eating Maulana”.

    So, I stick to my gun here: a) Bhashani precipitated a military takeover and the rise of Mujib, who eventually became a dictator in post-Liberation Bangladesh; b) the continuation of the Movement beyond 22nd February was unnecessary and counterproductive; c) killing people and burning down of newspaper buildings, and properties of ruling Muslim League leaders were unjustified. Last but not least, my article is not an essay on the 1969 Movement, but my eyewitness account as I saw the rise and the culmination of the Movement into something, which did not lead to democracy and the rule of law in Bangladesh in the long-run.

    REPLY
    • alaldulal@aol.com'
      R Chowdhury@Taj Hashmi
      January 30, 2020, 10:20 pm

      Thanks, Dr. Taj Hashmi.

      First, we are on a wrong trail. (I had received your response in an e-mail communication, which had the title "Barrister Rumin Farhana in the parliament." So, I thought he used the wrong trail.)

      Second, I am not sure if my article could be called a rebuttal to your earlier published one. I wrote what I saw and understood, and I quoted what others felt about some of your assertions.

      Third, you have the right to your opinion. So do I. I do not wish to impose my view on others.

      Fourth, I think people in this group are highly educated–far more than I am–greately experienced and respetable. Many of them might have experienced the 1969 Uprising themelves or gone through that historic period. They may not need any spoon feeding. They can have their own judgment.

      Finally, I mean no disrespect or aspersion to anyone. If my writings hurt anyone, rightly or wrongly, my apology.

      R Chowdhury

      REPLY
  • abahar.canada@gmail.com'
    abid bahar
    January 31, 2020, 7:20 am

    Dr. Taj Hasmi`s reference in R Chowdhury`s article:

    Recently, R Chowdhury, an authority on Bangladesh politics, contributed a piece on the anti Ayub 1969 uprising in the then East Pakistan, whose undisputed leader was Mawlana Bhasani. R. Chowdhury quoted Dr. Hashmi in his article which brought Dr. Hashmi`s quite impulsive reaction. True, it is normal for someone like Dr. Hashmi, who was originally from a Urdu speaking background still having his deep loyalty to Pakistan (shown in his article quoted by R Chowdhury above and his reaction below). It seems Hashmi finds it hard to accept the realities of the bloody birth of Bangladesh. Thereby, he blames it all to Mawlana Bhasani. In a way this is a complement to Bhasani who from very early on envisioned a Bengali speaking people`s nation in Eastern Part of India. To actualize this dream, he built institutions like the Awami party, the newspaper Ittifaq and he even supported and led Mujib and the pro separatist groups from behind like a Shepard to a flock. But Dr. Hashmi`s intention to put down Bhasani seems to derive from his to pro-Pakistan bias. Of course, it is his personal choice to keep his commitment to Pakistan, but for a researcher like him, we wonder, is it a research based understanding of Bangladesh politics or it comes from his deeply rooted bias? In the name of research, what a a tamasha!!!

    REPLY
  • jukhan@gmail.com'
    Q M Jalal Khan
    February 1, 2020, 12:04 am

    The two narrowly differing views (one with the Mawlana being seen almost without any blemishes,  all his actions being politically wise and correct for the cause of the people of East Pakistan,  and another portraying the Mawlana as a great political personality significantly contributing to the same cause but perhaps not without faults in launching unnecessary violent agitation at times) have been mutually agreed upon to stand on their own without further escalation by the parties concerned.  That’s the beauty of variety and the widely accepted "agree to disagree" principle.  Differences of opinions and perspectives are always welcome in any objective and academic discourse, as long as they do not willfully distort, pervert, mutilate and amputate vital parts of history. Unfortunately,  that’s what the Hasina regime is doing–revising and rendering history totally irrelevant and vacuous and rewriting history at will to suit its selfish and nefarious agenda and cutting it into fragments with a brutal and bellicose bias and tailoring them back into a loose and cut-paste Awami narrative where history or the truth of history is the main victim or casualty. As a result, there is no place for the great sons of the soil such as Mawlana Bhasani, Sir Salimullah, Hussain Shahid Suhrawardy, Sher-e-Bangla, Abul Hashim, and Ziaur Rahman in the Hasina regime’s "Say No to History."

    REPLY

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