Bangladesh was born 40 years ago, but there's a lingering debate that continues to this day with no convincing answer. Who was it exactly that declared the country free? Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or Ziaur Rahman?
The answer still divides Bangladeshis, largely on political lines. The Awami League, and also the official line, holds that Mujibur declared independence first before he was arrested on March 26, 1971. This day is celebrated as Bangladesh's Independence Day. The Opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), insists it was Ziaur, former president and BNP founder, who proclaimed independence first on March 27.
On the night of March 25, the Pakistan army launched an offensive in Dhaka and arrested Mujibur in the wee hours of the next day, but not before he had reportedly signed on an "official freedom declaration" on March 26.
On March 27 and 28, it was Ziaur's voice that people heard on the radio, announcing: "This is Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro. I, Major Ziaur Rahman, at the direction of Bangobondhu 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."
BNP leader Moudud Ahmed, former prime minister and vice-president of Bangladesh, says, "I was at a tea garden in Sylhet when I heard Major Zia's voice. Everybody heard him. Nobody heard Sheikh Mujib."
To that, Awami League leader Abdul Matin Khasru retorts: "The controversy is just their (BNP) creation. This issue has already been settled in the Supreme Court. Sheikh Mujib was a national leader and had made the official declaration on March 26. Ziaur was just a major in the army, not a leader (of a position to make such declarations). He never made such claims either. It is only after his death (in 1981) that the BNP raked up the issue."
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is Mujib's daughter, and opposition leader Khaleda Zia, who is Ziaur Rahman's widow, have kept the debate alive.
What is undeniable, though, is that the radio announcement was a clarion call to the shell-shocked nation to stand up against West Pakistan's might, their resistance culminating in the birth of Bangladesh on December 16, 1971.
First published in The Times of India, Dec ember11, 2011