There was inevitability about the way circumstances were shaping up in March 1971. That the state of Pakistan was fast moving toward its demise in its eastern wing had become obvious through the unilateral move by the Yahya Khan regime to defer the session of the National Assembly, called for 3 March, in a terse radio announcement on 1 March. The announcement was yet one more sign of the cavalier attitude the Islamabad-based ruling classes had opted to adopt toward politics and that despite the momentous results of the election of December 1970. The failure to consult Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the majority party which under political convention was poised to take over from the regime, on the postponement of the assembly session was a suicidal move for the regime.
Throughout March 1971, despite the willingness of the Awami League leadership, as demonstrated by Bangabandhu's seminal declaration on 7 March, to keep the lights on, the Yahya Khan regime blundered on. The systematic troops build-up in East Pakistan, the appointment of Tikka Khan as zonal martial law administrator, the protracted talks with the Awami League from 16 to 24 March, the arrival of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Dhaka on 21 March, the finalisation of plans for the military assault on Bangalis and eventually the launch of Operation Searchlight were singularly contributory factors to the approaching disintegration of the Pakistan state. No fewer than seven thousand Bangalis were killed by the army on 25 and 26 March. Among them were a large number of academics at Dhaka University, scores of students of the university as well as innumerable police and East Pakistan Rifles personnel.
Yes, that question of inevitability is there. It made sense, therefore, for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to go for a declaration of independence in the minutes before he was taken into custody by the Pakistan army in the early hours of 26 March. It remains a telling commentary on Pakistan's history that General Yahya Khan, without formally drawing the negotiations to an end or announcing the collapse of the talks, flew off to Karachi in surreptitious fashion with his team. It was irresponsibility at its most bizarre, heightened by the sinister factor of the unprovoked armed assault on the Bangali nation commencing soon after the dictator had landed safely in Karachi. With the declaration of Bangladesh's independence, a couple of new truths emerged before the world. In the first place, the province of East Pakistan had formally given way to the sovereign republic of Bangladesh. In the second, the Pakistan army had swiftly mutated into being the Pakistan occupation army.
Events flowing from 26 March were to form the threads of new history, the weaving of it, in South Asia. For the very first time in recorded history, a move toward the construction of a Bangali nation-state on moral and political grounds had been taken. And then came a solidifying of the movement, through the constitution of the very first Bangali government in the annals of time on 17 April. Tajuddin Ahmad's political sagacity lost little time in following through on Bangabandhu's idealism by cobbling the Mujibnagar government into shape. The emergence of the government, with such leading political figures as Syed Nazrul Islam, AHM Quamruzzaman, M. Mansoor Ali and MAG Osmany forming its core, was a defining moment in Bangali history --- for a host of reasons.
It mattered that the Pakistani regime launched its assault on the Bangalis with brutal swiftness, for the assault only hardened Bangali resolve to push Pakistan out of Bangladesh. Something else mattered as well --- the alacrity with which the Bangali political leadership, despite Bangabandhu's absence, went into shaping strategic resistance in the form of a civilian administration committed to prosecuting a War of Liberation against an alien army. The Mujibnagar government remains in history a glowing instance of the very best which men and women often bring into the task of defending the national cause. The setting-up of the MuktiBahini and a clear demarcation of battlefield responsibilities within the parameters of eleven guerrilla sectors, the dissemination of the cause by Shwadhin Bangla Betar, the diplomatic offensive by the government in drawing attention to the genocide in occupied Bangladesh, the droves of young people joining the struggle along with artistes, journalists, diplomats, writers and indeed professionals across the spectrum gave the Bangali struggle a dimension rich in content and depth.
Remarkable changes were wrought in the Bangali psyche in the course of the War of Liberation. And those changes came encompassed in the political radicalisation of the nation. For a nation which had never known participation in the battlefield, militancy came to underscore the struggle in 1971. Poetry-driven Bangalis were suddenly thrust into the role of gun-and-grenade carrying guerrillas. Of course, there were all the internecine conflicts in the government --- as such conflicts always are in such historical phases --- but that the goal of an independent Bangladesh was never strayed from remained the glue which kept fissiparous tendencies in check. Again, the Mujibnagar government remained uncompromising in its attitude to the Yahya regime, despite some not so discreet American moves to have it engage in talks with the junta within the context of a united Pakistan.
The struggle in 1971, happening as it did in the era of the Cold War, was to become a pointer to the friendship of nations Bangalis could count on in their adversity. Invaluable was the assistance, moral as well as physical, that came from India and the Soviet Union. Support from the Warsaw Pact nations as also the sympathy voiced by governments and people in Europe carried Bangladesh's message far and wide. Americans, ignoring the callousness of the Nixon administration to Bangali suffering, rallied to Bangladesh's cause. Consistent coverage of the war and of the indiscriminate criminality of the occupation forces by the global press was instrumental in popularising the Bangali cause around the world. Add to that the worldwide concern expressed around reports of Bangabandhu's trial before a military tribunal in (West) Pakistan, accompanied by fears of a sentence of death handed down to him. Then again, the influx of ten million refugees into India from Bangladesh was convincing proof of the atrocities being committed by the Pakistan state.
Fifty years ago, the Pakistan army did more than kill Bangalis. It razed the Central Shaheed Minar to dust. It blew up the Kali Mandir in the Race Course. It compelled university students it had not killed bury their murdered compatriots in hastily dug ditches before shooting them down. At Karachi airport, a beaming Bhutto, back from a burning Dhaka, told newsmen, "Thank God, Pakistan has been saved." As the genocide gathered pace all day on 26 March, Yahya Khan's hubris reached disturbing heights. Fulminating against Bangabandhu, he growled in the evening, "This crime will not go unpunished."
The crime --- perpetrated by the junta, by its political collaborators, by the Pakistan army --- did not go unpunished.