From March 1, 1971 Awami League’s President and the MNA elect from East Bengal Bangabandhu Sk. Mujibur Rahman was code named as ‘Big Bird’ by the Pakistan army as he took control over the entire civil administration the eastern part of Pakistan following the postponement of the sitting of the national parliament in Dhaka on March 3 to frame a new constitution for Pakistan. This was done through a radio announcement on the afternoon and is perceived that Pakistan’s President and Martial Law administrator General Yahya Khan was instigated to announce the postponement by the civil military bureaucrats of Pakistan and the Chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Before the national election took place in the month of December of 1970 (in some seats in January due to a devastating flood) Awami League in its election manifesto declared that once it gets elected the new constitution of Pakistan will be based on the historic six-point programme of Awami League which promised full autonomy of Pakistan’s five provinces leaving only the defence and foreign policy to the central government.
Many books and research papers have been written about the happenings of 1971 in what is now Bangladesh, including completely biased ones. But the name of the book by Brig (Retd) Z A Khan ‘The way it was’ must be mentioned as Khan tried to be objective in some of his observations. Brig Khan was in charge of arresting Bangabandhu Mujib code named ‘Big Bird’ on the night of March 25 and in his book he gives a brief account of the arrest of the ‘Big Bird’ and events leading to the arrest. The book is an autobiography of Brig (Retd) Khan and was first published in 1988 from Karachi, Pakistan.Brigadier Khan was among nine brothers to have served Pakistan Armed forces. He served in the Special Service Group (SSG) during 1971 and was initially posted in the 3rd Commando Battalion stationed in Chittagong. Brig Khan writes that some days before he joined his new posting the 3rd Commando Battalion had got into a fight with civilians and the commanding officer would be replaced. Khan approached Commander Major General A O Mitha and requested to transfer him to take over from the 3rd Commando Battalion commander in Chittagong. Khan’s request was granted and soon he flew to Dhaka (then Dacca) and took over his new position. His family accompanied him. In the meantime the 3rd Commando Battalion was relocated to Comilla. Khan joined the Battalion in Comilla towards the beginning of 1970. According to Brig. Khan 3rd Commando Battalion sometimes picked up brawls with the locals whether in Chittagong or Comilla and even in Dhaka. Khan praises one Bengali officer in the Battalion Major Abdul Mannan who would try to help him in mitigating such problems. He writes Major Mannan later became a minister in Bangladesh (in Zia and Begum Zia’s cabinet). Major Mannan served the Pakistan army to the last and was rehabilitated like many others who fought against Bangladesh in 1971 by General Zia.
On September 29, 1969 General Yahya Khan declared that the national election will be held in October of 1970 (later postponed to December because of a devastating cyclone). Once the election was declared both the wings of the then Pakistan went on a political frenzy and in East Bengal people rallied around Awami League and Bangabandhu Mujib as they were convinced it is only Mujib who could realise the aspirations of the people of East Bengal. Maulana Bhashani boycotted the election and raised a utopian slogan ‘food before election.’ Brig Khan writes ‘after that announcement that elections would be held, Bengali soldiers from the battalion returning from leave reported that the Awami League ... was well organised.’ … ‘I had gone to Dhaka and met Lieutenant Colonel Riaz Sheikh, 6 Lancers, who had been transferred to Intelligence Bureau. He told me that their estimate was that Sheikh Mujib would win thirty five per cent of the seats, Bhashani (still not announced his boycott) would win about an equal number and twenty five per cent would be dividend amongst smaller parties’. When the final election results were announced Awami League won in 167 out of 169 seats earmarked for East Bengal stunning the Pakistan’s civil-military bureaucracy. Brig Khan continues ‘with the announcement of the result of the elections the whole atmosphere in East Pakistan changed. …Mujibur Rehman (sic), the Awami League leader’s 6-points became the topic of discussion everywhere. The Bengali’s considered it as the basis of the political future of the country; the West Pakistanis considered it virtual secession’. Following this stunning win by Awami League the wheels of conspiracy of Pakistani rulers were set in full motion and found People Party’s Chairman Z A Bhutto (which won 81 seats out of 144 in West Pakistan) a willing accomplice. Then came the fateful announcement of the postponement of March 1 ushering the end of Jinnah’s Pakistan.
Pakistan’s military rulers were fast losing control over the civilian governance of East Bengal and it was left to Bangabandhu to call the shots. Earlier on 25 February Brigadier Iqbal Shafi and Brig Khan were ordered to come to Dhaka. The next morning both came to Dhaka and met the GoC of Eastern Command in Dhaka Major General Khadim Hussain Raja and interestingly they were informed that on 1 March it would be announced that the National Assembly session called for 3 March would be postponed indefinitely and that there would be violent reaction and a list of about a hundred people was shown to them who had to be arrested. Shafi and Khan both were told that instructions would be issued. So it is evident that the postponement of the sitting of the National Assembly on 3 March was pre-planned and not announced suddenly. Shafi and Khan both returned to Comilla on 28 February and waited for the instructions and on first March at about mid-day the announcement was made. Khan writes ‘the reaction was immediate and well planned. In Comilla there was a total strike, shops, offices, banks, everything closed down. From the battalion a party had gone to collect the pay from the National Bank and since all the units in Comilla were collecting their pay, there was a long queue, as soon as the announcement was made the bank closed and our party had to return without the pay.’
Soon Brig. Khan went to Dhaka and he writes ‘there the trouble, which led to the creation of Bangladesh and our defeat in the 1971 war began’. During those days Comilla had a functional airport and it was generally used by the army. In one such drive to the airport Khan saw a small boy standing by roadside, and writes ‘saw my jeep and very ferociously shouted ‘Joy Bangla.’ My two and half year old younger daughter also used to run around the house shouting ‘Joy Bangla’. Khan writes, ‘Since it was 23rd of March, Pakistan Day, buildings were supposed to fly the Pakistan flag, as we flew over Dacca we saw the whole city flying the Bangladeshi Flag. When I arrived at the 14 Division officers’ mess someone told me that there was only one Pakistan flag flying and that was in Mohammadpur, the Bihari colony in Dacca’. Khan was received in Dhaka airport by one Major Billal (who later was inducted in the group which would arrest Bangabandhu) who took him to Colonel S D Ahmed of the Martial Law Headquarters. Khan was informed that Mujib was to be arrested the next day or the day after and was to make necessary plan. A civilian car was provided by the United Bank’s zonal manager and it was to be used for reconnaissance of Bangabandhu’s house in Dhanmondi. Brig. Khan, Major Billal and Captain Humayun drove around Mujib’s house in the evening and saw a large crowd near the house and a guard of the local police. Khan writes ‘as we drove past a group of Hindus (?) came out of the house’. Next day a similar reconnaissance was made. On 24 March night around eleven o’clock Brig. Khan visited General Rao Farman Ali’s office who ordered the arrest of Mujib and was instructed to use a civilian car in the operation. Next day General Mitha arrived in Dhaka. Pakistan army’s Chief of Staff General Hamid was already in Dhaka for quite some times with General Yahya who came to Dhaka on March 15 on the pretext of discussing matters relating to calling the National Assembly meeting afresh which was just a hoax. Brig Khan met General Hamid in the evening of March 25. Hamid told Khan that Mujib must be taken alive. Khan informed him that Japan’s Consul’s residence was behind Mujib’s house and if he crossed into the diplomat’s house what were his instructions. Hamid just told Khan that he should use his discretion. Mr. Takenaka was the consul and many who knew Mr. Takenaka are in the opinion that in the event Mujib would have decided to escape to the diplomatic enclave it would not have been possible by the Generals of Pakistan including the President acting together to arrest Mujib without killing the diplomat. He would never have dishonoured his country, a country which considers it to be much more honourable to admit guilt and ask for forgiveness. But Mujib was no coward to have escaped to evade the arrest or even killing.
Major Billal was given the responsibility of arresting Bangabandhu. Mujib already knew that the army was coming for him and he was ready. Another reconnaissance was made before the final move and it was found that the entire area was barricaded. Such barricades are ineffective in front of modern equipments. Captain Humayun on orders from Major Billal entered Sk. Mujib’s house with his troops firing from automatic weapons in complete darkness. Mujib was waiting. First the guards protecting Mujib had to be neutralised. Big Khan writes ‘while they were being escorted out a guard pulled out a ‘dah’, a long bladed knife and attacked the escort walking with the guard. He did not know that he was being covered from behind and was shot’. Brig. Khan who was waiting out and heard a sudden shot and then the sound of grenade exploding followed by a burst from a sub-machine gun. He thought someone had killed Mujib and ran to the house and upstairs where he found Sk. Mujib outside his door. Immediately Khan sent a radio message to inform the Eastern Command that the ‘Big Bird’ is in the cage. While he was escorting Bangabandhu downstairs he told Brig. Khan that he had forgotten his pipe. Khan writes ‘I walked back with him and he collected his pipe…he told me that we had only to call him and he would have come on his own. I told him that we wanted to show him that he could be arrested’. Later Brig. Khan was informed that a certain Havildar Major Khan Wazir tried to physically assault Mujib. Khan was annoyed. By the time Bangabandhu was taken to Jatiyo Sangsad Building in a jeep. ‘Operation Searchlight’ under the command of Brigadier Jehanzeb Arbab was on and Dhaka was burning and people were still chanting ‘Joy Bangla’ slogan. Jinnah’s Pakistan was dying.
The writer is an analyst and commentator