While many leaders and activists played a part in the long struggle for the emergence of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s role was critical.
National vs religious identities
Before we became Bangladeshis, we were Indians and then Pakistanis. Our Indian identity was the byproduct of conquest when rulers from Northern India incorporated the peoples of Bengal into a succession of empires, which culminated in British India for two centuries from 1757 to 1947.
When the British departed, the Muslims of India had become persuaded that they were a nation who needed autonomy to rule themselves. The Lahore Resolution of 1940 had demanded self-rule for the two Muslim majority areas of North West India and Eastern India. It proposed substantial provincial autonomy but did not actually demand a separate Pakistani state.
The emergence of Pakistan as an independent state in 1947 was the outcome of breakdowns in negotiations for independence from the British. Hence, India was partitioned and Bengal and Punjab divided to accommodate the logic of religion as the basis for nationality.
Communal violence let loose by partition unleashed what today is termed ethnic cleansing, where minorities on both sides of the border were massacred. Far exceeding what was witnessed in Bosnia, this virtually depopulated West Pakistan of sizeable Hindu and Sikh populations whilst East Punjab was “cleansed” of its Muslims.
Nonetheless, a sizeable segment of Muslims in India and many Hindus stayed behind in Bangladesh. The Hindus and Sikhs of West Pakistan were given no such choice.
The quest for national identity in Bangladesh
Within Pakistan, the people of Bangladesh faced a peculiar dilemma. They had proclaimed their Muslim identity to become part of Pakistan but close to 20% of their population was Hindu. This point was recognised by Jinnah in his famous speech upon independence, when he proclaimed a secular character for Pakistan and defined religion as a personal affair having nothing to do with the affairs of state.
While West Pakistan had solved its own dilemma by “cleansing” itself of its own religious minorities, it was inevitable the Bangladesh polity would seek to recreate itself as a secular state where religion was not the basis of national identity.
Bangalis soon found the commitment for regional self-rule, made by the Lahore Resolution, usurped by the central government. Had Pakistan’s central government remained democratic, the lack of provincial autonomy may have proved more tolerable.
However, the exercise of power by a non-Bangali dominated elite from the feudal classes of West Pakistan, allied with a military and bureaucracy from which Bangalis were virtually excluded, violated from the start the notion of shared nationhood with Pakistan.
The fallacious association of Urdu with a Pakistani identity also helped recreate a sense of Bangali identity for the inhabitants of Bangladesh.
From identity politics to self-rule
The Pakistani state subordinated the Bangalis by denying economic opportunities. It used its monopoly of power to manipulate policy to accelerate the development of West Pakistan over Bangladesh.
Thus, Bangladesh’s export earnings from jute were channelled to finance the industrialisation of West Pakistan with Bangladesh serving as a protected market for Pakistani goods. Within Bangladesh, administrative powers were monopolised by non-Bangali bureaucrats who promoted the growth of a non-Bangali business elite.
To mask this usurpation of the spirit of the Lahore Resolution, the Pakistani ruling elite revived the notion of Pakistan’s religious identity. From the time of the 1952 Language Movement, it argued that the assertion of a Bangali identity was un-Islamic as well as anti-Pakistan.
The reality of Pakistan’s politics however was that religion was used as a convenient instrument to deny democracy to its people. The struggles of the 1960s in Bangladesh were thus driven by the goals of autonomy, democracy, and cultural recognition.
Bangabandhu and the emergence of Bangladesh
The emerging sense of distinctiveness between the peoples of East and West Pakistan did not automatically evolve into a sense of national identity because the Bangalis of Pakistan still thought of themselves as Pakistani. It needed a major political effort to weave together notions of separateness within the consciousness of Bangalis into a sense of nationhood.
Whilst historic political figures such as HS Suhrawardy, Sher-e-Bangla Fazlul Haq and Moulana Bhashani all played a vanguard role in the political struggles of the people of Bangladesh, the catalytic act of political entrepreneurship to forge a sense of nationhood was provided by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
From the launch of the Six Point Programme in 1966 to the defining two-year period from March 1969 to 1971, Bangabandhu played a dominant role in the struggle for self-rule. He was aided by the dedication of colleagues in the Awami League, as well as by other secular political forces, not to mention individuals outside politics.
All these forces were brought and kept together by Bangabandhu to ensure that any division amongst the Bangalis could not be used to deflect from demands for self-rule for Bangladesh.
Bangabandhu played the critical role in institutionalising the growing sense of separateness between East and West Pakistan by presenting the historic Six Point Programme in 1966. The six points reflected a formal recognition that only through devolution of political power and authority over economic resources could the two provinces of Pakistan hope to survive within a single nation state.
A crucial limitation was the reluctance of Pakistan’s ruling elite to relinquish their power. Thus, the six points were rejected not just by the autocratic regime of Field Marshall Ayub Khan but also by the political opposition of West Pakistan who were part of its ruling class. Hence attempts to suppress mobilisation associated with the six points were directed largely at Bangalis.
Bangabandhu and most of the Awami League high command were arrested and kept in jail for two years. It took a mass uprising in both wings of Pakistan, culminating in the downfall of Ayub Khan in March 1969, to obtain the release of Bangabandhu and his colleagues.
Ayub Khan’s resignation forced him to hand power to General Yahya Khan. Yahya Khan ostensibly sought accommodation by promising national elections. Even though Pakistan was governed by martial law, Bangabandhu was confident he could win an overwhelming mandate to frame a new constitution.
He believed that electoral support would persuade the military junta that suppressing the universal demand of the people would jeopardise the very foundations of the Pakistan state. This turned out to be a prophetic assumption by Bangabandhu.
The role of the 1969-70 election campaign in forging a national identity
Building an overwhelming mandate for the six points demanded total support from the people of Bangladesh. To build this unity, Bangabandhu’s core message to persuade Bangalis became that not only were they separate in their social, political and economic life from Pakistan, but they were one people who should vote together to proclaim the right to live separately.
Mass unity demanded a focus on identity politics and a capacity to project this into the consciousness of every villager in Bangladesh. It was not enough to rely on the urban, educated middle class.
The key message, encapsulated in a political poster put up by Awami League workers in every village in Bangladesh, Purba Bangla Shashon Keno (why is Eastern Bangal oppressed), itemised in simple language the statistics of disparity between East and West Pakistan.
The role of the Awami League as a party in delivering Bangabandhu’s message into every household of Bangladesh should not be underemphasised. Tajuddin Ahmad, General Secretary of the Awami League, and other key figures and dedicated workers provided large scale party organisation and dedicated work which should be recognised.
Bangabandhu ensured overwhelming support from voters for Awami League candidates by transcending his party to become a national icon who represented the aspirations of all Bangalis. The election of December 1970 resulted in the Awami League winning 167 out of 169 seats contested from Bangladesh with 75% of the vote.
The implications of the election of December 1970
In December 1970 the people of Bangladesh empowered their representatives to the National Assembly of Pakistan to frame a constitution that recognised plural identities and devolved power to the regions.
The ruling elite in West Pakistan, including Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, did not appreciate the election outcome. Neither Bhutto nor Yahya had foreseen the decisive result, having been comprehensively misinformed by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, but both registered a threat to the bastions of power that dominated the Pakistan state. Deluding themselves about the decisiveness of the election, Yahya and Bhutto began conspiring to prevent Mujib taking power and put in motion forces, which culminated in the emergence of Bangladesh.
Yahya’s decision of March 1, 1971 to postpone the inaugural National Assembly session scheduled to meet in Dhaka on March 3, 1971 was an open reflection of his and Bhutto’s choice to deny the democratic mandate.
Non-cooperation to self-rule: March 1971
Despite such manoeuvrings, by March 1971, Bangabandhu had the entire machinery of administration in Bangladesh behind him. Between March 1 and March 15, Bangladesh’s de facto independence emerged as it assumed all the correlates of an independent state.
So total was the non-cooperation movement that the economy came near to collapse and Bangabandhu had to escalate the movement from non-cooperation towards self-rule.
A rudimentary policymaking apparatus was established to reestablish the economy and administrative authority. A small cell of Bangali professionals met daily to discuss operational ways to collect public revenues, revive banking and exports, pay salaries of public employees, resume fertiliser distribution, operate tube wells and keep transport functional.
Tajuddin Ahmad and Kamal Hossain communicated with Bangali bureaucrats who had been elected by their colleagues to act as conduits for transmitting the orders of Bangabandhu to the administration.
Bangabandhu’s private residence on Road 32 in Dhanmondi, in effect, became the seat of authority in Bangladesh during March 1971. Delegations met there to seek decisions. Whilst there were instances of persecution for some non-Bangalis, the machinery of law and order was restored as the police began to take orders from Bangabandhu and even non-Bangalis were extended protection.
The emergence of a sovereign Bangladesh
By March 15, for all practical purposes, a functioning de facto administration was projected to the world through a large contingent of the international press who were present to cover what appeared to all as the emergence of a new state in Bangladesh.
During March 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assertion of the right to self-rule made him one of the most globally visible personalities of the Third World. Not only were Bangalis ruling themselves for the first time since the Battle of Plassey, but they were also doing so through freely elected representatives.
At the same time Bangabandhu was trying to persuade Yahya to accept the democratic process. If Yahya had conducted negotiations on the basis of political realities a peaceful solution might have been conceivable via a loose confederation, which may have eventually led to a peaceful parting of Bangladesh from Pakistan.
It was not to be as Yahya, goaded by Bhutto and hawks in his junta, persisted with his delusion that a show of force would bring Bangali leaders to their knees. He did not believe that the Bangalis had the cohesion, courage, or capacity to sustain a liberation war.
Both Yahya and Bhutto believed that West Pakistan could scorch the earth and make the Bangalis pay in fire and blood for their presumptions of sovereignty. Bhutto more cynically also believed that Yahya could not survive the loss of Bangladesh, so if this happened he (Bhutto) would emerge as leader of the rump Pakistan.
Yahya used the cover of negotiations to move troops into Bangladesh. By the time Yahya gave his final orders to General Tikka Khan to launch his genocide on the Bangalis on the night of March 25, it was Pakistan which was the usurper of authority from the democratically established sovereign state of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh’s declaration of independence
By March 25, 1971, Bangladesh was a sovereign state in the minds of its citizens. Bangabandhu’s proclamation of independence on March 26, in response to the military assaults ordered by Yahya Khan, was a juridical act recognising a de facto and legitimate authority.
The post-liberation debate over who declared independence of Bangladesh is largely irrelevant. It is self-evident that Bangladeshis asserted their independence during March 1971. At that time, the one person with the credibility to declare independence in the legal sense was Bangabandhu.
Any local declarations of independence can only be accepted as surrogate acts on his behalf. It is only in the politically divided Bangladesh of today that a surreal political debate could persist over who declared independence.
The unique basis of Bangladesh’s nationhood
When independence was formally declared on March 26, 1971, Bangabandhu had a freely given and overwhelming electoral mandate to speak for Bangladesh. Such a mandate was not available to Gandhi, Nehru, or even Mandela, all of whom only obtained electoral legitimacy after independence.
It was Bangabandhu’s universally recognised authority which persuaded Bangali judges, bureaucrats and diplomats to extend their support and allowed Bangali members of the armed forces of Pakistan to break their oaths of service and pledge allegiance to the liberation of Bangladesh.
Only in Bangladesh were servants of colonial rule able to repudiate colonial rule so actively because they had a leader with the legitimate authority to speak for the people.
Hence, Bangladeshis were able to command worldwide support even when governments of the day remained lukewarm. It was this popular groundswell of support for the Bangladesh liberation struggle and against the genocide of the Pakistan army, which compelled some national governments to demand restraint from the Pakistani junta.
Today the genocide unleashed by Yahya and the Pakistan Army would result in even more of a global outcry for the trial of Yahya and Tikka Khan as war criminals.
That ordinary people around the world took notice of the atrocities inflicted on the people of Bangladesh is due in no small part to the global visibility and stature of Bangabandhu. Without his efforts, our liberation struggle could have turned out to be much more protracted.
When the Pakistani army launched its aggression, the entire population of Bangladesh rose up to resist. Two years of mobilisation by Bangabandhu had made them conscious of their identity and March 1971 made them a nation.
More than most nations, Bangladesh owes a blood debt to the people who died for liberation. It owes much to the leader who played a critical role in inculcating nationhood within the hearts of the people.
The tragedy of post-liberation Bangladesh lies not only in Bangabandhu’s brutal assassination but also in the way he was marginalised for 21 years. We have paid an incalculable price for his murder. We have allowed betrayals to the ethos of the liberation struggle to condemn us to divisiveness and social unrest, which compromises the democratic process.
We have forgotten the ability of Bangabandhu to involve the people in a way that made mass participation a distinctive feature of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle.
For this same reason it remains essential to build a society where common people are given a sufficient material stake in the rewards of independence and a commensurate democratic stake in shaping a modern Bangladesh.