I am Zia Speaking
“In that case, we revolt,” Major Ziaur Rahman (March 25, 1971)
Zia is enmeshed in every paddy sheaf of Bangladesh. From every nook and corner, a voice continues to ring: I am Zia speaking.[I]
By R Chowdhury 25 March 2021
“I am Zia speaking.” That’s how Major Ziaur Rahman, Second-in-Command of 8 Bengal Regiment, began his historic Declaration of Independence of Bangladesh at the Kalurghat Radio Station in Chittagong on March 27, 1971. The first declaration went in Zia’s name. Later, it was changed to have been made on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
That was the first Declaration of Independence. The first call for a liberation war. A Japanese merchant ship anchored off Patenga Port picked it up and instantly relayed it. The message snowballed, and people within and outside Bangladesh came to know of it. There was no proof of any prior declaration of independence from any authority. Awami League supporters made various unsubstantiated claims that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman made the declaration of independence. They also claimed that Mujib-signed declaration was seen in the market. It could not be true. The Pakistan Army arrested Sheikh Mujib–according to most observers, he surrendered– before he could make any such move.
Mujib Declines Independence
Various sources confirmed that on the night of March 25, Secretary-General of the Awami League Tajuddin Ahamad, then fiery student leader A S M Abdur Rob, and some other political personalities met Sheikh Mujib at his 32 Dhanmondi residence. They had requested him to make an immediate declaration of independence and go into hiding. Mujib declined on the ground that such a declaration would amount to “treason.” He chose to surrender instead. He had made arrangements, through US Ambassador Joseph Farland in Islamabad, for the terms of surrender.. His family would stay at their residence or a suitable nearby place under military protection. For the entire nine months, the Sheikh family, including Sheikh Hasina, remained safe at House Number 18 of Dhanmondi, under the protection of the Pakistan Army and receiving a fat monthly cash allowance and regular food supply from the Cantonment. Sheikh Hasina delivered son Sajeeb Joy at the military hospital in July 1971 amidst military fanfare. The military flew her grandmother from Tungipara to Dhaka for minor treatment.
Sheikh Mujib’s lifelong struggle was for the autonomy of East Pakistan. He never spoke or asked for independence. Until March 24, 1971, he discussed with the Islamabad leader about the unity and future framework of Pakistan. Most news media, including Dhaka’s Daily Ittefaq and Karachi’s Dawn, covered “progress” in the talks.
Whereas Mujib followers keep saying that Mujib’s March 7 speech was the Declaration of Independence. Wrong. First, Mujib’s Ebarer songram, shadhinotar songram, ebarer songram amader muktir songram (struggle this time is for independence, for our freedom) is not a declaration; it is a call for struggle. Second, if it was the declaration of independence, why was Mujib negotiating with Pakistani leaders from March 15 to 25, 1971? Certainly, he was not negotiating the terms of independence! He was discussing how to save the unity and integrity of Pakistan.
On the other hand, during those talks, the Yahya-Tikka junta continued to transfer thousands of military personnel with heavy equipment from West Pakistan to East Pakistan by air and sea. As a politician, was it difficult for Sheikh Mujib to visualize Pakistan’s game plan? Punjabis were not coming for a picnic! A military showdown loomed large! It was to “teach Bengalis a lesson!” It would, therefore, not be wrong to assume that Mujib was a party to the “lesson to Bengalis.”
From the books of Major Rafiqul Islam (Lokkho Praner Binimoye) and Air Vice-Marshal Khandakar (1971: Bhitore Baire) and others, it was known that senior Bengali officers in Chittagong came to learn of the military’s Bengali massacre plan. Following several secret meetings among Lieutenant Colonel M R Chowdhury, Major Ziaur Rahman, Captain Rafiqul Islam, and others, they sent Captain Amin Ahmed Chowdhury to Dhaka to convey the situation to Sheikh Mujib and seek advice. If political blessing was received, they could take precautionary steps or counter-attacks to avert the tragedy. The message was conveyed to Mujib around March 17-23 through Colonel M A G Osmany. Sheikh Mujib never took the military seriously, nor did he look at them kindly. Not this time either. He dismissed the idea saying, “I am talking with the Pakistanis, and there has been considerable progress. I will not tolerate any audacious preemptive action on the part of our military.”
A disappointed Captain Amin returned to Chittagong. As such, Sheikh Mujib could be held responsible, even if partially, for the military’s annihilation of Bengalis starting from the night of March 25. If precautionary steps could be taken in advance, thousands of people could be saved. Bengali elements in the military, BDR, Police, Ansar, even most students, and a section of the public were ready to resist the military attacks. Unfortunately, they did not receive any political direction for such countermeasures. Reason? Sheikh Mujib was waiting until March 25 that there would be a deal under which he would become Pakistan’s prime minister.
“In that case, we revolt”
Back to Ziaur Rahman. Seagoing ship MV Swat was docked at the Chittagong Port for some time. It contained military equipment brought from China. Bengali stevedores would not allow their unloading, nor would the people allow the weapons to be taken to the Cantonment. The local public erected many barricades all the way from the port to the Cantonment. Cantonment’s Punjabi EBRC (East Bengal Regiment Center) Commandant Brigadier Ansari wanted to use a senior Bengali officer for the job to fix the issue. He decided to use the 8 Bengal Regiment under Ziaur Rahman to unload the weapons and transport them to the Cantonment.
Ziaur Rahman was reluctant for such a troop-fatigue job. He declined, arguing he had more pressing tasks in the unit. He also didn’t want the weapons to reach the military because they would ultimately be used against the Bengalis. Later, under the insistence of his Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Rashid Janjua, he had to comply, perforce. A Naval Punjabi Lieutenant came from Patenga to take Zia. Additionally, Colonel Janjua assigned a Punjabi Captain as Zia’s escort. According to most analysts, that was to be Zia’s final journey!
On the night of March 25, the Pakistan military’s Operation Searchlight, in other words, Bengali Killing, commenced in the Chittagong Cantonment. The marauding forces were advancing towards the 8 Bengal Regiment at Sholoshahar and the city. 8 Bengal was in trouble. Captain Chowdhury Khaliquzzaman rushed to Ziaur Rahman. Because of the numerous barricades on the way, Zia’s port going was slow. Khaliquzzaman got him at Agrabad, just ahead of Dewanhat. A pensive Major was standing by a running truck while the soldiers and sailors were clearing a barricade in front under the two officers’ supervision. Khaliquzzaman quietly approached Ziaur Rahman and apprised him of the situation in the Cantonment. He further said that 8 Bengal was ready and waited for his orders. Zia immersed himself in deep thought, but only for a while.
“In that case, we revolt,” Zia made the definitive but suppressed roar.
They decided on the next course of action. Khaliquzzaman casually walked to the officers and told them that he brought a message from Commandant Ansari and Colonel Janjua that 8 Bengal troops did not have to go to the port. Zia was asked to report to his unit. The Naval officer did not suspect any foul play. He gathered his sailors and made way to his base at Patenga.
Call for Independence and Liberation
Zia’s team returned to 8 Bengal. He arrested the accompanying Punjabi escort officer and sent him to the Quarter Guard (Regimental Security Cell). Then he rushed to the residence of Colonel Janjua and arrested him too. Other Punjabi officers were also rounded up and sent to the Quarter Guard.
Soon a Pakistani commando unit and other forces attacked 8 Bengal. The truncated unit under Ziaur Rahman fought them back, but the uneven fight left him with heavy losses. (8 Bengal was understaffed because an Advance Party of a company strength had already gone to Multan where it was under order to move). As the situation was untenable, Zia’s forces retreated towards Kalurghat while giving fights to the enemy. One agitated Bengali youngster shot the confined Punjabi officers before leaving the unit. At Kalurghat, Ziaur Rahman made the historic Declaration of Independence on March 27, 1971. The whole nation and the rest of the world heard it.
Though officially, the liberation war commenced on March 25, this message gave the fighters a definitive direction, which was missing so far. The rejuvenated freedom fighter consolidated their stands and made a united effort in fighting the enemy. Major Zia succeeded in providing the much-needed leadership at a crucial historical juncture when the political leaders failed to do so.
Under Sheik Hasina, the present Awami League tried virtually everything to ignore, disown and oust Ziaur Rahman from the history of Bangladesh. They enacted the law to make Sheikh Mujib the “ghostly” declarer of independence without presenting any evidence. What a distortion of history! Mujib himself never denied the declaration made by Zia, nor did he claim to be the declarer. But he was not pleased with Zia’s incredible feat either.
Sheikh Mujib was not in the war. But people from all walks of life fought for nine months, bled a sea of blood, and won Bangladesh. Ziaur Rahman stood tall as the successful leader of this struggle, this war, this independence. As a punishment (to demean his heroic role), Zia was superseded, and his junior KM Safiullah was made the Army Chief. However, it was difficult to ignore the popularity, honesty, and integrity of the war leader. The post of the Deputy Chief of Army was created, and Zia was accommodated there.
Zia Gets Position He Deserved
After the political change on August 15, 1971, Zia was made the Army Chief that he so rightly deserved. But an ambitious Brigadier Khaled Mosharraf could not digest it. He had hitherto been making friendly overtures with the leaders of the August 15 Coup (Major Farooq, a coup leader, was his nephew) for the coveted post of the Army Chief. It did not work. Arrogantly, he, along with a few of his cohorts, staged the notorious military putsch on November 3, 1975. He arrested President Moshtaque Ahmed and Army Chief General Ziaur Rahman. But Khaled could not hold on to his vicious game. People soon identified him as pro-Awami and pro-Indian element and rejected him outright.
“After a long time, we tasted a little peace and good life following August 15; it is lost today,” grumbled a pedestrian at Dhaka’s Farmgate on November 4.
The Sepoy-Public Revolution of November 7 rescued Mostaque and Zia. Colonel Abu Taher had a role in this revolution; –it was to materialize his ultra-radical ideology. But the common soldiers and general public didn’t go that way. They diverted the movement in the right direction.
While Khaled was on the run after his conspiracy failed, soldiers of his own wartime unit, 10th Bengal, killed him along with his running mates Colonel Huda and Colonel Hyder at the city’s Sher-e-Bangla Nagar.
Again, on November 7, Ziaur Rahman called to the nation: “I am Zia speaking….” People calmed down. The country returned to normalcy and stability. People put Zia in-charge of the country, which re-started with multi-party democracy. The rejuvenated nation moved fast towards all-around progress. The “Bottomless Basket Case” of Sheikh Mujib soon became a rice-exporting country. Bangladesh stood with honor and respect among the international community.
Such outstanding and rare success of President Ziaur Rahman became intolerable to the Awami League, more so to Mujib-daughter Sheikh Hasina. In contrast, Zia allowed Hasina to return to the country from her self-exile since 1975. It was a matter of great tragedy that within weeks of her arrival, Ziaur Rahman was killed at Chittagong Circuit House on May 30, 1981.
According to Amar Fansi Chai[ii] by Motiur Rahman Rentu, a onetime aide of Hasina, she was involved in eliminating Zia; the plan was said to be masterminded by RAW, India’s intelligence agency. Reportedly, Sheikh Hasina was caught while trying to flee to Agartala, India, through the border at Kasba, near Comilla. The question arises, did Hasina know that Zia would be killed? Was she waiting at the border if the assassination failed?
Differing Standing of Mujib and Zia at Passing
No Inna Lillahi was heard at the death of Sheikh Mujib. It was difficult to find people to do his funeral rites. On the contrary, more than two million mourners gathered at the funeral of Ziaur Rahman. What else can be the example of differing popularity at the passing of the two leaders?
However hard Sheikh Hasina and her Awami goons try to remove Ziaur Rahman’s legacy, Zia is enmeshed in every paddy sheaf of Bangladesh. From every nook and corner, the voice continues to ring: I am Zia speaking.
Write is a former soldier, freedom fighter, and diplomat. Spends retired life in reading, writing, and gardening. Published three books, and a few are in the pipeline.
[I] The original Bangla was published in the Weekly Thikana of New York and an online media in Germany in March 2011.
[ii] Motiur Rahman Rentu, Amar Phansi Chai, 1999 Online link: