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‘The writ of the Pakistan government quite literally ceased to run outside the military cantonments’ – Rehman Sobhan

Published in Dhaka Tribune on Saturday, 14 November 2015.

‘The writ of the Pakistan government quite literally ceased to run outside the military cantonments’

Rehman Sobhan

Right after the declaration of independence, the nation was still in turmoil

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The decision by President Yahya Khan on Mach 1, 1971 to postpone the meeting of the Constituent Assembly (CA) sine dié, in my mind, marked the watershed which constitutes the political independence of Bangladesh. The non-cooperation movement which was initiated on that day throughout Bangladesh, at the call of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, repudiated the political authority of the Pakistan government within the territory of Bangladesh. This political authority was never again restored. All subsequent attempts by the Pakistan Junta after March 26, 1971 to restore their authority were seen by the masses of Bangladesh as acts of usurpation by a foreign military occupation power.

The totality of the success realised by Bangabandhu’s call for non-cooperation immediately created a crisis for maintaining essential civic and economic services within Bangladesh. Once the entire labour force, administration and law enforcing authorities had answered Bangabandhu’s call for noncooperation the writ of the Pakistan government in Bangladesh quite literally ceased to run outside the military cantonments. This vacuum had to be filled if social life in the country was not to break down completely. Bangabandhu had, therefore, to assume both political and administrative authority throughout the country once Yahya had concurred with his local Corp Commander, General Yakub’s suggestion that the Pakistan army be withdrawn into the cantonments from March 6, 1971. From this day on Bangladesh attained self rule for the first time since the Battle of Plassey in 1757.

This unique transference of authority, outside of the perimeters of the cantonments within the boundaries of Bangladesh, from the sovereign government of a militarily ruled Pakistan to Bangabandhu, on March 6, renders contemporary political discussions on the declaration of independence both mindless and pointless. Whatever may be the date of a formal declaration of independence for Bangladesh by Bangabandhu or anyone else, the effective independence of Bangladesh could be dated from March 6, 1971 when political authority over Bangladesh was devolved on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. After this date, any move by Yahya Khan, through the deployment of military force, was deemed by all Bangladeshis as an act of armed aggression against a sovereign country. This emergence of a national consciousness among Bangladeshis was reflected in their response to the events of March 25, 1971.

Once the Pakistan government effectively surrendered its authority to Bangabandhu, a variety of economic problems of some complexity had to be resolved on a daily basis in order to keep the economy viable. Such questions as the enforcement of exchange controls on remittances to West Pakistan, the limits on the stocks of Pakistani currency arising out of the cut-off of supplies of money from the mint in Pakistan, policies towards export consignments and modes of payment, import of essentials and raw materials had to be worked out.

To address such problems, Tajuddin Ahmed and Kamal Hossian were commissioned by Bangabandhu to assume responsibility, drawing on the group of economists who had already associated themselves with Bangabandhu. The rented residence of Nurul Islam on Road 6, Dhanmondi was established as a sort of economic secretariat for the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman centred in Road 32, Dhanmondi. Kamal Hossain’s residence on Circuit House Row was the third centre of administration. Some of us met daily at Nurul Islam’s residence with some of the Bengali civil servants and bankers to review specific problems. Those consultations were then distilled into decrees or instructions which were passed on to the civil servants, business leaders, bankers and for press circulation every evening by Tajuddin Ahmed and Kamal Hossain either at Road 32 or at Kamal Hossain’s residence.

Apart from reviewing the state of the local economy, another task that devolved on the economists was to brief the international press. Every day the elite of the foreign press corp came to these sessions at Islam’s house. These well known journalists included Tilman and Peggy Durdin, and Sydney Schanberg of The New York Times, whose coverage of the liberation war had him expelled from Dhaka by the Pakistan military authorities and almost won him a Pulitzer Prize, Peter Preston later Editor, Martin Woolacot and Martin Adeney of the Guardian, Peter Hazelhurst of The Times, Simon Dring of the Daily Telegraph, Selig Harrison for the Washington Post, and Henry Bradsher of the Washington Star. All these experienced journalists had gravitated to Dhaka where the possible emergence of the independent state of Bangladesh was seen by the global media as the breaking story of the time, eclipsing the Vietnam war which had continued to dominate the news. These news hungry journalists were keen to file regular copy from Dhaka to their newspapers to keep their readers abreast of the unfolding drama in Bangladesh.

In retrospect, what was interesting and perhaps special about the Bangladesh story was the extent to which a number of these events-hardened journalists graduated beyond their search for a good story from Dhaka into making an emotional investment in Bangladesh’s struggle for liberation. Seasoned journalists such as Woolacott, Sydney Schanberg, Selig Harrisson and Simon Dring went beyond the call of professional duty in projecting the struggle of the Bangalis before their readers. I remember hearing a story in London about Nicholas Tomlain, who had been one of the luminaries at Trinity Hall when I entered the college, who had gone on to become a renowned correspondent of the Sunday Times and had made a reputation covering the Vietnam war. Tomlain, in his address to a Teach-In on Bangladesh, convened at Cambridge, had informed his audience that he had covered many major political stories including Vietnam, but none had so emotionally engaged him as had events in Bangladesh. Tomlain was eventually killed in Lebanon in the early 1980s, covering the Israeli’s military invasion.

Several of these journalists provided me with ready access to their columns when I was campaigning in London, New York and Washington, which enabled me to write about the Bangladesh struggle in the columns of the Times, Guardian and New Statesman in London and the New Republic and Nation in the United States. Some among them, in return, served as valuable conduits of information to us about what was going on in the ranks of the Pakistani ruling elite. It was Peter Hazelhurst who told me, over a cup of tea at the residence of Kamal Hossain in March 1971, that he had recently interviewed Bhutto in Larkana who contemptuously told him that this agitation in Bangladesh was a storm in a tea cup led by a few urban based politicians who knew nothing about armed struggle. A whiff of grapeshot from the army which killed and terrorised the demonstrators in Dhaka and jailed many of the leaders would lower the tempo of the agitation and create a climate for more reasonable negotiations. This piece of intelligence seemed to have a prophetic quality which Bhutto may have shared with Yahya Khan since it was this false assumption which may have contributed towards the army’s military adventure on 25 March, 1971.

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