Last 10 days of East Pakistan II

21 March: Bhutto arrives in Dhaka

Having gained Sheikh Mujib's consent, President Yahya asked Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to come to Dhaka to resolve the dispute. Thus on 21 March 1971 Bhutto came over to Dhaka with 12 of his advisors and his own personal bodyguard armed with machine guns to hold 'talks' with Sheikh Mujib.

We arrived in Dhaka at 4.30 that afternoon. It was an emergency landing as two out of the four engines of our Boeing had failed during the course of the journey.

While flying over East Pakistan, and on seeing the green fields of Dacca when the plane was descending, I was overcome by an indescribable sensation. I could not believe that this land of ours, that these people of ours who had contributed so heroically to create Pakistan were really on the verge of breaking away. I could not imagine that 72 million of our countrymen were being severed from Pakistan. I could not believe that in the last few years so much resentment had grown that out brothers and sisters should revolt against the country for which so many had shed blood. At the time of Partition Pakistan had lost East Punjab, West Bengal and Assam. The State of Jammu and Kashmir remained in Indian hands. And now, two decades later, the fate of the most populous part of our country was in the balance.

Bhutto's sentimental view on the potential loss of East Pakistan

On arrival, Bhutto was escorted to the airport's VIP room where he was informed by Pakistani Brigadier Arbab Khan that his and the Army's stay in Dhaka had been taken over by the Awami League as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had insisted that his party would look after them. A number of taxis had been brought to the airport by the Awami League workers to escort them to the hotel. However, a Colonel suggested that as a matter of precaution it'd be safer from them to be escorted to the hotel by army personnel. And this proved to be the case.

Angry crowds of Bengalis dogged Bhutto and his team of bodyguards all the way to the Intercontinental Hotel (at the site of present-day Sheraton Hotel). He promptly established himself on the 11th floor of the plush hotel - declared a safe zone - where his armed guards of 20 soldiers patrolled the hall all the time.

On our way to the hotel we encountered a hostile reception, which looked pre-planned. In the hotel lobby the Awami League workers shouted abuses and indulged in hooliganism. For some time the lift was prevented from taking us to our rooms. When we reached our rooms, Brigadier Arbab Khan informed his headquarters of the reception given by the Awami League. Mujibur, Rahman was then told that in view of the failure of his workers to make adequate arrangements the Army was again taking charge of our stay in Dhaka.

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At 7.30 that evening, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto met President Yahya Khan at President House where Yahya informed him of the series of meetings he had held with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from the 16 - 20 March 1971.

Bhutto arrived in Dhaka on 21 March 1971 and immediately went into a meeting with Yahya Khan. The result was, once more, a sign of things about to go wrong again. The next day the PPP leader made it clear that any agreement reached between the regime and the Awami League would be subject to his party's being agreeable to it.

Irony was at work. Bhutto was proving at nearly every point that he could safely and brilliantly wreck anything that promised democratic security for the state of Pakistan.

Syed Badrul Ahsan, Journalist

On that same (21st March) day the new flag of Bangladesh was printed in papers across the province.

22 March: National Assembly session further delayed by President Yahya

On 22 March 1971 President Yahya Khan once again postponed the session of the National Assembly through a press release that was to be held tomorrow (i.e 23 March) through to 25 March. This announcement, however, did not halt the Mujib-Yahya-Bhutto dialogue and a discussion meeting was held on that day. Another separate meeting was also being held by 4 advisors of the President and 5 jurists of the Peoples' Party. This group expressed their opposition to the demand of the Awami League for the withdrawal of martial law and transfer of power before the session of the National Assembly on the plea of legal complicacy.

On this day, President Yahya also held a meeting with other leaders from West Pakistan.

The future of East Pakistan depended on a struggle among three men: West Pakistani General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan, a habitual drunk; Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a professional agitator; and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a political operator par excellence. Relying respectively on military force, street power, and pure guile, this volatile trio pursued their incompatible objectives.

Owen Bennett Jones, BBC correspondent

23 March: "Pakistan Day" becomes "Protirodh Dibosh" (Resistance Day) and "Swadhin Purba Bangla Dibosh" (Independent East Bengal Day)

March 23rd is 'Pakistan Day' as it commemorates the day in 1940 when Sher-e-Bangla A. K. Fazlul Huq presented the Lahore Resolution, which gave birth to the idea of Pakistan. In 1956 the Constitution of Pakistan was also written on this day. And now, 31-years later, in a grand act of defiance, Bengalis across the eastern province burned the Pakistani flag and pictures and effigies of Pakistan's Founding Father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Instead of the Pakistani flag being hoisted, it was the new Bangladesh flag rising from masts across East Pakistan even in the region's army headquarters.

The Awami League declared this 'Pakistan Day' as "Protirodh Dibosh" (Resistance Day), and Sheikh Mujib declared 23rd March as a holiday. At his residence in Dhanmondi, Dhaka, Sheikh Mujib raised the Bangladesh flag to the cheers of the crowd gathered on the road outside his gate. The Radio Pakistan stationed in Dhaka started to refer itself as Radio Dhaka. The Radio and Television played Rabindranath's 'Amar sonar Bangla' as the new national anthem. The Bengali youths chanted 'Joi Bangla' slogans vehemently. The day became more exciting when British High Commission and Soviet consulate hoisted new Bangladeshi flag.

Thirty-one years ago on this day the Lahore Resolution was passed calling for a separate homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent and formally demanding the sovereign State of Pakistan. After thirty-one years we were about to witness the shattering of that dream, and the edifice built upon it. On this historic day instead of a demonstration of national fervor we witnessed the hatred of Pakistanis for Pakistanis; instead of national jubilation there was grave tension; and most painful of all, instead of the Pakistan flag fluttering proudly over every house-top we saw for the first time the new flag of Bangla Desh being hoisted every where including Government buildings and public institutions. On this day instead of the militia and the Bengali youth of Pakistan parading to show the strength and power of Pakistan, we saw the local youth and newly created militia demonstrating their power by parading with weapons as the soldiers of Bangla Desh. Sheikh Mujibur. Rahman himself hoisted the Bangla Desh flag at his residence. This was a painful spectacle for those of us who were enchanted by the concept of Pakistan from the days of our youth, who had devotedly served the cause of Pakistan both at home and in foreign lands. Events were truly moving faster than time could keep pace with. Decisions had to be taken one way or the other. We were on the edge of a precipice.

Either we had to step back or step forward and fall to pieces. This was the moment of truth, the moment of reckoning. It was awesome knowing that the fate and future of our countrymen lay in three pairs of hands and that Allah in His Wisdom had made mine one of them.

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It was the Bangladesh flag that was displayed on Sheikh Mujib's car as it wound its way through the streets and into the President's House for a fresh round of negotiations with President Yahya Khan. The Awami League submitted a draft of what was considered its final proposals regarding a transfer of power to the Yahya Khan team on the day. General Peerzada promised to get back to the Awami League the next day. No such call came.

There were other ironies at work in March 1971. On Bangabandhu's birthday, 17th March, newspapers in West Pakistan went into an effusive offering of paeans to the Bengali leader for his political sagacity. That was quite a departure, given that these newspapers had always given short shrift to Mujib and his politics and had done precious little to shed light on his struggle for democracy and fair play in Pakistan.

On 23rd March, irony turned full circle when thousands of Bangladesh flags began to flutter atop homes in Dhaka and elsewhere in East Bengal. It was the day, in 1940, when the communally divisive two-nation theory had been adopted in Lahore, paving the way for the vivisection of India in August 1947. Yet only thirty one years later, with no Pakistani flags to be seen in Dhaka (except over the President's House and in the cantonment), all the signs pointed to the imminent demise of Mohammad Ali Jinnah's misconceived dream.

Imagine another, earlier irony: it was in Lahore in February 1966 that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman came forth with his Six Point plan. If Lahore 1940 was the beginning of the road to Pakistan, Lahore 1966 was a broad hint that the road had led to a gigantic, stagnant pool of bad governance, a condition that needed to be abandoned.

Syed Badrul Ahsan, journalist

25 March: Final moments before the massacre

On the second anniversary of Yahya Khan's presidency of Pakistan, 25 March 1971, he met with Bhutto and agreed that the East Pakistani situation had become critical. In a last ditch attempt to resolve the situation they met with Sheikh Mujib - but once again the negotiation proved fruitless. The meeting finished in the afternoon and Bhutto held a news conference in Dhaka to report he still was opposed to two of Mujib's six points. The Awami League for their part called a dawn till dusk hartal throughout the province on 27 March 1971 as protest for the indiscriminate firing by the army in Syedpur, Rangpur and Joydebpur. Ironically, while this was being announced, the 8 East Bengal Regiment (EBR) located in Chittagong were revolting against the Pakistan Army after objecting to the unloading of arms from the Pakistani ship 'Swat'.

Later that day, it was learnt that Yahya Khan and his generals departed the heavily fortified presidential house and had stealthily left the province for Karachi around 6 pm on a secret PIA flight, leaving behind them orders for the Army to unleash an unprecedented attack on the Bengali people.

Group Captain A.K. Khondkar (Retd. Air Vice Marshal) witnessed President Yahya Khan leave Dhaka airport under a special security arrangement on the evening of 25 March 1971 in a plane with one or two passengers. He then immediately informed the Awami League office asking them to convey the message to Sheikh Mujib. Sheikh Mujib's suspicions were already aroused, however, when he learned that the president's economic adviser had hurriedly boarded a PIA plane that morning and flown back to West Pakistan.

Faced with growing unrest, in 1969 Ayub Khan relinquished power to General Yahya Khan, another product of the British Indian army. He, too, had fought in World War II, serving in North Africa and Italy with the British Eighth Army. The Pakistan he inherited from Ayub was dissatisfied with army rule, especially in the East. Less skilled in politics than Ayub, Yahya proved a disaster for Pakistan.

In late March 1971 Yahya Khan ordered a brutal crackdown on the East that virtually guarantedd the end of the union with the West, His next move, Operation Searchlight, was a deliberated attempt to decapitate the intellectual elite of East Pakistan.

...Yahya was not only a poor leader but also one who enjoyed his liquor. The day after the war began, his aides found him "sloshed". His behaviour during the crisis was erratic, leaving his commanders in the East humiliated and defeated.

Bruce O. Riedel, author of "Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad" (2011)

Even as the talks went on, the Pakistani military junta (a junta is a government led by a committee of military leaders) was bringing more troops to Bangladesh. As soon as a message was flashed from Karachi to Dhaka that President Yahya had landed safely, the Pakistan army generals in Dhaka gave the fateful order. The signal went out to the army that it should prepare for action against the Bengalis. No sooner the talks failed, the genocide began.

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