March 1971: The emergence of a sovereign Bangladesh

Rehman Sobhan


Bangabandhu’s response to the decision by Yahya to postpone the Assembly session was to call for a throughout Bangladesh through a program of non-cooperation.

The popular response in Bangladesh to his call registered a measure of support which remains without precedent in the history of democratic and liberation movements. The non-cooperation movement was spontaneously joined not just by the people of Bangladesh but by the administrative and judicial machinery, the forces of law and order, as well as the business community. The non-cooperation movement eventually graduated into a formal shift of allegiance of the machinery of civilian government in Bangladesh away from the central government of General Yahya Khan to the authority exercised by Bangabandhu over Bangladesh. Thus, the entire machinery of the state located outside the military cantonments of Bangladesh, unanimously came forward to pledge their loyalty to the leadership of Bangabandhu.  By March 1970, Bangabandhu found himself the unchallenged ruler of Bangladesh with the entire machinery of administration in Bangladesh behind him. In no other independence movement has such a shift of loyalty emerged prior to the recognition of national independence. Bangladesh’s de facto independence, thus, emerged as part of a process, where between March 1 and March 15, Bangladesh assumed all the correlates of an independent state. So total was the non-cooperation movement that the economy and infrastructure of Bangladesh came near to collapse with life-threatening consequences for the people of this region. Thus, Bangabandhu had, of necessity, to escalate the movement from non-cooperation to self-rule in order to restore economic activity and maintain law and order. A rudimentary policy-making apparatus had to be established by Bangabandhu to make decisions about the selective revival of the economy and establishment of administrative authority.

A small cell was established where a number of Bangali professionals met every day with bankers and bureaucrats to discuss a variety of operational issues such as the steps needed to revive banking operations, revive exports, pay salaries of public employees, collect public revenues, resume public distribution of fertiliser as well as operate tube-wells, and to keep the transport within Bangladesh functional. Suggested administrative actions to be taken in the name of the Bangabandhu regime were communicated every day by Tajuddin Ahmad and Kamal Hossain to a team of Bangali bureaucrats who had been elected by their colleagues to liaise with the Awami League and act as conduits for transmitting the orders of Bangabandhu to the administration. Many ad hoc problems of an administrative, political, or commercial nature that needed urgent resolution were directly presented to Bangabandhu at his private residence on Road 32 in Dhanmondi which, in effect, became the seat of authority in Bangladesh during March 1971. Delegations of businessmen met with Bangabandhu and selected colleagues to seek emergency decisions about how they should run their business during this period. The machinery of law and order was restored as the police began to take orders from Bangabandhu and to work in cooperation with Awami League political workers to restore a sense of security to the people of Bangladesh.

Whilst there were instances of persecuting non-Bangalis, the general law and order situation during March was remarkably stable and even non-Bangalis were extended protection. By March 15, for all practical purposes, a functioning administration, operating under the direction of Bangabandhu and administered by key Awami League colleagues, had emerged as a de facto administration and political authority in Bangladesh. However, it is arguable that Bangabandhu’s authority was not just de facto but could be termed legal since his leadership enjoyed electoral legitimacy, registered in the overwhelming vote of the population endorsing their political confidence in Bangabandhu. This exercise of political and administrative authority by Bangabandhu over the entire geographical area of Bangladesh was more than enough to meet the criterion for sovereign recognition by a foreign government. This exercise of authority by Bangabandhu throughout Bangladesh was projected before the world through a large contingent of the international press who were present in Bangladesh to cover what appeared to be the emergence of a new state.  Bangabandhu was, at the same time, communicating with government leaders, who were believed to exercise some leverage over the Pakistan government, to seek their assistance in persuading Yahya to accept the logic of the democratic process in Bangladesh.  However, it was the world press which projected Bangabandhu’s message to the ordinary people of these countries so that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, during March 1971, became one of the most globally visible personalities in the Third World.

When Yahya Khan arrived

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