Syed Badrul Ahsan
It is the early days of March 1971 we recall today, for they would go into a reconfiguring of our history.
On March 6, the day began in anticipation of what action Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman planned to take through his address at the Race Course public meeting the next day. All over East and West Pakistan, speculation was rife about a probable declaration of independence for Bangladesh by the Awami League chief, particularly against a background of the pressure he was under from his party and the students. Senior leaders of the party met at Bangabandhu’s Dhanmondi 32 residence to weigh the pros and cons of what he would be stating on March 7.
Meanwhile, East Pakistan was being administered through a series of directives from the Awami League. These directives were made public on behalf of the party by the party general secretary general Tajuddin Ahmad. Employees of state and private organizations had by March 6 demonstrated complete allegiance to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The Dhaka station of Radio Pakistan had already been calling itself Dhaka Betar since March 5. It planned to broadcast live Bangabandhu’s address at the Race Course on March 7.
On the day, President Yahya Khan went on the national hook-up in Rawalpindi again, this time to announce a convening of the National Assembly in Dhaka on March 25. He and the rest of the regime were obviously concerned that unless such a move was made, the possibility of Mujib’s declaring independence for Bangladesh the next day would become all the greater. However, in the course of his address, General Yahya Khan sounded indignant and clearly seemed to be pinning the blame for the crisis on the Awami League. He noted that his efforts to call a round table conference on March 10 had not been accepted. And he made it clear, in what sounded like a threat, that as long as he was in charge, the Pakistan armed forces would do everything in their power to uphold the integrity and solidarity of Pakistan. The speech predictably did not go down well in East Pakistan.
A significant development of the day was the appointment of Lt. General Tikka Khan, infamous as the Butcher of Baluchistan for his murderous operations against Baluch tribals in the early 1960s, as governor of East Pakistan. He would also be functioning as martial law administrator, zone B. The move came following the departure, in quick succession, of Admiral S.M. Ahsan from the position of governor and Lt. Gen. Sahibzada Yaqub Khan from the position of martial law administrator, zone B. Tikka Khan’s efforts to be sworn in as governor would be thwarted by Chief Justice B.A. Siddiky’s refusal to administer the oath of office to him against the background of an intensifying nationalist movement in Bangladesh.
It would be Bangabandhu’s finest hour.
March 7 was expected to be a day of decision for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. There were those who believed that he would offer the regime in West Pakistan one last opportunity for a settlement of the crisis in East Pakistan. In much the same manner, there were millions of Bengalis who without question expected him to declare Bangladesh’s independence at his Race Course public rally on the day. Right up to his arrival at the Race Course, Mujib and his party colleagues had carefully assessed the situation, with hardly any details of the deliberations trickling out into the public domain. The upshot of the situation was that the people of Bangladesh, in broad measure, did not quite know what Bangabandhu, by then the undisputed leader of the rebellious province, would be saying at the public meeting in the afternoon. Uncharacteristically grave, Bangabandhu climbed the steps to the dais in slow, ponderous manner. The cameras of the local and foreign media were focused sharply on him.
In the event, Bangabandhu’s address at the Race Course turned out to be his finest hour. He did not make a unilateral declaration of independence from his belief that such a move would constitute secession and, worse, could lead to harsh, immediate action by the Pakistan army, which remained in a state of alert in cantonments around the country. Neither did he shy away from informing Bengalis and the rest of the world that the objective before the people of Bangladesh was national independence. He spoke without notes. Already one of the foremost orators in South Asian history, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman launched into an address that seemed to rise to a crescendo of ideas — with no repetitive phrases and no pauses — the focal point of which was to reassure his people that their interests were safe in his hands. He noted General Yahya Khan’s call, made the previous day, for the inaugural session of the National Assembly in Dhaka on March 25. At the same time, he rejection the military ruler’s insinuation that the Awami League was responsible for the crisis in the country.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman stated in unequivocal terms that the participation of the Awami League, the majority party, in the National Assembly was dependent on an acceptance of his demands by the regime. The demands were the following:
a)Martial law would have to be withdrawn b) a full inquiry into the killings by the army would have to be instituted c) all soldiers of the Pakistan army would have to be taken back into their barracks d) power would have to be transferred to the elected representatives of the people.
‘The struggle this time,’ declaimed Bangabandhu, ‘is the struggle for our emancipation. The struggle this time is the struggle for independence.’
The die was cast. The Rubicon had been crossed.
Postscript: At the last moment, Dhaka Betar was compelled by the military into staying away from a direct broadcast of Bangabandhu’s address from the Race Course. In protest against the action, all Bengali employees of the radio station walked off their jobs. Under public pressure, however, the speech, in recorded form, would be broadcast on the morning of the next day, March 8.