Dhaka Courier

Countdown to 26 March 1971

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President Yahya Khan, accompanied by a powerful team of generals, economists and lawyers, arrived in Dhaka on 15 March.

The next day, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, accompanied by his own team comprising Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmed, Khondokar Moshtaq Ahmed, A.H.M Quamruzzaman and Dr. Kamal Hossain, met the President and his delegation at the President’s House in circumstances that were vastly different from what they had been in December when Yahya Khan had spoken of Mujib as Pakistan’s future Prime Minister. At this new meeting, the Awami League leadership went on the offensive, making it clear that the decision to postpone the session of the national assembly had been a mistake and aimed at depriving the Bengalis of their due place in the national scheme of things. For its part, the presidential team informed the Awami League that unless the Six Points were watered down, it would be difficult for the national assembly to arrive at a constitutional agreement. Bangabandhu’s response was to let the President know that there could be no compromise on the Six Points.

The talks between Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the President went on for the next few days. Z.A. Bhutto, meanwhile, waited anxiously in Karachi to be invited to participate in the parleys. It had been made obvious by the Awami League, even before Yahya arrived in Dhaka, that Bhutto was not welcome. Bangabandhu, against the backdrop of his 7 March declaration, now considered that only he and the President could talk out the details of a political settlement. The Awami League, by ignoring Bhutto and the People’s Party, meant to shame him into a situation where he could realise the folly that on his part had precipitated the crisis. But it had quite underestimated the strength of feeling, even support, the Chairman of the People’s Party commanded in the military, for he was in reality speaking for the soldiers through his opposition to the majority Awami League. General Yahya Khan went into the job of persuading Bangabandhu in Dhaka that any discussions on the future structure of the state of Pakistan would remain incomplete and therefore invalid without the participation of the leading political party in West Pakistan.

On 21 March, with the Awami League having finally given the go-ahead to Yahya Khan for Bhutto to join the negotiations, the People’s Party leader arrived in Dhaka with his own team in tow. Bhutto’s record of the first time he joined Mujib and Yahya at the talks remains interesting, though it has never been corroborated by other sources. During a break in the talks at the President’s House, he was to note, Mujib took him by the elbow and led him out on to the lush green lawns of the residence, telling him on the way that their conversation inside could be tapped by government agents. Once outside, Bangabandhu made a desperate appeal to the People’s Party leader. Pakistan, he told him, needed to be saved and it was a job that could be accomplished only by the two of them. Mujib, according to Bhutto, then suggested that the Awami League and the People’s Party form their separate governments in East and West Pakistan respectively as a solution to the crisis. Again, there has been nothing to back Bhutto’s assertion.

 Between 21 and 23 March in Dhaka, the tripartite negotiations went nowhere, with all the three participants producing their own plans, which were repeatedly amended over the language and other nuances and finer points in legal arguments. By 22 March it was easy to see that the differences between the Awami League and the People’s Party were still too wide to allow for a meeting of the National Assembly. On 23 March, the anniversary of the adoption of the 1940 Lahore resolution by the All-India Muslim League that was to pave the way to Pakistan and observed officially as Pakistan Day, Bengalis publicly repudiated the country they had caused to be born in 1947.

On that day, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman drove down to the President’s House once again for a fresh round of talks. This time, though, he was clearly in new and confident mode. His vehicle displayed the Bangladesh flag, enough to make it appear that he had already taken over as the leader of a free Bengali state. The day was spent with all the three sides in the negotiations dealing with a number of points, some major and quite a few insignificant, relating to a possible transfer of power. Meanwhile, as subsequent reports were to make clear, preparations for a military assault on rising Bengali nationalism were reaching their last stages.

 

On the morning of 24 March, the tension was visible in the Awami League leadership. In sharp contrast, the junta as well as the People’s Party demonstrated a surreal calm that could only be interpreted to mean that the worst fears of the Bengali leadership were coming true.

25 March 1971 dawned in unease, both among the Bengali political leadership and the population as a whole. From the early part of the day, rumours began to make the rounds of an imminent army operation against the Bengali nationalist movement, which was now vociferously demanding that Bangabandhu declare the independence of the province as the free republic of Bangladesh. The leaders of the Awami League waited to hear from the junta, but when nothing came from that side and the day slowly progressed to afternoon, Bangabandhu and his colleagues knew that the end had drawn nigh.

As dusk fell on 25 March, news began to circulate that President Yahya Khan and his team, without calling a formal end to the talks and in unusually surreptitious manner, had flown off to West Pakistan.

As 25 March gave way to 26 March, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the elected leader of the majority party in Pakistan’s National Assembly and spokesman of the seventy five million Bengalis inhabiting the province of East Pakistan, had the following directive transmitted to the outside world, which world of course at that point was symbolised by the land he sought to make free:

“This may be my last message. From today Bangladesh is independent. I call upon the people of Bangladesh, wherever they 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 Bangladesh. Final victory is ours.”

Minutes into his declaration of independence, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was taken prisoner by the Pakistan army.

Genocide was underway. Darkness had descended on Bangladesh, now an occupied country, and would not lift for nine terrible months.

  • Countdown to 26 March 1971
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  • Syed Badrul Ahsan
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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