Ekushey 1971 … and Bangabandhu’s warnings

Bangabandhu’s warnings on the morning of Feb 21 at the Shaheed Minar were grounded in his belief that a vast conspiracy was at work to prevent the Awami League from taking power

Syed Badrul AhsanSyed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 19 Feb 2023, 10:34 PM
Updated : 19 Feb 2023, 10:34 PM

On Feb 21, 1971, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman placed a wreath at the Central Shaheed Minar and then spoke briefly to the crowd which had gathered there. It was Ekushey February; and it was one of those times when a grim leader of the Bengali nation, having led his party to an unprecedented triumph at Pakistan’s first general election over two months earlier, was becoming increasingly aware of the pressures he would soon be called upon to handle.

In those moments at the Shaheed Minar, Bangabandhu left no one in any doubt that the days ahead would be difficult, that sinister forces were already at work to subvert the voice of the people as expressed at the ballot box. His warnings were not without reason. Hardly eight days earlier, President Yahya Khan had called the newly elected National Assembly into session in Dhaka for Mar 3. That was on Feb 13.

Two days later, on Feb 15, the earliest signs of a gathering conflict came through Zulfkar Ali Bhutto’s warning that his Pakistan People’s Party would not attend the assembly session because, in his words, in the face of the Awami League’s insistence on a constitution based on its six points, the lawmakers elected from the PPP would be double hostages in Dhaka. Bhutto was clearly undermining the very principle of democracy. He threatened to break the legs of any West Pakistani member of the assembly contemplating joining the assembly session in Dhaka.

The astute political leader that he was, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was quite cognisant of the conspiracy afoot to deprive the people of both wings of Pakistan of their right to govern themselves. In January, both Bhutto and Yahya Khan, albeit separately, had travelled to Dhaka to confer with the Awami League leadership on the country’s political future. Bhutto’s objective was an unabashed desire on his part for the Awami League and the PPP to form a grand coalition that would administer Pakistan. He also wanted guarantees that the Awami League would modify its Six Points before power could be transferred to the elected representatives of the people.

Of course, the Awami League dismissed Bhutto’s appeals out of hand. With 167 seats in a 313-seat National Assembly, Bangabandhu and his party colleagues were fully capable of and entitled to form Pakistan’s first elected central government. Before his departure for Karachi following his meetings with Mujib, at which he had sought clarifications on the Six Points, General Yahya Khan let the media at Dhaka airport know that Bangabandhu was Pakistan’s incoming Prime Minister and would inherit the problems the country faced.

All of this was, however, set at naught by Bhutto’s moves as made public on Feb 15. To be sure, the Awami League leadership, tested through the vagaries of time and through systematic repression by the Pakistani civil-military establishment over the years, had become alert to the possible fallout of the meetings between Bhutto and Yahya Khan at the former’s estate in Larkana following their visits to Dhaka. Bhutto was upset that Mujib had been referred to as Pakistan’s future leader. For their part, Yahya Khan and the military establishment found in Bhutto’s opposition a ready means of subverting the democratic process.

Bangabandhu’s warnings on the morning of Feb 21 at the Shaheed Minar were therefore grounded in his belief that a vast conspiracy was at work to prevent the Awami League from taking power in Islamabad. More importantly, it was becoming increasingly clear that all efforts --- by the vested interests of West Pakistan --- to deny Bengalis their right to govern Pakistan were beginning to take shape in increasing patterns of intrigue.

The days ahead would be dark, Bangabandhu told the nation, for ant-Bengali conspirators were already at work. He asked Bengalis to remain in a state of alert. In the days following Ekushey 1971, with the conspiracy in Rawalpindi deepening and widening, all segments of the Bengali population made their way, hour after hour and day after day, to the Shaheed Minar to express their determination to uphold the national cause.

Even as the eventually abortive talks -- the West Pakistani establishment had made sure, with a regular influx of troops into Chattogram and Dhaka from cantonments in West Pakistan, that the machinery of ultimate repression would be in place -- went on between the Awami League and the army (Bhutto’s PPP, having arrived in Dhaka on Mar 21, was no more than a bystander), Bengalis trekked to the Shaheed Minar, vowing to free the nation of Pakistani colonialism, pledging to see an independent Bangladesh come into being.

The Central Shaheed Minar, a symbol of Bengali nationalist expressions, was one of the earliest targets of the Pakistan army on the night of Mar 25, 1971. The soldiers attacked Dhaka University, murdered academics and an uncountable number of students and blew the Shaheed Minar into rubble. The army took particular pleasure in destroying the Shaheed Minar, for throughout February and March, indeed since it had been inaugurated in 1963 by the mother of Shaheed Abul Barkat, it had been the epitome of Bengali political self-assertion.

Once the Shaheed Minar had been destroyed, Pakistan’s soldiers placed a few bricks on the ground where it once stood, marking the place out as the spot for a future mosque.

Bangabandhu’s dire warnings of impending darkness had come true.