March 1971: As a lapsed teenager remembers

In those days, as Bangabandhu’s birthday approached, newspapers in West Pakistan seemed to be tripping over one another in pouring encomiums on him

Syed Badrul AhsanSyed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 1 March 2023, 12:41 PM
Updated : 1 March 2023, 12:41 PM

It is March again, that defining moment in Bangladesh’s history, that season of tears and joy when we reinvented ourselves as a nation proud of our political and cultural heritage. It was that moment in time which set us down the road to liberty.

In March 1971, I was more than a thousand miles away from Bangladesh. In Quetta, where I lived with my parents and siblings, it was a long, exciting moment to be alive.

Throughout March, indeed beginning with the general elections of December the preceding year, every Bengali family in the capital of Baluchistan looked forward eagerly to either Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman assuming charge of Pakistan as its elected prime minister or, in the event that the Yahya Khan regime refused to abide by the popular mandate, declare Bangladesh’s independence.

For myself, I recall telling my classmates (and they were all non-Bengalis) on the afternoon of Mar 6 that it was quite possible that by the next morning I would be a free citizen of Bangladesh, which would mean that I would be a foreigner in Pakistan. My classmates looked sad and shocked, but no one protested.

The general feeling that Bengalis were for once in charge of the whole political game in Pakistan was a fundamental factor in that absence of a response. And it was a position that all of West Pakistan appeared to have adopted.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not declare independence, of course, something that pleased my father hugely. And he was happy not because the Bengalis were not getting to be sovereign soon but because it was his conviction that Bangabandhu’s rejection of a unilateral declaration of independence would in time enable him to go for a globally acceptable and legitimate declaration of independence.

Give the Pakistani civil-military complex enough rope to hang itself, he said rather openly. In those days, as Bangabandhu’s birthday approached, newspapers in West Pakistan seemed to be tripping over one another in pouring encomiums on him. It felt rather strange, for the simple reason that all along and till the December elections, nearly every West Pakistani had thought Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was an enemy of Pakistan.

And now they called him the man who could keep Pakistan together. For me, it was a huge spurt to my political enthusiasm to know, sometime before Mar 15, that Bangabandhu had responded to a foreign newsman’s question about a probable declaration of UDI with a question and an answer of his own: ‘Independence? Not yet.’

As I could see the issue at that point in my life (I was in my teens), there was hope that Bangladesh would someday be free. That feeling was reinforced when Bangabandhu told the media that General Yahya Khan would be welcomed as a guest during his upcoming visit to Dhaka. The non-cooperation movement, all Bengalis in Quetta reasoned, was inexorably taking us down the road to liberty.

My spirits soared when we heard of Bangladesh flags replacing Pakistan’s on Mar 23 even as Bangabandhu remained engaged in negotiations with the generals and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. But at the same time, I thought the time was fast approaching when, in order to save Pakistan from collapse, the military would transfer power to the Awami League. On Mar 25, we stayed glued to the radio --- to the BBC, Radio Pakistan, VOA and All India Radio -- for news of a deal being arrived at. Nothing happened.

And yet we reasoned within ourselves that a solution acceptable to all was close at hand. Not one of us, not any West Pakistani, imagined that as we were all going off to bed, the Pakistan army had begun Operation Searchlight in Bangladesh. When Mar 26 dawned, Radio Pakistan told the country that General Yahya Khan would address the nation in the evening.

Everyone believed it would be a night of seminal importance for Pakistan, for the army would be lifting martial law and seeing an elected government sworn into office. All these hopes were to be dashed. Yahya Khan’s speech, punctuated as it was by the insulting and the crude, left all Bengalis in a state of shock. Personally, for the first time in my life, I wished I were in Bangladesh.

Suddenly it did not feel comfortable to be in Quetta any more. But note that none of us had as yet any notion of the calamity that had befallen Dhaka and the rest of the occupied country. We did not know that Bangabandhu had declared Bengali independence. Indeed, all of us worried about him. Was he under arrest? Had he eluded arrest? Or had he been murdered by the army?

The days and weeks that followed were asphyxiating for us. By then, of course, we had heard of a guerrilla war getting underway in Bangladesh, of Major Ziaur Rahman announcing independence on Bangabandhu’s behalf, of a government-in-exile taking shape under Tajuddin Ahmad. Word of the exploits of the Mukti Fouj/Mukti Bahini cheered us to no end.

Early in July 1971, my family left Quetta for Karachi, from where we would take a Pakistan International Airlines flight to Dhaka. At the railway station, my classmates said goodbye, in the hope that I would someday revisit Quetta as a Pakistani. The next time I found myself in Quetta, I told them, it would be as a citizen of a free Bangladesh.

On New Year’s Eve in 1995, I stepped off a PIA aircraft in softly falling snow at Samungli airport in Quetta. I was a free Bengali come visiting a place that used to be home. And I had kept the promise I made to my friends in July 1971.