The Politics of Independence of Bangladesh

The Politics of Independence of Bangladesh

Historians still do not have all the records they need to fully understand the freedom struggle of Bangladesh and offer a proper appreciation of the role of all the participants. Political parties remain justifiably attached to their founders; partisans attached to India and Pakistan also have their memories, points of view and all merit attention. To recover the deeper history of independence, however, scholars need to study its popular dimensions, and, in that light, it is most obvious those radical student leaders and countless lesser lights in the people’s struggle for independence still do not have the place in history they deserve.

The year 2011 is the 40th anniversary of the 1971 war that produced an independent Bangladesh. A range of publications have begun to appear on the subject, looking back to reassess what went on at the time, and to reinterpret the meaning of independence today. Historical perspectives on the 1971 manifest in the published work to date have been rather myopic, however, focusing narrowly on individual memories, on specific events during the war, and on questions of blame for atrocities. The political context of that violence has been neglected, particularly as it concerns the passions that energized Bengali freedom fighters, and in Bangladesh, that political context is obscured by controversy over who first declared independence and should thus be considered the father of the nation.

The bare facts of the declaration of independence are these. On 10 April 1971, the provisional government of Bangladesh at Mujibnagar proclaimed independence by confirming an earlier declaration, dated 26 March, by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. On 27 March, Major Ziaur Rahman of the East Bengal Regiment declared independence on radio at Swadhin Bangla Betarkendra, in Kalurghat, Chittagong, affirming that Sheikh Mujib was the leader of the government. At the time, these statements were not competitive, nor did they express partisan oppositions. Both emerged in a complex political history that included numerous other declarations of independence, in various idioms, whose implications remain intriguing subjects for research, debate, and interpretation.

Later in the 1970s, however, politics inside Bangladesh produced starkly opposed attachments to declarations by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman, respectively. Ever since, the question of who declared independence has been trapped in partisan agendas that demand a choice between two dates, two declarations, and two authors, each associated, respectively, with one of two political parties, each of which reveres one of these two men as its founding father.

Historically, however, it is quite obvious that whoever is assigned the honor of having first officially declared independence, those words themselves do not explain much of anything about the political context in which they appeared or about the independence struggle as a whole, let alone about the depth of feeling that motivated Bengali freedom fighters. It is the historian’s task to use all available documentation to form an understanding of these declarations in the context of their time and place.

Long-term View

A very long-term view of history indicates that people living in the land that became Bangladesh had in fact declared independence many times, in many idioms, over the centuries. Political theorists and historians would also insist that even in the 20th century, the term “independence” has not been used only to mean national state sovereignty. Historically, proclamations of independence have taken many forms, each appropriate in its own setting.

When reconstructing the context that came into existence for the very first time in 1971, we should avoid the temptation to infuse contemporary textual evidence with interpretative interpolations from later times. At that time, declarations of independence could hark back to a very long remembered past, which goes back many centuries, when the land that became Bangladesh was an agrarian and economic frontier in the eastward moving delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers. The land first attained a definite political identity in 1905, with a hotly controversial partition of Bengal presidency, which remained in force until 1911. The remembered legacy of those six years remains distinct today in the Bangladesh national anthem, which is extracted from a song composed by Rabindranath Tagore, in 1906. But when freedom fighters sang Amar Sonar Bangla, in 1971, the poet’s original words had entirely different meanings than they did in the original context of 1906. Tagore sang lovingly about a Bengal which had suffered imperial partition, separating East from West Bengal, but in 1971, fervent choruses of Joy Bangla and Amar Sonar Bangla rang out together to evoke another Bengal, which Tagore never knew, whose people fought for freedom from Pakistan.

Two Visions of Independence

One vision of independence resembled that of the Muslim League, before 1947, and sought political autonomy and self-rule for East Pakistan, inside Pakistan. This constitutional vision of independence emerged in the halls of electoral politics and prescribed East Pakistan’s autonomy within a federal Pakistan constitution, which proponents of this vision sought to create to free East Pakistan from domination by West Pakistan.

Another vision emerged outside constitutional politics, most emphatically among students. It resembled the vision of radicals in India who demanded freedom from British India as early as 1905. It also paralleled the evolution of the vision of the Muslim League after 1941, when calls for independence invoked the “two nation theory” that eventually rationalized British India’s partition in 1947. The popular vision of independence in East Pakistan likewise imagined national sovereignty for a new Bengali nation, which came into being inside Pakistan

These two political visions of independence – federation and sovereignty – had separate origins and thrived in different circles. Yet they informed one another and always overlapped in the context of Pakistan, as they had in the context of British India. In 1952, students led the language movement and established a popular base for Bengali politics outside constitutionalism. In 1954, voters again voiced their independent spirit by supporting the United Front, which demolished the Muslim League in East Bengal elections and framed a 21-point blueprint for regional autonomy. When the new 1956 Pakistan constitution rejected that idea of autonomy, Awami League president Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani said that if East Pakistan’s grievances were not addressed adequately, Pakistan would become untenable for Bengalis. In 1962, after four years of military rule, following Ayub Khan’s 1958 coup, a clandestine group of students, called the Bengal Liberation Force formed a secret plan to develop the idea of a Bengali national revolution. Thus, by 1962, the two visions of independence had taken political form and overlapped to some extent.

In the 1960s, economic disparities between East and West increased, and the idea that Pakistan consisted of two economies and two polities grew among East Pakistan intellectuals, who formed an increasingly influential circle for the interaction of the two visions of independence. The combination of the language movement’s Bengali cultural nationalism with a 1960s critique of Pakistan’s political economy composed a new kind of “two nation theory” inside Pakistan. The 1965 war between India and Pakistan dramatized East Pakistan’s military vulnerability compared to West Pakistan. To address disparities between East and West Pakistan, Awami League president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman announced a six-point programme, in 1966, demanding that East and West Pakistan form a federated state.

Agartala Conspiracy Case

In 1967, Ayub Khan’s government responded by implicating Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 34 others in an alleged conspiracy to make East Pakistan independent by armed uprising. As a result of the Agartala Conspiracy Case (State vs. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and others), Sheikh Mujib spent almost three years in jail, from 8 May 1966 to 22 January 1969. During this time, a mass popular movement arose against the Agartala Conspiracy Case and the Ayub Khan regime. In 1968, Left politicians and students published a Programme for Independent Republic of Purba Bangla, and raised the slogan, “Establish Independent Republic of Purba Bangla”. Jailing the constitutional leadership had opened up political space for public demands for sovereignty, which added new force to federal demands.

In 1969, a new popular movement led by student organizations combined calls for federalism with passionate assertions of Bengali nationalism. On 4 January, the new Sarbadaliya Chhatra Sangram Parishad (SCSP – All Parties Student Resistance Council) announced an 11-point charter for self-government in East Pakistan, and evoked freedom with slogans like, “awake, awake Bengalis, awake”; “brave Bengalis, take up arms and make Bangladesh independent”; “your desh, my desh, Bangladesh, Bangladesh”. Cries of “Joy Bangla” appeared in public instead of “Pakistan zindabad”.

On 22 January 1969, the popular uprising forced Ayub Khan to withdraw the Agartala Conspiracy Case and to release Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. On 22 February, the SCSP held a huge rally to honor Sheikh Mujib, at Ramna Race Course, in Dhaka, with Tofael Ahmed, an SCSP leader, presiding. Tofael Ahmed proposed to adorn Sheikh Mujib with the nationalist title, Bangabandhu. His proposal met rousing endorsement from the crowd. Cries of “Joy Bangla” came from all corners of the Ramna Race Course and appeared prominently in media coverage.

From that day onward, Sheikh Mujib’s charisma and authority ascended with the public activity of students whose vision of independence was not the same as his but it gave him strength, as his gave theirs hope and legitimacy. Bangabandhu could thus pursue his constitutional vision with faith in popular support. On 10 March 1969, he presented the Awami League’s “six-point” federation plan at a Rawalpindi round table conference, where West Pakistan politicians rejected it as a plan to dismember Pakistan. Thus by 1969, the two visions of independence in East Pakistan became indistinguishable in West Pakistan, and probably had been by 1966, if not 1954. By 1969, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib symbolized both, though he himself pursued only one vision, a constitutional vision of a federated, egalitarian Pakistan.

On 25 March 1969, Ayub Khan resigned. General Yahya Khan imposed martial law and on 28 November, decreed elections be held the next year. East Pakistan received 162 of the 300 general seats and five indirectly elected female seats in the unicameral National Assembly. East Pakistan politics then entered its climactic phase and the two visions became inextricably entangled.

On 28 October 1970, Sheikh Mujib detailed his federal scheme in an election speech on Radio Pakistan, inviting voters in Pakistan to help him frame a federal constitution. Natural calamity then again dramatized disparities between East and West, as war had done, in 1965. The result was again more vociferous demands for independence in the East.

On 12 November 1970, a huge cyclone devastated East Pakistan’s coastal districts, and victims received little help from government. On 23 November 1970, Moulana Bhasani declared, at a mass meeting Dhaka’s Paltan Maidan, that government indifference to cyclone victims proved Pakistan had by then become anachronistic and pointless; he ended his speech saying, “East Pakistan zindabad”.

Three days later, in a press conference on his return from cyclone-devastated areas, Sheikh Mujib declared that the government’s failure to help cyclone victims was a failure of Pakistan more than of Yahya Khan’s regime, and he concluded that, “East Pakistan must achieve self-rule by ballot if possible, and by bullet, if necessary”. A week later, on 4 December, the Student League demanded the release of all political prisoners and raised two new slogans: “Peasants and workers: take up arms to make Bangladesh independent!” and “Raise a ganabahini (people’s force) to make Bangladesh independent!”

Thus by the time of elections on 7 and 17 December 1970, the two visions of independence were tightly entangled in the minds of many people in East and West Pakistan alike. Yet they were not the same, and not united, politically. The Awami League’s election victory officially represented mass support for six-point federalism. The Awami League won 288 of the 300 seats in the East Pakistan legislature and all of the allotted 167 the 300 seats in the National Assembly

Independence vs. Federalism

On 3 January 1971, constitutionalism returned to the original site of its popular appeal, the Ramna Race Course, where Sheikh Mujib led a meeting of all the elected East Pakistan representatives, who swore an oath to implement the Awami League’s six-point programme and the SCSP’s eleven point charter, both considered as the people’s trust, vested in East Pakistan’s elected government officials.

Today, in retrospect, we can see that events in February and early March 1971 ended any realistic possibility for a federated Pakistan, but this was not obvious then; and most certainly not obvious to Sheikh Mujib, who stood by his federation plan, on firm ground established by his constitutional principles, election mandate, and popular support. He stood on the threshold of becoming prime minister of Pakistan. Thus, he had reason to be hopeful, but new shocks soon arrived.

On 15 February 1971, two days after Yahya Khan announced that the National Assembly would meet at Dhaka on 3 March, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto declared his party could not join the assembly until negotiations removed problems posed by the Awami League’s six-point programme. On 21 February, Sheikh Mujib stood at the Shahid Minar in Dhaka, the symbol of language movement martyrdom, to restate his commitment to six-point federalism. He also declared that Bengalis must prepare to respond to any plot against their rights and interests. The next day, the plot appeared: Yahya Khan dissolved his cabinet, convened his generals, and resolved to solve the crisis in his own way.

Two days later, on 24 February 1971, Sheikh Mujib called a press conference to declare that the people of East Pakistan would fight to safeguard their democratic rights and to establish self-rule. On 28 February, Sheikh Mujib invited all members of the Pakistan National Assembly to join the Dhaka session, to help him compose a new democratic constitution for Pakistan. The same day, Z A Bhutto threatened that his party would boycott the Dhaka session. The next day, 1 March 1971, Yahya Khan cancelled the scheduled 3 March National Assembly meeting.

News of the cancellation sparked popular uprisings in Dhaka and Chittagong. Tens of thousands assembled outside the Purbani Hotel in Dhaka, where the Awami League Council was meeting, to demand that Sheikh Mujib immediately declare independent national sovereignty. Crowds burned the Pakistan flag. Student leaders formed an apex action committee, the Swadhin Bangla Kendriya Chhatra Sangram Parishad (SBKCSP), whose leaders – Noor Alam Siddiqi, Sahjahan Seraj, A S M Abdur Rob and Abdul Quddus Makhan – resolved to give collective leadership in the struggle for national independence

Independent National Sovereignty

In March 1971, the vision of independent national sovereignty became politically dominant, for the first time. Its organizational strength and mass appeal remained outside the halls of constitutionalism, where its origins lay and where student organizations had nurtured its evolution; but now it began to acquire influential Bengali adherents in government circles. On 2 March, spontaneous hartals occurred all over East Pakistan. People came from all over Dhaka and suburbs to the Bat-tala at Dhaka University, where crowds sang of national independence, SBKCSP leaders solemnly declared independence, and A S M Abdur Rob, a Student League leader and vice president of the Dhaka University Central Student Union, hoisted the flag of Bangladesh to the tumultuous applause and cries of “Joy Bangla”.

The next day, 3 March, the SBKCSP held a mammoth public meeting at Paltan Maidan and issued a declaration of Bangladesh independence, which began, Joy Bangla:

Proclamation of independence. Independence for Bangladesh is hereby declared. It is now an independent and sovereign country…. The name of this territory of 54,506 [square] miles is Bangla Desh…

The SBKCSP invited people to form resistance cells in every village, town and city. They sang Amar Sonar Bangla as the Bangladesh national anthem.

On 4 March, a complete hartal covered East Pakistan.

Business, administration, and media stopped functioning. The violence of imminent war also began with deaths during Bengali-Bihari clashes and army assaults in Chittagong, Khulna, and Dhaka. Maulana Bhashani gave a public ultimatum for immediate national independence. On 5 March, the Pakistan army fired on striking workers at Tongi. Many more died in army assaults in Chittagong, and also in more Bengali-Bihari riots. Protesters raised barricades to obstruct army movements and burned the wooden Tongi Bridge. Students in Dhaka mounted a huge lathi procession. Intellectuals and professionals took an oath of allegiance to national independence. On 6 March, General Tikka Khan became East Pakistan’s governor and martial law administrator, and crowds chased the army in Jessore, where Bengali-Bihari riots erupted.

Faced with popular rebellion, Yahya Khan announced that the National Assembly would convene on 25 March, in Dhaka. Yet the Awami League and all the other East Pakistan political parties continued with non-cooperation. At this point, Sheikh Mujib may have hoped to force open the door to a federal future with the promise of endless mass rebellion, should his sixpoint plan be again denied.

Events on 7 March 1971 dramatized Sheikh Mujib’s political predicament, for he was, at that moment, both the personification of a Bengali nation in the midst of a popular rebellion against Pakistan, and also the elected majority leader of parliament, poised to become Pakistan’s prime minister.

On 7 March, millions assembled to hear him at Ramna Race Course, chanting “Joy Bangla” and waving lathis to signal their readiness to fight. In his speech, Sheikh Mujib dwelled at length and in minute detail on his six-point programme and on his conditions for joining the National Assembly. Until the Pakistan regime met his conditions, he said, all offices, courts, and schools would be closed, all cooperation with the government suspended. He directed people to make every home a fortress and to fight with whatever they had ready in hand. He ended his speech by declaring: “This struggle is for emancipation! This struggle is for independence!”

His rousing speech had a double meaning. It evoked two meanings of independence by promoting constitutionalism and a freedom struggle. Despite its ambiguity, however, this landmark speech inspired a popular revolution, whose force and organization came from outside the halls of constitutional politics and quickly commandeered East Pakistan state institutions, as it generated numerous unambiguous declarations of national sovereignty, composed and endorsed by major public figures.

Non-Cooperation

On 8 March, non-cooperation intensified. All remittances to West Pakistan stopped. East Pakistan radio, television and administration obeyed Sheikh Mujib. On 9 March, the chief justice of Dhaka High Court refused to administer the oath of office to Tikka Khan. The Student League approved a declaration of independence and invited Sheikh Mujib to form a national government. Maulana Bhashani and Ataur Rahman Khan declared independence in a mass meeting at Paltan Maidan. Bhashani circulated a signed leaflet to explain the meaning of “independence”, which was complete national sovereignty.

On 10 March, Ataur Rahman Khan invited Sheikh Mujib to form an interim Bangladesh government immediately. On 11 March, Bengali associations of the East Pakistan Civil Service and Civil Service of Pakistan declared loyalty to Sheikh Mujib. On 14 March, the SBKCSP prepared for war, by raising checkpoints in Dhaka to stop military supplies and cargoes to West Pakistan. Ataur Rahman Khan again called on Sheikh Mujib to form an interim national government.

On 15 March, Yahya Khan arrived at Dhaka with senior generals and officers. The SBKCSP then proclaimed that Bangladesh was already independent, that the Pakistan government had no right to rule, and that Bangladesh would only obey orders from its chosen leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. They invited the citizens of Bangladesh to prepare for armed struggle. Nevertheless, on 16 March, Sheikh Mujib began talks with Yahya Khan. He continued to follow the constitutional path amidst a popular revolution led by loyal followers who rallied behind him but also pursued a vision of national sovereignty rushing along very different path.

As Sheikh Mujib continued his dialogue with Yahya Khan, the popular struggle entered its third week. On 18 March, the SBKCSP called on the world community to support Bangladesh national independence. On 19 March, East Bengal Regiments refused to fire on protesters. Fights broke out between East and West Pakistan soldiers at the Gazipur Ordnance Factory and Joydevpur cantonment. On 20 March, Maulana Bhashani held a press conference in Chittagong, where he asked Yahya Khan to form an interim government, with Sheikh Mujib as chief and to decide what relation independent Bangladesh would have with Pakistan. Pictures of the Bangladesh national flag appeared in newspapers on 22 March.

On 23 March 1971, Pakistan Day became a People’s Independence Day in Bangladesh. The SBKCSP led the mass rejection of Pakistan Day and directed all nationalists to hoist the Bangladesh flag on homes, offices, and vehicles. At Paltan Maidan, the Joy Bangla Bahini held an independence parade, where SBKCSP leaders received salutes from uniformed platoons, which saluted the national flag and sang the national anthem, Amar Sonar Bangla. Led by the SBKCSP, 10 platoons and a “Joy Bangla” Bahini band paraded to Shiekh Mujib’s house, where they raised the national flag. On 24 March, soldiers chanted “Joy Bangla and saluted the Bangladesh flag at the Jessore headquarters of East Pakistan Rifles.

On 25 March Chittagong port workers and officers refused to unload cargoes from the Swat, a ship from Karachi full of military ordnance. The people of Chittagong raised barricades on major roads to stall Pakistani troops. Yahya Khan and West Pakistani leaders left Dhaka, and at midnight, the Pakistan army launched a brutal assault.

Official Declarations

These events set the stage for official declarations that came to represent the
authoritative assertion that Bangladesh had attained national independence and was fighting for national sovereignty on the battlefield.

Shortly after midnight, on 26 March, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman dispatched his aides from his house and awaited arrest by the Pakistan army. At this time, he reportedly sent this message to East Pakistan Radio:

This may be my last message. From today, Bangladesh is independent. I call upon the people of Bangladesh wherever you might be and with whatever you have, to resist the army of occupation to the last. Your fight must go on until the last soldier of the Pakistan occupation army is expelled from the soil of Bangladesh and final victory is achieved.

On 27 March, major Ziaur Rahman of East Bengal Regiment broadcast this message from the Swadhin Bangla Betarkendra at Kalurghat, Chittagong:

Major Zia, Provisional Commander-in-Chief of the Bangladesh Liberation Army, hereby proclaims, on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the independence of Bangladesh. I also declare, we have already framed a sovereign, legal government under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which pledges to function as per law and the constitution. The new democratic government is committed to a policy of non-alignment in international relations. It will seek friendship with all nations and strive for international peace. I appeal to all governments to mobilize public opinion in their respective countries against the brutal genocide in Bangladesh. The government under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is sovereign legal government of Bangladesh and is entitled to recognition from all democratic nations of the world.

On 30 March again, from Swadhin Bangla Betarkendra, Major Ziaur Rahman appealed to the world community to aid the struggling people of Bangladesh and end the genocide that Pakistan’s army was committing on innocent civilians. He said:

I once again request the United Nations and the big powers to intervene and physically come to our aid. Delay will mean massacre of additional millions.

On 10 April, the provisional government of Bangladesh proclaimed independence with these words:

We, the elected representatives of the people of Bangladesh, as honor-bound by the mandate given to us by the people of Bangladesh, whose will is supreme, duly constitute ourselves into a constituent assembly, and having held mutual consultations, and in order to ensure for the people of Bangladesh equality, human dignity and social justice, declare and constitute Bangladesh to be sovereign People’s Republic, and thereby confirm the declaration of independence already made by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and do hereby affirm and resolve that till such time as a constitution is framed, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman shall be the president of the Republic and that Syed Nazrul Islam shall be the vice-president of the Republic, and that the president shall be the supreme commander of all the armed forces of the republic….

In their contemporary historical context, these official proclamations, issued after 25 March 1971, seem the final, rather than first, declarations of Bangladesh independence. Earlier declarations appear in texts composed by student leaders, who had first called the Bengali nation in East Pakistan, “Bangladesh”, a term used previously only in literature, which they had re-coined to symbolize sovereignty. Students composed and chanted slogans to proclaim and propagate Bengali nationalism. They captured the popular imagination. Student leaders – like Serajul Alam Khan, said to be the guru of the secret Bengal Liberation Front and the Student League – became the most influential theoreticians of nationhood. The language movement and the 1969 mass uprising were achievements of student leaders.

Yet students could never achieve their goals alone. They tied their vision of sovereignty to the Awami League’s constitutionalism. They anointed Sheikh Mujib as Bangabandhu and rallied behind him. The SCSP pursued nationalist and socialist ideals that Sheikh Mujib did not share. The growing popularity of nationalist students drove a wide range of politicians to support the Awami League. Sheikh Mujib embraced student activists and even conservatives embraced Sheikh Mujib to protect themselves against radicalism.

Bangabandhu: Unrivalled Leader

A convergence of political interests occurred across the spectrum, from left to right, which focused on Sheikh Mujib, whose charisma and authority increased dramatically after the 1969 mass uprising, when his six-point programme became the unrivalled centerpiece of East Pakistan politics, and Sheikh Mujib, its unrivalled leader

In the 1970 election, East Pakistan voters again declared independence in the context of military dictatorship by endorsing the vision of parliamentary federalism at the polls. As the elected majority leader of the Pakistan National Assembly, and sole spokesperson for the people of East Pakistan, Sheikh Mujib then swore all their elected representatives to a solemn oath at Ramna Race Course, and he planned to restructure Pakistan as a federation of states, along lines similar to those of the Muslim League’s 1940 Lahore Resolution. Nonetheless, what Maulana Bhashani imagined as possible in 1957 became a reality on 1 March 1971, when Yahya Khan cancelled the National Assembly session scheduled for 3 March and realistic possibilities for a federated Pakistan died.

Sheikh Mujib’s famous speech on 7 March 1971 evidently appeared, to many in the crowd, as a declaration of independence but many also felt disappointed by its ambiguity. By that point, it seems, the public mood had left the six points behind. After 14 March, many political leaders expressed support for Joy Bangla Ishtehar, and thus declared independence. Even old Muslim League stalwarts like Khan A Sabur and Nurul Amin did so. Sheikh Mujib became the sole spokesperson for the six-point federalism. He engaged in dialogue with Yahya Khan and Z A Bhutto, while the SBKCSP organized people for war and formed Sangram Parishads around the country.

Unofficial popular declarations of sovereign national independence by students, professionals, bureaucrats, and political and labor organizations, before 25 March, were no mere empty rhetoric. Their diverse idioms made them more compelling. All the symbols of independence, paraded publicly before 25 March, were later upheld by the Mujibnagar government and incorporated into the Bangladesh constitution, including the name of the nation, the crowning of Sheikh Mujib as Bangabandhu and father of the nation, the national flag, and the national anthem.

On 23 March 1971, Pakistan Day became a peoples’ Bangladesh Day, filled with popular declarations of independence. People hoisted the Bangladesh flag around the country and the Joy Bangla Bahini (also called Ganabahihi) organized an independence parade at Paltan Maidan, complete with saluting platoons and the national anthem, Amar Sonar Bangla. Revolutionary festivities made the vision of independence so tangible, that later, on 11 May, M Yusuf Ali, general secretary of Awami League, would claim vainly that Bangabandhu had actually declared independence on 23 March.

By choosing 26 March as Independence Day, the Mujibnagar government honored the constitutionality of their revolution instead of the original expression of its popular mandate. In the context of that time, declarations of independence by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and by Ziaur Rahman, on 26 and 27 March, reconfirmed an independence declared earlier by students and others. Their two official messages, on 26 and 27 March, marked the definite end of East Pakistan and the authoritative institution of Bangladesh nationhood.

Rather than being two competing declarations of independence, therefore, the two official statements of 26 and 27 March represent a composite assertion by civil and military authorities that Bangladesh was now an independent nation fighting for life. This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that Ziaur Rahman evoked the Bangabandu’s authority in his own declaration. Both statements are also united by the fact that they drew meaning and strength from popular declarations that came before and continued to multiply in sacrifice by millions to create independent Bangladesh.

In conclusion, we must note that historians still do not have all the records we need to understand the freedom struggle fully, and to appreciate all its participants and angles of interpretation. Political parties remain justifiably attached to their founders; partisans attached to India and Pakistan also have their memories and points of view; all merit attention. To recover the deeper history of independence, however, scholars need to study its popular dimensions, and in that light, it is most obvious that radical student leaders and countless lesser lights in the people’s struggle still do not have the place in history they deserve.

* David Ludden is Professor of Political Economy and Globalization in the Department of History at New York University.

[ This article was published originally in Economic & Political Weekly, and is reprinted here with full permission from the author and source publication]

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