Victory-71 and Agartala Conspiracy

By - Manas Paul

“It was a cool winter night and dense mist was all pervasive when I went out of my newspaper office to meet the Chief Minister Sachindra Lal Singha in his official residence. He had asked me to meet him urgently. Of course, he used to call me often but somehow I had a feeling that this time the CM wanted to meet me for something that related to Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. And I was right”, said Jiten Paul, 95, as I and Sanjib Deb a senior journalist and correspondent of The Asian Age listened to him intently at his home and trying not to miss any point.

‘Jitenda’- despite his age is so ( dada) called in Tripura by all- young and old- is ailing and bed ridden. Yet, the senior most journalist of Tripura and the editor-publisher of the first Bengali daily of Tripura, Jagaran, can still remember the night of third week of January 1968.

For me, the meeting with Jitenda was rewarding, indeed. I was trying to study the history of Bangladesh Liberation War with special reference to Tripura –this small state and its people who played important roles in many ways for the birth of Bangladesh. And Jitenda was one among the first generation journalists who had seen as to how the Bangladesh Liberation struggle steadily unfolded and then exploded in 1971 closely. He was one among many others who had even taken part in their own capacity for the cause of their oppressed neighbor.

Though it was worldwide known as Agartala Conspiracy Case, it was officially recorded as 'State vs Sheikh Mujibur Rahman & others'. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was not involved in the case though he was named as the ‘First accused’. It was when the plot came to light and most of the plotters were arrested the Pakistani military Public Relations Officer Major Naser briefing media said the conspiracy was hatched in Agartala and he used the words ‘Agartala Conspiracy Case’. In fact, when the Agartala Conspiracy case was initiated Mujibur had already been then in prison along with many others, more precisely since 9 May 1966. He was re-implicated in the case despite the fact he was not at all involved in the conspiracy.

And, as it turned out later, this Conspiracy (we in India and Bangladesh prefer to call it a ‘plan’) was planned by not top Awami League leaders but mostly by some Bengali naval and military officers and lower rank soldiers (all Bengalis) of Pakistan army. They, led by Commander Moazzem, a retired Naval officer, had planned to liberate the then East Pakistan following a nationwide revolt.

The plan-which had been going on for quite some time, in fact, since early 1966 before being exposed in 1968- did not succeed as it was neither strategically nor politically a well-defined and clearly chalked out plan. Besides, lack of political component in the entire plot turned it handicapped from the very beginning. Still, despite its failure Agartala Conspiracy Case had definitely set the ultimate movement for secession of East Pakistan from West Pakistan in full steam, resulting in the Victory of December 16, 1971 and creation of an independent sovereign nation –Bangladesh.

“When I met Sachinbabu, he asked me whether I could go to Calcutta as his representative to contact Snehangshu Achariya, then eminent lawyer to fight the legal battle for Sheikh Mujibur Rehman who had been arrested on January 18, 1968 in connection with Agartala Conspiracy Case”, Paul continued.

“I along with the then correspondent of Hindustan Samachar in Agartala Keshav Shur went to Calcutta and first met two leaders Samar Guha and Pannalal Dasgupta. We requested them to introduce us to Snehangshu Achariya so that we can pursue him to stand for Mujibur Rehman. Actually one newspaper editor from the then East Pakistan had asked Sachinbabu to arrange an eminent lawyer to fight for Mujibur Rehman, knowing well that Sachin Babu and Mujibur were very close. In fact, Mujibur had also come to Agartala once in 1963 to discuss secession plan with Indian government”, Paul added- in between taking some medicines.

When both Paul and Shur met Snehangshu Achariya, he declined to stand for Mujibur Rehman in the case. Achariya opined that if an Indian fought legal case for Mujibur Rehman it would send a wrong signal. But Achariya did one thing important-he requested Nirode C Choudhury who was in London and close to the British Royal family to help find a good lawyer. Nirode C Choudhury met the British Queen and arranged for Sir Thomas William, member of Her legal Council and also o the British Parliamentarian, to fight the case for Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. .

Here I seek to give some salient features of the Agartala Conspiracy Case:

  1. Pakistan government alleged that a conspiracy to secede East Pakistan from Pakistan was hatched in Agartala on July 12, 1967 when Ayub Khan was then president of Pakistan. The case was later withdrawn by Pakistani government on February 22, 1968 following popular uprising in East Pakistan –now Bangladesh. The plan was going on for two years before it got exposed.
  2. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman (Bangabandhu) was not personally present in Agartala conspiracy, though he was accused No 1.
  3. The conspiracy was, primarily, to launch ‘revolt’ against Pakistani rulers by Bengali officials and soldiers in Pakistani military, Naval and Air force. The plan was actually led by a Naval Commander Moazzem Hossain who was accused No 2.
  4. Total 35 persons were accused (a total of 1509 were arrested) in the Chargesheet including Sheikh Mujibur Rehman as No 1 accused. The case was tried in a tribunal and there were altogether 227 witnesses including 11 approvers. Four approvers later turned hostile. The Chargesheet had 100 paragraphs (**Names of the accused are given below.)
  5. Though Sheikh Mujibur Rehman (Bangabandhu) was not personally present in Agartala, among the conspirator accused No 3 was also a ‘Mujibur Rehman’ who was a ‘Bengali Steward in Pakistan Navy ( having no 066508’) and he had an active role in the ‘conspiracy’. This Steward Mujibur was also later killed by unidentified assailants on January 8, 1972, soon after Bangladesh Liberation.
  6. Some documents indicate that Sheikh Mujibur though not personally involved, he had, however, been well aware of entire plan and had several –at least four meetings -with them in Karachi as well as in Bangladesh from 1964-66. He had full support for them. However, Sheikh Mujibur was also known to have told the officers involved in plan (conspiracy) not to take any decision in haste..
  7. On Indian side P N Ojha, First Secretary to Indian High Commission in Dhaka was reported to have played the key role in helping the ‘conspirators’. Though Commander Moazzem Hossain was the key person and leader of the rebel group that planned ‘Revolt’ he was more involved in higher level planning and meetings with Bengali political leadership spearheaded by Sheikh Mujibur and Indian officials. At field level many important tasks were carried out on his behalf by Bhupati Bhusan Choudhury alias Manik Choudhury, treasurer of Awami League in Chittagong. He was also, besides Moazzem Hossain, a link between Ojha and the rebels. PN Ojha was declared persona non grata by Pakistan following the expose.
  8. Though there were many who were part of the plan but it was actually two persons- Steward Mujibur ( accused No 3) and Ali Reza (accused No 33)- who held meeting with Indian officials (of IB Foreign deptt) in Agartala. THIS WAS AGARTALA CONSPIRACY. Reza, a teacher by profession not a military man, was also the leader in the meeting.
  9. Some sources indicated, not confirmed though, that one Col Menon of IB’s Foreign Department (which was later turned RAW) met them in Agartala and Col. Menon was nom de guerre of K Sankaran Nair who later became RAW chief after R N Kao and also headed ASIAD in Delhi. Nair later also became Indian Ambassador to Singapore.

Steward Mujibur and Ali Reza accompanied by one Jalil Uddin (or Daliluddin) came to Feni in Bangladesh across Belonia subdivision of South Tripura on July 11, 1967 on their way to Agartala. They spent the night near Feni Rail station and next day early morning Steward Mujibur and Ali Reza crossed over to Belonia. The IB picked them up from the rendezvous near Belonia Dak Bungalow.

THE ‘CONSPIRACY’ AGENDA

The ‘conspirators’ main agenda for discussion with Indian officials were –firearms and explosives from Indian authorities for revolt and Indian help in containing Pakistani war offensives and aggression in case of revolt.

The meeting in Agartala failed as the Indian authorities did not find the two men –Steward Mujibur and Ali Reza –fit for holding discussions for such important an important operation.

It may be mentioned here that the mutineer group had earlier also reported to have held similar meeting in Agartala with Col Menon –that is K Sankaran Nair and other senior intelligence officials and, may be also with the then Chief Minister Sachindra Lal Singh previous year. They also held meetings with P N Ojha in Chittagong and other places. Moazzem Hossain and others were thick in the planning for the mutiny in 1966.

According to reports in 1965 September itself Moazzem and other rebels had decided to launch the ‘Revolt’ on February 20, 1966 in Chittagong where the then Pakistan army Chief Gen Musa and many other military top brass would be present to attend a military function. The plan was to arrest Gen Musa and others, take control of all armour and cantonments in Dhaka (infantry and airforce), Chittagong and other places. The date February 20- was chosen- keeping in mind February 21 Bhasha Diwas with which all Bengalis were/are emotionally involved. It was decided that a ‘Revolutionary Council’ would be set up soon after the ‘revolution and liberation’ which would run the country until a political government was established.

The plan fell through as ISI succeeded in planting Amir Husain Mian, who was one among the conspirators to supply information to them. Besides, Indian authorities, as reported, in October 1965 told Moazzem and others that due to forthcoming elections they would not be able to supply arms, explosives and logistics in case of any rebellion at that point of time.

Col MAG Osmani-who later became General Osmani and chief of joint forces of East Pakistan (Bangladeshi) army and Mukti Bahini- was also present in one of their meetings in Dhaka but he did neither support nor did he express any opposition. He just listened to their plan. It was thus clear that many senior army officials also felt that time was not ripe at that moment for any revolt. But Commander Moazzem Hossain and his military, naval and air force comrades were impatient. And they carried on with the plan.

Agartala Conspiracy was thus can be called a follow up and in one sense second phase of the previous meetings and attempted rebellion. It may also be noted that for RAW (IB-Foreign Dept) it was PHASE- I operation of the Bangladesh operation.

HOW THE CASE WAS KNOWN TO PAKISTANIS?

Lt Col Samsul Alam of ISI based in Dhaka had claimed that he had ‘caught’ one rebel and he spilled the beans . Lt Col Alam said the rebel attempted to kill him. Lt Col Alam was also awarded with Shitara e Basarat by Pakistan for his bravery. This claim did not find many takers as there was no rationale for attempting to murder a ‘Lt Col’ risking exposure of a plan of that magnitude. When the rebels planned to detain their chief Gen Musa at a point of time, why they should try to kill a middle ranking officer?

According to other sources, it was one among the ‘conspirators’ Amir Hussain Mian who was in charge of funds of the

mutineers betrayed the group to Lt Col Alam who was in charge of ISI in Dhaka. Ameer Husain Mian wanted to siphon off the entire money. The rebels when came to know about Amir Husain Mian’s betrayal they engaged one Asraf Ali to kill him. But Asraf Ali also joined Amir Ali and betrayed the group. It was on the 63 pages statement of Amir Hussain Mian that the Pakistanis built their Chargesheet. He later went to Pakistan.

THE CASE

ON 6 January 1968 Pakistani Home Department of Pakistan issued a press-note that the government had detected in December 1967 a conspiracy of secession and that they had already arrested 8 persons including 2 officers. On 18 January 1968 the Home Department implicated Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in the conspiracy. He was released and then once again arrested again under martial law regulations and were taken to Dhaka Cantonment under military custody.

Sheikh Mujibur and 12 others were kept detained in Signal Officers’ Mess in Dhaka and 22 others were kept in 3rd Punjab Regiment Headquarters.

Ayub Khan in an ordinance had declared that whatever the statement the accused would give to the military and police would/could be taken as evidence against them. It triggered massive protest both in East and West Pakistan (including Julfikar Ali Bhutto) and the ordinance was withdrawn.

A special tribunal was formed after an amendment was made in the penal code to that end for the disposal of the case. The hearing of the case started on 19 June 1968. The tribunal started proceedings in a highly protected chamber inside Dhaka Cantonment. The tribunal was formed with Justice SA Rahman, Chairman, MR Khan and Maksumul Hakim. Only Rahaman was a non Bengali and from West Pakistan two others were Bengalis. Sir Thomas William who came to Dhaka following Nirode C Choudhury’s request to the British Queen was assisted by Abdus Salam Khan, Ataur Rahman Khan. They filed a writ petition in Dhaka High Court on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman challenging the legality of the formation of the tribunal. The government lawyers were the former foreign minister Manzur Quader and Advocate General TH Khan.

The case was heard in tight security and none except officially sponsored persons and reporters were allowed to enter into the court room. Bhutto himself was once present though he did not appear or argue for any side.

Meantime during the case one 3rd Punjab Regiment Habildar Manjur Hussain Shah shot dead Sergeant Zahurul Haq who was accused no 17 near the Officers’ Mess in Dhaka Cantonment. Sheikh Mujibur Rahamn was also at that time in the Mess though the killing took place a little afar.

The killing of Zahurul Haq was turning point as it triggered furious reaction in East Pakistan, mostly in Dhaka and mob to set fire to the State Guest House as well as other buildings. S.A Rahman, Chairman of the tribunal, and Manzur Quader, chief lawyer on the government side, who were then residing in the guest house, evacuated secretly. Some of the files concerning the case were burnt to ashes.

In the face of the mass movement, the Ayub government withdrew the Agartala Conspiracy Case on 22 February 1969. All the accused, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, were released unconditionally.

On the following day (23 February), a grand public reception was accorded to the accused at Paltan Maidan in Dhaka where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was vested with the appellation of 'Bangabandhu'.

THE ACCUSED

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Commander Moazzem Hossain, Steward Mujibur Rahman, former LS Sultanuddin Ahmad, LSCDI Nur Mohammad, Ahmed Fazlur Rahman CSP, Flight Sergeant Mahfiz Ullah, Corporal Abdus Samad, former Havildar Dalil Uddin, Ruhul Quddus Flight Sergeant Md. Fazlul Haq, Bibhuti Bhushan Chowdhury alias Manik Chowdhury, Bidhan Krishna Sen, Subedar Abdur Razzaque, former clerk Mujibur Rahman, former Flight Sergeant Md. Abdur Razzaque, Sergeant Zahurul Haq, A.B. Khurshid, Khan Mohammad Shamsur Rahman CSP, AKM Shamsul Haque, Havildar Azizul Haq, Mahfuzul Bari, Sergeant Shamsul Haq, Shamsul Alam, Captain Md. Abdul Motaleb, Captain A. Shawkat Ali Mian, Captain Khondkar Nazmul Huda, Captain M Nuruzzaman, Sergeant Abdul Jalil, Mahbub Uddin Chowdhury, Lt. M Rahman, former Subedar Tajul Islam, Ali Reza, Captain Khurshid Uddin Ahmed, and Lt. Abdur Rauf.

(*Pertinent to remember that many believed there was NEVER any such conspiracy or meeting at all. It was a ploy by Ayub Khan to suppress growing liberation sentiment among Bengalis. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and Lt Commander Moazzem Hussain also denied involvement in any conspiracy.)

Ref: Books published from Bangladesh and India, Papers, documents relating to Bangladesh Liberation War, stories told to me by persons having knowledge .