Mujib in March

Posted in history, people by jrahman on March 17, 2011

(This was supposed to be posted on 7 March, but Sheikh Sahib’s birthday is as good a day).

This is a speculative, and perhaps provocative, post.  Speculative because what I say is not something I can back up with data, or even citations.  And provocative because it is about one of those issues that Bangladeshis have been debating for the last 40 years.

In this post, I state why I believe Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s decisions in March 1971 were correct given the circumstances.  I do so by exploring two issues — what did he want, and how he wanted to achieve it.  Along the way, I discuss highly controversial questions like why he did not declare independence on 7 March, or why did he not slip out of Dhaka on 25 March to lead the resistance.

Let me be upfront about the fact that I do not believe my views are the absolute truth on this matter.  Not only was I not alive in March 1971, I do not know anyone who was in Mujib’s inner sanctum and was privy to his thoughts in that fateful month.  In fact, other than Dr Kamal Hossain, I don’t believe there is anyone alive who has that kind of knowledge.  Therefore, while I am happy to elaborate on why I believe what I believe, I am also comfortable in acknowledging alternate views, and am open to be pursuaded to those views.

Long disclaimer out of the way, let me get to the point.  I contend that Mujib wanted a constitution based on the 6-points, and he wanted to achieve that without a military confrontation.  I contend that these were the right objectives, and that given what he might have reasonably known, his decisions 40 years ago were correct.

Let’s explore each of these contentions.

First, what was Mujib’s objective?  Of course, all politicians want to achieve power.  But for Mujib, merely becoming the Prime Minister of Pakistan was not the objective.  Since 1966, he was explicit about the 6-points being his objective.  And he was unwavering in this.  He could have become the Prime Minister of Pakistan as early as 1969, but he refused.  And while many assumed that the 6-points were an ambit claim or a bargaining position to be diluted down after the December 1970 election, Mujib made it clear in January 1971 that 6-points were not negotiable.

What were in the 6-points?  Not an independent People’s Republic of Bangladesh.  But even as part of a Pakistani Confederation, the 6-points would have given the government in Dhaka more independence than, say, the President of France has over economic or foreign policy.

In fact, the central government of Pakistan in such a set up would have had so few powers, that it is actually quite likely that Mujib would never have even wanted to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan.

So, his aim was de facto indpendence for the eastern wing of Pakistan.  Was this the right aim?

Well, this blog strongly believes in liberal political, economic and social values.  Those values were much more likely flourish in a (de facto or de jure) independent Bangladesh than in a centralised Pakistan.  So, quite apart from any nationalist premise, I believe Mujib’s objective was correct.

It’s also important to understand not just what Mujib wanted, but how he wanted it.  He did not want an independent Bangladesh through a violent revolution.  He was not seeking a radical rehauling of the society.  He did not want a People’s Republic.

And I believe that too was the right objective.  This blog does not believe in utopian social orders, and takes a dim view of revolutions that try to bring about radical changes with some utopia or golden age in mind.  I believe Mujib’s path — a combination of civil disobedience, electoral mandate, and a negotiated constitutional change — was much better than any revolution or armed insurgency.

Here, we need to take a slight detour.  Who’s to say that Bangladesh of 14 August 1975 — an ultra-nationalist (if not fascist) dictatorship with a cult of personality around himself — was not what Mujib always wanted?  To the extent that such a personalised rule was far more possible if Bangladesh had parted company from Pakistan, could one not argue that independence was just a means to a nefarious end?  And surely a blog professing liberty cannot support a fascist personality cult.

I don’t believe that argument holds water.  Did Mujib impose personal rule with fascistic tendencies in 1975?  Yes.  Did he always want that?  No.  If he did, he could have declared himself president for life on 10 January 1972.  I am not a fan of 1972 constitution, but that constitution was not Bakshal.  Had Mujib always wanted Bakshal, he could have had one much earlier.

So Mujib wanted a peaceful parting of the way (in substance, if not quite fully in style) from Pakistan.  In March 1971, what were the chances of that?

How we answer that question shapes what we believe about his decision to not declare independence on 7 March.

I believe it was reasonable for Mujib to believe that there was a relatively high chance of achieving what he wanted how he wanted.  The history of the previous two decades was one of continual erosion of West Pakistani power in face of emerging East Pakistani political leadership.  Whereas in 1954, the central government could just dismiss Fazlul Huq’s government, to thwart Suhrawardy in 1958, a full blown martial law had to be implemented.  And martial law was not enough in 1969, and a free and fair election had to be conceded in 1970.

Might Mujib have figured that in March 1971 we would have seen a repeat of 1969, except this time round the endgame would be with separation — freedom and independece, in his own words?

Let’s be a bit more speculative.  Might Mujib have believed that once the parleys with Yahya and Bhutto produced nothing (like the round table conferences with Ayub two years earlier came to naught), Yahya would have been overthrown by the army and a new junta would have negotiated an honorable Pakistani exit?

Of course, we can only be speculative about these things.  But consider this.  In the first week of March, Lt Gen Sahibzada Yaqub Khan was sent to Dhaka as governor and martial law administrator.  He was a well known hawk.  He was charged with executing Operation Searchlight.  He returned to Rawalpindi within a weeks saying Bengalis could not be suppressed.  What did Mujib infer from this?  What conversation did Yaqub have with Mujib?

If this assessment of the endgame in March 1971 was right — that is, if things played out the way they did — then clearly Mujib’s decision to  not declare independence on 7 March was correct.   As was his decision to court arrest on 25 March — how else could he have negotiated with the next Pakistani general?  And note, while he asked his political lieutenants like Tajuddin Ahmed or the youth leaders like Sheikh Moni to go underground, his constitutional advisor Dr Kamal Hossain was arrested.  Could it be that Mujib expected he would need a constitutional expert, not political advisors, in the following weeks?

In the event, we know that Pakistanis had a different calculation.  In the event, we know that Tikka Khan believed Bengalis could be suppressed within days.  We know that the idea was to ethnically cleanse the country of Hindus, buy off a significant section of Muslims with the abandoned Hindu property, and liquidate all liberal-progressive intellectual voices in the community.  And we know that the Pakistanis failed.

Why did they fail?  Of course many factors were at play, but in hindsight, two were most crucial: the emergence of an armed resistance, with rebel units of Pakistan army forming the nucleas; and the Indian decision to invade and establish a friendly government in Dhaka so that millions of (mainly Hindu) refugees could return home.

This is not to discount the heroism and sacrifice of the ordinary Bangladeshis.  Rather, the point is that Pakistanis did not believe they would face largescale mutiny and armed resistance, and they believed that India would absorb the Hindu refugees (just like it did in 1950 and 1964, and to the eternal shame of Bangladesh, in 1992 and 2001).

What was Mujib’s views towards these two factors?

Surely Mujib would not have wanted to achieve his objective with the aid of mutinous majors.  Mujib was wary of the political power that the Pakistan army amassed.  In a future Bangladesh, he had strong reasons to avoid that kind or politicised army.  Indpendence on the back of an armed uprising wouldn’t have been conducive to such an outcome.  In fact, in independent Bangladesh, the mutinous majors cast a long shadow — because of iconic status of Major Zia in March 1971, every other major in the Bangladesh army of the 1970s believed that they too could be the nation’s saviour.

With respect to India, however, things become a bit more tricky.  Could it be that not only was Mujib unsure about Indian intentions, but that he actually did not want independence with India’s help?  The entire foreign policy trajectory of Bangladesh under Mujib was one of moving away from India.  Mujib’s political beginnings were in the bad streets of 1940s Calcutta.  Could it be that he was simply not interested in the Indian friendship?

So, where does this leave us?

Mujib wanted a peaceful parting from Pakistan.  When Yaqub Khan returned to Pindi, he thought he was near his goal.  He figured that Pakistanis would blink and not start a campaign that it would surely lose.  And the factors that would have made a Pakistani defeat inevitable were also two things that, Mujib rightly believed, would have made things difficult in an independent Bangladesh.  So he concentrated his efforts in trying to give the Pakistan army an exit strategy.

And that was the correct course of action.

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