AGARTALA CASE COLLAPSES, BANGABANDHU RISES…
SYED BADRUL AHSAN
On 22 February 1969, Vice Admiral A.R. Khan, Pakistan’s defence minister, announced the unconditional withdrawal of the Agartala Conspiracy Case in Dhaka.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leading accused in the case and chief of the All-Pakistan Awami League, walked free from his prison cell in the Dhaka cantonment. He was escorted to his Dhanmondi residence for an emotional reunion with his family. Having been in prison since May 8, 1966 under the Defence of Pakistan Rules, Mujib had gone through the trauma of a trial in which he and thirty four other Bengalis (men in the armed forces and the civil administration), had been charged with conspiracy to bring about the secession of East Pakistan from the rest of Pakistan through an armed revolt. It was put about by the regime of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan that Mujib had travelled to Agartala in India to solicit Indian support for his scheme of breaking up Pakistan.
News of the Pakistan government’s ‘unearthing’ of the case first appeared in the media when a sketchy press release late in December 1967 spoke of the arrest of a group of individuals. It was not till early January 1968, however, that the regime formally spoke of what it called a conspiracy that, in its words, had been spearheaded by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The reaction among Bengalis was one of disbelief and it was generally thought that the whole idea had been concocted by the Ayub regime to discredit Mujib before his fellow Bengalis. Predictably, attention quickly focused on Ayub’s incendiary remarks in 1966, soon after Mujib had announced his Six Point plan for regional autonomy within a federal Pakistan. At the time, Ayub had warned that the proponents of the plan would be dealt with in the language of weapons. In West Pakistan, the general masses and the entrenched political classes quickly seized upon the government’s move to decry the attempt to ‘undermine’ the unity and sovereignty of Pakistan.
The trial of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his co-accused went under way before a special tribunal in the Dhaka cantonment in June 1968. It was presided over by Justice S.A. Rehman, a West Pakistani, who was assisted by two Bengali judges, Justice Mujibur Rahman Khan and Justice Maksumul Hakim. A phalanx of defence lawyers, including
Britain’s Sir Thomas Williams QC, assisted Mujib and his co-defendants. As the trial got underway, Mujib told a foreign journalist present in court, “You know, they can’t keep me here for more than six months.” Meanwhile, all over East Pakistan and then in West Pakistan, political unrest soon began to create tremors. Ironically, it was a time when the Ayub Khan regime launched year-long celebrations of its decade in power.
Billed as a decade of progress, the celebrations were meant to be a self-adulatory recapitulation of the positive steps the regime had taken since a coup d’ etat had placed Ayub in power in October 1958. And yet not everything was as rosy as it was painted out to be. Ayub’s former foreign minister and one-time protege Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was causing his former benefactor considerable headache. He had formed the Pakistan People’s Party in November 1967 and had declared his intention to seek the presidency at the elections scheduled for 1970. In November 1968, Bhutto, together with the National Awami Party’s Khan Abdul Wali Khan, were arrested by the authorities.
In East Pakistan, political agitation against Ayub Khan scaled increasing fury, with Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani leading the movement against President Ayub Khan. As the Agartala case trial wore on, increasing numbers of social and political groups began to voice the demand for its withdrawal and for Mujib to be freed. A worsening political situation forced Ayub Khan, in early 1969, to call a round table conference of political leaders in Rawalpindi.
He made contact with Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, a leading opposition politician from the Punjab, who in turn passed on Ayub’s invitation to other opposition figures. The opposition, united under the banner of the Democratic Action Committee, informed the government that Mujib needed to be allowed to take part in the RTC. Reports soon began to fly around that Mujib, who in the eyes of the government had committed acts of treason against the state of Pakistan, would be freed on parole in order for him to take part in the RTC. But such reports were quickly scotched in Dhaka and Bhashani warned that if Mujib were not freed without conditions, Bengalis would march on the cantonment to liberate him.
Conditions had already taken a bad turn with the shooting of the young student Asaduzzaman. Motiur, a school student, also succumbed to police firing. In the cantonment itself, Sergeant Zahurul Haq, one of the accused in the Agartala case, was killed by soldiers on the pretext that he had tried to escape from custody. In Rajshahi, the academic Shamsuz Zoha was shot.
It was popular fury that erupted in East Pakistan by February 1969. Angry crowds of Bengalis overran the residential quarters of Justice S.A. Rehman, who briskly flew off to safety in his native West Pakistan. Politicians across the spectrum demanded that Mujib be freed and the case against him be lifted. Young Bengalis, notably university students, banded together with an eleven-point programme for radical political change.
On 22 February, the case collapsed. The next day, February 23, Mujib addressed a million-strong crowd of Bengalis at the Race Course (now Suhrawardy Udyan) in Dhaka. Student leader Tofail Ahmed, today a senior Awami League politician and minister, in a rousing speech extolled him as Bangabandhu, friend of Bengal. The new honour accorded to Mujib was accepted by acclamation. On February 24, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman flew to Rawalpindi at the head of an Awami League team to participate at the round table conference.
Exactly five years to the day after Bangabandhu was freed from military custody on February 22, 1969, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan accorded diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, on February 22, 1974. The next day, Prime Minister Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman travelled to Lahore to attend the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC). At Lahore airport, Bangabandhu was welcomed by Pakistan’s President Chaudhry Fazle Elahi and Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
As a band of the Pakistan army played Amar Shonar Bangla, General Tikka Khan, then Pakistan’s army chief of staff and in March 1971 the man who had initiated the genocide of Bengalis in Dhaka and ordered Bangabandhu’s arrest, saluted Bangladesh’s founding father.
History had worked in its inscrutable ways.
SYED BADRUL AHSAN is a bdnews24.com columnist.