Indomitable 23 March 1971: A mighty slap to Pakistani regime in Bangladesh

Every sphere of Bangladesh’s life transformed as a result.

by Anwar A. Khan

23 March, 1971 hit on a variety of Bangladesh’s liberation struggles from different periods and sounds to help put into perspective the depth and range of so many incredible performances that have deeply enriched our culture and lives to achieve Bangladesh.

The day was a mighty slap to Pakistani regime by the people of Bangladesh. On March 23, 1971 the so-called Pakistan Day, the Pakistani flag was not hoisted anywhere in the country except the Governor House, President House and Cantonment. Everywhere else there was the green and red flag of Bangladesh alongside a black flag as a sign of protest of the killing and mourning.

The Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Dhaka, Bangladesh. May 1, 1973 [Photo: Jack Garofalo ]

The borders of modern Bangladesh were established with the separation of Bengal and India in August 1947, when the region became East Pakistan as a part of the newly formed State of Pakistan following the end of British rule in the region. Proclamation of Bangladesh’s Independence in March 1971 led to the nine-month long Bangladesh Liberation War, that culminated with East Pakistan emerging as the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.

Every sphere of Bangladesh’s life transformed as a result.

The 1970s was a decade of the Gregorian calendar that began on January 1, 1970, and ended on December 31, 1979. It was a very significant decade in the history of Bangladesh, because this is the decade in which Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign state.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared 23 March, 1971 as a holiday. At his residence in Dhanmondi, Bangabandhu raised the Bangladesh flag, to the cheers of the crowd gathered on the road outside his gate. It was the Bangladesh flag that was displayed on his car as it wound its way through the streets and into the President’s House for a fresh round of negotiations with Pakistan’s military President Yahya Khan. The Awami League also submitted a draft of what was considered its final proposals regarding a transfer of power to the Mujib’s team on the day. General Peerzada promised to get back to the AL the next day.

A final effort to prevent the breakup of Pakistan, which was divided among the primarily Urdu-speaking West Pakistan and the majority Bengali-speaking East Pakistan, was made in the East Pakistani capital at Dhaka, where the new parliament had been scheduled to meet.

The advisors of Yahiya and Mujib met. Mujib warns against bid to impose decision: “Whatever conspiracy you indulge in you will not succeed in suppressing the demands of the people. We would not bow our heads to any force. We will free the people of Bangladesh.”

Tajuddin Ahmed, General Secretary of the-then East Pakistan Awami League, urged the people to be vigilant and to be ready to make any sacrifice to defeat the conspiracies of anti-people forces.

“The Chhatra Sangram Parishad observed 23 March as Protirodh Dibash (Defence Day) and NAP (Bhasani) as Swadheen Purba Bangla Dibash. The flag of independent Bangladesh was hoisted throughout the whole of the-then East Pakistan. The members of the Joy Bangla Bahini saluted the new flag in Dhanmondi in presence of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

NAP (Bhasani), Jatiya League, student organisations and majority political parties of the-then East Pakistan participated in the movement for establishment of an independent state. The President cancelled his scheduled speech on the occasion of National Day because of political instability. As a part of Yahya-Mujib parley, a discussion meeting was held between the discussants of Awami League and advisors of the President Gen Yahya Khan.

The Awami League representatives for discussion included Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad and Kamal Hosain, while the advisors of the President included AR Cornelius, SGM Peerzada and Colonel Hasan. On this day, the representatives of Awami League submitted the draft of the proposed constitution. The draft Constitution based on 6-point programme recommended that defence, external trade, foreign affairs, currency, citizenship, central loan, standard of weight and measurement, central asset, inter-provincial and international communication would be under the jurisdiction of the central government, and the matter beyond this inventory would be under the jurisdiction of the province. They had discussion meeting again in the evening on the economic aspects of the draft constitution.

‘The newspapers of the-then East Pakistan were quite vocal in favour of emancipation of the Bangalis during the non-cooperation movement launched by the Awami League in March 1971 against the Pakistani military junta. In accordance with the directives issued by the undisputed leader of the movement Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman through his historic speech of 7 March 1971, the newspapers of the province of East Pakistan including those run by the Pakistan Press Trust started to toe the line of Bangabandhu and his party.’

‘Consequently, after the launching of a genocide by the Pakistani military in East Bengal on the night of 25 March 1971, and subsequent declaration of Bangladesh’s independence by Bangabandhu along with commencement of the Liberation War the next day, the offices and printing presses of three leading dailies of Dhaka were destroyed by the mortar attacks of the Pakistani Army within a space of one week. These were ‘Dainik Ittefaq’, ‘Sangbad’, and ‘The People’. The offices of ‘Dainik Pakistan’, ‘Dainik Purbodesh’, ‘Morning News’, and ‘Pakistan Observer’ were also attacked and a portion of Dhaka Press Club was destroyed. Periodicals like the weeklies ‘Swaraj’ and ‘Banglar Bani’—which were quite vocal in the resistance movement—had to be closed down.’

The breakup of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh can be understood only in a wider international context of the period: decolonization, the Cold War, and incipient globalization. In a narrative populated by the likes of Nixon, Kissinger, Zhou Enlai, Indira Gandhi, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Tariq Ali, George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, and Bob Dylan, March 23, 1971 vividly portrays the stellar international cast that shaped the origins and outcome of the Bangladesh.

Looking back on the remains of the day, many of Bangladesh’s leading thinkers concur that the tidings of 1952 as well as the people involved in the affairs played a critical role in shaping and foreshadowing Bangladesh’s subsequent path to independence. “There were many language activists who were in the vanguard of the formative phase of the Language Movement, and among those, however, Shaheed (martyred) Dhirendranath Dutta’s role was seminal by any measure,”

Awami League launches a non-violent non-cooperation movement. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman rejects Yahya Khan’s proposal for a conference of political leaders.

He called a nationwide strike and launched a non-violent non-cooperation movement. The upsurge by then had spread to the other parts of the country. Everywhere the people responded to the great leader Bangabandhu’s appeal and the movement became more orderly and effective.

Bangabandhu also ordered “Continuous Strikes” – a daily shutdown from 7am to 2pm. Accordingly, everything in the country ceased functioning during those hours.

There was serious trouble in Chittagong that night when the authorities tried to unload the MV Swat which had arrived with troops and a cargo of ammunition. Dock workers spread this news. Soon thousands of people were locked in battle with West Pakistan soldiers and sailors. The trouble gained a new dimension when a unit of the East Pakistan Rifles refused to fire on Bangali demonstrators. This action gave a sharper edge to Bangali resentment.

It was in that situation that Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan flew into Dhaka. Tikka Khan was an old hand at quelling disturbances. He had already acquired the reputation of “Butcher of Baluchistan.”

After the daily strikes ended in Dhaka at 2pm meetings were held at the stadium and other places. On one occasion 341 prisoners who had broken out of Dhaka jail joined the stadium meeting on 23 March, 19711.

As the intensity of the movement was increasing so did the demand for independence.

On the other side, Yahya Khan living in the paradise of fools saw the remedy only in terms of applying greater force – a military solution for a political problem.

23 March, 1971 is a truly significant and extraordinarily rare event. You can also have a look at the year 1971, at March 23 across the years or at March 1971 calendar.

Anwar A. Khan is an independent political analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs