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'The speech of March 7 was the masterstroke of a political genius'

  • Published at 06:43 pm March 25th, 2018
'The speech of March 7 was the masterstroke of a political genius'
The beginning of March in 1971 brought with it a lot of uncertainty – people were not really sure whether the Pakistani army would attack or not, and what Awami League's position would be. The sitting of the National Assembly was cancelled on March 1 by Yahya Khan. I still remember, there was a cricket match at Dhaka Stadium on that day, and a protest was led out of that stadium. The very next day, students of Dhaka University raised what was Bangladesh's first national flag, and gave it to their leader Sheikh Mujib. This is historically unique - I don't think it has ever happened anywhere else in the world. So there was a tremendous pressure building up from the student community and from the part of the people to declare independence. There was also news that the Pakistani military was building up their army. Even at the venue of the March 7 speech, there were no Pakistani flags anywhere. If you look at the times that we were in, there was already the Biafran War going on. Biafra wanted to secede, the Nigerians cracked down really hard on them, and the international community agreed that the response was justified. In international law, even today, if a portion of a nation wants to secede, the state and its army has the right to suppress it. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the leaders of Awami League definitely knew that they didn't want to be in a position where the international community would think Bangladesh is seceding. This is why the March 7 speech is a historic one. Mujib did not go far enough to give the Pakistani military a reason to justify an attack on Bangladesh. Yet those who were present at the speech, including myself - were not dissatisfied. There were clear instructions that IF we are attacked, we could strike back. This level of diplomacy requires political maturity, and only a leader with that quality, who could translate the collective spirit of the masses into a oneness that came out of his speech, could have pulled it off. I was only a class nine student in 1971, but I still left my parents and went to Agartala. Now, it would seem ridiculous - how politically conscious can you be at that age? But at that time, even a class nine student knew what had to be done.

The legality of the Liberation War

When independence was actually declared on March 26, we had both the legal and moral ground to stand on, because the declaration was given after an unjustified Pakistani military attack. In our history, the genocide of March 25 is extremely important – it is the reason why the international community, including US media and Democrats in US Congress, supported our cause. In a way, March 26 was forced on us. In terms of demographic composition, we were the majority anyway, and due to the Pakistani attack, we can argue that it was actually Pakistan who seceded from us. We all know about what happened in the nine months that followed, but there are a number of reasons for why they weren't documented in the aftermath. South Asians are oral people – whether it's Lalon music or poetry recitations or even our understanding of religion, everything is orally transmitted. But in order to prove genocide, you need textual evidence. We also have to think of conditions in the 70s. There were ten million refugees who had to be repatriated – the largest ever refugee concentration in such a short time in known history. Dhaka University and Rajshahi University were badly hit, and a good number of intellectuals were murdered. Society was highly traumatized by the killings, rape and abductions - in fact, we still are. It was also a time when we aligned with the Soviet bloc, but historically our relationships were with the US, so that created a problem – you can't change these relationships overnight. One of the reasons for the famine in the 70s was because USA stopped selling food to us when we started trade with Cuba, which was not permitted under PL480. We ended up buying food from the US via the Soviet Union, but by then it was too late. Famine, death, discontent, lack of infrastructure, lack of capital – it was not the kind of environment where researchers could sit down and write seriously on genocide.

India's role in the war

I interviewed Lieutenant General Jacob, who was then Chief of Staff of the Indian Army's Eastern Command, and he said that General Osmani used to make it very clear that the Muktibahini could have won the war alone. He told me an interesting story – there was an event where Indian officers came together for a farewell, and the chief guest was our then army chief General Osmani. According to General Jacob, he was slightly late, but as soon as he came in and stood at the podium, he said 'thank you gentlemen, we could have done without you'! Osmani always stuck to his guns on this. He was probably right – although it would have taken longer and the killings would have been higher. There is a lot of debate on this and there are both sides to the story. However, one has to say – and this is not out of tune with world history – you do see countries come in and help during such times. US helped Europe during WWII, but you don't see as much of a celebration of the US over there as we see of India here – because everyone realizes it was mainly for self-interest. These two views will always remain in our history. Whatever it is, there definitely is a unique relationship between these two countries – theirs is the only military that fought in a people's war.

Our complex relationship with USA

One of the things that the US were doing in 1971 was trying to open up talks with China. China had already become an atomic power by '71 but they were not even part of the UN – it was Taiwan instead. However, US National Security Advisor Kissinger was involved in secret diplomacy to reach out to the Chinese. There was also the Vietnam War going on, and the Americans knew that if they wanted to get out of it, they needed to deal with China, who were helping the Vietnamese. In a situation like the Cold War, the only way to break the stalemate is through secret diplomacy. And in this diplomacy, Yahya Khan played a role in reaching out to Mao Zedong on behalf of the US. Kissinger's first visit to China was actually arranged by Pakistan, but not even the US Secretary of State or their ambassador in Pakistan knew what was going on! Textual civilizations have some advantages, because the US kept records of all these dealings. When these documents were about to be declassified, I was one of the academics who were invited to look into the pre-published volumes and to write on the role of the US in 1971. Looking at the files, you can see that there are letters and documents that clearly show that the US knew that the birth of Bangladesh was approaching. Even before March 7, we see Kissinger telling his team that a united Pakistan may no longer be possible. There are also records of Kissinger commenting on the genocide of March 25 and hoping for the safety of one of his students, which shows he knew exactly what was going on. At this time, the US was also trying very hard to delay Indira Gandhi's intervention so as not to interfere with their dealings with China, because China definitely wasn't interested in another war near their borders. She had no knowledge of why, until she learned about Kissinger's secret trip at some point in July, when she instantly pushed for a security agreement with the Soviet Union.

The important role played by the government in exile

What many of us forget is that before the government in exile was even formed, we already had what is referred to as the Teliapara document. It is the location of a tea garden in Sylhet, where all the Bangladeshi army officers and majors who opted for Bangladesh met in secret, including General Osmani and Major Zia. This is the beginning of what is known as the military wing of the Muktibahini, and they took a solid decision that independent Bangladesh had to come into being. The reason is quite simple – in the military, if you defect, you can't go back! This is important because it shows that there was a strategy in place, something which people often forget. In Teliapara, a three stage policy was formulated - the first step was guerrilla warfare, the second phase was guerrilla and conventional warfare, and the third phase was conventional. Critics say that when the Indian army entered the picture, the third phase was almost being entered. So by the time the Mujib cabinet sat down, they knew very well that they already had a military wing to support them. In the beginning, they had a bit of a tough time. They relied on Rehman Sobhan and P N Haksar to actually introduce Tajuddin to Indira Gandhi, and later on D P Dhar played an important role as well. The government in exile knew of the Cold War and its implications, but there are also reports that they tried to keep all possible channels open. Given the resources that they had and the environment they were placed in, they kept their nerves strong and kept on pushing for a quick victory. One must credit Tajuddin immensely, because he had the nerve and cool to continue a government in exile, particularly with no communications with or directions from the supreme leader Mujib. Even Mandela had access to newspapers and television, and his wife could visit him – here, it was nothing.

Soviet Union's Security Council vote

Apart from the arms they gave to the Muktibahini via India, the three vetoes that the Soviet Union used at the UN Security Council were absolutely critical. This was in the month of December, when time and again resolutions were placed for a ceasefire, but Indira Gandhi had asked them to wait until the fall of Dhaka. If Dhaka took too long to fall, it would have been a serious problem. This is also when General Jacob told me, that he almost disobeyed Field Marshall Manekshaw, who was then Chief of Army Staff. According to Jacob, Manekshaw's strategy was to circle the Pakistanis from all sides and then come to Dhaka. But Jacob wanted to go straight for Dhaka because if Dhaka falls, everything will fall, and according to him, he proved correct. Any ceasefire before December 16 could have prolonged the war, so from that point of view, we also owe the Soviet Union for these three critical vetoes. In one way, the Cold War structure favoured us because it meant the support of the Soviet Union, but then we also suffered from it, because historically our economic relationship was with the US. By the time Kissinger came to visit Bangladesh in 1974, we were suffering from a famine, but he made sure that Tajuddin was removed, I think around four days before his arrival. That tells you that the US was not at all in favour of the kind of socialism that Tajuddin and others were preaching at the time, and they made it clear that if they renew aid, it would have to be on their terms. And right after that, we had the assassinations of 1975. Now when we look back at history, I'm sure more people will work on the US connection. It is obvious that you cannot ignore the global world as you build Bangladesh. But when you look at our struggle for liberation as a whole, you realise that it was at heart the struggle for democracy. In 1971, the language movement wasn't there. Despite the racial divide, the religions were the same, and there were many inter-marriages. So democracy is part and parcel of the political process that we went through, and this is going to come back again and again. When we look back at history, you find that the emancipatory element of free thought is part of being Bengali, and that is not going to go away. Dr Imtiaz Ahmed is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Dhaka and Director of its Centre for Genocide Studies