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What did they feel while receiving the Gallantry Awards? (Part-5)

For its radical nature and built-in suggestions, its appeal to the different social groups in East Pakistan became so great. It had an emotive appeal to the rising businessman and industrialist, because it meant the elimination of competition from the West Pakistani big business houses. It attracted the urban salaried professionals because in it they saw an opening to further prospects. Bengali bureaucrats supported it enthusiastically because they found in it the key to their independence from centre’s control and prospects of their promotion to the decision-making structure. The army officers favoured it because it meant an unlimited scope for their promotion and consolidation of their position in East Pakistan. These groups in fact were the main constituencies of the Awami League and in effect the linchpin of the politically relevant strata of the society. The workers lent their support because their lower wages, coupled with the fact that many of the industrial establishments in East Pakistan belonged to the West Pakistanis, led to an admixture of class, regional and ethnic conflicts. The rural farmers were looking for a change, and the Six-Point Programme became a symbol of change to them.

The 1970 general election worked as catalyst to sharpen the east-west confrontation still further. The Awami League representing the emerging middle classes in East Pakistan took the election as a referendum to the Six-Point formula. The election results were more than what they expected, winning an absolute majority in the National Assembly of Pakistan. The Awami League expected, very rightly, to come to power after the election. The ruling elite in Pakistan, however, was adamant to keep the Awami League out of power and unwilling to protect Pakistan with the primacy of the Bengalis. President Yahya’s sudden announcement of postponement of session of the National Assembly on I March 1971 became the turning point. The Six-Point formula, at that point of time, unwittingly became transformed into a one-point demand and that was for an independent Bangladesh.

The ruling elite of Pakistan comprising some of the senior most bureaucrats and top level generals wanted to buy some time. President Yahya Khan came to Dhaka seemingly to work out a political settlement of the crisis; it has however been proved that their intention was to reinforce their position in East Pakistan by bringing in more men and materials, both by air and sea, from West Pakistan under the cover of a prolonged negotiation. Sheikh Mujib and his advisers however took the negotiation seriously and continued it in right earnest till 25 March 1971 and hoped that the Pakistanis would finally respect the verdict of the poll. Only the Bengali military officers, especially those stationed in Chittagong, because of their nearness to the only sea-port, knew what was happening and how massive preparations the Pakistanis were making.

At the crucial stage of negotiation, the generals from West Pakistan played vital role. They were primarily concerned with the defence and defence forces in Pakistan. They thought that the regional government’s control of currency, foreign exchange earnings, foreign trade and taxation, as envisaged in the Six-Point Programme, would result in a drastic weakening of the defence of Pakistan through a drastic cut in the size of Pakistan Army. To the Bengali leaders, however, the defence of Pakistan was nothing more than the defence of West Pakistan. The 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, during which East Pakistan was totally defenceless, left an indelible impression in the mind of the Bengali elite. The ruling elite of Pakistan, especially the generals who were dominat at that stage, denounced the Six-Point Programme as secessionist, condemned the Awami Leaguers as traitors and decided to undertake a military solution to the political problem. Thus, without formally breaking the talks president Yahya Khan launched the cowardly attack on the night of 25 March 1971 and left Dhaka.

A revolution as it is understood in this study, in the sense of “a challenge to the established political order and eventual establishment of a new order, radically different from the preceding one” had its full play in East Pakistan. The legitimacy of the system was completely eroded after the general election and the authority disintegrated. The Bengali military officers, though junior in ranks, played a historic political role at this crucial moment and helped shape the destiny of the nation as leaders of Bangladesh Revolution of 1971. Unlike their counterparts in some other countries, at that point of time, they moved adroitly, not to take over political power for themselves but to rid East Pakistan of the marauding occupation forces from West Pakistan and to make it an independent Bangladesh. This may be treated as a case study of a band of military officers and soldiers who, being fired with a nationalistic zeal, stood by their brethren to fight for independence even at the risk of their lives and social position. What is of significance is that though in most cases the political leaders initiated the moves and the trained military worked under their guidance and supervision, in the case of |Bangladesh Revolution the military personnel took up the initiative at the critical moment and continued the holding war-operation till the formation of Mujibnagar Government in-exile. The military remained the symbol of independence till then, and as regimental colour they kept the flag of Bangladesh aloft.

At that time there were about 50 Bengali trained military officers and approximately 5000 soldiers stationed in Chittagong, Comilla, Jassore, Saidpur and Dhaka Cantonments, in addition to about 15,000 members of East Pakistan Rifles (EPR), a para-military force trained for guarding the national frontiers. The Chittagong cantonment had an added advantage in the sense that the Bengali military officers of Chittagong Cantonment had ample opportunity to watch closely how, during those days, the Pakistani strategists were reinforcing their grip over East Pakistan by bringing in more and more arms through the Chittagong Port. The comilla Cantonment being closer to it provided suitable opportunity for easy communication amongst them. Chittagong, moreover, had one radio station.

The Bengali military officers, who played crucial role in the Liberation War, were highly politicized and intensely nationalistic. Recruited and socialized under the shadow of Ayub Khan’s martial law, they became not only conscious of regional imbalance in the armed forces, but many of them also were victims of discriminatory policies. Their complaints became louder when regional conflicts were diverted from normal political channels of expression and deflected into bureaucracy, and bureaucracy turned into arena for covert forms of political struggle after the imposition of martial law in Pakistan.

Many of the military officers, who played crucial role in the Liberation War, were highly politicized and intensely nationalistic. Recruited and socialized under the shadow of Ayub Khan’s martial law, they became not only conscious of regional imbalance in the armed forces, but many of them also were victims of discriminatory policies. Their complaints became louder when regional conflicts were diverted from normal political channels of expression and deflected into bureaucracy, and bureaucracy, and bureaucracy turned into arena for covert forms of political struggle after the imposition of martial law in Pakistan.

Many of the military officers established linkages with the dominant East Pakistan political party, the Awami League and remained on good terms with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Many of them supplied secret information to the Awami League leadership and provided materials, which helped them sharpen the case of autonomy. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Bengali civil and military officers lent full support to Sheikh Mujib’s call for civil disobedience and non-cooperation movement which paralyzed the entire administration in East Pakistan from 01 March to 25 March 1971. Only in this context, the role of the Bengali military officers can be properly appreciated.

The facts revealed from the carefully conducted interview of the eight war heroes also testify to the nationalistic orientation of the Bengali freedom fighters. All of them expressed the view that the Liberation War provided them a “a colony of Pakistan”. The urge for liberating East Pakistan from the clutches of the marauding Pakistan Army and making it an independent Bangladesh, that is why, became the guiding spirit in the war. Even today with profound nostalgic remembrance they recollected their joining the war as the greatest deed done in their lives, That they could stand by their oppressed and suffering brethren in times of crisis still enlivens them in their public discourses. They were in the know of what was happening in East Pakistan during the early months of 1971 and joined the war not as supporters of any political party but as patriotic citizens of Bangladesh. All of them expected that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would declare Independence of Bangladesh on 7 March 1971 and most of them thought that it was the most propitious time. When they heard of East Pakistani leaders’ eagerness for negotiation with the ruling elite of Pakistan from 16 March, most of them were dismayed at the thought that this was nothing but a ploy for the West Pakistani generals to buy some time for adequate preparation. That speaks why all these officers took it as momentous decision when they heard from Chittagong Radio Station the announcement of independence by one of their colleagues, Major Zia on 27 March. Some of them had discussions with their colleagues and soldiers and joined the war without any hesitation. They took the Liberation Was as the ‘people’s war’, a “war between the people and a body of invading army”.

The declaration of independence for a state is expressly a political act, done normally by a recognized political leader commanding widespread allegiance of different sections of the community, and fought by the trained soldiers. In this case, it was done by military officers because political leadership was trapped in an “arranged negotiation”, which was, in the words of Mascarenhas, “the worst political deception of the century” (Mascarenhas, 29 April) and thus faltered and fumbled and ultimately failed to take a decision at the crucial moment. The Bengali military officers felt that “nothing short of independence was acceptable” to the people and they responded effectively to the cherished dream of the people of Bangladesh. Having some arms and armed personnel at their disposal and fired with nationalistic zeal of the highest order, they went ahead and succeeded where the political leaders failed. They had, in fact, no political axe to grind and when the Bangladesh Government-in-exile was formed at Mujibnagar on 17 April 1971, they came under the direction of the government and ultimately achieved the people’s dream of ‘Sonar Bangla’ (Golden Bengal) – an independent Bangladesh after nine-month long grueling fights on all fronts and celebrated the Victory Day on 16 December 1971.

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