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March 1971 Diary: Over the precipice

  • Published at 12:00 am March 12th, 2021
Anwar Hossain's photo of 1971-1
Photo: Courtesy: Anwar Hossain Foundation

This extract is the third in a series that will run until March 25, in which we reproduce Rehman Sobhan’s contemporaneous account of the events of that momentous month in Bangladeshi history, originally written for Forum magazine. This piece was first published in Forum on March 6, 1971

Ever since Mr. Bhutto’s decision to boycott the assembly, confrontation has been in the air. The movement of anti-aircraft guns into strategic positions outside the airport a week ago had already generated consternation amidst the public that something was afoot. 

There was a report that ex-Governor Ahsan cancelled his visit to Pindi at the last minute, but this was put at rest when he left the next day to attend the governor’s conference in Pindi. As a backdrop to this, Mr. Bhutto and President Yahya had held emergency discussions in Pindi. To crown it all came the abrupt dismissal of the cabinet. 

Following the meeting of Martial Law administrators and governors, Lt. Gen Yakub, Governor Ahsan, and Lt. Gen. Peerzada flew to Karachi, first for talks with Mr. Bhutto and then onward, for talks with Sheikh Mujib. 

Whilst these three emissaries were in Karachi, news of Sheikh Mujib’s press conference giving his reactions to Mr. Bhutto’s political posture and underlining the dangerous implications of any further postponement of the National Assembly beyond March 3 came over the wires. 

Also Read - March 1971 Diary: Too little and too late

The statement broke a long and deliberate policy of restraint by the Sheikh on Bhutto’s histrionics and appears to have been inspired by concern that Bhutto’s intransigence may well have pressured the president into postponement. 

Following this statement, President Yahya’s emissaries appeared to have detoured back to Pindi for more consultations with Yahya. Ahsan and Yakub then flew into Dacca. Peerzada was also expected and some newsmen even went to the airport to meet him -- but he did not come at all. 

In Dacca, it appears that Governor Ahsan indicated to Mujib, in his last and fateful meeting, the prospect of a possible postponement. Mujib warned him in no uncertain terms of the dangerous consequences of such a move. 

Also Read - March 1971 Diary: Too little and too late - Part II

In the meantime, the Awami League MNAs were in closed-door session since February 27 to discuss the party’s constitutional draft. President Yahya had also flown to Karachi en route to Dacca. 

West wing MNAs from Baluchistan, NWFP, Punjab, and even the tribal areas were all on their way to Dacca for the National Assembly session, which on all counts, was scheduled for March 3. 

On February 28, the emergency electrical generator was moved into place next to the president’s house indicating the imminent arrival of the president.

Also Read - March 9, 1971: A day of solidarity

Incoming passengers from Karachi reported that President Yahya was booked to fly on the afternoon plane to Dacca. All security precautions had been made at Karachi Airport, passengers reported two hours in advance as customary when they have such august company. 

But the president did not catch his flight and the plane flew without him into the conflagration which was spreading like wildfire throughout Bangla Desh.

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