Road to Freedom

Events preceding the war

Awami League’s unprecedented victory in the National Assembly election on 7 December 1970 came as a massive blow for the ruling military junta of West Pakistan. It was the first National Assembly election in 23 years, after the formation of Pakistan in 1947. The result was upsetting for the Pakistani rulers as it was beyond their calculation. Out of 300 National Assembly seats Awami League won 167. Even Awami League gained sweeping victory in the Provincial Assembly election of December 17 as well, winning all but 2 of the 162 seats. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, being the lawful claimant, was in the potential position to form a government. Consequently the people from all corners desired transfer of power to the elected representatives of East Pakistan. But it was unlikely to happen as the military rulers planned otherwise.

Few days after the election result, clouds started to darken the sky. Political scene became intense as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto firmly opposed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib’s six-point demand declared in 1966. Bhutto’s thoughts were shared by the West Pakistani military generals. Six-point demand, which alluded to the autonomy of East Pakistan, immediately became very popular among the mass people. This announcement displeased the West Pakistani rulers at that time. They viewed it as a sign of defiance.

Negotiations begin
Pakistani generals feared that Awami League now being in a powerful position after the election result might try to execute the six-point demand. Amidst this intense situation, President Yahya Khan visited Dhaka on 11 January 1971. He even addressed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib as the ‘would be Prime Minister” of Pakistan. Negotiations took place and Yahya stipulated on the cutback of demand for autonomy. Mujib boldly refused any concession on the issue. Yahya went back to Pakistan.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto visited Dhaka on 27 January 1971. More negotiations took place. However, Bhutto-Mujib talks failed to resolve the situation. On 12 February President Yahya announced that the National Assembly is to be held on March 3rd in Dhaka.

Events afterwards substantiated the fact that the negotiation and the subsequent announcement were merely a formality. But On 13th February 1971, just after Yahya’s announcement of the National Assembly date, Bhutto stunned everyone at the political scene. He announced that his party would not go to Dhaka to join the Assembly. Political leaders of Pakistan criticised Bhutto for this statement. Elected representatives of West Pakistan including Wali Khan, G. M. Syad and Maolana Mufti later arrived in Dhaka even after Bhutto’s announcement. They called on Mujib and expressed their support for the democratic cause.

Traitor Pakistanis and defiant Bangalees
Bhutto threatened to launch a general strike throughout Pakistan if the Assembly was held in scheduled time. By now the people of East Pakistan was convinced that the Pakistani rulers would not let a Bengali rule the country. West Pakistan’s positive response to Bhutto’s threat was yet another proof of this presumption. On 1st March Yahya postponed the assembly. The declaration ignited the fire. Eventually tension escalated. People burst out on the streets with protest rallies. Continuous slogans condemning Pakistani rulers echoed in the streets of Dhaka. They chanted ‘Padma, Meghna, Jamuna, tomar amar thikana’.

On 2nd March, Hartal was observed by the entire nation. Red and green flag with yellow map of Bangladesh in centre flapped in the air on this day. Students of Dhaka University hoist it up at Bot tola, in front of the Kala Bhavan. They burned Pakistani flag. Army killed two young demonstrators; thousands continued marching the streets of Dhaka and other cities, raising militant slogans, ‘Bir bangali austro dhoro Bangladesh swadhin koro’. A curfew was imposed. Troops armed with latest weapons moved around the city to enforce it. Agitated demonstrators defied the curfew and clashed with the troops, losing six persons. More hartals followed. Six-point demand was gradually turning into a one-point demand among the mass. Freedom became the one and only obsession for the entire nation.

Non cooperation movement
Non-cooperation movement was called on March 3rd. Complete shut down of the entire nation was the response. No one went to the office from this day. Schools were closed. Black flag fluttered on the rooftop of every building. Cultural organisations such as Udichi Shilpi Goshthi, Betar-Television Shilpi Shangshad, Mohila Parishad, arranged street drama, gono shangit, and meetings, conveying the message of freedom to the general people. Lawyers of High court, employees of deferent private organisations, civil servants, joined the movement.

People participated in the protests in their very own way. Gradually they came forward with a remarkable idea of protest. On 4th March, the name ‘Radio Pakistan’ was altered to ‘Dhaka Betar Kendro’.

On 6th March, Yahya in another futile effort tried to convince the raging people with an announcement that the assembly will be held on 25 March. The announcement was followed by the appointment of infamous Tikka Khan as the Governor of East Pakistan. The people of Bangladesh will not be deceived any more. They deemed this announcement as another mischievous scheme of the wicked Pakistanis.

Thinkers of deferent media joined forces with the protesting people. It gave a new dimension to people’s dream. On this day the cultural activists of Betar and TV declined to join any programmes.

March 7: History was made
The historical event that strengthened the courage of the entire nation was Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib’s speech at Race Course Maidan. It was March 7, people waited eagerly for the meeting. Freedom beckoned and they were already prepared to fight for it. All they needed was a boost from their leader. The meeting was due in the afternoon. No one waited till then. People started to gather from early noon with flags and bamboo sticks in their hand. Several hundred thousand attended the meeting. Those who did not live in Dhaka waited for the relay transmission of the speech on the radio. On this day Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib elevated the inner strength of the people present in the meeting with his raged words. “Ebarer shangram muktir shangram, ebarer shangram shadhinotar shongram”, he proclaimed before the mass people.

The Martial Law authority postponed relay transmission of this historical speech. This act enraged the employees of the radio. They protested by shutting down all the transmissions. Postponement of the relay transmission did not stop the progress of denunciation. The massage was conveyed to the entire nation.

Preparation for armed struggle
Non-cooperation was now in full fledge. From 8th March, people started collecting arms and ammunition from the stores all over the country. Chatra Union started military training at the Dhaka University campus with dummy rifles. Cinema halls all around the country stopped screening Urdu cinemas from this day. Starting from Chatra League, deferent organisations obliterated the word Pakistan from their names. Rejection of the Pakistani rule continued.

The flames of freedom touched the expatriate Bangalis as well. They could no longer ignore the force. Expatriate Bangalis organised a protest rally in London, U.K., demanding independence for East Pakistan. More than ten thousand attended the rally.

Countdown to war
Every day of March in 1971 was extraordinary and left its mark in the history book. On March 9, Maolana Bhashani shunned the Pakistani junta in his Paltan speech. He proclaimed, “Relationship with Pakistan is over”. Official oath taking of Tikka Khan was scheduled on this day. Chief Justice of the High court B. A. Siddiki was in charge of swearing him in. He bravely refused to carry on with the task. This was considered as one of the most striking event of that time.

In the meanwhile foreign delegates present in Bangladesh during that time anticipated more intensity in the situation. The then Secretary General of United Nations, U Thant asked the local UN employees to leave Bangladesh, then East Pakistan. Just after that, Japanese and the West German governments also announced that they would be sending chartered planes to evacuate their citizens.

On March 10, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman issued a statement declaring that “the responsibility of the United Nations does not end with the evacuation of their employees from a troubled area. The threat that we are facing today is of genocide. It is a threat which is in violation of the UN charter that protects the basic human rights of seven and a half crore people of this country”.

On 11 March teachers of Engineers University with the supervision of Dr. Nurul Ula built a secret radio station. 12 March cultural activist announced that from now on Shapla will be our national flower. On this day, Charushilpi Shangram Parishad was formed with artist Kaium Chowdhury and Murtoza Bashir in the front.

On 12 March, Bangali officials in the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) and of the East Pakistan Civil Service (EPCS) announced their complete support to the non-cooperation movement. In a unique gesture, they announced that they would contribute a day’s salary to the Awami League Relief Fund.

From March 14, Intellectuals started rejecting titles given to them by the Pakistani government. This act of uprising started with Shilpacharjya Jainul Abedin rejecting his Helal Imtiaz title. Many others followed this courageous trend afterwards.

Amidst the non-cooperation movement Yahya once again visited Dhaka. He arrived on 15th March and from 16th he joined in another series of meeting with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib. Key demand made by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib was that ‘military be sent back to the barrack, transfer of power to the elected representative and the killers of Bangalis in the shootouts be put on trial’. Second meeting on 17 March was held for a very short period of time. On this day it became quite evident that the negotiation is about to fail. It was apprehended that the meeting was a final bid to buy more time for troop movement and preparation for a severe onslaught. Yahya planned a huge military assault with his advisors while the meeting went on. With the help of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) and National Shipping Corporation (NSC), Yahya continued shifting troops and armaments to East Pakistan.

March 18 was one of the most haunting days for the Bangalees. On this day the Pakistani generals sketched the plan to eliminate all defying forces in East Pakistan. Gen. Khadim Raja and Maj. Gen. Rao Farman Ali made a draft of the basic operational plan, which was named ‘Operation Searchlight’. A brutal offensive was speculated. People were getting ready as well with whatever weapons they had. It was on this day retired air force recruits declared that they were ready to fight guerrilla warfare like Vietnam. Mahila Parishad started giving special training to women from this day.

Just before the massive offensive, fragmented war started. On March 19, Punjabi officers at Joydevpur killed several Bangali officers, which enraged fellow officers in the force. A section of Bangali officers started fighting with Panjabi officers. General people of the locality joined with them. To prevent demonstration a 29-hour curfew was declared. When the curfew ended people instantly returned to the streets and continued with their protests. All around Bangladesh this incident was denounced amidst public meetings and rallies.

20th March is a black day in Bangladeshi history. It was the last day of negotiation. On this day the army command approved the 18th March draft of ‘Operation Searchlight’ prepared by Rao Farman Ali and Khadim Raja with slight modifications. Bhutto unexpectedly arrived in Dhaka after declining to do so for several times. The mass people immediately condemned Bhutto’s arrival. On the same day, members of Gonobahini trained by Chatra Union paraded the streets of Dhaka with dummy rifles, creating an excitement among the mass people. This further heightened the Bangali spirit.

Mar 23 was the anniversary of the Pakistan Day. On this day in 1940, Sher-e-Bangla A. K. Fazlul Haque presented the Lahore Resolution. In 1956 the constitution of Pakistan was written on this day. March 23 already left its mark in the history and it again created a new one. In an amazing development, the Awami League declared this day a ‘Resistance Day’. Pakistani flags were burnt, Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s portraits were torn down and his effigy was burnt. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib himself hoists the flag of Bangladesh in his residence at Dhanmondi 32. The Radio Pakistan stationed in Dhaka started to refer itself as Radio Dhaka. The Radio and Television played Rabindranath’s ‘Amar sonar Bangla’ as the new national anthem. The Bengali youths chanted ‘Joi Bangla’ slogans vehemently. The day became more exciting when British High Commission and Soviet consulate hoisted new Bangladeshi flag.

The day of the ultimate event was drawing near. Preparation for the final evil doing was going on. Pakistani military was transporting large amount of armaments via Chittagong port, as air space over India was restricted for Pakistani aircrafts. On 24 March port workers refused to unload arms and ammunition from M. V. Sowat. This incident turned violent. In an unruly firing the military killed several port workers. People of Chittagong created barricade. They will not let them shift the weapons.

Then the brutal attack on innocents
By 25 March 1971, Pakistan was prepared to crush the defying Bangalis forever. During the day there were rumours among the people about a possible strike. Dead at night Yahya with his advisors secretly ran away to Pakistan by a special flight giving full command to the armed forces. Silence of the night was violated with the sounds of Mortar shells, firing Rifles and heavy tanks. The rampaged killing under the command of Tikka Khan started from the Rajarbag Police line, Pilkhana EPR barracks and Dhaka University halls. All night long gruesome killing of innocent people continued. The cruel Pakistani army set fire to houses, raped and killed female students of Rokeya Hall DU. Screams of terrified people were heard from distant areas. Tracer shells reflected in dark sky of the night. Number of death was innumerable. On this night they arrested Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib and later flew him to Karachi. This genocide shocked the humanity. The world later came to know of this ghastly episode and was stunned.

The members of East Bengal Regiment, EPR and Police along with the people put up resistance to the Pakistani killers. Chittagong became a strong centre of resistance. The radio of Independent Bengal operated from the 26th to 30th March from this port city. On 27th March Major Zia made a valiant call to his countryman. He said,

“I Major Zia of Bengal Liberation Army. This is Major Zia, the leader of Bengal Liberation Army, speaking on the support of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s liberation movement… Under circumstances however I hereby declare myself as a Provisional Head of the Swadhin Bangla Liberation Government under guidance of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. At this moment we have to fight united. By the grace of God, we will capture all Punjabi traitor in a matter of one or two days and free Bangladesh of all these menaces. Joi Bangla”.

For millions of Bangalees, the struggle had been going on for a long…long time. They wanted to free themselves from the atrocity of the Pakistani evils right from the beginning. The genocide of March 25 night was the ultimate blast-off of the armed resistance and this announcement was the final boost. The most ferocious weapons that the people of Bangladesh had was courage, which was manifested during the 9 months of Liberation War.

Author : Shahnaz Parveen

Sources: Hajar Bochorer Bangladesh by Dr. Mohammad Hannan, Ekatturer Dinguli by Jahanara Imam, Bangladesher Taarikh by Habibur Rahman. Some information were also taken from