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ISLAMABAD: As I checked in for the PIA flight from Dhaka to Karachi on the afternoon of November 16, 1971 the atmosphere at the Tejgaon airport was tense and somber. Much had happened between March 1 and November 16 that year. I was, however, not leaving East Pakistan out of any fear or threat but to join the academy for training following my selection in what was then called the Information Service of Pakistan (ISP) through the Central Superior Services examination. Neither I nor those who came to see me off knew that I would never return to Dhaka as it then was or that a month later, it would be the capital of a new country. Exactly a month later, on December 16, 1971 during tea break at the academy, we heard with unimaginable pain and anguish about the surrender in Dhaka. I could not hold back my tears.
41 years later, as I reflect on those traumatic days and events and with the benefit of hindsight, I have to say that Bangladesh was not born on 21st February, 1952 when the Bengali language movement took off, as many believe. Even the much resented dismissal of the Juktu Front (United Front) government of East Bengal by the central government in 1954 was not the trigger for an independent Bangladesh. Both, the language movement and the treatment meted out to the democratically elected provincial government of East Bengal were, however, catalysts towards that end-catalyst that were then reversible with vision and wisdom. Unfortunately, both were then lacking, especially in Karachi, Rawalpindi and later in Islamabad.
Perhaps unwittingly but surely imprudently, politicians, aided by the civil and military establishment in what was then West Pakistan, were gradually laying the foundation of an independent Bangladesh. The uneasiness in relations began in the 1950s, even earlier, when attempts were made to remove the Bengali script from the coins and stamps of the country. Unlike Urdu and other regional languages, Bengali was spoken and written by the majority
(Bengalis) of those inhabiting the then Pakistan. Actually, insensitivity towards the sensitivities of the majority began soon after the independence. Where was the need to declare that Urdu and Urdu alone would be the state language? Urdu had Ghalib and Iqbal but Bengali had Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. Bengali was not just a spoken language. It was centuries old, rich both in prose and poetry. And then, in a deliberate punitive action against that province, its democratically elected provincial government of Jukto (United) Front, comprising most of their political parties, was arbitrarily dismissed only months into office.
Fissures continued to grow. The crucial one was the creation of the one unit, merging all the provinces and administrative units of the western wing into one province called West Pakistan. It raised suspicions and fears in the eastern wing but even more worrisome and annoying to the Bengalis was the renaming of their province, East Bengal, as East Pakistan. Years later, it prompted Sheikh Mujibur Rehman to make that famous statement that “there was a time when evil efforts were made to erase the word Bangla from this land and map. The existence of the word Bangla was found nowhere except in the Bay of Bengal. I, on behalf of the people proclaim today that the eastern province of Pakistan will be called Bangladesh instead of East Pakistan.” (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – The Unfinished Memoirs and Wikipedia).
This was December 5, 1969 and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was still talking of Bangladesh in terms of a Province of Pakistan. He was bitter and complaining but note the words “eastern province of Pakistan” in his announcement. Today, we happily renamed NWFP as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and take credit for it even though there is a large tract of non-Pakhtun areas and people in that province. Today, we call for the rights of the Seraiki speaking. Today, we call for the rights of the Baloch and for the restoration of Bahawalpur as a province. If all these are not seditious and indeed they are not, why was the demand to retain the Bengali identity, language and culture seen in West Pakistan as seditious? I will thus flag the creation of one unit and renaming of East Bengal as East Pakistan as the most divisive event in the political history of Pakistan and the critical first milestone towards the division of Pakistan. This is what Mujib said while addressing the Pakistan Constituent Assembly in Karachi on August 25, 1955:
“Sir, you will see that they want to use the phrase ‘East Pakistan’ instead of ‘East Bengal’. We have demanded many times that you should use Bengal instead of East Pakistan. The word ‘Bengal’ has a history and tradition of its own. You can change it only after the people have been consulted. If you want to change it, we have to go back to Bengal and ask them whether they are ready to accept it. So far as the question of one unit is concerned it can be incorporated in the constitution. Why do you want it to be taken up right now? What about the state language, Bengali? We are prepared to consider one unit with all these things. So, I appeal to my friends on that side to allow the people to give their verdict in any way, in the form of referendum or in the form of plebiscite.”
As we left the unfortunate developments of the 1950s behind to enter the new decade of 1960s, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was still in the mainstream of Pakistani politics. He declared his support for Miss Fatima Jinnah against Ayub Khan in the indirect Presidential elections of 1964 only to be arrested two weeks before the elections, charged with sedition and jailed for a year. Mujib was still for Pakistan but he was also for full recognition of the rights of the Bengali Pakistanis and for the rights of East Bengal. And those were the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of the Bengali Pakistanis then.
In fact, as a student of Dhaka University in 1965, I cannot remember a bigger anti-India demonstration on the streets of Dhaka as I saw on September 7, 1965 at the outbreak of India Pakistan war. And this was despite the continuous neglect of their due rights and denial of their due share in national resources. Keeping the constraints of space in view, I am skipping many details and some important milestones. But for the record, I must reproduce here the economic facts that led to the demand for the famous six points. With a population of nearly 54 percent of what was then Pakistan spending on East Pakistan in the twenty years between 1950 to 1970 was only 28.84 percent with 71.16 percent being spent on the western wing during the same period (Wikipedia). There were reasons for this, some justified, some unjustified. But when you are on the receiving end of a raw deal, you focus more on the unjustified ones. That is what happened in East Pakistan.
But having said all that, I firmly believe that Bangladesh was actually born on March 1, 1971 and not on the night between March 25 and 26 when Sheikh Mujibur Rehman formally announced it before being taken captive by the Pakistani authorities from his Dhanmoudi residence in Dhaka. Pakistan was playing a four day cricket match against a Commonwealth XI at the Dhaka stadium. March 1 was the last day of the match. Ironically, it was the first full strength Pakistan team ever to include a Bengali, Raqibul Hasan, who opened for Pakistan with Azmat Rana. At lunch break, as we stepped out of the stadium to pick up something to eat, we saw a crowd gathered around a pan shop and soon after we heard a sudden uproar. Radio Pakistan had just announced in its midday news bulletin that President Yahya Khan had postponed the inaugural session of the newly elected National Assembly which was to meet in Dhaka two days later. He had succumbed to the pressure from the politicians and the establishment in West Pakistan. With his 167 elected members (54%) out of a total of 313, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman understandably felt cheated and deprived of the fruits of the ballot. There was commotion, there was chaos and the match was called off.
The entire crowd watching the match moved across to the nearby Purbani Hotel, led by Tufail Ahmed, the President of Awami League’s students’ wing called “Chatro League.” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was in the hotel presiding over a session of his party. Emotionally charged and at times violent, the crowd chanted anti-government slogans and wanted to see their leader. Tufail went in and brought out Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and demanded that Mujib declare independence there and then. A grim and tense Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not. He briefly addressed the crowd and went back in although he had everything going in his favour and with a barely 15000 strong Pakistan army spread all across the then East Pakistan at that point in time, it would have been a walk over, albeit with loss of many lives. But thousands of innocent lives were lost never the less as mobs took control in most cities and suburbs outside the few cantonments. Men and women, young and old were killed. My mother and siblings were in Chittagong. A cousin and I took a train ride from Dhaka to the port city fearing for our lives all along the way. Two Bengalis, Misbah and Zia Khan, my juniors in the East Pakistan Cadet College, later renamed Faujdarhat Cadet College, from where I had completed my high school, came to our rescue. Learning of my arrival in Chittagong, they took charge until we boarded with our family the overnight train back to Dhaka and my family moved onwards to Karachi. I stayed on in Dhaka. Misbah and Zia Khan, owe the unremitting gratitude of our family. But many thousands were not as lucky including many we knew intimately. For nearly three weeks, a friend who owned a Volkswagen Beatle and I with my Ford Cortina would drive over to the Tejgaon railway station every evening to receive the surviving injured from different towns and transport them to camps or their relatives. We did this only in gratitude to the Almighty for having saved us from similar fate.
Between March 1 and March 25, 1971 the Central government was non existent in East Pakistan. The Pakistan army was confined to the cantonments. Every government institution and functionary was taking orders from Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, even while Yahya Khan was in Dhaka where he had flown in from Rawalpindi in mid March for talks with Mujib and where he remained until March 25. With reinforcements having been flown in over a period of three weeks, Pakistan army finally cracked down on the night between March 25 and 26. Mujibur Rahman declared independence and called upon every Bengali to fight till the last drop of his blood. What he had grimly but resolutely avoided to declare on March 1, he formally did in the very early hours of March 26 before being taken captive and flown out to West Pakistan. What followed between then and December 16, 1971 is a long and painful story that has been narrated by many and I will too one day. For today, I will only reiterate that the foundations of Bangladesh were laid over the decades of the 1950s and 1960s and perhaps even earlier in what is now Pakistan. The structure was completed on March 1, 1971. Only the last rites of a united Pakistan were performed on December 16 that year.
(The writer is a former Federal Secretary)