Bangladesh-The March Massacre: Can Sheikh Mujib Escape Responsibility?

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The 1971 Bangladesh Genocide (Social Studies 20) - YouTube

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by R. Chowdhury        28 March 2023

Seven thousand people were gunned down in two days in Dhaka alone following the crackdown by the Pakistan military on the night of March 25/26, 1971. The International Herald Tribune reported the news on March 30, 1971, quoting an eyewitness. The New York Times of March 28, 1971 put the death figure at 10,000. Similar massacres were committed in Chittagong, Comilla, Jessore, Khulna, Bogra, Rangpur, Sylhet and elsewhere. Body counts in those places were not immediately available.

How was this sudden carnage possible? Why couldn’t the people know something of that magnitude was coming?

From March 1, 1971, planeloads of troops and weapons from West Pakistan were landing in Dhaka daily. Such was the scene in Chittagong, taking the sea routes. Those ominous military activities could not be unknown to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the undisputed leader of East Pakistan. The entire civil administration was under his control. Why did the genocide remain unnoticed, or allowed to be committed?

East Pakistan of March 1971 was different, volatile. Bengalis were imbued with a spirit of dedication and sacrifice for their freedom. They were ready to chart their own destiny. Unfortunately, they were misled and finally betrayed by the leader they trusted.

Sheikh Mujib’s March 7, 1971 speech was a great oration, well hyped and highly dramatized. Over the decades, it had undergone heavy editing however. Today, we get to see and hear only part of it, the part that seemed relevant to an independent Bangladesh. But it defies the real Mujib.

Most observers, who attended the Race Course gathering that day, found the speech wanting and largely confusing. Mujib came, delivered his 17-minute speech and left the podium in haste, without entertaining questions from a host of journalists, an opportunity he had rarely missed earlier.

One hundred thousand stick-wielding public came to hear a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from their leader. They did not get it.

Ebarer sangram, swadhinatar sangra. Ebarer sangram amader muktir sangram…. (Our struggle this time is for independence, for our freedom). What did the speech mean to the people at that point of time? How were they to take the call when in the same breath he made a four-point demand of the military (Withdraw Martial Law, take military to barracks, investigate the killings, and hand over power to the elected representatives)? Disappointed, they folded banners, dropped sticks and dispersed with drooping heads.

Former Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University Dr. Arefin Siddique said in an interview in 2013, that Mujib’s March 7 speech was in fact the “Declaration of Independence.” Really? Making demands to the military junta and declaration of independence do not go together. It is either one or the other. And, talking of sangram cannot be a declaration of independence. People expected a better explanation from a supposed top academic of the country. Tofael Ahmed and other Awami leaders have been extolling the same theory.

Mujib told the gathering, “Tomra ghore ghore durgo gore tolo. Tomader ja kichu ache, ta niye toiry thako…..(Make each house a fortress. Be ready with whatever weapon you have.)” Strangely, within 10 days, the same leader sat with the military to preserve the unity and craft the future of Pakistan. How would Arefin and Tofael Co. explain that?

Was Mujib serious about ghore ghore durgo? Couldn’t be. The only durgo people found was the one manned by the Pakistan military around Dhanmondi’s House No.19 to protect the Mujib family. Outside, a mayhem ran and people died in thousands.

As Sheikh Mujib was talking with President General Yahya Khan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and other Pakistani leaders in Dhaka, the military buildup and preparations were continuing in the cantonments. It was no secret. Bengali elements (Group Captain A K Khandakar at Dhaka airbase, and Captain Amin Ahmed Chowdhury, a representative from Colonel M R Chowdhury, Major Ziaur Rahman and others in Chittagong) kept feeding Mujib of the suspicious military developments

To the contrary, when suggested for a timely countermeasure by the Bengalis to avert an ensuing catastrophe, he retorted that he would not tolerate any military adventurism by Bengali elements while his talks with the central leadership were progressing well. He did not heed the warning that Bengalis in the military, police and rifles were being disarmed. What could be a clearer indication of what the Pakistani military was up to?

A sensible and patriotic leader would have immediately demanded of his dialogue partners, “Stop bringing in troops or I quit.” Mujib did not.

Mujib thus allowed the military to continue sharpening their knives. He shared the responsibility.

Mujib’s repeated assertions of “making progress” in the talks were in the print of the dailies from March 18. March 25 and 26 papers added his “progress” report with the news of a “one-on-one” meeting with the president, to be held on March 25. People continued to trust him even though most observers became skeptical.

According to Syed Badrul Ahsan of The Daily Star, the president was to make a declaration on March 25 about the transfer of power, purportedly to the majority leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Dr. Kamal Hossain, as the conduit, would receive the details from president’s Principal Staff Officer, General Peerzada.

While Mujib eagerly awaited the whole day of March 25 for the scheduled meeting, as well as the promised declaration, the president and his team quietly sneaked away in the afternoon, leaving instructions to General Tikka Khan, the military commander in East Pakistan, to “teach the Bengalis a lesson.”

The killing machinery of Tikka’s lessor, in the style of Operation Searchlight, rolled out of the cantonments at midnight on March 25. Within minutes, the blistering fireworks began.

History recorded the stories of massacres of the British at Jallianwala Bagh in India, the Japanese at Nanking (China) and at Pearl Harbor (US). To the survivors of March 25/26, it was a combination of all three. It was a genocide. It was a wholesale butchery.

The Time of April 12, 1971 reported, “It’s a veritable bloodbath. The troops have been utterly merciless. It was like the Chengis Khan all over again. 80,000 Punjabi and Pathan soldiers slaughtered an estimated 300,000 Bengalis by the end of April.”

And, it was because of the trust the Bengalis reposed on their leader and the ‘good days’ they were promised.

What about the leader himself? He declined the repeated requests of Awami League Secretary General Tajuddin Ahmed, student leader ASM Abdur Rob and many others to declare the independence and join them to lead a war of independence. Mujib chose the safe and peaceful exit. A call to the US Ambassador Joseph Farland in Islamabad settled the matter (Please see Witness to Surrender by Siddiq Salek).

Sheikh Mujib was picked up from his residence shortly after midnight. His family, including Sheikh Hasina, received full military protection and lavish hospitality during the entire war period, while the rest of the country was brutalized by the same military.

Newspapers of April 1, 1971 flashed Sheikh Mujib in the front page. He was at Karachi airport, fresh in his signature white pajama-kurta and his trademark pipe. One may read more on Mujib in Pakistan in 1971 @ https://southasiajournal.net/bangladesh-sheikh-mujibs-stance-on-independent-bangladesh-sensational-revelation/

Can Sheikh Mujbur Rahman escape responsibility for the military crackdown on March 25/26, 1971?

Perhaps he could not stop the Operation Searchlight, but he could minimize the loss of life and destruction by keeping the military in check and warning the public in advance. He did neither. His eyes were fixed on the coveted seat in Islamabad. He was more concerned about the safety of himself and his family than the 70 million people who reposed all their trust in him.

The hundreds of thousands of the martyred souls of the genocide keep asking Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: “Why!?”