Declaration of Independence - the birth of "Bangladesh"
The violence unleashed by the Pakistani forces on 25/26 March 1971 diminished all hope of reconciliation and proved the last straw to the efforts to negotiate a settlement. Following these outrages the Bangladesh Declaration of Independence was announced few hours later on that very same day, 26 March 1971.
Controversy regarding declaration
The first person to give this declaration of independence is open to debate. In a 30+ year tug-of-war by Awami League and Bangladesh National Party (BNP) the historical account of this event have been 'corrected' on numerous occasion to reflect the role of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman respectively. The place of the two leaders in the nation’s history remains a deeply sensitive subject in Bangladesh.
Since 1991, textbooks have been subject to alterations by governments led alternately by Ziaur Rahman’s widow, Khaleda Zia, and Sheikh Mujib’s eldest daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed. The two women are bitter rivals and lead the country’s two main political parties Awami League and BNP respectively.
View #1: Sheikh Mujib gave the Declaration of Independence
Advocates of Sheikh Mujib as the original declarer of independence believe that Sheikh Mujib wrote the declaration as a response to any treacherous suppressive move by the Pakistani junta led by President Yahya Khan. The government had issued a Legal Framework Order (LFO) on 30 March 1970 and President Yahya had promised full autonomy to East Pakistan once this LFO was formulated.
As part of his back-up plan Sheikh Mujib pre-recorded message ready for transmission as a counteraction against any form of possible crackdown. After the Pakistani Army began their onslaught in Operation Searchlight, this pre-recorded message went on air around 11.30pm (of 25 March 1971) for a couple of times from a handy transmitter, purposefully set up at Boldha Garden.
Many people in Dhaka heard this message because it was cleverly transmitted on the frequency very close to Radio Pakistan Dhaka. The purpose of this transmission was to inform the foreign journalists and diplomats, listening naturally to Radio Pakistan Dhaka, about the compelling action of declaring independence against the crackdown by Pakistani army.
This may be my last message. From today Bangla Desh is independent. I call upon the people of Bangla Desh, wherever you are 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 Bangla Desh and final victory is achieved.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's first attempt at declaring independence
Sheikh Mujib also dictated a second message of declaration of war between 12:00am and 1:30am on 26 March 1971. The dictation was given, among others, to Dr Muzharul Islam, Col (retired) Osmani and Tajuddin Ahmed. After the pre-recorded message was transmitted this second message was also given to East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) for transmission all-over the country as well.
Pakistan Army suddenly attacked EPR (East Pakistan Rifles) base at Pilkhana, Rajarbagh Police Line and killing citizens. Street battles are going on in every street of Dhaka and Chittagong. I appeal to the Nations of the World for help. Our freedom fighters are gallantly fighting with the enemies to free the motherland. I appeal and order you all in the name of Almighty Allah to fight to the last drop of blood to liberate the country. Ask police, EPR, Bengal regiment and Ansar to stand by you and to fight. No compromise. Victory is ours. Drive out the last enemy from the holy soil of motherland. Convey the message to all Awami League leaders, workers and other patriots and lovers of freedom.
May Allah bless you. Joi Bangla.
Sheikh Mujib's second Declaration of Independence
Tajuddin came to my residence for shelter in that terrible night. It was, most probably, 12:45am (26th March). With great concern Tajuddin told me about two serious events: 1. Bangabandhu has officially declared the independence of Bangladesh and sent it to Chittagong and other districts via wireless; 2. I (Tajuddin Ahmad) implored him (Bangabandhu), holding his knees, to leave his residence and hide out, but he did not agree.
Abdul Gafur , Engineer Bangladesh Railway
Since the telecommunication system was not very efficient during those days, some parts of the country received the first message while other parts received the second one. Some had even received both. And while Sheikh Mujib had given his messages and instruction late night of 25 March 1971 the general public all-over the country had received this declaration on the next day, 26 March 1971 - hence the reason, these advocate argue, that 26 March 1971 is celebrated in Bangladesh as Swadhinata Dibosh (Independence Day).
They go on to say that upon receiving Sheikh Mujib's telegram in his Chotrogram (Chittagong) base, M A Hannan, general secretary of Chotrogram Awami League and a leading figure at that time, manage to switch on Chittagong Radio briefly and broadcast the content of the message nationwide in English. He was the first person to do so on behalf of Sheikh Mujib at 2.30pm on 26 March 1971. This was followed by similar repeated broadcasts quoting "Bangabandhu’s declaration in Dacca" by the initiators of Swadhin Bangla Biplobi Betar Kendra from Kalurghat (one of the initiators was Abul Kashem Sandwip).
As far as I know, it was Hannan Bhai's voice the people heard first of all on Chittagong Radio. It could be at about two in the afternoon on 26 March 1971. But, since the transmission machinery was of a very low capacity, the entire countrymen couldn't hear that voice. Therefore, if asked as to whose rebellious voice was first heard on radio then I will say that voice was of Hannan Bhai.
Yet it is true that on the next day, that is, on 27th March '71 the war of liberation took a crucial turn after Major Zia's declaration was broadcast.
Lt. General (Rtd) Mir Shawkat Ali, Bir Uttam & Sector 5 (Sylhet) Commander
However, there are others who say that the telegram reached students in Chotrogram in early hours of 26 March 1971 and Dr. Manjula Anwar had translated it from English into Bangla. Failing secure permission from higher authorities to broadcast the message from the nearby Agrabad Station of Radio Pakistan they crossed Kalurghat Bridge and travelled up north to Kalurghat which was manned by jawans of East Bengal Regiment under Major Ziaur Rahman. There they founded the small clandestine radio station 'Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro' (Free Bengal Radio Station), which was guarded outside by Bengali soldiers whilst engineers prepared it for transmission. The first person to broadcast that "Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has declared the 75 million people of East Pakistan as citizens of the sovereign independent Bangla Desh" in English was Ashikul Islam, a WAPDA engineer, and in Dr. Manjula Anwar's Bengali version was Abul Kashem Sandwip. Later in the evening M. A. Hannan also broadcast the declaration from the telegram in a speech.
In both version they admit that very few people heard it and it was Major Ziaur Rahman's declaration on 27 March 1971 which had maximum exposure and impact.
- M. A. Hannan ()
- Dr. Manjula Anwar ()
- Ashikul Islam ()
- Abul Kashem Sandwip ()
Almost all the leading global press and broadcast media including those of India quoted these declarations on the 26th and 27th March.
Anil Bhattacharjiya of PTI was the man who picked up the announcement of these messages and reported to Gouhati news media. From there Akashbani, BBC and other news and press media came to know about the declaration and broadcast its contents in their news items or printed in their newspapers. Moreover, one Japanese ship anchored midstream of Chittagong harbour also caught the message possibly from Shitakund wireless station and informed the foreign countries about the declaration. Radio Australia was the one to pick up the declaration and broadcast over the radio. Australian newspapers also covered the news of Bangabandhu’s declaration of independence.
On the following day in the 27th March issue the Statesman of India published the news that after the crackdown by the Pakistani forces Sheikh Mujib declared Bangla Desh as Democratic Republic.
Shazzad Khan, Blogger
Explaining Ziaur Rahman's involvement, they say, that the Major was requested by Belal Mohammad, one of the initiators of Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra, to declare the independence of Bangladesh on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in order to 'increase the impact of the declaration'. He readily agreed, but instead of reading Sheikh Mujib's circular as it was written, he drafted a version of it and announced the declaration on the radio at 7.30pm on 27 March 1971 - at least 40 hours after the declaration by Sheikh Mujib and the start of mass resistance by common people and Bengali armed forces.
This is Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro. I, Major Ziaur Rahman, at the direction of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, hereby declare that the independent People's Republic of Bangladesh has been established. At his direction, I have taken command as the temporary Head of the Republic. In the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, I call upon all Bengalis to rise against the attack by the West Pakistani Army. We shall fight to the last to free our Motherland. By the grace of Allah, victory is ours. Joy Bangla.
Ziaur Rahman's alleged Declaration of Independence on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Major Zia, Provisional Commander-in-Chief of the Bangladesh Liberation Army, hereby proclaims, on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the independence of Bangladesh. I also declare, we have already framed a sovereign, legal government under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which pledges to function as per law and the Constitution. The new democratic government is committed to a policy of non-alignment in international relations. It will seek friendship with all nations and strive for international peace. I appeal to all governments to mobilise public opinion in their respective countries against the brutal genocide in Bangladesh. The government under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is sovereign legal Government of Bangladesh and is entitled to recognition from all democratic nations of the world.
Another version of Ziaur Rahman's alleged Declaration of Independence
After this declaration, Ziaur Rahman's name appeared in several Indian newspapers on the following day, 28 March 1971, which reported a Major "Zia Khan" (misidentifying Ziaur Rahman) had broadcasted a declaration announcement and identified him as "Chief of the Liberation Army of Bangla Desh".
Another fact that Sheikh Mujib supporters point to is that the declaration controversy never existed during the time of Ziaur Rahman. During his lifetime Ziaur Rahman never claimed that he was the first to declare independence of Bangladesh - and even included Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's first declaration in the 15 volumes of Muktijuddho historical account called "Ekti Jatir Jonmo (Birth of a Nation)" published under his own initiative.
Please find his statement in the 15 volumes of historical accounts, which Ziaur Rahman himself took very sincere initiative to compile and publish. I do not know how people with political interest evaluate Ziaur Rahman about his honesty to the liberation war, but his sincere and uncompromising efforts for the compilation and publication of the 15-volume historical accounts of our liberation war has truly made him an adorer of independence.
Moreover, in front of President Ziaur Rahman nobody ever said or dared to say that the then Major Ziaur Rahman was the first to declare independence in 1971. The reason was that Ziaur Rahman had very strong personality as an army officer and was uncompromising in his personal life about speaking the truth. He strongly disliked people flattering him and that is why the vested interest group of today had no access to him in his lifetime in regard to the declaration of independence issue.
Shazzad Khan, Blogger
View #2: Ziaur Rahman gave the Declaration of Independence
Advocates of Major Ziaur Rahman as the original Swadhinata Ghoshok (Declarer of Independence) maintain that there was no message regarding declaration of independence from Sheikh Mujib and it was Ziaur Rahman who made the declaration on 26 March 1971 on his own accord.
Major Ziaur Rahman - only 35-year-old at the time - led the 8th East Bengal Regiment of Chittagong which was made up of defect Bengali soldiers of Pakistan Army, and controlled the Kalurghat Bridge area, 3 miles north-east of Chittagong. Whilst his soldiers guarded the station, Ziaur Rahman made the declaration via the Kalurghat Radio Station. However, the station's transmission capability was limited, but, the message was still picked up by a Japanese ship in Bay of Bengal. It was then re-transmitted by Radio Australia and later by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation).
There were spontaneous uprisings throughout Bangladesh following the call of independence. These uprisings were participated by government officials, political activists, students, workers, peasants, professionals and members of the public. After initial resistance, many freedom fighters crossed over into Indian territory to have safe sanctuary, due mainly to the enemy's overwhelming superiority of trained soldiers and modern weapons. The scattered and temporarily retreating liberation forces were soon brought under a unified command.
Sheikh Mujib’s 7 March 1971 speech was a very powerful message to West Pakistan, but was it a precise declaration of the independence of Bangladesh? Certainly, it wasn’t. That’s why his statement was quite vague and was not the declaration of the independence of Bangladesh. Zia finished Bongabondhu’s unfinished mission with the precise declaration.
The martyr Zia not only accomplished the precise declaration of Bangladesh but also led the war until our glorious victory. Talking about something and doing something are not the same.
The bare facts are these: On April 10, 1971, the Provisional Government of Bangladesh at Mujibnagar proclaimed independence by confirming an earlier declaration, issued on March 26, by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; on March 27, Major Ziaur Rahman of the East Bengal Regiment declared independence on radio at Swadhin Bangla Betarkendra, in Kalurghat, Chittagong. At the time, these statements did not appear as being competitive, nor did they express partisan oppositions. Both emerged in a complex political history that included numerous other declarations of independence, in various idioms, whose implications remain intriguing subjects for research, debate and interpretation.
Later in the 1970s, however, politics in Bangladesh produced starkly opposed attachments to declarations by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and then General Ziaur Rahman, respectively. Ever since, the question of who declared independence has been trapped in partisan agendas that demand a choice between two dates, two declarations, and two authors, each associated, respectively, with one of two political parties, each of which reveres one of these two men as its founding father.
David Ludden, Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania
What was clear, however, was that the two official messages of Sheikh Mujib and Ziaur Rahman reconfirmed an independence declared earlier by students and others, and marked the definite end of East Pakistan. Bangladesh was now born - officially.
Historians with a very long-term view of the past that provides one kind of context for 1971 would emphasise that people in the land that became Bangladesh had declared independence many times, in many idioms, over the centuries. Political theorists and historians would also point out that even in the 20th century, the term "independence" has not been used only to mean national state sovereignty. Historically, proclamations of independence have taken many forms, each appropriate in its own setting. And so they did in the land that became Bangladesh until in March 1971, when the idea of independence acquired a new context, which never existed before and gave proclamations of independence new meaning.
Thus, when reconstructing the context of 1971, we should avoid temptations to infuse its textual evidence with interpretative interpolations from later times. At that time, declarations of independence could hark back to a remembered past, but could only imagine a future that existed then only as imagination, not as cultural, social, and political context, shaping the meaning of contemporary words and deeds.
The area that became Bangladesh attained a definite political identity in 1905, with a hotly controversial partition of the Bengal Presidency, which remained in force until 1911. The legacy of those six years remains today in the Bangladesh national anthem, extracted from a song composed by Rabindranath Tagore in 1906. When freedom fighters sang "Amar Sonar Bangla" in 1971, the poet's original words had entirely different meanings than they did in the context of 1906.
It is important for historical record to discover the original Swadhinata Ghoshok (Declarer of Independence). But, more than the name what's more important is the cause that they were fighting for.
The controversy should not override the fact that both were influential for the cause of Bangladesh - what Sheikh Mujib fought for on political level on an intellectual ground, Ziaur Rahman & co fought on a military level on the physical ground of Bangladesh.
As such both Sheikh Mujib and Ziaur Rahman are compliment of each other and not the opposition.
It was Sheikh Mujib who awarded Ziaur Rahman with one of the highest military award for bravery, Bir Uttom, in 1972. And it was Ziaur Rahman who never claimed to be the first or sole Swadhinata Ghoshok even during his leadership, and had in fact invited Sheikh Hasina to return from her exile abroad, after her dad Sheikh Mujib & family were assassinated, and lead and revitalise the Awami League.
Unfortunately, most of us Bengalis have lost sight of these noble deed and causes and only divide ourselves further by indulging in this mean debate. Where Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib, Shaheed Ziaur Rahman and 75 million unsung heroes fought to unify and free Bengalis, we continue to fight amongst ourselves and remain prisoners of our dark thoughts.
They were a generation of builders - it's time we became the same.
Aftermath of declaration
26 March 1971 is considered the official Swadhinata Dibosh (Independence Day of Bangladesh), and the name Bangladesh was in effect henceforth. In July 1971, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi openly referred to the former East Pakistan as Bangladesh. Some Pakistani and Indian officials continued to use the name "East Pakistan" until 16 December 1971, the day they officially surrendered, known as 'Bijoy Dibosh' (Victory Day).
The Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro radio continued to broadcast from Kalurghat from 26th March to 30th March 1971. But they had to end transmission and abandon Kalurghat in the afternoon of 30 March 1971 after it was attacked by Pakistani air forces. However, before they relocated, they aired one more message from Major Ziaur Rahman.
Major Ziaur Rahman would make his way to Brahmanbaria, near Sylhet, and meet up with Major Khalid Musharraf and Major Shafiullah on 3 April 1971. All three would go on to become sector commanders under Colonel M.A.G. Osmani, the Commander-in-chief of the Mukti Bahini (Bangladesh Liberation Army).
Sheikh Mujib & co arrested
In the early morning of 26 March 1971 - around 1.30 am - Sheikh Mujib was arrested by the Pakistani Army led by Major Zahir Alam Khan on charges of treason for challenging the authority of the government of Pakistan and 'plotting to split the country'.
Many other dignitaries were lucky to escape. Throughout yesterday rumours flew around of imminent military action against the Awami League and the population. By the evening, senior leaders of the party, including Syed Nazrul Islam and Tajuddin Ahmed, had either gone underground or were preparing to do so. They, along with A.H.M. Quamruzzaman, M.Mansoor Ali, and Col. M.A.G. Osmany made their separate ways out of the city. Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed took refuge in a clinic. The Awami League's constitutional advisor, Kamal Hossain, would be taken, days later, into custody by the army and flown off, with his family, to West Pakistan.
The Pakistani Government since March 25 built up an elaborate scenario justifying military action in East Bengal and presenting its steps as moderate and restrained. It has laid the blame almost entirely on the Awami League leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, for his alleged intransigence and complicity in a plot to split the country. It also blamed the Awami League "extremists" for killing many non-Bengali residents in East Bengal since the disturbances started on March 1. Within 72 hours of the military action, the Pakistani Government announced that the situation had been brought under control and life was "fast returning to normal". Reality, however, was different.
M. Rashiduzzaman, Analyst
Sheikh Mujib was subsequently detained in Dhaka cantonment and flown into West Pakistan. His exact location was not known - in some literature this was quoted as being Adyala jail (later renamed to Central Jail Rawalpindi) in Rawalpindi, and in others Central Jail Mianwali, near Rawalpindi. President Yahya Khan appointed Brigadier (later General) Rahimuddin Khan to preside over a special tribunal in Faislabad, Pakistan, prosecuting him with multiple charges. A career army officer, Rahimuddin Khan was reportedly visibly uncomfortable conducting the court trial. In mid-proceedings, he left without verification to command his charge of Rawalpindi's III Brigade upon the outbreak of the Indo-Pakistani war of 1971. However, he was forcibly recalled by General Headquarters to award the trial verdict. Rahimuddin found Sheikh Mujib guilty and sentenced him to death.
The tribunal's sentence was never made public, but President Yahya Khan caused the verdict to be suspended temporarily following appeal from US Richard Nixon's administration who were pressurised by several officials in the United States Senate and House of Representatives.
Whilst Sheikh Mujib awaited his fate for the next nine-and-half months in the Pakistan jail, the people in Bangladesh would undergo one of the worst horror in living history.
- Zahir Alam (Z. A.) Khan ()
- Rahimuddin Khan ()