THE STORY OF DECEMBER 1971
SYED BADRUL AHSAN reminisces about the December days to freedom.
We were yet in our teens when December 1971 arrived on our doorstep. Not that we were surprised when it came. Indeed, for months we — and that meant the 75 million people of occupied Bangladesh — had been waiting for something of a dramatic note to happen in a war our freedom fighters had been waging against the Pakistan army. For the preceding nearly nine months, the Mukti Bahini, under the guidance of the provisional Bangladesh government based in Mujibnagar, had been waging a relentless guerrilla war against the occupation forces.
Every night for the past many months, we had tuned in to Swadhin Bangla Betar, the clandestine radio of the Bangladesh government, to get to know of battlefield developments. And, yes, there was one other factor which drew us, even as we plodded through an uncertain existence in Dacca (as it was spelt at the time), to Swadhin Bangla Betar. It was M.R. Akhtar Mukul’s hugely popular, hugely loaded ‘Charampatra’, ridiculing the Pakistani forces and their allies at home and abroad, that kept our spirits high through the tortuous duration of the war.
By the time December 1971 arrived, we were convinced that the Pakistanis were losing the war, that the more they retreated in the face of the increasingly lethal Mukti Bahini attacks, the more desperate they were getting in their determination to save ‘East Pakistan’ from the hands of its own people. And do not forget that 10 million Bengalis had already taken refuge in India, that as many as three million others had been murdered by the Pakistanis.
In distant (West) Pakistan, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who after the elections of December 1970, should have been prime minister of Pakistan but had instead been charged with treason because he refused to cut any deal with the army, was awaiting execution following a questionable trial before a secret military tribunal.
For her part, Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi had been going around the world trying to impress upon global leaders the gravity of conditions in Bangladesh. The Soviet Union too spoke up for us in the councils of the world. On the other hand, in sheer bad taste, the Nixon administration in Washington made it clear that it was on Pakistan’s side. It said nothing about the genocide and indeed was happy utilising the services of the repressive Yahya Khan junta in building bridges to China. And what shocked us in Bangladesh was that the People’s Republic of China, with its own glorious history of tireless struggle against oppressors under Mao Zedong, chose to support Pakistan. Not even their good Bengali friend Maulana Bhashani could persuade them into supporting our cause.
In November, Yahya Khan had sent a high-level delegation led by Z.A. Bhutto to Peking (as it was then known) to ensure the continuity of Chinese support for Pakistan. Some of you who might have cause to recall those tense times will perhaps remember that on Bhutto’s team was a Bengali diplomat of the Pakistan foreign service named Tabarak Hussain. In a free Bangladesh, he would rise to the position of foreign secretary under the military dictatorship of General Ziaur Rahman.
Remembrance of December 1971 is a recalling of the activities of certain Bengali politicians in the cause of a dying Pakistan. By late November of the year, Nurul Amin, Hamidul Haq Chowdhury, Ghulam Azam and Mahmud Ali, together with the Chakma Raja Tridiv Roy, travelled to Rawalpindi for consultations with Yahya Khan on the shape of a future constitution for Pakistan.
That was an irony, considering that the regime, having outlawed the majority party and on the verge of losing the eastern province of the country to the Bangladesh forces, went on operating under the illusion that everything was normal, that Pakistan was secure. In occupied Bangladesh, collaborationist elements such as Moulvi Farid Ahmed and the al-Badr and al-Shams terror squads of the Jamaat-e-Islami went around proclaiming how badly the Hindus (meaning India and its Bengali allies) would be defeated if they dared to attack Pakistan.
A bare two days before the fall of Pakistan in Dacca, Khan Abdus Sabur Khan, the Muslim League leader and once communications minister in Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s regime in the 1960s, made the public statement that Bangladesh would be an illegitimate child of India. The same Sabur Khan, in a twist of historical irony, would become a member of Bangladesh’s Jatiyo Sangsad at the 1979 parliamentary elections arranged by the Ziaur Rahman regime.
Late on December 3, 1971, the Pakistan air force attacked several Indian air bases across the border. That was a last act of desperation by Yahya Khan and his junta. Indira Gandhi was in Calcutta but rushed back to New Delhi, to tell the world that India was at war with Pakistan. Over the next few days, the Indian air force systematically maimed the Pakistan air force in ‘East Pakistan’.
The Indian army and Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini, having forged a military alliance, commenced a march into ‘East Pakistan’, throwing the Pakistani forces into panicky confusion. In the West, contrary to their expectations, the regime and its allies were horrified by the advances Indian soldiers were making in moving to occupy large swathes of territory in West Pakistan. Despite all such realities, the junta kept up the pretence of normality.
General Yahya Khan announced the composition of a new government, where the Bengali Nurul Amin would be prime minister, with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto serving as deputy prime minister and foreign minister. Bhutto was swiftly dispatched to the United Nations, where the Security Council was meeting to discuss the ways and means of bringing hostilities to an end in the subcontinent.
In the event, it was the Soviet Union and India which helped us prevail diplomatically and militarily. At the UN, Moscow kept up a barrage of vetoes against the several resolutions aimed at having Pakistan and Bangladesh seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict. On the battlefield, the Indian and Mukti Bahini forces went on destroying Pakistani military defence, liberating villages and towns one after the other.
Reports and rumours made the rounds, one of them being that General A.A.K. Niazi, commander of Pakistan’s forces in ‘East Pakistan’, had fled. As his forces edged toward disaster, he turned up one fine morning at Hotel Intercontinental (today’s Ruposhi Bangla) to tell eager foreign newsmen that the Indians would take Dacca over his dead body. A few days later, Dacca was taken and Niazi was very much alive.
The drama of Pakistan’s defeat in Bangladesh took a number of dimensions in December 1971. The strafing of the Governor’s House (today’s Bangabhaban), where the puppet governor A.M. Malek happened to be presiding over a cabinet meeting, convinced Malek that he could not continue holding office. A couple of days earlier, he had asked Niazi for a factual report on the war. Niazi had begun to weep loudly, until the governor calmed him down. Now it was the governor who wrote out his resignation on the blank space of a cigarette packet before taking shelter at the Intercontinental, which had meanwhile converted into a neutral zone to shelter Pakistani citizens and collaborators of the junta.
Throughout the period between December 3 and 16, Dacca was under a blackout and curfew and citizens wondered about the intense destruction that would result from a refusal by Pakistan’s forces to give up the fight and surrender. The Pakistanis could have gone on fighting for two or three more months and Dacca would have been reduced to rubble. On 14 December, leaflets were dropped by Indian planes asking Pakistan’s soldiers to surrender unconditionally.
They were assured that they would be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. It was that special moment when we in occupied Dacca, in internal exile, knew that the end was nigh for Pakistan. But none of us had any clue to what the murder squads of the Jamaat-e-Islami were doing even as Pakistan was approaching full-scale defeat. Unbeknownst to us, between 13 and 15 December, masked goons of the al-Badr and al-Shams wings of the Jamaat picked up scores of eminent Bengali intellectuals and brutally put an end to their lives. Not until 18 December, a full two days after the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state, would we know of the brutality that had taken place.
On the afternoon of 16 December 1971, 93,000 Pakistani soldiers, commanded by Niazi, surrendered to General Jagjit Singh Aurora, commander of the Indo-Bangladesh Joint Command, at the Race Course (Suhrawardy Udyan today). Moments into the surrender, Dacca Radio came alive with a recitation of Kazi Nazrul Islam’s ‘Aaj srishti shukher ullashe’. And then was heard Abdul Jabbar’s poignant song, ‘Hajar bochhor porey abar eshechhi phirey / Banglar buuke achhi darhiye’.
On December 22, 1971, the Mujibnagar government came home. On the same day, in distant Pakistan, Z.A. Bhutto, having taken over from a disgraced Yahya Khan as president and chief martial law administrator of rump Pakistan, ordered the release of the imprisoned Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from solitary confinement in prison and placed him under house arrest at a guest house near Rawalpindi. Five days later, Bhutto turned up at the guest house, to the surprise of the Bengali leader who had till then not known that Bangladesh had become a free republic.
Bangabandhu was freed on January 8, 1972 and flown to London, together with Dr. Kamal Hossain and his family (who had been detained in Pakistan since April 1971), by a special Pakistan International Airlines flight. He returned home, triumphant as the founding father of the Bengali nation, two days later.