When I reported on posting to Major General (later Lieutenant General) K.K. Singh, then Director of Military operations, on 12 March 1971, as his deputy, he said in his characteristic man-of-few-words style: “Events are moving fast. It is better that you get into the picture fast.” K.K. had over the years earned the reputation of being a military thinker and man of vision. Whatever he said, one always pondered over every word, for it had much deeper meaning than normal in a casual conversation. K.K. was never casual.
Events were indeed moving fast. In East Pakistan, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had raised a cry for rebellion against President Yahya Khan’s deliberate attempt to retard the democratic processes by indefinite postponement of convening the National Assembly of Pakistan. On 1 March 1971, Mujib called a general strike for the following day and a half-day strike the rest of the week, shuttering offices, shops and factories, and halting trains, buses and planes.1
The infuriated Bengalis rallied around Mujib and the functions of government in the eastern-province came to a halt.
The infuriated Bengalis rallied around Mujib and the functions of government in the eastern-province came to a halt. The offices of the central and provincial governments and of semi-government agencies closed their doors.2 2 Radio Pakistan gave accounts of militant students and agitated crowds taking the law into their own hands and indulging in the open plunder of non-Bengali property and killing of non-Bengalis.
This was an outburst of the simmering discontent that had engulfed the eastern wing of Pakistan under the “neocolonialism” perpetrated by successive military dictatorships. Except for religion, there was nothing common between the two wings. The Bengalis’ language, their culture, their dress, their food habits, and their very way of life was different from that of the West Pakistani. Even the economies of the two wings had a different basis, and the west, having held political sway from the formation of Pakistan, had exploited the eastern wing’s economic resources for the benefit of the western wing. Although jute and tea grown in East Pakistan earned most of the country’s foreign exchange, the major portion of it was used to develop the western wing. The more populous East Pakistan was denied protection from floods and cyclones which brought periodic devastation of life and property in their wake.3
Under the tyranny of partisan rule, the politically conscious Bengali had raised a protest in the person of Mujibur Rahman and his six-point programme demanding autonomy for the eastern wing.4 To suppress the voice of dissent, he was tried for conspiracy,5 and India was blamed for allegedly aiding and abetting treason, the rulers in Islamabad little realising that the happenings in East Pakistan were a manifestation of their own misdeeds. The clear mandate Mujib won in the 1970 general elections brought Bengali aspirations—at least so they thought—to the threshold of self-rule. Instead, they found they were being thwarted initially by political manoeuvring between Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Mujib, and later by the threat of being crushed under the heel of the military jackboot. Unable to bear injustice any longer, the Bengalis took to the streets to seek a solution for their continued oppression.
To suppress the voice of dissent, he was tried for conspiracy,5 and India was blamed for allegedly aiding and abetting treason, the rulers in Islamabad little realising that the happenings in East Pakistan were a manifestation of their own misdeeds.
By 3 March 1971, Mujib’s writ ran wide in East Pakistan. After the imposition of curfew in Dacca on 2 March,6 units of the Pakistan Army moved into the city and resorted to firing on the demonstrators. This caused some casualties, which further inflamed Bengali passions. The wounded were displayed at a public meeting addressed by Mujib. In his speech, he asked the army to go back to its barracks. In case the troops did not comply with this demand, he threatened that the people would have no alternative to offering resistance. The troops were promptly withdrawn7 by the well-meaning Lt Gen Sahabzada Yakub Khan, who had been appointed Governor and Martial Law Administrator a little earlier.8 This was a clear demonstration of Mujib’s power, derived from the people’s mandate, against the repressive policies of West Pakistan’s military dictatorship and was hailed as a popular victory.