In the book A Soldier’s Debt (ASD), the author thought Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon was the greatest event of 1969. He then quickly added the following lines:
“One hundred and twenty-five thousand miles below that historic moon walk, the Bengalis of East Pakistan started a renewed but aggressive, at times violent, march for their rights. It was a show of their outrage against the central rulers never seen before. Hundreds of thousands, mostly youth and students, paraded the streets daily with festoons and placards, shouting anti-government slogans and bringing traffic to a standstill. Leaders ranted fiery speeches at downtown Paltan Maidan, Race Course, Baitul Mukarram, Mowchak Bazar and Gulshan market. The crowd echoed their support with raised fists. Loudspeakers on pillars, electric poles, building corners, even taxis and rickshaws, continuously buzzed with messages venting their demands. The public was forced to tolerate the deafening noise continuously, day in and day out.
For some participants, it was not all about politics. Some joined the processions for fun; some attended the assemblies as a pastime, or simply had nothing better to do. I saw ragtag women and street urchins among the crowd. ‘They have been hired to show strength,’ explained the man next to me at a Paltan gathering. Thugs availed themselves of the opportunity to pickpocket citizens or loot shops during the occasional chaos.
Clashes with police were inevitable. With the sounds of gunfire, pandemonium ensued. Hitherto brave demonstrators ran for shelters. Teargas, jets from water guns and smoke from cocktail bombs filled the streets. Casualties crammed the city hospitals and clinics. Coffins on pushcarts soon joined the procession, with a view to further inciting the public against the police actions. Similar volatile scenarios prevailed in other parts of the province.
However, the batons, bullets and teargas did not stop the movement, which, over the days, weeks and months to follow, intensified.”
That was what the author of ASD experienced in early January 1969 during a short visit to East Pakistan from his military life in the then western half of the country. The immediate demands of the protesters were the withdrawal of the Agartala Conspiracy Case (ACC) and the release of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a popular Bengali leader.
The ACC, a sedition case, was instituted by the government of President Ayub Khan a year ago and the trial was underway for six months at the Dhaka military base. If guilty, the accused could face the death sentence.
Banglapedia traces this round of the uprising to 1968 when the students rebelled “against the tyrannical rule of Ayub Khan.” Some analysts see it as part of the ongoing political movement generated by the Six Points advanced by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1966. The Six-Point formula sought economic independence and political autonomy for East Pakistan. “The movement soon engulfed the whole of the then East Pakistan,” says Banglapedia. “Indeed, this mass upsurge was the greatest mass awakening ever since the creation of Pakistan.” By the end of 1968, the anti-Ayub Movement was in top gear in East Pakistan.
On January 4, 1969, leaders of the East Pakistan Students’ Union (Menon Group), East Pakistan Students’ League, East Pakistan Students’ Union (Matia Group) and a section of the National Students’ Federation (NSF) had formed the Students’ Action Committee (SAC) and declared their 11-point program. Shortly afterwards, almost all major political parties formed the Democratic Action Committee (DAC), an anti-Ayub front. It supported SAC’s 11 Points that included Mujib’s 6 Points. Octogenarian and respected leader Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani of the National Awami Party (NAP), provided leadership to the group.
Professor Bahar did extensive research on Maulana Bhashani and perhaps understood him better. He thought that the lack of a deeper understanding of the elderly leader at times made people utter unfounded statements about him
A number of fatalities – prominent among them were students Asaduzzaman, Matiur Rahman and Professor Shamsuzzoha – at the hands of government forces took the movement to the point of no return. When ACC accused Sergeant Zahurul Haq was shot dead by the military on February 15, 1969, Bhashani intensified his agitation program and declared that they would forcibly free Mujib, if the authorities did not release him forthwith. On February 22, 1969, President Ayub Khan succumbed. He ordered withdrawal of the ACC and the release of all accused unconditionally. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman became a hero and was given the title “Bangabandhu” (Friend of Bengal/Bengalis) by the students.
On a side note: during my training at Pakistan Air Force Base, Kohat in 1963-64 – prior to my transfer to the army – then Corporal Zahurul Haq was a drill instructor. The tall, tough guy had an incredible voice. His sudden loud scream could cause an embarrassing accident to a nervous trainee.
The movement in East Pakistan soon turned a catalyst for an anti-Ayub uprising all over Pakistan. Army Chief General Yahya Khan found it convenient to ease his boss Ayub Khan out and take over on March 25, 1969. The legacy of the Bengalis’ Mass Uprising catapulted Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League to victory in the December 1970 elections, which he fought largely on the Six-Point program. The rest is both painful and joyous. Painful because the ruling junta declined to honour the popular verdict of the election and decided to unleash troops on the Bengalis who dared to demand their economic and political rights. Happiness because the people of East Pakistan were forced to fight for their independence – and in due course achieved it.
In an article “The 1969 Mass Uprising in East Pakistan: As I saw it” Dr. Taj Hashmi gave an eyewitness account of the movement during its climax period in January-February 1969. Hashmi was a student of Dhaka University at the time and took part in the students’ activities from January 17 to February 22, 1969, which he called the crucial “37 days”.
Dr. Hashmi’s article evoked considerable interest among readers. However, his limiting the movement to “37 Days” and giving sole credit to the students (of the Kamran Chowdhury group of the NSF) came under criticism. Some readers also could not accept his portrayal of Bhashani as a stooge of Pakistan’s rulers and an arsonist.
The author subsequently modified his stand on some points in e-mail communications. On January 22, 2020, he posted, “Apparently, it might appear that I have denied Bhashani’s contributions to the 1969 Movement and the Freedom Movement of Bangladesh, but actually I have NOT denied his contributions to either.” On January 23, he went a step further saying: “HE (Bhashani) was DEFINITELY a HERO of the 1969 Movement, but he became so after 24th January.”
The timeline did not appear correct to some, and the controversy sustained.
According to Banglapedia, “The student agitation of 1968 turned into a Mass Upsurge when Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani asked his followers to join the agitation and gherao program. His NAP was very active from early December 1968 in the Gherao […]”
On Dr. Hashmi’s limiting the Movement of 1969 to the Kamran Group, Zoglul Husain, a political analyst of repute, posted an email on January 21, 2020, saying that there was a “wider view if one sees it from the perspective of all the student organizations involved i.e. university campus as a whole. And there even is a more comprehensive view if one sees it from the perspective of the whole country.” Quoting Banglapedia, he also believed that Maulana Bhashani was the main leader of the Movement that brought “the downfall of the Ayub regime.”
Dr. Hashmi insisted, in a post on January 23, 2020, that the “Direct Action” initiated by Kamran Chowdhury was responsible for the success of the movement. A day earlier, researcher and playwright Dr. Abid Bahar contended that minor figures rarely counted in history. By inferring that Mujib was not the sole formulator of the 6 points, nor did he write the speech of March 7, yet he got the adulation for both, Mr. Bahar implied, “So was the case with Bhashani`s leadership in the 1969 Uprising.”
Professor Bahar did extensive research on Maulana Bhashani and perhaps understood him better. He thought that the lack of a deeper understanding of the elderly leader at times made people utter unfounded statements about him. Acknowledging the writer’s “quest for the root of fascist forces in Bangladesh,” Dr. Bahar pointed at the criminal activities of Rakkhi Bahini, Chatro League, Lal Bahini and other outfits created by Sheikh Mujib. Maulana Bhashani opposed their activities.
Dr. Hashmi’s assumption that “had there not been 1969, there would have not been any 1971” was also contested. While acknowledging the importance of the movement in 1969, which brought the downfall of the Ayub regime through the ACC route, I could not consider it to be the sole precursor of 1971. I thought the independence of Bangladesh had a larger and longer history than of the past two years. It had many fathers: the foolish ruling junta (of Pakistan), the ambitious and mischievous Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Indian hegemonic interests, the global players and the Bangladeshi freedom fighters on whom it was imposed. (I wish to deal with the subject separately).
On Maulana Bhashani’s role, I reminded him that with Mujib in jail, he was the only top and acceptable leader available to propel the snowballing movement to victory. Students alone couldn’t have done it. However, I also agree with Professor Hashmi that 1969 movement united the people of East Pakistan and they spoke in one voice for the first time.