How the world reacted to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s imprisonment
As we pay homage to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and nearly his entire family, 44 years after their murder in August 1975, it is well to recall an earlier August, that in 1971, relating to our worries about Bangabandhu’s safety in a Pakistani prison.
The truth holds that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s life was put in jeopardy on two occasions by Pakistan’s first two military dictators. Ayub Khan believed the Agartala Conspiracy Case would be a surefire way of putting the Bengali politician away for good. Had the case run its full course and had Bangalis observed its proceedings in meek silence, Bangabandhu could well have been sentenced to death by the three-member special tribunal set up by the regime. The mass upsurge of 1969 freed Mujib and destroyed the presidency of Ayub Khan.
If Bangabandhu escaped death at the hands of Pakistan’s army-dominated establishment in 1969, he was in bigger danger in 1971 when the Yahya Khan junta placed him on secret trial before a military tribunal in distant West Pakistan. Note that in 1968, Bangabandhu faced a special tribunal in Dhaka. In 1971, he was up against a military tribunal in Mianwali. In both instances, the law was undermined.
Between 1968 and 1971, therefore, the man who would be Bangladesh’s founding father faced the prospect of being sent to the gallows by regimes intent on suppressing Bangali aspirations for self-expression.
In the early hours of March 26, 1971, Bangabandhu was arrested by the Pakistan army and lodged in Adamjee Cantonment College for a few days before being flown to solitary confinement in Pakistan. It was not until April that a photograph of him, in the custody of Pakistani police at Karachi airport, was released in the media by the Yahya Khan junta. That was the last the world would see of the Bangali leader that year.
This is where August 1971 becomes relevant to history.
Late in the evening on August 9, 1971, a terse radio announcement made it known that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would be placed on trial a couple of days later. The next day, newspapers in occupied Bangladesh and West Pakistan carried the report on their front pages. In Dawn, published from Karachi, this is how the report appeared: “A press note issued by the headquarters of the chief martial law administrator said that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman will be tried by a Special Military Court for ‘waging war against Pakistan’ and other offenses. The trial will commence on August 11 in camera and its proceedings will be in secret.”
The news report predictably led to worldwide concern about the legality of the trial and about the intentions of the regime. Writing in the August 19 issue of The New York Times, Malcolm Browne put it thus with the headline: “Pakistan says Mujib’s trial began a week ago.”
“Dacca, Pakistan, Aug 18 -- A Government spokesman said today that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, imprisoned leader of the Bengali separatist movement of Pakistan, is already on trial. The spokesman, confirming widespread reports, said that the trial of Sheikh Mujib, leader of the outlawed Awami League, began on schedule a week ago today, recessed over the weekend and resumed this week. He did not disclose where the trial was being held. The proceedings are in secret and the government has not said when a verdict can be expected.”
The military tribunal was headed by Brigadier Rahimuddin Khan, who would later become a four-star general in the Pakistan army. Among the witnesses the regime produced against Bangabandhu were some Bangali journalists and businessmen flown from Dhaka, together with some Bangali army officers who had been kept in custody and subjected to torture in the process. The regime appointed AK Brohi to defend Mujib, who refused to accept him as his lawyer. Bangabandhu asked for Kamal Hossain but was given the evasive response that Hossain was not available. Hossain, of course, was a prisoner too.
On August 10, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi voiced her concerns over the trial in a message to various heads of government: “Government and people of India as well as our press and parliament are greatly perturbed by the reported statement of President Yahya Khan that he is going to start secret military trial of Mujibur Rahman without affording him any foreign legal assistance. We apprehend that this so-called trial will be used only as a cover to execute Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.”
The trial caused concerns in Washington. Its envoy in Pakistan, Joseph Farland, met Yahya and discussed the case. This is how a report of the meeting emanated from American sources: “The US ambassador pressed Yahya not to execute Sheikh Mujib. Yahya further stated that because the charge carried the possibility of a death sentence, it was his plan that if such the verdict be, a request for mercy would be made on the Sheikh’s behalf, and he, Yahya, would accept the petition.”
TIME magazine carried a report on the trial in its August 23, 1971 issue under the heading “Pakistan: Mujib’s secret trial.” The report read thus: “‘Our people will react violently to this,’ a member of the Bengali liberation underground whispered to TIME correspondent David Greenway in Dacca last week. The warning proved all too true. Sheik Mujibur (‘Mujib’) Rahman, 51, fiery leader of East Pakistan and the man who may hold the key to ending the bloody five-month-old civil war, had just gone on trial for his life before a military court in West Pakistan, more than 1,500 miles away. Late that same afternoon, a bomb exploded in the lobby of Dacca’s Intercontinental Hotel.”
Reports of the trial prompted Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad to make the following comment over Shwadhin Bangla Betar on August 13: “The reported trial of Bangabandhu has shocked the entire world. The self-imposed President of Pakistan has no authority to try Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who has proved to be a leader through people’s verdict.”
The trial was causing international repercussions as well. A report in the August 17 issue of The Hindustan Times noted: “(Senator Edward Kennedy) denounced the secret trial of the Sheikh by the Pakistan military regime. ‘I think the only crime Mujib has committed was winning an election.’ The trial was a travesty of the fundamentals of international law.”
The trial proceeded nevertheless, at the end of which, in November, a sentence of death was passed on Bangabandhu. In December 1971, before handing over power to ZA Bhutto, a disgraced Yahya Khan wished to execute the Bengali leader. Bhutto did not countenance the suggestion on the ground that it would place Pakistan’s prisoners of war in India in grave jeopardy.
Upon his release, Bangabandhu expressed his gratitude to Bhutto for saving his life. Ironically, it was a gleeful Bhutto who celebrated Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in August 1975 through recognizing what he thought was now the Islamic Republic of Bangladesh and dispatching a consignment of rice and cloth to Bangladesh.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.