Bangabandhu and the declaration of independence

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Published on October 27, 2020
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Introduction: The controversy over independence declaration

The unhealthy controversy over the declaration of Bangladesh independence is still nagging the nation about four decades after the War of Independence in 1971. We have grown weary of listening to the parade of the same old debate on Mujib- Zia dichotomy, especially on the independence issue. Some people still keep harping on the same old tune that Zia declared the Independence of Bangladesh after Bangabandhu was taken prisoner by the Pakistan occupation army on the fateful night of 25 March 1971. The campaign reached such levels of intensity that Zia was claimed to be the proclaimer of independence and even the first President of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. We have had enough of hearing this type of claim by the blind Zia devotees and the fanatical Mujib-bashers. Nothing could be further from the historical truth than what they do. The stature of Bangabandhu is insurmountable. Never shall Zia be compared with Bangabandhu. This is history - not a matter of mere speculation and can jolly well be evidenced by hard facts.

Hard facts about the declaration of Independence:

As far as history is concerned, nobody was worthy of declaring the independence of Bangladesh except for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. And all other attempts made in this regard from Maulana Bhashani to General Zia proved futile and hence did not go down in the annals of Bangladesh’s independence history. As a matter of fact, Bangabandhu’s 7 March (1971) Speech at Ramna Racecourse ground (now Suhrawardy Udyan) where he mentioned “The struggle this time is a struggle for emancipation, the struggle this time is a struggle for independence,” has all its good points to be considered as the de facto declaration of Bangladesh’s independence. Bangabandhu in his 18 minute long impromptu rabble-rousing speech called on the freedom-loving people to wage the final struggle against the Pakistani junta. The speech gave a clear indication that the nation should be ready to go to the war of resistance the moment they are attacked. Bangabandhu himself formally declared the independence by leaving two messages-- one at the late hours of the fateful night of 25 March and the other at the early hours of 26, 1971.

The first message:

The first message was a pre-recorded message which was transmitted just 30 minutes after the crackdown called ‘the Operation Searchlight’ by the Pakistan Occupation Army was launched at 11.00 pm on 25 March 1971. The message reads: “THIS MAY BE MY LAST MESSAGE, FROM TODAY BANGLADESH IS INDEPENDENT. I CALL UPON THE PEOPLE OF BANGLADESH WHEREVER YOU MIGHT BE AND WITH WHATEVER YOU HAVE, TO RESIST THE ARMY OF OCCUPATION TO THE LAST. YOUR FIGHT MUST GO ON UNTIL THE LAST SOLDIER OF THE PAKISTAN OCCUPATION ARMY IS EXPELLED FROM THE SOIL OF BANGLADESH AND FINAL VICTORY IS ACHIEVED.”

The message was on the air from a handy little transmitter purposely set up in the Baldha Garden targeting at the foreign journalists and diplomats who were the listeners to Radio Pakistan Dacca. The London Daily Telegraph correspondent David Loshak, then in Dhaka on duty, was one who listened to the declaration and upon return to London wrote a book called Pakistan Crisis, which refers to the harrowing incidents of Yahya Khan's unprovoked repression of the innocent East Pakistani people and Bangabandhu’s declaration of Bangladesh’s independence urging people to put up a strong resistance. Tikka Khan, the first chief of staff of the Pakistan Army in 1972, mentioned the declaration by Bangabandhu in an interview with Musa Sadik, the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra war correspondent and journalist Rezaur Rahman, during the SAARC summit in Pakistan in 1988. Musa Sadik also mentions that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971, Sir Edward Heath, in a written statement said, "On 26 March, 1971 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared the independence of Bangladesh and named the newly sovereign country as the People's Republic of Bangladesh." Besides, the Indian Foreign Ministry published some Bangladesh documents which too testify to the authenticity of Bangabandhu’s declaration.

The second message:

The second message reads: "Message to the people of Bangladesh and the people of the world. Rajarbagh Police Camp and Peelkhana EPR suddenly attacked by Pak Army at 2400 hours. Thousands of people killed. Fierce fighting going on. Appeal to the world for help in the struggle for freedom. Resist by all means. May Allah be with you. Joy Bangla." The message was transmitted by the EPR wirelesses throughout the country at around 1.30 am. S. A. Karim, who served as a diplomat in the early years of independent Bangladesh and was witness to many of the dramatic events unfolding before his eyes, referred to the second message in his book ‘Sheikh Mujib: Triumph and Tragedy’. He mentions that the wife of M R Siddiqi was given an urgent message over the telephone from Bangabandhu received through the wireless operators of Chittagong. This message from Bangabandhu was then taken as the declaration of independence, which was read out by M.A. Hannan, General Secretary of Chittagong District Awami League at 2:30 pm. On this basis, March 26 was recognized as the Independence Day of Bangladesh.

The ratification of the declaration:

‘The Proclamation of Independence’ made on 10 April 1971, by 403 members of the Constituent Assembly, jointly made up of the members of the National Assembly( MNA) and the Provincial Assembly (MPA), duly ratified the declaration of independence by Bangabandhu. In the light of the Proclamation was formed the first government of independent Bangladesh (The Mujibnagar Government) with Bangabandhu as the president. The sixth section of that Proclamation reads, “Whereas in the facts and circumstances of such treacherous conduct (the crackdown on 25 March night by Pakistan occupation army) Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the undisputed leader of the 75 million people of Bangladesh, in due fulfilment of the legitimate right of self-determination of the people of Bangladesh, duly made a declaration of independence at Dacca on 26 March 1971, and urged the people of Bangladesh to defend the honour and integrity of Bangladesh...”. Again, in Section 10, Bangabandhu's declaration of independence is confirmed: "We the elected representatives of the people of Bangladesh... thereby confirm the Declaration of Independence already made by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman". The Proclamation also determined the date of its being effective “from 26th day of March 1971,” which bears the stamp of the authenticity of Bangabandhu’s declaration.

The fallacy of Zia’s declaration:

The declaration of independence allegedly made by Major Ziaur Rahman took place on the following days (March 27 and 28, 1971). As a matter of fact, he made two statements. In the first one, while he claimed himself as the President of Bangladesh, there grew huge confusion among the people about who he was to declare himself as the president. Sensing that the statement may be construed as a coup, AK Khan drafted a second statement pledging full allegiance to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. To avoid controversy surrounding Zia’s first statement, the Awami League leaders ( the then Chittagong District Awami League Secretary, M A Hannan, MPA, Mosharraf Hossain et al.) asked Zia to read out the text prepared by AK Khan. Zia complied with it and read out the prepared draft at the Kalurghat Transmitter Centre on the morning of 28th March 1971, where he categorically mentioned that he was speaking on behalf of the Great National Leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. All that Zia did was just read out a declaration note prepared by others on behalf of Bangabandhu. This is based on hard facts, and the reading out of the declaration note of March 28 could not be considered as the formal declaration of the Independence of Bangladesh, which was actually made on March 26, 1971 by the right man. There is as such no room for fabrication in these distinct facts.

Zia's second speech, however, had an effect among the fighting men and the civil population. But it was more to the credit of an ex-officio army official than to the credit of Zia, the very person. It was an on the spot demand which Zia happened to meet. If some other army officials, say, another major or a colonel or the like, were in Zia’s shoes, the effect would have been the same. The freedom-loving people across the country were bursting to get the command of their supreme leader, not of one of the thousands of army officials. A great many from among the army officers could have easily substituted for Zia, but there was no substitute for Bangabandhu. Moreover, March 28 was not declared ‘the Independence Day' on the basis of the Major's so-called declaration, which is, in reality, reading out of a drafted statement.

So, there is no logic to the claim that Zia declared the independence of Bangladesh. Besides his role as a freedom fighter too paled into insignificance as he became the main beneficiary of Bangabandhu killing and turned instrumental in rehabilitating the anti-liberation forces in the post August tragedy Bangladesh. And hence he was accused of applying a double standard in dealing with the people and politics of Bangladesh and his role in the Liberation War smacks of controversy.

The origin of Zia’s declaration myth:

The story of Zia’s independence declaration was a weird story manufactured and spread by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) men in order to place their leader on an equal footing with Bangabandhu by adding extra credit to Zia's record on the Liberation War (1971) and subtracting some of Bangabandhu. It is alleged that this grotesque idea of 'plus-minus' was the brainchild of the notorious collaborator Shah Azizur Rahman, who, after the death of Zia, spun a weird tale of Zia being the real man behind the Liberation War, who ‘Azizur alleges, substituted for Bangabandhu during wartime by declaring independence of Bangladesh. Aziz did this Machiavellian manipulation to feed people the woven narrative of Zia's independence declaration. He tried to make a mountain of wild fancy out of a molehill of facts. However, Zia never staked out his claim on the declaration of independence during his lifetime. Rather he made an overt display of his allegiance to Bangabandhu by writing an essay titled “The birth of a nation” which was published in the Weekly Bichitra, in 1972. Muntassir Mamoon in his book Bangabandhu, 7th March and Bangladesh provides proof of Zia’s loyalty to Bangabandhu by quoting him on his accepting Bangabandhu’s 7th March speech as a ‘green signal’ for a liberation war.

The politics of reconciliation:

The Khaleda-Nizami Alliance Government (2001-2006), on their assumption of the office in 2001, poked around some settled matters of the history of independence. They came up with a conciliatory gesture of equalizing the contribution of Bangabandhu and Zia to our Independence War. They tried to make these two persons, polar opposite of each other, stand together in uncomfortable proximity. We were surprised to see how hurriedly amidst thunderous applause, the Preservation and Display of Portrait of the Father of the Nation (Repeal) Bill, 2002, was passed in the Parliament. Not only that, they proposed to make further acts for preserving and displaying the pictures of both the leaders side by side on the same wall in the office. The BNP government realized that they could benefit much out of this process of equalization. 
They knew it full well that without using the image of a political idol, a political party is left completely destitute. BNP does not have a political idol like Bangabandhu of Awami League. Zia was never a person of Bangabandhu 's height, or was he no match for Bangabandhu at politics. He may be as important as one of the eleven sector commanders or one of the sixty-eight Bir Uttam. BNP knew it very well that taking such a disputed person as a guiding ideology, they could not go much further. Therefore, they needed to place Zia on the pedestal by way of constantly belittling Bangabandhu 's achievements. And to this end, they tried to distort the history of the independence declaration, where he had a chance to play the second fiddle. Some opportunist intellectuals joined hands with the politics of reconciliation and sang Zia’s praises quite deliberately and irrationally. They manufactured unique facts and anecdotes on the declaration of independence and BNP is trotting out the same old cliché. It sounds as if everything of our Independence depended on that declaration. If Zia had not declared it, it would not have been achieved at all. They try to argue over the matter in such a way that the birth of Bangladesh was based only on an oral declaration. It is so ridiculous that if Zia himself had lived until now, he would sure have stopped this nuisance. The eminent writer Humayun Azad made a very interesting comparison between Bangabandhu and Zia. In his words, “Compared to Bangabandhu, his predecessors were only mediocre and his successors were inconsiderable and ridiculous.” Professor Azad had pointed his accusing finger at Zia as a successor to Bangabandhu in the politics of Bangladesh. The good professor told the truth of the matter. The equation of Bangabandhu with Zia is an uneasy mix of patriotism and treachery.

Bangabandhu’s singularity:

So far as our struggle for independence is concerned, Bangabandhu earned a place unsurpassed in the history of Bangladesh. In our thousand-year old history, Bangabandhu is the most luminous star. Since 1952 to 1971—in the vast background of the making of a nation-state—Bangabandhu emerged as a paramount leader with the biggest responsibility, best ability and brightest success. Bangabandhu could be replaced by none. On 7 March, the whole nation was prepared to listen to nobody else’s speech; on 25 March, the occupation army thought of arresting nobody else; the world conscience pressurized the then Pakistan Government into releasing nobody else; nobody else was made the war-time President of the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh in absentia; nobody else was given the rousing reception upon his historic homecoming on 10 January 1972; and nobody else was entrusted with the responsibility of reconstructing the war-ravaged nation. It was Bangabandhu and only Bangabandhu who was the protagonist of the whole play. If the total credit of the Liberation War had depended on the reading out of a drafted statement, Zia needn’t have to seize power at the cost of the life of the Father of the Nation. 
Conclusion: The settlement of declaration dispute

The permanent settlement of the declaration dispute lies in accepting real histories and negating the fake and fabricated ones. The great English novelist and essayist George Orwell urged caution that ‘[t]he most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history’, by way of misrepresenting/misinterpreting/ distorting the truth which is too, sort of, an ‘epistemic violence’ perpetrated by vested interests. The history of the declaration of Bangladesh’s independence has long been a victim of this ‘epistemic violence’ perpetrated by the hired hands of the anti-liberation force in the ascendency.

So, the contributions of Bangabandhu and Zia to the declaration of independence should be evaluated in an unbiased manner by means of scientific objectivity, not by deliberate misrepresentation or fabrication of the facts. If we take a calm, dispassionate view of the history of Independence, we would see Bangabandhu was pre eminent among the leaders of his day and beyond. Zia can be compared to many in his own country, but Bangabandhu to a very few in the globe. He bears comparison with the world leaders like-- Abraham Lincoln of America, Vladimir Lenin of Russia, Winston Churchill of England, De Gaulle of France, Mao-Tse-Tung of China, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, Sukarno of Indonesia, Kamal Ataturk of Turkey, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Jomo Keneyatta of Kenya, Ben Bella of Algeria, Fidel Castro of Cuba, and Mahatma Gandhi of India. This is what history is, and it defies all distortion at the end of the day.

Books and references: cited and consulted

1. Rahman, Sheikh Mujibur. The Unfinished Memoirs. Trans. Dr. Fakrul Alam. The University Press Limited.2012.
2. Rahman, Sheikh Mujibur. Prison Diaries. Trans. Dr. Fakrul Alam. Bangla Academy, 2018. 
3. Hafizur Rahman, Hasan Ed. Bangladesh Liberation War Documents. Vol. 15. (Reprint 2010). 
4. F. Field, Jacob. We Shall Fight on the Beaches. The Speeches that Inspired History. Michael O’ Mara Books Ltd. London 2013. 
5. Chowdhury, G.W. The Last days of United Pakisan. First published by Indian University Press, Karachi 1974.
6. Mamoon, Muntassir. Trans. Tito Chowdhury. Bangabandhu. 7th March and Bangladesh. Journeyman, 2017.
7. Musa Sadik. ‘Declaration of independence and war strategy of Bangabandhu’. The Independent. March 24, 2018.
8. S. A. Karim. Mujib: Triumph and Tragedy. The University Press Limited. Revised edition (2009). 
9. Hossain, Dr. Mohammad Jahangir et al. Ed. Bangabandhur Bhashon ( Speechs Delivered by Bangabandhu), Departments of Films and Publications, 2012.
10. Khan Shazzad. ‘Declaration of Independence by Bangabandhu’. The Daily Sun, 15 December, 2018. 
11. Ahsan, Syed Badrul. From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Niyogi Books. New Delhi 2014.
12. Matin, Abdul. Tribute to Bangabandhu and Other Essays. 2012.
13. Askari, Rashid. The Wounded Land: Peoples, Politics, Culture, Literature, Liberation War, War Crimes, and Militancy in Bangladesh. Pathak Shamabesh 2010.

Writer: Former Vice-Chancellor of Islamic University, Bangladesh