The government-in-exile formed at the insistence of Indira Gandhi revealed the unquestioned leadership of Mujibur Rahman and the inner divisions within the Awami League
BY DR SANJEEV CHOPRA
Most books on the formation of Bangladesh talk about the inbuilt fault lines of ‘a nation in two parts’ separated from each other by 1,500 km not just geographically, but also culturally, ethnically and linguistically. Even though East Bengal had more than 55% of the population, the politics of Pakistan was dominated by the Punjabis and the high caste Ashrafs who had migrated from UP. Jinnah’s lecture in English at the University of Dhaka on February 21, 1948 when he declared Urdu the ‘sole official language’ of Pakistan sowed the seeds of separatism, which only disseminated with the passage of years, as first the army, and later Zulfikar Ali Bhutto refused to share power with the democratically elected Awami League. After the refusal of the Pakistan Army to hand over power to Mujibur Rahman who had emerged the victor in the 1970 parliamentary elections, a reign of terror was let loose in the state.
The atrocities inflicted by the military junta in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) are well documented in Manas Ghosh’s Bangladesh War: Report from Ground Zero. This is based on his reportage as an embedded journalist of The Statesman of Kolkata (then Calcutta) with the Mukti Bahini (MB), and his three-year stint as the Chief of Bureau of the paper in Dhaka. Another primary source is The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh: Memoirs of an American Diplomat by Archer K. Blood, the then US Consul General to Bangladesh. It offers the perspective of an American diplomat sympathetic to the cause of Bangladeshi self-determination. He profiles the three leading figures who shaped the war: Yahya Khan, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Blood unflinchingly condemns Washington’s silence and support for West Pakistan after the war’s eruption. In 2013, Gary J. Bass wrote The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide. It supplemented the telegrams sent by Blood with documents from the State department and the Pentagon to show how Nixon and Kissinger, in order to establish an economic entry into China, chose to condone West Pakistani genocidal tactics against the population of East Pakistan. Then we have Nayanika Mookerjee’s The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971 which shows that the Pakistani military and its collaborators sexually abused around 200,000 to 400,000 women during the Liberation War of Bangladesh. Nilima Ibrahim in Ami Birangona Bolchi shares seven stories told by Birangonas (war heroines), who survived the unspeakable cruelty they had to face at the hands of pro-Pakistan forces. Thus, there is no dearth of material on the suffering and turmoil faced by the people during the birthing of Bangladesh.
However, a very critical part of the story—that of the Bangladesh government-in-exile which was formed on April 10, 1971 under the leadership of Tajuddin Ahmed, the general secretary of the East Pakistan Awami League, was not yet in the public domain. According to Matiur Rahman, the editor of this volume, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was keen for its formation as routing assistance—both humanitarian and military— to multiple groups would be a challenge for India. But even though the government-in-exile was formed with Bangabandhu Mujib (in absentia) as the president, and Col M.A.G. Osmani as the commander-in-chief of the MB with the rank of minister, who took oath on April 17, there was intense infighting between Ahmed and the elected members of the Provincial and National Assemblies, especially the younger lot, and the working committee meetings became quite acrimonious.
It was in this context that the Government of India decided to organise a conference of all the factions of the Awami League on July 5 and 6 in the jungles of Siliguri in the foothills of the Himalaya. This explains the sub-title of the volume, Government in Exile meets the Elected People’s Representatives: An untold story of the Liberation war. The meeting was hosted by 33 Corps of the Indian Army with the involvement of the Border Security Force (BSF) in logistics and administration. The person tasked with the actual organisation and detail was Brigadier A.K. Mitra, ably assisted by Col A.K. Majumder and Capt A.D. Surve.
Fortunately for us, and for posterity, Brigadier Mitra kept meticulous notes which were discovered by his son, Debashish Mitra, an amateur history buff, in a folder called “Siliguri Conference”. This document is a compelling sketch of those momentous times, and the thoughts and discussions amongst the political leadership of the government-in-exile. Brigadier Mitra describes the leadership of the Awami League as the solar system in which Mujib’s position was that of the sun. But as Mujib was under arrest in West Pakistan, there was a great deal of infighting among the popularly elected leaders/commandos of the Mukti Fouj/Mukti Bahini and those at the helm in the government-in-exile. It was not that they did not have a common objective—it was just that their tactical understanding varied because there was no organised system of communication or feedback. They were all praise for India for her support, though the younger lot felt that the intervention from the Indian side should have started much earlier. Brig. Mitra then goes on to give us a pen picture of the acting president, Nazrul Islam, Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed, Home Minister Kamaruzzaman and the commander-in-chief, Col Osmani. The report by Col A.K. Majumder is also important for it lists the ‘stray conversations’ amongst the delegates from the various districts—Rajshahi, Sylhet and Chittagong—expressing their apprehensions about the probity and impartiality of the present leadership, but these were whispers in the corridors and none of this ‘gossip’ found a place in the formal proceedings.
Priced reasonably at 350 taka (one taka is 77 paise), Prothoma Prakashan of Dhaka has done yeoman service to all those who would like to get the granular picture of the internal workings of the government-in-exile during these very critical times. And a thank you to Debashish Mitra for providing the document to the publisher: it is indeed a “priceless expansion to the study of history of the Liberation War of Bangladesh” which gave a new political map to the sub-continent 51 years ago.
(The author is a historian, public policy analyst, and Festival Director at the Valley of Words, Dehradun. Until recently, he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie.)