The tense few days leading up to the start of the Liberation War
On March 15, 1971, Yahya Khan arrived in Dhaka amid growing political unrest and no light at the end of the tunnel. His mission was to halt the “civil disobedience movement” called by Awami League leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Rawalpindi GHQ insisted that Yayha Khan needed to make a final bid to ensure Pakistan’s integrity after meeting Sheikh Mujib. The following day, Sheikh Mujib met Yahya Khan at Bailey Road.
Mistrust and suspicion between Mujib and Yahya had heightened to such an extreme level that their first meeting had to take place in the bathroom of the Presidential Suite. The Awami League leader refused to hold parleys in the President’s House drawing-room on suspicion that it could be bugged, writes Ian Talbot, author of Pakistan: A Modern History.
In an hour-long parley, President Yahya wanted to justify the cancellation of the maiden National Assembly session on March 1, 1971, whilst Sheikh Mujib remained defiant on his demand to withdraw the martial law.
Meanwhile, the non-cooperation movement coupled with street agitation continued.
Yayha was dragging his feet on the withdrawal of the martial law promulgation. He argued that if martial law was abrogated, there would be a “constitutional vacuum.” Mujib quickly said that he would request his advisers to sit with the president’s advisers to work out a formula that would resolve the so-called “constitutional vacuum.”
On Mujib’s advice, Dr Kamal Hossain met the president’s principal staff officer Gen SGM Peerzada and argued that under no circumstances did the postponement of the national assembly session, scheduled to be held in Dhaka, have any justification.
On March 17, Mujib-Yahya’s closed door parley resumed again. As usual, neither the Hawks in Rawalpindi nor the Awami League’s party office issued any media statement. Thus the media was publishing speculative news in Dhaka and Karachi.
Meanwhile, the Awami League rejected the formation of a 5-member probe body to determine why the army was called into action and the reasons behind the killing of agitating people during the shutdown.
Instead, the Awami League formed an alternative 3-member enquiry committee consisting of Captain Mansur Ali, Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad, and Abidur Reza.
On March 19, a third round of parley between Mujib-Yahya was held and it was decided that there would be another meeting the following day. Representatives from both sides had a separate meeting to formulate the basis of discussion for the impending meeting to break the political impasse. Failing to negotiate, President Yahya and Sheikh Mujib were at a standstill along with their advisors on March 20 for two hours. In fact, it was to be their last meeting. Yahya Khan was shrewdly leading towards an inclusive meeting to prove that the dialogue had entered a dead end.
On the call of Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani to observe “Swadhin Purba Bangla Dibash” on the Republic Day of Pakistan on March 23 -- except the government buildings and military garrisons –– all over the country, the independent Bangladesh flag was hoisted.
While the dialogue was in progress, the Rawalpindi Hawks secretly prepared its infamous genocidal plan -- “Operation Searchlight” -- which was launched at midnight on March 25. Hours later, Sheikh Mujib was detained and flown to Karachi.
Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at <[email protected]>; Twitter @saleemsamad.