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26 March, 2020 12:42:47 PM

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The glorious Liberation War of Bangladesh

Even the poorly-trained and poorly-equipped freedom fighters made lives miserable for the Pakistani soldiers
Syed Mehdi Momin
The glorious Liberation War of Bangladesh

The 26th of March bears glorious testimony to the fact that the nation did not lose its sense of direction during its hour of the gravest crisis. There have been aspirations of the democratic-minded, secular and forward-looking people nurturing a value system that keeps them firmly rooted to the nation’s cultural mooring. We should remember that Independence is a goal-oriented, continuous and never-ending process.
Bangladesh earned its 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.  

Operation Searchlight and the War: 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. But soon guns silenced 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. The genocide that was perpetrated on the unarmed people was flashed in the world press.  

On 26 March  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  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. These uprisings were participated by government officials, political activists, students, workers, peasants, professionals and members of the public. After initial resistance, many freedom fighters crossed over into Indian territory to have safe sanctuary, due mainly to the enemy’s overwhelming superiority of trained soldiers and modern weapons. The scattered and temporarily retreating rudimentary liberation forces were soon brought under a unified command.  

The governments of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura established refugee camps along the border. These camps became ready ground for recruitment of the freedom fighters. The students, peasants, workers and political activists joined the Mukti Bahini with high spirit to liberate Bangladesh from the Pakistan army. They were given training on tactics and the use of arms and explosives. On completion of training, they were posted to different sectors to fight the enemy. The headquarters of the Bangladesh Forces was established at 8 Theatre Road, Calcutta which started functioning from 12 April 1971. Lieutenant Colonel M A Rab and Group Captain A K Khandaker were appointed as Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff respectively.

The Mukti Bahini had fought many successful battles in putting up initial resistance. But within a short time, they were temporarily contained by the Pakistan army and were compelled to withdraw to the safe sanctuary in the Indian territory. The Mukti Bahini was, however, re-equipped, reorganised and retrained. As a result, it got into fighting with fresh zeal after April-May 1971.

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, Sree Nagar 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 massive massacre perpetrated during the crackdown (Codename Operation Searchlight) by the Pakistani Army on March 25, 1971 was the last straw that broke the camel's back. The next day the Bengalis, under the leadership of  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared themselves independent, breaking the shackles of West Pakistani oppression.

Pakistani Army launched Operation Searchlight to "crush" Bengali resistance in which Bengali members of military services were disarmed and killed, students and the intelligentsia systematically liquidated and able-bodied Bengali males just picked up and gunned down.

We embarked on a nine-month-long Liberation War which culminated in victory on December 16, 1971. The valiant freedom fighters with help from the Indian Armed Forces inflicted a crushing defeat on the Pakistani army-which boasted of being the best in the world.

Ironically enough it was the Bengali Muslims who shed their blood and suffered tremendously for the achievement of Pakistan. If not for their immense contribution it may well be possible that Pakistan would never become a reality. Bengal was the only place where the Muslim League was a party with mass support and could hold mammoth rallies. Their commitment to Pakistan was much more then any other province. The Bengalis hoped that in the new nation they would be proud citizens and their great contribution towards the establishment of Pakistan. However their hopes were soon to be dashed.  

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."  At the 1966 Lahore conference of both the eastern and the western chapters of the Awami League,  declared his six-point political and economic programme which can be regarded as the Magna Charta for the Bengalis. He demanded that the government be federal and parliamentary in nature, its members to be elected by universal adult suffrage with legislative representation on the basis of population; that the federal government have principal responsibility for foreign affairs and defense only; that each wing have its own currency and separate fiscal accounts; that taxation would occur at the provincial level, with a federal government funded by constitutionally guaranteed grants; that each federal unit could control its own earning of foreign exchange; and that each unit could raise its own militia or paramilitary forces.

These six points ran directly counter to President Ayub's plans. The Pakistani arrested  in January 1968. After Ayub Khan was forced to hand over power to the Army Chief Yahya Khan, the latter announced plans for a national election on December 7, 1970. Interestingly the elections were the first in the history of Pakistan in which voters were able to elect members of the National Assembly directly. In a convincing demonstration of Bengali dissatisfaction with the West Pakistani regime, the Awami League won all but 2 of the 162 seats allotted to East Pakistan in the National Assembly.

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.

The ruling oligarchs in the then West Pakistan balked at having to give up the reigns of power to East Pakistanis. They stalled the installation of the newly elected parliament, and on the dark night of March 25, 1971 embarked on a genocidal reign of terror aimed at extinguishing all signs of Bengali nationalism. In the face of this, the inevitable declaration of independence was proclaimed, and the fight was on for the people of  Bangladesh to achieve independence, at a terrible price of 3 million people killed by the marauding armies of Pakistan

The Independence of Bangladesh was formally declared on the eve of the War of Independence with Pakistan that led to the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign nation. The Bengali soldiers of the Pakistan Army, East Pakistan Rifles, police. Ansar and above all common people from all walks of life built up resistance to vanquish the army of occupation and their treacherous Bengali collaborators.!

The Punjabi-dominated army  wanted to punish Bengalis for electing Awami League. They were not prepared to accept the election results that would have meant sharing the resources of the country including jobs in the army and civil service with all nationalities

Like their British masters the Punjabis always looked at the Bengalis with a degree of suspicion. The elite among themselves used to say that one can never trust these rice-eating dark fellows. However since the Bengali resistance began they had nowhere to run. They soon found out that while it was easy to gun down unarmed civilians it was a different task altogether when faced with an enemy who shot back.

Even the poorly-trained and poorly-equipped freedom fighters made lives miserable for the Pakistani soldiers. But Pakistan's army officers had institutionalised anti-Bengali attitude to the point where the soldiers were willing to believe that they were engaged in rape and murder to save Islam 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.

The writer is the Senior Assistant Editor of The Independent

JG

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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