Bangladesh’s Liberation War: a unique event in history

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Bangladesh’s independence, achieved at a very high cost in 1971, was a unique historical event that drew its inspirations from the ideals of a democratic, equitable and prosperous society
Syed Mehdi Momin

In the valiant Liberation War in 1971 Bengalis emerged victorious because of the righteousness of the cause it was fighting for. In the years that followed after the achievement of independence, the nation lost sight of many of the ideals that shaped the foundation of a new state called Bangladesh.  Today on the 47th anniversary of our Independence we need some serious soul searching. For a proud and freedom-loving nation, it is appalling to have our history of the Liberation War distorted. We must set it right and uphold the ideals for which this nation made the supreme sacrifice. Only then can we hope to establish a society free from exploitation and injustice.

The leadership, under Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his trusted ally Tajuddin Ahmed, had a dream that actually guided the people to fight the Pakistani forces. Today we need to revive that vision and the dream in every citizen’s heart so that they feel inspired to achieve great things with bursts of creative energy a nation on move is capable of.  Currently the country is in quest of the lost spirit of the Liberation War, once again and a demand for reconciliation with our history is gaining momentum. The reconciliation puts a premium on our commitment to the country’s fundamental principles that went into the making of this nation.

Bangladesh’s Independence, achieved at a very high cost in 1971, was a unique historical event that drew its inspirations from the ideals of a democratic, equitable and prosperous society. Ironically, Bangladesh’s existence since independence has been traumatic as well as promising. The first decade witnessed extreme volatility in politics, violent changes of government and military coups, the second with a brief interlude of civilian-democratic regime, was marked by a long period of authoritarian rule. The dawn of 1990 witnessed changing notes, rekindling hopes among the people for a better life they are entitled to. But power conflicts along the road cascading into increased polarisation and chaos could hardly sustain a fledgling democracy and economic stability. Yet, by developing-country standards, the country’s growth has been notable though it did not better the lot of the general mass. Economic indicators have been hovering tolerably well with the cushion to absorb various shocks. It pays for its purchases, never defaulting in meeting the balance of payments in international currency exchanges. The stigma tagged to Bangladesh at its birth that it was a “bottomless basket” case of perennial want and an international headache for distress management has clearly been proven wrong. This Day should inspire us to strive to bridge the gaps with those countries in a time-bound fashion. To make this happen, we need leadership, we need galvanisation of the people’s power. We must strengthen our democracy without which the gains of independence will not be fully consolidated or fully realised, for sure. Now we must look forward to a new beginning, with an elected, democratic government in power-pledge-bound to usher in a new era in the national life.

The Pakistan Army launched the crackdown at midnight of 25 March. According to the plan for action Search Light two headquarters were established. Major General Rao Farman Ali with 57 Brigade under Brigadier Arbab was responsible for operation in Dhaka city and its suburbs while Major General Khadim Raja was given the responsibility of the rest of the province. Lieutenant General Tikka Khan assumed the overall charge of the operation. The students and the common people put up resistance outside the cantonment. Road blocks were raised to obstruct the march of the Pakistani column to the city areas. The wireless set fitted jeeps and trucks loaded with troops groaned on the streets of Dhaka City at midnight of 25 March.  The first column of the Pakistan army faced obstruction at Farmgate about one kilometre from the cantonment due to a huge road block created by placing big tree trunks across the road. The hulks of old cars and unserviceable steam roller, were also used. Several hundred people chanted the slogan Joi Bangla which lasted for about 15 minutes. them.

The Pak forces killed everybody in sight on the footpath and destroyed everything on their way. The tanks roared through the streets of Dhaka blasting indiscriminately at the people and official and residential buildings. They gunned down clusters of settlements and set fire on them. Scores of artillery bursts were pounded, while the tanks rumbled into the city roaring the main streets. The student halls of residence at Dhaka University were raided and numerous students residing there were brutally killed and maimed. They also killed many teachers of Dhaka University. The Hindu concentrated areas of old Dhaka were particularly targeted. They started killing the people, burnt their houses, looted their valuables and raped their women.

On 26 March Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was taken prisoner by the Pakistan army after he declared the independence of Bangladesh just past midnight on 25th March. The then Major Ziaur Rahman announced Bangladesh’s independence on behalf of Sheikh Mujib from Kalurghat radio station at Chittagong the same day. There were spontaneous uprisings throughout Bangladesh following the call of independence by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. These uprisings were participated by government officials, political activists, students, workers, peasants, professionals and members of the public.

The joint command of the Mukti Bahini and the Indian army was underway from November 1971. Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, Commander, Eastern Command of Indian Army, became the commander of the joint forces. The joint command of the Mukti Bahini and the Indian Army, however, started operation from the evening of 3 December, when the Pakistan Air Force bombed Amritsar and the Kashmir valley. Immediately, the Indian armed forces were ordered to hit back the Pakistan army and thus the Indo-Pak war broke out.

The Mukti Bahini and the Indian army continued advancing inside Bangladesh and the defeat and surrender of the Pakistan army became a matter of time. International efforts for a cease-fire before Bangladesh is fully liberated failed due to Soviet veto in

the United Nations Security Council.

The Punjabi-dominated West Pakistani rulers saw the movement as a sectional uprising against Pakistani national interests and the ideology of Pakistan. West Pakistani politicians considered Urdu a product of Indian Islamic culture, as the dictator Ayub Khan said, as late as in 1967, “East Bengalis… still are under considerable Hindu culture and influence.”Bengalis were victims of a well-planned system of discrimination. Though the Bengalis were the majority their relationship with the ruling West Pakistani elite was that of a master and his slaves. In the new entity every aspect of non Muslim life was stigmatised. Bengali cuisine was presented in a negative light as if they had any knowledge of it! Bengal being abundant- unlike the largely desert West Pakistan- in all types of food from land, river and sea and Bengali love of rice, fish, foul, meat, mustard oil, ghee, vegetables, dates, mangoes, lychees, jack-fruit, bananas, were considered not part of  Islamic diets according to West Pakistanis especially Punjabis.

They made it appears that under Islam Muslims do not eat rice or fish or vegetables or mangoes; nor cook with mustard or coconut oil! Every aspect of Bengali culinary practices was less good in contrast to what  they imagined Arabs had for their diets.

The catastrophic cyclone on November 12, 1970  killed an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people. It is known as the deadliest tropical cyclone on record. The callous attitude of the West Pakistani leadership added to the grievances of the Bengalis at that time. 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.”

Sheikh Mujib, always the devoted nationalist, was adamant that the constitution be based on his six-point program. Z A Bhutto, meanwhile, pleaded for unity in Pakistan under his leadership. When the conspiracy to deprive Awami League of its right to form the government became apparent, they went for a mass movement in East Pakistan.

Though the population of East Pakistan was significantly more the ruling West Pakistani elites were in no mood to consider them as equals. The West Pakistanis considered themselves as superior Muslims and superior human beings. It was this sure arrogance which prompted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to press on with his unreasonable demands.

Veteran Pakistani journalist Z A Suleri has written how shocked he was in 1971 to find Pakistan army officers nonchalantly joking about the on-going rapes in East Pakistan as a service to the Bengalis to improve their genetic pool. There was a strange sort of racism at work here. During the end of the Liberation War when the Pakistanis realised that they had virtually no chance to hold on to East Pakistan the Generals used to say, ” Kartar Singh a jaye to bhi thik hai (even if the Sikhs come it is all right) but we will not let the black bastards rule us.”

History shows that most of the area which now constitute Pakistan was under Sikh rule for a major part of the eighteenth century. The Sikhs were only around fifteen per cent of the population but they ruled over the Punjabi Muslims and Pathans with an iron fist for decades, so much for the latter being martial races.

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