Bangladesh: Road to Independence


“Injustice in the end produces independence.”–Voltaire

The people of East Bengal, who are majority Muslims, suffered injustice for ages. After the fall of Plassey in 1757, they came under the wrath of the British and its Hindu surrogates. When the British left in 1947, partitioning India on religious divide, East Bengal became part of Pakistan, their condition was no better, if not worse. They continued to suffer injustice under the West Pakistani overlords. The year 1971 ushered a new hope. After decades of maltreatment, they thought their sufferings came to an end. It was not.  They had more injustice and suffering in store before they could taste freedom and achieve independence.

The first jolt came when the inaugural session of the Pakistan National Assembly, to be held in Dhaka on March 3, 1971, was arbitrarily cancelled by the military president, General Yahya Khan. The Bengalis of East Pakistan saw it another conspiracy by the center to deny them their rights. On March 7, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the supreme Bengali leader, called for Ebarer songram amader muktir songram, swadhinotar songram(Our struggle this time is for freedom, for independence). Soon they faced the slaughter of the military under an undeclared war, bleeding the land red. At that crucial juncture, they heard a beam of hope coming from the Chittagong Radio Station. Major Ziaur Rahman called for the Independence of Bangladesh. Immediately, people from all walks of life joined the soldiers, police, rifles who revolted against the marauding Pakistan military and started the War of Independence. After nine bloody months, an independent Bangladesh appeared in the world map. The victory did not come cheap. Millions of lives lost and wounded in addition to colossal damage of the country’s resources. Nor did the story beganin 1971. Their struggle had a glorious history.

Independence Leaders

The root of Bangladesh independence can be traced to the early part of the century, when in 1906, Sir Salimullah of Dhaka founded the All India Muslim League so that the Muslims of India could be masters of their destiny. Salimullah had another vision: promotion of Bengali Muslims, who had been demanding their separation from the control of theHindu majority in thewestern half. British Viceroy Lord Curzon in 1905 divided the Bengal Presidency, separating East Bengal and Assam from West Bengal and Orissa. But the Kolkata based Hindu Zamindar class and the business groups could not accept this division. Apart from casting a disapproval to the intended upliftment of the Muslims, they feared the loss of their revenue and agricultural hinterland for the industries located in their part. Poet Rabindranath Tagore, one such Zamindar, was in the forefront of anti-division movement. He composed an emotional Amar Sonar Bangla to express the oneness of Bengal. In effect, it was against the Muslims of East Bengal, today’s Bangladesh. Ironically, Bangladesh today sings Amar Sonar Bangla as its National Anthem. The British succumbed to the blackmail and annulled the division in 19011. Bengali Muslims were reverted back to square one. Salimullah felt that the Muslims must be united to fight for their rights and formed the Muslim League. He later donated a huge chunk of his family land to set up the Dhaka University, which subsequently became a breeding ground for Bengalis’ identity and independence.

muslim league

In 1940, A K Fazlul Haq, the Tiger of Bengal, demanded separate homelands for the Muslims with a view to freeing them from the control and subjugation of the majority Hindus in India. He also envisaged an independent Bangsam–Bengal and Assam–in which Muslims were majority. Later, H S Suhrawardi, Abul Hashem, Abul Mansur Ahmed, Satyen Bose, Sarat Bose and others espoused the same idea. Much against their opposition, West Bengal was taken away to join India during the partition in 1947. East Bengal, without Assam, became part of Pakistan. However, the neglect and sufferings of the Bengalis continued under the domination of Pakistan’s west.

(To be noted, though the Muslims of East Bengal desired separation from West Bengal during early part of the century, a few top Hindu-Muslims leaders worked for an independent Bengal with Assam, separate from India or Pakistan).

During Pakistan’s constitutional crisis from 1947 to 1956, a few Bengali leaders tried in vain to safeguard the interest of East Pakistan. After formation of the Jukta Front government in East Pakistan in 1954, Chief Minister Fazlul Haq, the Sher-e-Bangla, categorically told the center that “his ultimate goal was independence of East Pakistan, and that he was prepared to concede Foreign Affairs, Currency and Defence to the Central Government only temporarily.” The Sher-e-Bangla wastermed “a traitor” by Prime Minister Mohammad Ali andhad to face the axe.[1]In 1957, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani threatened to cut off ties with West Pakistan if their demand of full regional autonomy was not met.[2] With the decline of President Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship, demands of the Bengalis’ legitimate rights gained strength. In that backdrop, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman put up a 6-Point program in 1966aimed at complete provincial autonomy, picking up the thread from where Sher-e-Bangla left more than a decade ago.

Yahya’s Reforms

In March 1969, General Yahya Khan entered the scene as President, replacing Ayub Khan. The new leader appeared genuinely wanting Pakistan to return to the civilian rule. Perhaps his only desire was to continue as president under the new administration. He made a few far reaching political and administrative reforms that benefitted East Pakistan. First, he disbanded the one-unit of West Pakistan and restored the provinces of the Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province. That made East Pakistan the largest and dominant province. Second, he introduced the universal adult franchise of the one-man one-vote. Based on population, it gave East Pakistan 164 parliamentary seats to West Pakistan’s 136, out of a total of 300, from the former 150:150 parity. This measure made it possible for the Awami League to emerge as the majority party with 162 wins in the 1970 elections. Third, during his two-year tenure, Yahya increased the induction of Bengalis into the military and administration. He suspended the recruitment of soldiers in West Pakistan while accelerating enrollment in East Pakistan. Bengali cadet intakes in the military academies also increased. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Bengali cadets were 5% or less. In 1971, the number rose to almost 25%. Statistics in the civil services also improved similarly.

The 1970 Elections

Campaigning largely on the Six- Point Program, Awami League swept to victory in the December 1970 elections. A dichotomy existed, however. It won all its 162 seats in East Pakistan but failed to win any in the western wing. On the other hand, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto secured 82 National Assembly seats, but none in East Pakistan. That gave the two major parties regional portrayals, rather than all Pakistan-based. Serving in the western part of Pakistan in those days, I had the opportunity to notice a feeling of concern and despair among most Punjabis in the higher echelon that their days of bullying the Bengalis were coming to an end. But the hawkish generals and politicians would not give up so easily. They started hatching conspiracies to maintain their control. To start with, President Yahya might have not been part of this conspiracy. 

Since elections, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been forcefully advocating that he won a mandate on his 6 Points and would amend Pakistan’s constitution accordingly.  It ran contrary to Legal Framework Order (LFO) under which elections were held. LFO demanded unity of Pakistan, while the 6-Point undermined it. Mujib had earlier assured Governor Admiral Ahsan and G W Chowdhury, Yahya’s Constitutional Adviser, that his formula was not the word of Bible and could be amended. The junta and West Pakistani leaders perceived the 6 Points as an obvious move for the eastern wing to secede. They also suspected that Pakistan’s archenemy India had a hand in it.

The Crucial Year:1971

A number of meetings between the central leaders and Awami League did not produced any positive result. While boarding a plane on January 14 in Dhaka, following an impasse with Mujib, an angry president retorted to the inquisitive journalists, “Go and ask these questions to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He is the next Prime Minister.” Bhutto could not take this remark lightly. He thought the president had reached an understanding with the Bengali leader bypassing him. He started planning his revenge.  Upon arrival in Karachi, Yahya accepted Bhutto’s invitation to go “duck hunting” at Larkana. Army Chief of Staff General Hamid, Chief of the Intelligence General Akbar, among others, were also called to join in. The president now became a partner in the conspiracy. There at Bhutto’s lush palace, began what is commonly known as “The Larkana Conspiracy,” the blueprint of the Operation Searchlight. The Searchlight was aimed at crushing the Bengalis’ aspirations for good. While the homework was being done by Bhutto and the generals, the president said to mostly remain busy with what he enjoyed the most: the two ‘W’s, lavishly arranged by his host. In effect, the president was said to be reduced to a signatory or the front-man, while the real authority rested in the military headed by Hamid and General S G M Peerzada, chief of the general staff to the president and a close friend of Bhutto.

Yahya perhaps still hoped that the impasse could be resolved. Bhutto refused to join the inaugural session of the assembly, scheduled in Dhaka on March 3, 1971, “just to endorse the 6 Points.” He also threatened to “break the legs” of any other West Pakistani parliamentarians who would dare to go to Dhaka. The parliamentary session was cancelled and Dhaka reacted violently. Radical leaders and student activists pressed Mujib to make the unilateral declaration of independence (UDI). The leader came short of it. The 17-minute speech of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the Race Course on March 7, 1971 was great, though somewhat confusing to the public. He did not make the UDI butput forward four demands to the authorities: The lifting of the martial law; the military’s return to the barracks; enquiry into the civilians’ killings, and immediate transfer of power to the elected representatives. He left the podium as quickly as he came without talking to anyone.

Declaration of Independence Controversy

Sheikh Mujib’s followers maintain that Mujib’s March 7 speech was itself the declaration for independence. The main reason for this version is to undercut the announcement made by Major Ziaur Rahman of 8 Bengal Regiment at the Chittagong Radio Station on March 27, 1971. However, there exist contradictions and inconsistencies surrounding those claims. First, if the March 7 speech was the call for independence, then why did Sheikh Mujib engage himself in lengthy deliberations with Yahya, Bhutto and other central leaders on March 15-25, ostensibly to craft the future of Pakistan?  If the March 7 speech was the declaration of independence, there was no need of a separate declaration on March 25/26, 1971. Why then were so much fuss about sending a written declaration to Chittagong to M A Hannan or Zuhur Ahmed Chowdhury, who supposedly made the announcements? Nobody heard those announcements, if any. The only announcement people heard was the one made by Major Ziaur Rahman. On the night of March 25, 1971, Awami League Secretary General Tajuddin Ahmad brought a tape recorder for Mujib to record the declaration of independence, as well as a draft declaration to sign. Mujib declined to oblige either.[3]So, when did Mujib declare the independence? Or, did he really want the independence of Bangladesh?

After traversing a sea of blood, the people of Bangladesh won victory in December 1971. French writer-philosopher Voltaire finally proved right for the Bengalis, when he said, “Injustice in the end produces independence.”

R Chowdhury is a former soldier and a decorated freedom fighter in the war of liberation of Bangladesh. Enjoys retired life in reading, writing and gardening. Writes on contemporary issues of Bangladesh; published a few books so far.


[1]Hasan Zaheer, The Separation of East Pakistan, Oxford University Press, Dhaka, 1994; Kamruddin Ahmad, Social History of East Pakistan, Dhaka, 1967; G W Chowdhury, Constitutional Development in Pakistan, London, 1970).


[2]Hasan Zaheer, ibid p 34.).


[3]Sharmin Ahmad, Tajuddin Ahmad: Neta o Pita, 2014




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