The pro-Piking leftwing parties and groups, who had already identified the neo-colonialist West to be the ‘principal’ enemy to the people of East Bengal, boycotted the elections. The National Awami Party led by Moulana Bhasani, who had a huge political and personal following among peasants, workers and other poor classes of the East, initially announced to contest the polls; but ultimately stayed away from the electoral race, claiming that the ensuing elections would not help solve the problems of the poor classes of the East.
Liberation war thrust upon
The Awami League contested the elections based on its Six-point programme and, with its Left counterparts staying away from the electoral process and the official Muslim League having already been wiped out from East Bengal first in the early 1950s and finally in the late 1960s, got almost a walkover in the electoral race and therefore won a landslide victory securing 160 seats out of a total 300 seats of Pakistan’s National Assembly,26 The Awami League, thus, emerged through its electoral victory as the most legitimate political party in East Pakistan to legally represent its people, but only to be exposed to a treacherous design of the West’s politico-military oligarchy for being robbed of its legitimate jurisdiction to govern Pakistan for the next five years.27 Nevertheless, the high command of the East-based Awami League displayed significant amount of magnanimity to the West by way of agreeing in good faith to accommodate certain undue concerns of the latter during March 16-24 dialogue with President Yahya Khan over the modus operandi of the transfer of power to the elected representatives,28 but only to be proved later that the dialogue itself was nothing but a malicious hoax, which the West had used to buy time to prepare for launching a genocide against the unarmed people of the East. In total disregard for the electoral mandate of the people, the West-based politico-military oligarchy unleashed a genocidal military campaign in the East on March 25, 1971, and that too at the end of an apparently negotiated settlement over the ‘disputed issues’ between the two regions of Pakistan.29 On the eve of the West’s military massacre in East, the Sheikh asked his close political associates to go hiding, but decided for himself to stay back at his residence. Subsequently he was arrested in the same evening and most of his associates left the country to regroup in neighbouring India who would eventually assume the political leadership of the East’s liberation from Pakistan with Indian assistance.
The people of the East had felt politically cheated first when the West’s political class and civil bureaucracy rejected outright, voiced through Jinnah in March 1948, the legitimate claim of Bangla to be a state language of Pakistan. They had felt cheated again when the ‘pact of parity’ signed between the East and the West of Pakistan in June 1955 turned out to be treacherous by way of the minority West securing equal political representation with majority East in the central legislature while continuing to enjoy a larger amount of economic allocations and greater number of administrative positions.
Following the ouster of General Ayub Khan’s autocratic regime through a massive popular uprising for autonomy and democracy in March 1969, synchronised with a similar movement in the West though, the East grudgingly accepted a new military regime led by General Yahya Khan, for the regime had publicly promised that it would transfer power to the people’s representatives elected through a general election based on adult franchise. Then, again, the East felt cheated when the West’s politico-military oligarchy led by General Yahya launched the genocide against its unarmed people, instead of letting their elected political party, the Awami League, to form government at the Centre.
The result was obvious: The mainstream East’s hitherto nurtured general idea of ‘regional autonomy’ within a truly democratic federation with the West instantly turned into an unavoidable political option for Bangladesh’s ‘national independence’.30 While there was no credible political force left in East Pakistan to support the cause of a united Pakistan any more, almost entire people of the East, including most of those who did not go to the polling stations to cast their votes — more than 43 per cent — and even those who went to the polling stations but did not vote for the Awami League in the East — some 25 per cent — in the elections in December 1970, was now unanimous over securing national independence by way of defeating the genocidal West Pakistan Army.
The background and context of Bangladesh’s liberation war was perhaps best articulated by three Chicago-based West Pakistani scholars, along with an Indian intellectual, of international repute31 who publicly decried in early April 1971 ‘the denial by West Pakistani leaders of East Pakistan’s right to self-determination’. In an open letter published in The New York Times on April 10, 1971, they said:
“West Pakistan’s military and civilian leaders must be held responsible for the crisis which culminated in the declaration of East Pakistan’s independence. The vested interests in West Pakistan never accepted East Pakistan’s electoral verdict in favour of regional autonomy.
During the 23 years of Pakistan’s existence, the economic, military and bureaucratic interests of West Pakistan sought to maintain unity [with the East] by subordination instead of partnership, by coercion instead of cooperation and by force instead of agreement. The overwhelming vote for the Awami League’s Six-point programme reflected the desire of the Bengali people to redefine the relationship between the two wings of the country and to end their colonial status.
If the leaders of West Pakistan were sincere in their pursuit of national unity, they should have read the writing of the wall and accepted the demands of the majority party. Instead, West Pakistani leaders chose the road of confrontation and left East Pakistanis no alternative except that of secession.”32
Evidently, it was not the East that launched its national liberation war; the liberation war was rather thrust upon its people, which they initially responded to as a heroic ‘war of resistance’, and eventually fought valiantly until the humiliating defeat of the West Pakistan forces in the East, ensuring the birth of Bangladesh.
Putting up of organised armed resistance was, however, not very easy in the beginning, because the Awami League, the prime organisation having maximum political command over the vast majority of the East, did not have any armed preparation to resist any military campaign by, let alone wage a planned liberation war against, the armed forces of the West stationed in the East, nor was there any reliable official instruction by the party’s high command for the people, particularly after the break-down of the East-West dialogue, to put up organized armed resistance against the marauding Pakistan Army. Under such uncertain circumstance, especially with Awami League supremo Sheikh Mujibur Rahman courting arrest and most of his close political associates going underground without leaving behind any specific political directives to the people, Bangladesh’s liberation was rather thrust upon its people. So, it was the revolting Bengali soldiers and military officers and the politically conscious sections of the Bengali youths who put up the initial resistance, mostly unplanned and disorganised, against the marauding ‘occupation’ forces of Pakistan.33 Professor Dr Serajul Islam Choudhury (b 1936) rightly observes, “The entire [initial] episode of our liberation war was, in fact, completely haphazard. There was neither any prior plan nor any preparation. Whatever resistance was put up was spontaneous in nature – uncoordinated. The people raised barricades, snatched away weapons from armouries, desperately ran to the revolting Bengali soldiers if around, the villagers extended helping hands to the escaping town-dwellers while none could think as to what should exactly be done. It was a total leadership failure. There was no directive, nothing, from the central [political] leadership; the local leaders were utterly confused — they thought of doing many things, but could not ultimately decide how to do them, what should be done first and what the next or even who should do what.”34
The spontaneous Bengali resistance started turning into the decisive war of national liberation by the third week of April following a series of historic developments.
The series include almost simultaneous revolts of most Bengali soldiers and officers in different barracks and cantonments of the East against the West Pakistan Army, proclamation of the war of independence by Major Ziaur Rahman on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, meeting of the most other revolting Bengali majors at Teliapara in Sylhet and dividing responsibilities among themselves in fighting the (West) Pakistan forces in different zones of the country and nominating the Colonel (Retd) M A G Osmani as the Commander-in-Chief of the national liberation war, regrouping of the escaping Awami League leadership in neighbouring India, the League leadership seeking and securing Delhi’s political assurance for assistance in Bangladesh’s liberation war in the first week of April, the official ‘proclamation of independence’ by Prime Minister of Bangladesh’s government-in-exile Tajuddin Ahmad and the government’s official ratification of the appointment of the Commander-in-Chief chosen earlier by the military commanders of the liberation war in the second week, the announcement of the Cabinet of the government-in exile and finally assumption of the political leadership of the liberation war already waged by the Bengali youths — military and civilian — in the third week of April.
The rest is the history of how Bangladesh’s national war instantly took the shape of a regional event, which, again, turned out soon to be a global affair in a bipolar word, those days, and finally Bangladesh emerged as an independent state through a successful war of national liberation against the occupation forces of Pakistan.
To be continued.
Nurul Kabir is editor of New Age.
Notes and References
26 For detailed results of Pakistan’s general elections held on December 7, 1970, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pakistani_general_election,_1970
27 In the midst of the West’s deliberate dilly-dally in transferring power to Awami League, the leaders of the radical youths associated with League hoisted the ‘national flag’ of Bangladesh on March 2, and formed the Action Committee of the Students for Independent Bengal – and announced its ‘manifesto and programmes of the independent and sovereign Bangladesh’ to the thunderous cheers of the public rally in the Paltan ground of the Dhaka the next day. See BSJD, Volume -2, pp. 668-669.
28 For example, even if the majority Awami League had earned its right to form a government soley on its own, the party’s highcommand agreed to incorporate half of the ministers into its central Cabinet from West Pakistan. See Richard Sisson and Leo E Rose, War and Secession: Pakistan, India and the Creation of Bangladesh, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1990, p 116. Also see (West) Pakistani Major General (retd) Rao Farman Ali’s interview in Muntasir Mamun and Mohiuddin Ahmed, Pakistanider Dristite Ekattur, University Press Limited, Dhaka, Fouth Print, 2012, p. 321. Earlier, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman held out an olive branch to the West by offering Presidency to General Yahya Khan. See Kamal Hossain, Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom and Justice, University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2013, p. 66. Also see the Report of the Hamoodur Rehman Commission of the Inquiry into the 1971 War, Vanguard, Lahore, Undated, p. 119.
29 The negotiating teams of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and General Yahya Khan held in the evening of March 24 had reached a negotiated settlement over the disputed issues and two representatives from two sides, Dr Kamal Hossain and Justice Cornelius, were scheduled to fine-tune the final draft of the ‘negotiated proclamation’ to be handed over to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Yahya Khan ‘the next day’. For the fine-tuning, Yahya’s side was scheduled to inform Dr. Hossain about the time for the meeting ‘over phone’, but the ‘phone call’ did not come to Hossain during the tthe whole ‘next day’, not even till he left the Sheikh’s residence at 10:30 pm of March 25. Instead, the West launched in an hour its genocidal military campaign in the East. See Dr Kamal Hossain in BSJD, Vol –15, p. 193.
30 A faction of the Awami League leadership, led by Khandaker Mushtaq Ahmed, would later make an attempt to retain united Pakistan in the midst of Bangladesh’s liberation war, obviously with no success. The people of East Bengal in general, and the liberation fighters in particular, not to mention League leader Tajuddin Ahmad and his supporters in the party, after all, were not in a mood to reconcile with the murderous West any more. Similarly, while all the parties and groups of the Left political camp actively fought the national liberation war, a tiny faction of the pro-Piking Left, East Pakistan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) led by Abdul Haque, unsuccessfully opposed the liberation efforts in the name of conducting class-struggle for socialism in the whole of Pakistan.)
31 Eqbal Ahmad (1933 – 1999), Feroz Ahmed (1940-1997) and Saghir Ahmad are from Pakistan while Aijaj Ahmad (b. 1932) is from India.
32 https://www.nytimes.com/1971/ 04/10/archives/home-rule-for-bengal.html
33 French intellectual Andre Malraux says ‘when the revolt started [in East Pakistan], the soldiers of Islamabad were no longer, for the East, compatriots or co-religionists; they were occupants’. See Malraux’s ‘foreword’ in Sheelendra Kumar Singh and others (ed.), Bangladesh Documents, Volume Two, Bangladesh edition, University Press Limited, 1999, Dhaka, pp.7-8
34 Serajul Islam Chowdhury, “Ekatturer Judhdha O Jatiyatabader Sima”, in Serajul Islam Chowdhury (ed), Natun Diganta, Apri-June 2018 number, Samaj-Rupantar Adhyan Kendra, Dhaka, 2018, p 99
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion