Bangladeshi citizens struggle through noncooperation for political autonomy, 1971

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Timing
Time Period:  
March 1,
1971
to
March 26,
1971
Location and Goals
Country: 
Bangladesh
Location City/State/Province: 
Dhaka
Location Description: 
Throughout modern-day Bangladesh
Goals: 
Essentially, the recognition of election results and greater autonomy for East Pakistan.

An important source of friction in this campaign was between the reformist Awami League and more revolutionary student groups. The Awami League sought to have the December 1970 election results recognized so it could pass a new Constitution granting greater autonomy and representation to East Pakistan. The students, though, kept pushing for outright independence. Awami Lead leader Mujibur Rahman was forced to embrace more radical rhetoric at times to appease the students, all the while working for a political solution.

 

The Pakistan that gained independence from the British Empire in 1947 was a strange and ultimately ill-fated state. The country included two geographically disparate regions, West and East Pakistan (modern-day Bangladesh), separated by nearly one thousand miles of Indian territory. Throughout the military regimes of the 1950s and 60s, Bengali needs were neglected to benefit the “22 families,” all West Pakistani, who controlled the country’s economy. A movement for East Pakistani autonomy emerged from this climate, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (known popularly as Mujib). Some West Pakistani politicians, most prominently Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, also supported democratic elections to break the grip of the military regime.

Amidst political pressure from West and East, government leader Yahya Khan allowed the country’s first general elections to be held in December 1970. In a surprising result, Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League won a commanding 38 percent of the national vote, dwarfing Bhutto’s 19 percent. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) garnered no East Pakistani support and was essentially relegated to the status of a provincial party, while Mujib retained some support in West Pakistan. Mujib promised to use his mandate to pass a new constitution ensuring political autonomy for East Pakistan. Bhutto, however, refused to accept the results of the election. Yahya Kahn convened a negotiation session between Bhutto and Mujib, but the parties were unable to come to an agreement. On March 1, under intense pressure from Bhutto and other West Pakistani generals, Yahya signaled his opposition to the election results by postponing the National Assembly session.

Within hours of this announcement, Bengalis of every class and profession were in the streets of Dahka calling not for autonomy, but independence. Members of the crowd chanted nationalist slogans and burnt the Pakistani flag. Dahka University students passed a declaration demanding an independent Bangladesh and unveiled the newly-designed national flag the next day. Mujibur Rahman, not at all a radical, fretted to see this revolutionary turn of events, but knew he must not lose the support of the people. He called for a general strike in Dahka on March 2 and across East Pakistan on March 3. After police gunfire killed three students on March 2, Mujib condemned the governmental “intimidation” and expanded the strike through March 6.

On March 3, student leader Shahjhan Siraj of the East Pakistan Students’ League and the Students Action Committee of Independent Bangladesh, in conjunction with the militant wing of the Awami Party, read out a declaration of independence. It declared Sheikh Mujib the commander-in-chief of a sovereign Bangladesh, and articulated the desire for a “socialist economy and a government of peasants and workers,” and “full-fledged democracy including freedom of individuals, freedom of speech and freedom of the press” (Ahmed 223). It also laid out guidelines for the independence campaign, which are worth reprinting in their entirety. The following phrasing is from Moudad Ahmed’s recounting:

  1. To treat the present Government as a foreign colonial exploiting government. All laws made by this Governmetn will be declared null and void,

  2. To treat the so-called West Pakistani non-Bengali army as alien forces of aggression and to eliminate such forces,

  3. To stop payment of all taxes to this alien and colonial Government,

  4. To undertake arms preparation in order to counterattack and eliminate all kinds of moves against our independence movement,

  5. To establish all organs of society based on scientific and people-oriented thoughts,

  6. To use Amar Sonar Bangla, Ami Tomai Bhalobashi as the national anthem of Bangladesh,

  7. To abandon and abstain from using all kinds of products of West Pakistan and to organize a complete non-cooperation movement,

  8. To destroy the neo-colonial flag of Pakistan and to replace it with the national flag of Bangladesh, and

  9. To take part in the liberation struggle by extending all kinds of assistance and cooperation to the brave freedom fighters (Ahmed 223-24).

Sheikh Mujib attended the meeting, but did not endorse the call for independence. He implored the students to remain nonviolent and proceed with the non-cooperation campaign.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani Army was transferring troops into East Pakistan, indicating that they planned to repress the insurrection rather than negotiate. The army enforced a newly-established curfew by shooting at sight. It attempted to divide the population by arming non-Bengali citizens and encouraging them to shoot their Bengali neighbors, but peace-keeping “Student’s Defense Committees” were formed by the student organizations to maintain East Pakistani unity. On March 6, Yahya Khan condemned Mujib for the disturbances in East Pakistan, even though the trouble was clearly influenced by Yahya’s postponement of the assembly session.

Behind the scenes, ethnic Bengali members of the army and police secretly pledged their allegiance to Mujib if he were to declare independence. Nevertheless, Mujib was essentially a reformer and could not take an action that he believed would result in armed conflict. Mujib publically encouraged unity among ethnic and religious groups, condemned the army and police for killing hundreds of demonstrators, and continued to state his preference for a peaceful settlement. On March 7, he addressed a large rally in Dahka with a self-contradictory speech, simultaneously calling for autonomy, moderation, negotiations and justice. His four explicit demands to Yahya were, “(1) lift Martial Law, (2) take the soldiers back to the barracks, (3) investigate into mass killings and (4) transfer power to the elected representatives” (Ahmed 229). Until these demands were met, he promised to escalate the non-cooperation campaign.

Many East Pakistanis were disappointed that Mujib didn’t explicitly declare independence, but the entire population nevertheless launched into the non-cooperation campaign on March 8. Each day, the media released instructions for the population to follow. Through this campaign, Mujib effectively controlled all of East Pakistan, including all branches of government except defense. The first directive was for the regional government administrators of East Pakistan to stop collecting taxes and for bankers to prevent capital from leaving the region.

Meanwhile, in West Pakistan, many political figures sided with Sheikh Mujib. The suspension of the National Assembly was largely at the behest of Bhutto, and West Pakistani parties other than the PPP did not appreciate being disenfranchised by his actions. The leader of one political party made a speech arguing that East Pakistan had suffered for 23 years under the rule of the West, so it would be acceptable for the West to suffer for a few years under Eastern rule (Ahmed 232). On March 13, all West Pakistani parties endorsing Mujib’s four demands met in Lahore and placed blame for the violence upon Bhutto. These parties’ willingness to support Mujib was enabled by his restraint from espousing separatism.

Sheikh Mujib further strengthened his position by issuing 35 directives for the management of East Pakistan on March 15. He commanded that students and workers in industry should continue to strike (as they had not been back to work since March 2), governmental officials should report to him, and activities that might strengthen the West Pakistani regime should be avoided, but otherwise basic services should continue to function.

On March 16-24, Mujib, Bhutto and Yahya held a series of meetings to attempt to forge a compromise. As the negotiations proceeded, the country was extremely tense. When an army ship full of ammunition docked at Chittagong in East Pakistan on March 18, hundreds of thousands of Bengalis blockaded the port to prevent it from being unloaded. Every day, impassioned students and workers held marches, assemblies, and meetings across the region. On March 23, Pakistan Day, the Central Student’s Action Committee celebrated Resistance Day instead. Every citizen of East Pakistan flew the flag of Bangladesh instead of the Pakistani flag. When hundreds of people marched by Sheikh Mujib’s house in the evening, he was compelled to come outside and raise the Bangladesh flag. Even as these assorted forms of nonviolence continued, many revolutionaries prepared for armed insurrection. The army also continued to pour troops and munitions into East Pakistan.

At the negotiating table, despite much back-and-forth, Bhutto and Mujib were ultimately unable to reach a decision on how much autonomy would be allowed to East Pakistan. Without Bhutto’s approval, Yahya Kahn would not go forward with the power-sharing plan he and Mujib had supported. On March 25, Mujib learned that Yahya had just left East Pakistan under armed guard. Mujib ordered his inner circle to flee Dhaka, but he personally remained. At 10:30 that evening, the army seized the radio and television stations in Dhaka before opening fire upon the city at large. Soldiers intentionally targeted student dormitories, and killed thousands of unarmed Bengalis without hesitation. The army also set fires across Dhaka. Mujib still refused to leave the city; he was arrested sometime after 1:00 am. Bhutto watched the events unfold from his suite on the top floor of the Hotel Intercontinental.

Shortly before he was arrested, Sheikh Mujib sent a telegram to a group of students in Chittagong. It read, “Today Bangladesh is a sovereign and independent country.” This message disseminated throughout the young country on March 26, even as West Pakistani forces spread to every corner of the region.

A bloody war for independence ensued. Between one and three million people were killed and ten million displaced by West Pakistani atrocities in the 9-month revolutionary war. Bhutto distanced himself publicly from the appalling violence of Yahya Khan’s regime, but continued to work internationally to gain support for that same regime. In December 1971, aided by India’s entrance to the war, the Bengali revolutionary army forced the surrender of West Pakistani forces. Mujibur Rahman was released shortly afterward and took office as the leader of Bangladesh.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Ghandi’s campaigns of non-cooperation with the colonial British forces inspired this non-cooperation with the “colonial government” of Pakistan. (1)

Sources: 
Ahmed, Moudud. Bangladesh: Constitutional Quest for Autonomy. Dahka, Bangladesh: University Press Limited, 1979.

Bangladesh Genocide Archive. <http://www.genocidebangladesh.org/>.

Schendel, Willem . A History of Bangladesh. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
William Lawrence 03/12/2010