Was it Declaration of Independence or Bluff?
“এবারের সংগ্রাম আমাদের মুক্তির সংগ্রাম। এবারের সংগ্রাম স্বাধীনতার সংগ্রাম। “(Ebarer songram amader muktir songram. Ebarer songram swadhinotar songram. Struggle this time is for our freedom…. for our independence.”)
Those were the words Sheikh Mujibur Rahman pitched before a huge crowd at the Dhaka’s Race Course on March 7, 1971. Not all in the crowd, many wielding sticks, were impressed. They came to hear something else from their leader. They wanted a clear declaration of independence of Bangladesh, for which they were hyped up for some time. They thought they had already “struggled” for 23 years, if not more. It was the time to say final goodbye to Pakistan.
(Mujib’s Awami League won majority in the December 1970 elections. Paradoxically, all his seats, 160 of 300, were in East Pakistan and none in the other half of Pakistan. Similarly, Pakistan People’s Party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto won all its 81 members in West Pakistan and none in the eastern half. That was an ominous signal for the Islamic nation where it was heading!)
President General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan called for the inaugural session of the newly elected National Assembly to be held in Dhaka on March 3, 1971. Sheikh Mujib, as he was popularly called, looked forward to his moment of glory. But the generals and the Punjabi overlords were not amused at the prospect of a Bengali to be in charge in Islamabad. They had their own plan.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declined to attend the Opening Session, nor would he allow others from West Pakistan to travel to Dhaka, just to “endorse Mujib’s Six Points.”
(The military and West Pakistani leaders considered the Six-Point a formula for ultimate secession of East Pakistan from its western half. They also suspected, rightly or wrongly, an Indian hand in it).
On March 1, 1971, President Yahya Khan succumbed to Bhutto’s mischief, or found it an excuse, and cancelled the assembly session. That infuriated Sheikh Mujib, his party and the Bengalis at large, who had thought that their days of neglect, deprivation and suffering would come to an end with a man of their own deciding their fate. Mujib called for total non-cooperation with Islamabad and asked the provincial officials to take orders from him. All outward banking transactions were stopped. Food and utility supplies to the military establishments were limited. He called for a protest rally on March 7 at the Dhaka Race Course. The students and radical elements of the Awami League demanded a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI).
Mujib came, delivered his 18-minute speech and left the podium without talking to anyone. He started his delivery with his usual style of blaming Pakistani rulers for letting the Bengalis down for the past more than two decades and stuffs like Ek khan gelen, aren khan elen (one Khan went and another Khan stepped in, hinting at Yahya Khan’s takeover from Ayub Khan in 1969). Tuhin Reza (of Alochona) says in the News From Bangladesh on March 10, 2010 that “Mujib was jumping from one issue to another and the speech lacked coherency.” [[i]] He made four demands: 1) Withdrawal of Martial Law; 2) Return of the soldiers to the barracks; 3) Inquiry into the killing of Bengalis by military; and 4) Turnover the power to the elected representatives. The audience displayed impatience. They were not interested in further demands to the junta. They wanted an outright independence. That was the moment Mujib, a stage politician, waited. He raised his voice and roared: Ebarer songram amader muktir songram, abarer songram swadhinotar songram… He left the stage as quickly as he came leaving the audience largely perplexed. Of course, the Awami sycophants, Mujib followers and hired groups chanted whatever their leader said, irrespective of substances and irrespective of their understanding. But there were differing moods. Sticks grounded, banners folded, festoons-placards lowered, drums and music stopped playing. While leaving the place, one by one, group by group, people looked at each other posing questions. Few had answers. But they still kept their hopes alive. They had little choice.
Siddiq Salek in his book Witness to Surrender mentions two important events prior to the March 7 speech. First, at the midnight of March 6, Mujib sent two personal emissaries to Major General Khadim Hossain Raja, Dhaka’s military commander, with a request to go into custody. The emissaries explained, their chief was under pressure from the radical students and party hardliners to declare UDI, further adding that “doomed if he did, doomed if he didn’t.” Visibly disturbed by an untimely break in sleep, the general dismissed the idea. He wouldn’t make Mujib a martyr by arresting him at that crucial time in history. Second was a call from the US Ambassador in Islamabad on the morning of March 7 to warn Mujib that he could not count on the US, if he made the UDI. [ii] At page 43 of his book, Siddiq Salek mentions another incident. After a meeting with General Peerzada (President Yahya’s Principal Staff Officer), Governor Admiral Ahsan and Eastern Command’s Genera Rao Farman Ali on February 28, 1971 at the Governor’s House (today’s Bongabhaban), Mujib told Farman Ali point blank, “I am between two fires. I will be killed either by the Army or the extremist elements in my party. Why don’t you arrest me? Just give me a ring and I will come over;”
Dr. Kalidas Baidya, a strong pro-Indian physician and close to Mujib, gives a different story in his book: ‘অন্তরালের শেখ মুজিব’ (Sheikh Mujib, Behind the Scene). Fearing Mujib might declare the independence, President Yahya requested the US Ambassador to pursue the Bengali leader not to do it. If Mujib agreed, he would be offered the position of the Prime Minister. If he didn’t, consequences would be serious. Mujib accepted the offer. Due to this behind-the-scene arrangement, he was late for the Race Course by 30 minutes.[iii] Whatever the reasons, Mujib came short of declaring the independence.
Making of the Speech
Dr. Zafarullah Chowdhury of Gonoshasthaya Kendra claims that student leader Sirajul Alam Khan was the drive behind what Mujib was to say on March 7. The fact was also corroborated by A S M Abdur Rob, chief of the Jatio Samajtantrik Dal. Sirajul Alam Khan not only gave the points to Mujib but also advised him when and how to deliver the key words: Ebarer songram muktir songram…swadhinotar songram. Mujib rehearsed the speech a few times before the students.[iv] Yet another claim came from Dr. Kamal Hossain in the Bangladesh Independence Documents. Upon request from Sheikh Mujib, he had made an English draft of the speech. It was said to have been discussed at the party meeting on March 6. If these assertions were to be believed, the credit—or the confusion–for the March 7 speech should not go to Mujib alone.
Nonetheless, Sheikh Mujib’s March 7 speech was great! His outstanding oratorical skill sustained a sense of hope among the Bengalis. But what happened after March 7 baffled most people. They wondered if the call of “struggle for freedom and independence” was a bluff!
Was it a Declaration for Independence?
From the heavily edited version of Sheikh Mujib’s speech, circulated by the Awami regimes, it is very difficult for the newer generations to know what the leader had said in 18 minutes. Independent observers who attended the March 7 rally or heard speech over radio/TV, do recall some salient points. Tuhin Reza thought, other than this “struggle for independence,” Sheikh Mujib never mentioned the word “INDEPENDENCE’ before. Later, when pressed by the journalists if it was a declaration of independence, Mujib gave a vague answer, “it can be interpreted in many ways.” Reza went a little further: the Awami chief added Joy (Victory) for each of the provinces of the Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and Frontier before ending with Joy Bangla, Joy Pakistan.”
Sheikh Mujib’s fight for provincial autonomy was no secret. Prior to the 1970 election, the Awami League campaigned for the 6-Point Program, which was for economic independence and maximum autonomy for East Pakistan (6-Point was later amended to include other provinces of Pakistan). Never did Mujib say a word of independent East Pakistan or Bangladesh during the campaign. In his book The End and the Beginning: Pakistan 1969-71, Herbert Feldman refuses to agree to the Awami claim that Mujib had been dreaming for an independent Bangladesh since 1947.[v] Nor did Abul Mansur Ahmed, who said that Mujib had always concluded his speech with “Joy Bangla” and “Joy Pakistan”.[vi] Tuhin Reza added, the Oath-Taking Form distributed to the 419 Awami League elected members had “Joy Bangla” and “Joy Pakistan” on it. After conducting the oath on January 3, 1971, Mujib ended with “Joy Pakistan.”
In any case, move for independence of East Bengal did not commence in 1971. In his article Road to Independence, R Chowdhury traces the fight for independence of Bengali Muslims from early part of the last century, by Sir Salimullah and was routed through Sher-e-Bangla A K Fazlul Haq, Maulana Bhasani and the final Declaration of Independence by Major Ziaur Rahman on March 27, 1971. [vii]
(Politician and author B D Habibullah in his book Sher-e-Bangla, had designated Sher-e-Bangla A K Fazlul Haq as the Father of the Nation for his uncompromising role in 1954, when as Chief Minister of East Pakistan he clearly told the Center that his ultimate goal was the independence of East Bengal. [viii])
Keep Pakistan United
What was inexplicable that after giving the call for Swadhinotar Songram (struggle for independence) on March 7, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman went to negotiate with President Yahya Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and other central leaders to craft the future of a united Pakistan. Mujib received the impression that he would become the Prime Minister of the country. For the Yahya led junta, it was a ploy to gain time to militarize East Pakistan to the teeth for a showdown against the Bengalis. Planes and ships carrying troops and armaments kept arriving in Dhaka and Chittagong daily before the very eyes of Mujib. One wonders why was it difficult for Mujib to visualize what the junta was up to, unless he was too naive, or a party to it? Even a street urchin knew that those soldiers had not come for a picnic in East Pakistan. Mujib made no objections to the arriving military personnel and kept negotiating.
Until the evening of March 25, 1971, Mujib entertained the hope of becoming the Prime Minister of Pakistan and inquired from Dr. Kamal Hossain, his conduit, if the president made the proposed proclamation about the transfer of power (to him). According to Syed Badrul Ahsan, Executive Editor of the Daily Star, when Dr. Kamal Hossain “bade goodbye to Mujib around 10 pm on March 25, the Awami League chief asked him if he had received any phone call from the regime (Junta). Hossain replied in the negative.” [x] Little did Mujib know that Yahya had already left Dhaka after ordering the “Operation Searchlight,” aimed at “teaching the Bengalis a lesson,” to commence that night (March 25). When the news of ensuing military crackdown reached Mujib, he realized that he had been duped. The supposed seasoned politician fell victim of his own follies and became a fraidy cat. What a leader!
Mujib Declined to Join Songram
In the evening of March 25, 1971, when the songram knocked at the door, Mujib refused to join it. Why? Political Strategy? Or, simply chickened out?
(In the late 1970s, veteran Awami Leaguer Mizanur Rahman Chowdhury commented to the writer that “Sheikh Saheb usually preferred jail time to facing the crisis.” Siddiq Salek’s testified it too.).
Mujib even declined to sign the Declaration of Independence that Tajuddin Ahmad, Secretary General of the Awami League, prepared. “It will be an evidence of treason against me,” argued Mujib. To pacify a disappointed Tajuddin, he advised his deputy to go home and sleep tight, because he had called for Hartal (stoppage) for March 27. [xi] Behind the facade, Mujib made arrangement through the US Ambassador to surrender to the military and for the protection of his family.
Collaboration with the Military
Shortly after midnight on March 25, a commando platoon picked up Mujib and his wife from their residence at Dhaka’s posh Dhanmondi area. Not a bullet was fired, as it was prearranged. They stayed at the newly built MNA Hostel at Sher-e-Bangla Nagar for a night or two. Mujib was then taken to Dhaka Cantonment and later flown to Karachi, West Pakistan. Begum Mujib was sent to her family that was housed at 18 Dhanmondi for the entire period of the war. They received military protection and free food supply, in addition to Rupees 1500 per month as pocket money. Hasina delivered son Joy in July 1971 in the military hospital in Dhaka amid much fanfare by the soldiers. In his book Amar Fansi Chai, Motiur Rahman Rentu quoted Sheikh Hasina saying that General Tikka Khan visited them regularly and respectfully checked their welfare. Tikka was otherwise known as the “Butcher of Bengalis” for committing one of the worst genocides of the century in East Pakistan during those days. Sheikh Hasina also acknowledged that her grandmother was helicoptered from their village home in Tungipara to Dhaka for a minor treatment. That spoke of the understanding and close collaboration between Mujib, his family and the Pakistan military.
Initially, people believed the story that Mujib was “arrested.” Later, authentic sources revealed it was a “surrender.” Sheikh Hasina herself claimed that her mother had packed her father’s suitcase in advance. As the facts came to the open, what surprised people that Mujib cared for the safety for himself and his family but ignored the 70 million Bengalis who had reposed their trust in him. They were left to face the military’s bullets and brutalities, which Mujib claimed to have killed 3 million. What a Bangobandhu (Friend of Bengalis)!
Mujib asked the people: “তোমরা (হানাদারদের বিরুদ্ধে) ঘরে ঘরে দুর্গ গড়ে তোল। (Turn every house into a fortress of resistance”). Mujib’s own family residence at Dhaka’s 18 Dhanmondi during the war was a fortress too, but it was guarded by Pakistani soldiers!
“মনে রাখবা, রক্ত যখন দিয়েছি, রক্ত আরও দেবো। এই দেশের মানুষকে মুক্ত করে ছাড়বো, ইনশাআল্লাহ। (Remember, we shed blood. We will shed more and free the people of Bangladesh. God willing),” said Mujib on March 7. Very emotional oratory, indeed! In the nine months of war and Pakistani brutalities, streams of blood did flow over the country, but not a drop from the Mujib family. They were safe under Pakistani protection.
Strangely, Sheikh Hasina and Mujib followers maintain complete silence on these issues.
On April 1, 1971, front pages of almost all dailies of Pakistan published an image of Mujib in a clean outfit–his trademark white kurta-pajama, black half-overcoat and pipe in hand– surrounded by police escorts at Karachi airport.
Ahmad U Shihab
March 1, 2020
The writer lived through the crucial period of Bangladesh independence movement and was greatly imbued by Sheikh Mujib’s call of struggle for independence on March 7, 1971.
[ii] Siddiq Salek; Witness to Surrender, The University Press Ltd, Dhaka, 1997, p 53.
[iii] Dr. Kalidas Baidya, অন্তরালের শেখ মুজিব, 104 Ramlal Bazar, Kolkata, 2005, p 129.
[v] Herbert Feldman The End and the Beginning: Pakistan 1969-71, London: Oxford University Press, 1975.
[vi] Abul Mansur Ahmed, Sher-e-Bangla Haite Bangabandhu, 1972, Atto Katha, 1978.
[viii] B D Habibullah, Shere-e-Bangla, Barisal, 1969. Republished, Prothoma Prokashon, Dhaka, 2016, pp 62-63).
[x] Sharmin Ahmad, Tajuddin Ahmad: Neta o Pita, 2014).
[xi] Motiur Rahman Rentu, Amar
Fansi Chai, 1999, p. 99.