Focussing on the role and motivation of the Bengali military officers during initial but critical phase of the Liberation War of 1971, this study has analyzed in-depth its military dimension. The revolt of the Bangladesh military against the Pakistan Army was organized by Captain Oli Ahmad in consultation with Major Zia on the night between 25 and 26 March. The independence of Bangladesh was declared by Major Ziaur Rahman on 27 March 1971. The Liberation War began by these officers at Chittagong from the night of 25 March 1971. This momentous decision of the Bengali military officers of Chittagong was followed by other military officers and forces under their command.
Not only did these officers start the war but they also carried it on their own till 17 April 1971 when the Bangladesh Government-in-exile was formed at Mujibnagar with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the President in absentia and Tajuddin Ahmed as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. In his address to the nation over Bangladesh radio on 11 April 1971, Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed said: “Ziaur Rahman is in charge of conducting and directing the war in Chittagong and Noakhali. In the face of massive counter-attack by the Pakistan Army from air, sea and ground the toughest resistance which our freedom fighters and brave people put up, will go down in the history of our Liberation War much like the resistance war of Stalingrad.” (Bangladesh Documents of Liberation War, 11, 5). He further said that after this initial victory Major Zia established a planning cell for the conduct of war (Bangladesh Documents of Liberation War, 11, 5). What led these military sfficers to come forward at this crucial moment of history? What circumstances motivated them to throw away their professional norms? Why did they do what the political leaders were supposed to do? This study, exploring the socio-political and economic conditions of East Pakistan which shaped the nationalistic aspirations of the Bengali military officers, and analyzing the constraints of political leaders at that time, has thrown some light on the transformation of a professional cadre to a band of revolutionary soldiers.
As disussed earlier, the Pakistan Army had a specific ethnic bias because of historical reasons. The British deliberately excluded certain groups and races of northern and eastern parts of India from the British Indian Army since the “Mutiny of 1857”. Recruitment to the British Indian Army was confined to the north-western part of India from the so-called “Martial Races” since then. After independence in 1947 the Indian Army discarded this and an arrangement was made for adequate representation of all those races and groups. In Pakistan however the myth continued. In 1971, East Pakistan’s representation in the defense services did not exceed 8 to 9 percent in both officer and other ranks. Thus the Bengali military officers had always smarted under a sense of deprivation and injustice. They pinned their hopes on the electoral victory, which they thought would help redressing some of their grievances. President Yahya Khan’s announcement on 1 March 1971 postponing the session of the National Assembly came to them as a rude shock.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the recognized political leader of East Pakistan and chief of Awami League, played a brilliant role in mobilizing the people for the attainment of regional autonomy. The Six-Point Programme, was initiated by him for ameliorating the depressed conditions of people. In the general election of 1970, the first ever general election held in Pakistan on the basis of universal adult suffrage during the last twenty three years of its life, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman emerged as the leader of the majority party in Pakistan by winning 167 out of 313 seats in the National Assembly. The people of East Pakistan also took the election as a referendum to the Six-Point Programme. After the election he began to think in the tradition of parliamentary practice that at last his party would be able to wield political power in Pakistan, and he interpreted the election result as the de facto transfer of power. He became busy in giving final touches to the proposed constitutional reorganization in the light of Six-Point formula. He began to play up his image as the majority leader in Pakistan. President Yahya Khan also termed him once as prospective Prime Minister of Pakistan and announced that session of the National Assembly of Pakistan would be held on and from 3 March 1971. The people of East Pakistan expected that at last their representatives would hold the rein of power in Islamabad.
Only two days before the session of National Assembly, much to the disappointment of all concerned in East Pakistan, President Yahya Khan announced on 1 March 1971 the postponement of session of the National Assembly, citing Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s unwillingness to participate in the Assembly as the primary cause. That sparked rebellious demonstrations all over East Pakistan and it was taken as the most sinister move of the ruling elite in Pakistan to keep the Bengalis out of power for good. The students and teachers, labourers and workers, lawyers and literati professionals burst out in indignation. All of these social sectors felt that the Six-Point formula and outlived its utility and from different corners came out the vociferous demand for one-point action and that was the independence of East Pakistan.
Sheikh Mujib came under tremendous pressure from all the power bases of Awami League to declare independence. In a public meeting in Dhaka on 7 March he addressed a mammoth gathering of about one million people. There he put his demand quite forcefully but stopped short of declaring independence and pleaded for the transfer of power to the elected representatives. Simultaneously the Awami League under his leadership launched a non-co-operation movement which put the Sheikh in absolute control of East Pakistan.
Faced with such a situation President Yahya Khan came to Dhaka, seemingly for a negotiated settlement of the crisis and prolonged the negotiation for about ten days on the one hand, and continued vigorous airlifting of soldiers and heavy weapons from West Pakistan, on the other. On 23 March 1971, the Awami League leaders presented a draft proclamation to the President, which in effect was to transfer power to the elected representatives on the basis of the Six-Point formula and hoped that the ruling elite would do that. President Yahya, however, without formally breaking the talks, decided to bring about a military solution of the problem. By ordering the reinforced armed forces to march against the unarmed civilians, he left Dhaka on the night of 25 March 1971. A veritable reign of terror was thus set in. Sheikh Mujib surrendered to the Pakistan Army and asked his party leaders to go underground.
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