“Urdu and Urdu alone” would be the language of the state of Pakistan. These ominous words would reverberate through the ages and set in motion a chain of events that would alter the course of history and determine the fate of millions of people.
Ignoring the language spoken by the masses, Jinnah unequivocally made it clear that Urdu would be the only state language. He stubbornly refused to acknowledge the language that was spoken by over 54% of people in Pakistan, stripping them of their Bengali identity and culture.
His words were met with resistance and there was outrage across all spectrums of society. The people of East Bengal demanded that their language be given federal status alongside Urdu and English. However their demands fell on deaf ears and the Bengali script was removed from currency and stamps, which were in place since the British Raj.
With their backs against the wall and their voices strangled, the Bengalis rose up in protest. This sparked the Language movement that reached its climax in 1952, when on 21 February, the police fired on protesting students and civilians, causing several deaths.
What began as a cultural movement in East Pakistan soon evolved into a push for regional autonomy.
Despite the fact that the fight for liberation started on March 26, 1971, the dream of a sovereign state for the people of Bengal had been taking shape for a long time.
With every discriminatory policy against the people of east Pakistan, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the political climate was heating up and that the tension between the people of east Pakistan and their oppressor, the Pakistani Army, was brewing which would boil into an unavoidable conflict for freedom and rights.
Although the population of east Pakistan was slightly greater, the political power was mostly consolidated in West Pakistan and it was widely perceived that East Pakistan was being exploited economically. There was deliberate state discrimination towards the people of east Pakistan. Bengalis were under-represented in the Pakistan military and in many parts of the administration. The administration of two discontinuous territories was also seen as a challenge.
As the tensions between East and West Pakistan intensified, the contrast between their cultural identities became more apparent. The West Pakistani population identified strongly with their Islamic belief, while the people of East Pakistan placed greater emphasis on their Bengali ethnicity, promoting a more secular, socialist, and democratic way of life.
There was a sense of alienation growing between the two regions. The East Pakistani people’s deep connection to their language and culture was a driving force behind their struggle for freedom and recognition, as they fought to preserve their unique identity in the face of oppression. The hegemony of the West Pakistani ruling elite over Pakistan, martial laws, and a demeaning attitude towards Bengali culture and the Bengali population soured relations between the two parts.
There was a disparity of wealth, development, and a lack of access to basic resources, which resulted in significant social inequality in the region.
The political crisis became even more apparent after the 1954 East Bengal legislative assembly election, in which the United Front, a coalition of political parties in East Pakistan, contested and won Pakistan’s first provincial general election. The election also brought to light the grievances of the Bengali people against the central government and the Muslim League.
The Bengali population was growing increasingly resentful of Pakistan and the exploitation that had begun in the East wing. For the next 10 years, Pakistan was under the military rule of General Ayub Khan who exploited the East wing to develop West Pakistan.
During those years, East Pakistan witnessed a significant number of protests and demonstrations against the elitist attitude and exploitation of the Bengali people.
On 6 February 1966, the opposition parties of west Pakistan convened a national convention at Lahore to ascertain the post-Taskent political trend. On February 4th, Bangabandhu and other Awami League leaders arrived in Lahore and presented the Six-point charter of demand as the demands of the people of East Pakistan.
However, the proposal was rejected by the subject committee, and the newspapers of West Pakistan labeled Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as a separatist. The Ayub government presented Sheikh Mujib as a separatist and eventually filed the Agartala conspiracy case against him. He was arrested and placed on trial.
The case caused significant unrest in East Pakistan, which culminated in the early 1969 mass uprising.
On February 22, 1969, the government finally gave in to public pressure and released him without conditions.
However, the situation escalated to new heights of tension in December 1970. The Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, had won a landslide victory, securing a clear majority of seats in the National Assembly, with 167 out of 169 seats allotted to East Pakistan.
Even though this gave the Awami League the constitutional right to form a government, the Pakistan People’s Party conspired against Mujib from becoming the PM of Pakistan and barred the Awami League to form the government.
Instead of inviting Awami League to form the government, Yahya Khan, the President of Pakistan, postponed the session of the National Assembly on 1 March 1971 for an indefinite period.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, proposed the idea of having two Prime Ministers, one for each wing. This proposal enraged the mass of east Bengal who was already outraged about the oppression by the Pakistani army.
Bhutto also refused to accept the Six Points laid out by Sheikh Mujiur Rahman. But the tide was turning against him, as the people’s discontent boiled over into a full-blown uprising.
Sensing the pulse of the masses and their growing agitation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman boldly called for a strike in Dhaka on 2 March and across all of East Pakistan on 3 March. This was the beginning of the non-cooperation movement declared by Bongobondhu against the ignorant attitude of the military junta, to establish the rights of the people of east Bengal and the transfer of power on the basis of election.
On 7 March 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman delivered a historic speech at the Racecourse Ground. He addressed the nation and talked about the political unrest and turmoil that had gripped East Pakistan. He highlighted the tyranny of the Pakistani Military and the oppressive behavior of the Military backed government.
In his speech, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman outlined the grievances of the Bengali people and reiterated the six-point demand for greater autonomy for East Pakistan. The six points were:
- The creation of a federation of Pakistan, with a parliamentary form of government based on the principle of one person, one vote.
- The division of the country’s resources on an equitable basis, with the provinces having control over their own resources.
- The end of discrimination against East Pakistanis in government jobs and military appointments.
- The withdrawal of the military from civilian areas.
- The release of all political prisoners.
- The establishment of a neutral and non-partisan caretaker government to oversee the next election.
Bongobondhu also asked for the immediate withdrawal of all military personnel to their barracks and the lifting of martial law. He also demanded an inquiry into the loss of life and an immediate transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people, before the assembly meeting on 25 March. He concluded his speech with the powerful remark
এবারের সংগ্রাম মুক্তির সংগ্রাম এবারের সংগ্রাম স্বাধীনতার সংগ্রাম,
Fearing the agitation and the protest from the people of east Pakistan, General Yahya Khan, with the help of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and other top military officers, hatched a plan to crush the Bengali Nationalist movement once and for all.
And so, on the night of March 25, 1971, the Pakistan Army launched a brutal military operation in all major cities of East Pakistan. The operation, which lasted for weeks, resulted in the deaths of countless civilians.
The intention was to crush the Bengali Nationalist movement and seize control of East Pakistan. To achieve this goal, the operation targeted prominent Awami League leaders, student activists, and Bengali intellectuals in major cities, including Dhaka.
The military aimed to disarm Bangali personnel serving in the military, paramilitary, and police forces and take control of key infrastructure such as armories, radio stations, and telephone exchanges.
General Yahya was hellbent to stop the protest at any cost.
Following these incidents, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signed an official declaration that read:
Today Bangladesh is a sovereign and independent country. On Thursday night, West Pakistani armed forces suddenly attacked the police barracks at Razarbagh and the EPR headquarters at Pilkhana in Dacca. Many innocent and unarmed have been killed in Dhaka city and other places of Bangladesh. Violent clashes between E.P.R. and Police on the one hand and the armed forces of Pakistan on the other, are going on. The Bengalis are fighting the enemy with great courage for an independent Bangladesh. May Allah aid us in our fight for freedom. Joy Bangla
Sheikh Mujib also called upon the people to resist the occupation forces through a radio message. Rahman was arrested on the night of 25–26 March 1971 at about 1:30 am.
The nine month long conflict that ensued after that fateful night was a period of unimaginable suffering and anguish. The Pakistani army continued its reign of terror, unleashing unspeakable atrocities upon the innocent Bengalis.
The death toll rose steadily, with estimates ranging from 300,000 to a staggering 3 million people. The streets were littered with the bodies of the dead, as families mourned the loss of their loved ones.
But the horror didn’t end there. Hundreds of thousands of women were subjected to the most heinous crimes imaginable, raped and tortured by the soldiers who were supposed to protect them.
The Bengalis were left to fend for themselves, with no help from the outside world. The stain of this conflict will never be rubbed off, a permanent reminder of the unspeakable cruelty of those who wielded power.
The name Pakistan will forever be synonymous with oppression and tyranny, the ignominy of an orchestrated genocide will haunt the nation for generations to come.
The scars of this conflict run deep, and the wounds will never fully heal. The Bangalis will always carry the burden of this tragedy, a burden that they never asked for, but one that they have been forced to bear.