Forty years ago, Bangladesh became an independent state, breaking away from Pakistan
BANGLADESH APPEARED ON the world map as an independent country in 1971 after a nine-month war of liberation in which nearly one million people died. The civil war in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) started when the Pakistani army launched a military offensive against the protesting Bengali people in March 1971. The war and subsequent independence of East Pakistan was the direct result of the policies adopted by the establishment based in West Pakistan and the treatment it meted out to the Bengali population.
There was a strong perception that Bengalis were the second-class citizens of Pakistan, and that the ruling elite in West Pakistan would not give them their rightful share. Economic underdevelopment, increasing poverty and unemployment existed alongside the denial of basic democratic and human rights. Combined with the economic, political, social and cultural dominance of the ruling elite of West Pakistan, this gave rise to the nationalist sentiments and mood among the masses of East Pakistan. This peaked when the West Pakistan establishment refused to recognise the parliamentary majority won in East Pakistan and their right to head the federal government.
Following the end of British direct colonial rule, India was partitioned and the independent states of India and Pakistan were created in 1947. The region of Bengal was divided along religious lines. The predominantly Muslim eastern half became the East Bengal state (later renamed East Pakistan) of Pakistan, and the predominantly Hindu western part became the West Bengal state of India.
Pakistan, itself, was made up of two areas, East and West, which were separated by more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory. While the West contained a minority of Pakistan’s total population, it had the largest share of revenue allocation, and industrial, agricultural and infrastructure development. The Punjabis, Muhajirs and Pashtuns dominated the military and civil bureaucracy, the real power in the country which took full advantage of the weak political leadership and capitalist class. Bengalis were underrepresented in the state structures. Only one regiment in the Pakistani army was Bengali. And many Bengalis felt that the bitter dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir left East Pakistan increasingly vulnerable and threatened.
Political instability and economic difficulties marked Pakistan’s history from its formation. In 1956, a constitution was finally adopted, describing the country as an ‘Islamic republic within the Commonwealth’. The political musical chairs continued until the imposition of martial law in 1958 by General Ayub Khan. This was maintained until 1962, when Khan declared himself president (and field marshal) – he stood down in March 1969. Martial law was again imposed between 1969, when General Yahya Khan took over, and 1971. Prolonged military rule further alienated the Bengali population. Not only did the gulf between rich and poor reach unprecedented levels, exacerbating class tensions, but the disparity between West and East Pakistan also reached new heights.
The language movement
IN 1948, THE government of Pakistan ordained Urdu as the sole national language, sparking extensive protests among the Bengali-speaking majority of East Pakistan. Facing rising sectarian tensions and mass discontent, the government outlawed public meetings and rallies. Students at the University of Dhaka and other political activists defied the law, organising a protest on 21 February 1952, when a number of students were killed by the police.
The deaths provoked widespread civil unrest led by the Awami Muslim League, later renamed the Awami League. After years of conflict, the central government relented and granted official status to the Bengali language in 1956. The language movement was the catalyst for the assertion of Bengali national identity, the forerunner of the nationalist movements – including the six-point movement of the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which called for a federal government with a high level of autonomy – and the liberation war itself.
The first election for the East Bengal provincial assembly was held from 8-12 March 1954. The Awami Muslim League, Krishak-Sramik party and Nezam-e-Islam formed the United Front, which won 215 of the 237 Muslim seats. The ruling Muslim League got only nine seats, the Khilafat-E-Rabbani party got one, while independents took twelve. Later, seven independents joined the United Front and one joined the Muslim League. The Muslim League had provoked anger for opposing the demand for the recognition of Bangla as one of the state languages, and by ordering the massacre of 1952, key reasons for the collapse in its support.
This cabinet lasted for only 14 days. The Muslim League did all it could to undermine the United Front. In the third week of May, there were bloody riots between Bengali and non-Bengali workers in mills and factories of East Bengal. The United Front was blamed for failing to control the situation. The federal administration sacked the United Front government, paving the way for direct federal government rule of East Bengal from the federal capital, further fuelling nationalist sentiments.
The rise of the Awami League
THE AWAMI LEAGUE had been formed in 1955 when the Awami Muslim League split into a pro-establishment right wing and an anti-establishment, left-leaning, radical nationalist group, which became a mass force in the late 1960s. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman emerged as its main leader.
Fearing that they were about to completely lose control of the situation, the ruling class and military establishment announced the first general elections in the country, in 1970, in an attempt to defuse the situation and divert the attention of the working masses.
The ruling elite were also struck by the effects of the Bhola cyclone, which made landfall on the East Pakistan coastline during the evening of 12 November 1970. Coinciding with the local high tide, it wrought massive devastation, killing 300,000 to 500,000 people. Though the exact death toll is not known, it is considered to be the deadliest tropical cyclone on record. A week later, Yahya Khan conceded that his government had made ‘mistakes’ in its handling of the relief effort, due to its underestimation of the magnitude of the disaster.
A statement released by eleven political leaders in East Pakistan ten days after the cyclone hit charged the government with “gross neglect, callous and utter indifference”. On 19 November, students held a march in the provincial capital, Dhaka, protesting the slowness of the government response. Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, peasant leader of the radical, left-wing National Awami Party (NAP), addressed a rally of 50,000 people on 24 November, where he demanded the president’s resignation.
The results of the general election clearly reflected the mood and consciousness in society. Both the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by Zulfikur Ali Bhutto, and the Awami League emerged as the leading parties on slogans based around socialism, secularism and democracy. The working masses had rejected the vicious propaganda against socialism and had voted overwhelmingly for social change. All the religious and pro-establishment parties were routed.
The Awami League also used nationalism as a main slogan, cleverly mixing this with the class issues to gain the support of the radicalised workers, students and youth. The Awami League won 165 of the 167 national assembly seats reserved for East Pakistan. The two other seats were won by independents. The PPP won 81 of the seats in West Pakistan to become the leading force there. On a national level, the Awami League was also the single largest party in the 313-seat parliament.
The election results shocked the establishment. Yahya Khan, the interim military ruler/president, refused to convene parliament. Instead, talks were brokered on constitutional questions about the division of power between the central government and the provinces, as well as on the possibility of forming a national government headed by the Awami League. The talks proved unsuccessful. On 1 March 1971, Khan indefinitely postponed the pending parliamentary session, precipitating massive civil disobedience in East Pakistan.
Bhutto proclaimed his support for ‘bread, cloth and shelter’ for the poor masses and an end to the capitalist system. But he completely opposed the right of self-determination for the Bengalis of East Pakistan. Bhutto would not agree to Mujibur Rahman taking over the federal government, even though the Awami League had won an overall majority, and he was opposed to genuine autonomy for the East. As events unfolded, Bhutto gave his support to Yahya Khan and the generals in their determination to crush the independence movement, then took over as president and martial law administrator in December 1971.
Beginning the liberation struggle
AS THE CONFLICT between East and West Pakistan developed in March, the Dhaka offices of the two government organisations directly involved in the Bhola cyclone relief effort were closed for at least two weeks, first by a general strike and then by a ban on government work in East Pakistan imposed by the Awami League. With this increase in tension, foreign personnel were evacuated over fears of violence. Relief work continued in the field, but long-term planning was curtailed. This conflict widened into the Bangladesh liberation war and concluded with the creation of Bangladesh.
On 2 March 1971, a group of students, led by ASM Abdur Rob, vice-president of the Dhaka University Central Students Union and well-known left-wing leader, raised the new (proposed) flag of Bangladesh under the direction of the Swadhin Bangla Nucleus, an underground organisation in the leadership of the liberation struggle. The following day, student leader, Sahjahan Siraj, read the declaration of independence (sadhinotar ishtehar) at Paltan Maidan, at a public meeting, again organised by the Swadhin Bangla Nucleus.
On 7 March, there was a historical public gathering in Paltan Maidan to hear Mujibur Rahman outline the need for revolution and independence. Although he avoided a direct call for independence, as talks were still underway, the speech is considered to be a key moment in the preparation for war. It is remembered for Rahman’s call: “This time the revolution is for freedom. This time, the revolution is for liberation”. (Ebarer shongram muktir shongram. Ebarer shongram shadhinotar shongram.)
On the evening of 25 March 1971, the rising political discontent and cultural nationalism in East Pakistan was met by brutal repression from the ruling elite of the West Pakistan establishment, codenamed Operation Searchlight.
Rahman was arrested and the political leaders dispersed, mostly fleeing to neighbouring India where, subsequently, they organised a provisional government. Before being held by the army, Rahman passed on a handwritten note of the declaration of independence and it was circulated among the people. Bengali army major, Ziarur Rahman, captured Kalurghat radio station in Chittagong and read out the declaration proclaiming the independence of Bangladesh.
THE AIM OF Operation Searchlight was to crush the Bengali nationalist movement by taking control of the major cities and then eliminating all opposition, political or military, within a month. Before the start of the operation, all foreign journalists were systematically deported from East Pakistan. The main phase of the operation ended with the fall of the last major town in Bengali hands in mid-May.
Atrocities were committed. These systematic killings served only to enrage the Bengalis – and, ultimately, resulted in the secession of East Pakistan later in the same year. International media and reference books have published casualty figures which vary greatly – from 5,000 to 35,000 in Dhaka; and 200,000 to three million for Bangladesh as a whole. The atrocities have been referred to as acts of genocide. According to the Asia Times, at a meeting of the military top brass, Yahya Khan declared: “Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands”. Fighters were disarmed and killed, students and the intelligentsia systematically liquidated, and able-bodied Bengali males singled out and gunned down.
Although the violence focused on Dhaka, it affected all parts of East Pakistan. The residential halls of the University of Dhaka were particularly targeted. The only Hindu residential hall – Jagannath Hall – was destroyed by the Pakistani armed forces, and an estimated 600-700 of its residents were murdered. The army denies any cold-blooded killings at the university, though the Hamood-ur-Rehman commission in Pakistan concluded that overwhelming force was used there. These events have been corroborated by a videotape filmed secretly by Professor Nurul Ullah of the East Pakistan Engineering University, whose residence was directly opposite the student dormitories.
At first, resistance was spontaneous and disorganised. But, as the crackdown intensified, resistance grew. The Mukti Bahini freedom fighters became increasingly active. Increasing numbers of Bengali soldiers defected to this underground Bangladesh army, bolstering their weaponry with supplies from India. Pakistan responded by airlifting in two infantry divisions and reorganising its forces. It also raised paramilitary forces of Razakars, Al-Badrs and Al-Shams – mostly members of the Jamati Islami (the main religious fundamentalist organisation) and other Islamist groups – as well as other Bengalis who opposed independence, and Bihari Muslims who had settled during the time of partition.
On 17 April, a provisional government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh was formed in Meherpur (later renamed Mujibnagar), in western Bangladesh bordering India. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was in prison in Pakistan, was named as president, Syed Nazrul Islam, acting president, Tajuddin Ahmed, prime minister, and General Muhammad Ataul Ghani Osmani, commander-in-chief.
THE WAR LED to a sea of refugees – estimated at the time to be about ten million – flooding into the eastern Indian provinces of Assam and West Bengal. Facing a mounting humanitarian and economic crisis – and seeking to keep influence over an increasingly radicalized liberation movement – India started to actively aid and organise the Mukti Bahini, and sent in troops in December 1971.
West Pakistan’s ruling elite correctly feared that India’s entry into the war spelled certain defeat. So it launched a pre-emptive strike on Indian air force bases on 3 December – modelled on the Israeli air force’s Operation Focus during the 1967 six-day war – which was intended to neutralise Indian planes on the ground. The plan failed to achieve the desired effect since India had anticipated such an action. It was seen by India, however, as an open act of unprovoked aggression and marked the official start of the Indo-Pakistan war.
Pakistan’s regime made urgent appeals to the United Nations to intervene and force India to agree to a ceasefire. The UN Security Council assembled on 4 December 1971 to discuss the situation. After lengthy discussions, on 7 December, the United States put forward a resolution for an “immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of troops”. Stalinist Russia vetoed the resolution twice. In light of the Pakistani atrocities, Britain and France abstained.
Three Indian corps were involved in the invasion of East Pakistan. They were supported by nearly three brigades of Mukti Bahini, with many more fighting irregularly. This was far superior to Pakistan’s 90,000 troops. India’s external intelligence agency, RAW, mobilised the largest covert operation in the history of South Asia, providing crucial logistical support to the Mukti Bahini during the initial stages of the war.
The Indian army quickly overran the country, selectively engaging or bypassing heavily defended strongholds. Pakistani forces were unable to effectively counter the onslaught, as they had been deployed in small units around the border to counter guerrilla attacks by the Mukti Bahini. Unable to defend Dhaka, the Pakistanis surrendered on 16 December 1971, the largest surrender since the second world war. Bangladesh sought admission to the UN with most voting in its favour, but China vetoed this as Pakistan was its key ally, as was the United States, which was one of the last nations to accord Bangladesh recognition.
The geopolitical stage
ALTHOUGH US PRESIDENT Richard Nixon claimed that he would not get involved in the situation, saying that it was an internal matter of Pakistan, his administration provided political and material support to Yahya Khan throughout the turmoil. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, feared the expansion of Russian influence into South and Southeast Asia. Pakistan was a close ally of Maoist China, with whom Nixon had been negotiating a rapprochement and which he intended to visit in February 1972.
The US administration feared that an Indian invasion of West Pakistan would mean the domination of the region by Stalinist Russia. That, in turn, would seriously undermine the global position of the US and the regional position of America’s new tacit ally, China. In order to demonstrate to China the reliability of the US as an ally, and in direct violation of the US Congress-imposed sanctions on Pakistan, Nixon sent military supplies to Pakistan, routeing them through Jordan and Iran. China was encouraged to increase arms supplies to Pakistan.
The Nixon administration ignored the reports it received of the genocidal activities of the Pakistani army in East Pakistan, most notably in the infamous ‘Blood telegram’. This had been sent by US diplomat, Archer Blood, on 6 April 1971 and had highlighted atrocities during the liberation war.
THE MUKTI BAHINI was formed to fight off the military crackdown by the Pakistan army on 25 March 1971, and as part of the final push of the Bangladesh freedom movement. Ever since the anti-Ayub uprising in 1969 and during the height of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s six-points campaign, however, there had been a growing movement for Bengali independence in East Pakistan, driven by the nationalists, radicals and leftists.
Apart from the Mukti Bahini, there were independent guerrilla groups led by individual leaders which successfully controlled a number of areas. The regular forces, later called Niomita Bahini, were drawn from members of the East Bengal Regiments, East Pakistan Rifles, the police, other paramilitary forces and those in the general population who were led by the army commanders in Bangladesh’s eleven sectors. Three major forces – Z-Force, under Major Ziarur Rahman, K-Force, under Major Khaled Mosharraf, and S-Force, under Major KM Shafiullah – were established later.
In addition, there were other independent forces that fought in various regions of Bangladesh and liberated many areas. Among others, Siraj Sikder raised a strong guerrilla force which fought several battles with the Pakistani soldiers in Payarabagan, Barisal. And the Mujib Bahini was organised in India by Major General Oban of the Indian Army and a number of Student League leaders.
Many of the individuals and leaders of Mukti Bahini were deeply influenced by left-wing ideology in general. Clearly, there were deep-seated conflicts among the communist parties – most notably, split into pro-Russia and pro-China factions, and bitter disputes within the pro-Chinese faction. In spite of this, many actively participated in the liberation war around the main nucleus of the Mukti Bahini. Indeed, the Indian authorities and members of the Awami League-led provisional government had grave concerns that they could lose control of the liberation war to the leftists.
The first parliamentary elections were held in March 1973, with the Awami League winning a massive majority, 307 out of 315 national assembly seats. But it was losing popularity in the army, with only 20% of the vote in the military areas. In December 1974, in the face of continuing economic deterioration and mounting civil disorder, Rahman proclaimed a state of emergency, limited the powers of the legislative and judicial branches, and banned all newspapers except four government-supported papers. He introduced a one-party system, banning all the other parties.
Rahman’s government tried to silence every dissenting voice. The opposition was crushed. But he had not delivered what he had promised to the masses. The project of nation building on a capitalist basis failed. Support from the army was evaporating rapidly with a strong and rising resentment among middle-ranking officers at the increasing influence of the Indian security forces.
Plunged into chaos
ON 15 AUGUST 1975, a coup by army officers was led by Major Syed Faruqe Rahman and Major Rashid. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated, along with his entire family (with the exception of two of his daughters who were in Germany), several ministers and Awami League leaders. Bangladesh was plunged into chaos. The gates were opened for a series of military dictatorships.
General Ershad became the chief of staff while the new president, Abdus Sattar, led the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to victory in elections in 1982. Once again, however, this was short-lived, Ershad coming to power in a bloodless coup, backed by the army tops, on 24 March 1982. He proclaimed himself ‘chief martial law administrator’, taking over the presidency on 11 December 1983.
“We have made mistakes in the past”, says Communist Party of Bangladesh general secretary, Mujaheedul Islam Selim. “After independence, we did not emerge as a force alternative to the Awami League. This was a blunder. We failed to say: ‘If you don’t like Sheikh [Mujibur Rahman], come with us’.” He continued: “However, we can’t say that the left has been obliterated. It is the left, after all, that is most vocal in protest about vital national issues such as oil, gas, seaports, the Phulbari coalmine and so on”. Although significant, these protests have yet to make an impact on a mass scale.
It is true that the left made grave mistakes and blunders before independence and after. It failed again in 1975 during the soldiers’ revolt. The ordinary members and activists have made enormous sacrifices and fought bravely to bring about revolutionary social change in the country. The leaders, however, blindly followed the Stalinist stages theory. They tail-ended the different wings of the ruling class, failing to put forward an independent class position and alternative.