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Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Mujibnagar: An oath in secrecy

Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

At Kolkata Press Club on April 16, 1971, two nondescript Bangladesh officials kept journalists waiting for hours. Finally, the officials arrived in the evening and expressed an apology for being late.

Abdul Mannan, an MNA (later the first home minister of Bangladesh in 1972) remained silent, while Barrister Rahmat Ali, without waiting for an introduction, told the crowded journalists that they are requested, including the foreign press representatives, to return to the press club for an important announcement the following morning.

The following morning, Kolkata Press Club was overcrowded with local and foreign journalists accompanied by a battery of camerapersons and press photographers.

Ali announced: “Gentlemen, on behalf of the government of Bangladesh, I invite you to our country,” which jolted the journalists as the Liberation War history was unfolding.

The rally of cars carrying journalists did not know where they were going, whom they would meet, and what they would witness. Everybody was worried about what kind of dispatch they would send to their newsroom. When the vehicles stopped at a mango orchard in Meherpur, inside Bangladesh, the Kolkata journalists quickly dubbed the place as Mujibnagar.

Of course, India and the entire world was taken by surprise that Bangladesh formally announced the “Proclamation of Bangladesh Independence” and the formation of a government-in-exile to coordinate the Liberation War.

What surprised many, was that among the Kolkata media circle, none leaked the story of the secret endeavour of the Mujibnagar episode. The thoughtful journalists maintained secrecy to avoid the enemies being alerted from a single line published in an Indian newspaper.

Journalist Sukharanjan Sengupta saw a vehicle with a diplomatic number plate entering the porch on March 22. 

The curious journalist rushed towards the office of Chief Secretary Nirmal Sengupta and waited for the person to come out.

The person was nobody else but the deputy high commissioner posted in Dhaka during the crucial period. Time was ticking for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as New Delhi was impatiently waiting to see what emerges from the negotiation in Dhaka.

Fortunately, the journalist knew the diplomat and quickly asked whether the negotiation to resolve the political crisis will go in the favour of Sheikh Mujib or will there be a bloodbath.

The diplomat was in a rush. He frowned and said the second one and was then escorted to the Kolkata airport and to New Delhi to hold a confidential debriefing on the Bangladesh crisis with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

On March 23, the Republic Day of Pakistan, the “Joy Bangla” flag was fluttered all over the country, except for the military cantonments and a few government offices in Dhaka.

On March 25, Bangabandhu was still negotiating with the advisors of Pakistan’s military leader General Yahya Khan to avoid a bloodbath in the streets. 

However, near midnight on March 25, the Pakistan army launched the genocidal campaign “Operation Searchlight,” leaving Bangladesh no choice but to go to war.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 27 April 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Declare Mujibnagar Day on April 17 as Republic Day of Bangladesh



On the 50th birth anniversary of Bangladesh, the nation was perhaps expecting that the government would declare April 17 as the country’s Republic Day. This is the day when the cabinet of the government-in-exile took an oath of office and accepted the challenge to lead the War of Liberation to achieve independence.

The venue was discreetly decided at Baidyanathtala, Meherpur in eastern Bangladesh (less than a kilometre from the Indian border). The site was secured by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and mounted anti-aircraft artillery to thwart any air attacks by marauding Pakistan fighter jets.

A day earlier, the Ansar saw hundreds of BSF soldiers and vehicles pour in and secure the area. The following morning, April 17, the leaders of government-in-exile, Indian officials, scores of journalists, international photographers, and TV camera persons also arrived with senior BSF officers accompanied by hundreds of additional troops.

At 11 am the ceremony began with recitation from the Qur’an and playing of the national anthem. The oath-taking ceremony was conducted by Abdul Mannan, MNA, and the proclamation of independence was read out by Professor Mohammad Yusuf Ali.

The assignment of portfolios was assigned among the ministers on April 18. The incumbents of the government were: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (interned in Pakistan jail), president of Bangladesh. Syed Nazrul Islam (Vice President and also Acting President), Tajuddin Ahmad (Prime Minister), Khondaker Mostaq Ahmad (Foreign Affairs and Law Minister), Muhammad Mansur Ali (Finance Minister), AHM Qamaruzzaman (Home, Relief and Rehabilitation Minister), and Muhammad Ataul Gani Osmani (Commander-in-Chief of the Bangladesh Forces or Mukti Bahini). The guard of honour was given to Syed Nazrul Islam, the acting president of Mujibnagar.

The government-in-exile had an elaborate structure of administrative departments, agencies, and activities. Even though elaborate agencies were established, the government’s main work remained coordinating the Liberation War and boosting popular support in occupied Bangladesh.

Soon the government-in-exile operated from 8 Theatre Road, Kolkata. Tajuddin Ahmad supervised the military operations of the Mukti Bahini, held coordinating meetings with officials of Indira Gandhi, the Eastern Command of the Indian Army, the foreign dignitaries, the international NGOs in aid of the 10 million war refugees, and of course, smoothing the inner-conflicts within the hierarchy.

The Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendra broadcast was a moral inspiration for the millions of people who were either languishing in refugee camps across the borders of Bangladesh or living in hellish conditions in occupied Bangladesh.

The production of documentary films, postage stamps, propaganda posters, regular press briefing in Kolkata, definitely made a dent in telling the world of the genocide in Bangladesh and the war crimes committed by the marauding Pakistan troops.

Tajuddin Ahmad was an intimate colleague and a trusted comrade of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and enjoyed the recognition and full support of the Indian leadership -- which was an important resource that lent authority to his position, writes acclaimed economist Rehman Sobhan in his book Untranquil Recollections.

Well, the government-in-exile earned credibility and gave an alternative dichotomy to General Yayha Khan’s military regime in Rawalpindi.

Nonetheless, most historians interpret that the able stewardship of the Mujibnagar government, which was a symbolic icon of the nationalist struggle, had essentially lifted the morale of the revolution.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 20 April 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at <> Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Remembering the forgotten reports of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission


Judge Hamoodur Rahman, along with two Pakistan High Court judges, worked tediously for five years and was able to submit the final reports on the Pakistan military’s failure since they launched the notorious “Operation Searchlight.” 

However, the report lies buried, with little or no accountability; the report never saw the light of day and was kept as highly classified documents in fear of backlash. 

The Hamoodur Rahman Commission (also known as the War Enquiry Commission), assessed Pakistan’s military involvement from 1947 to 1971. The commission was set up on December 26, 1971. 

When the Mukti Bahini and the Indian army threw their full might, the occupation forces had to negotiate an instrument of surrender on December 16, 1971. The surrender at Dhaka, according to war historians, was the largest surrender of the military after the historic surrender of Germany, Italy, and Japan, which brought an end to WWII.

The Commission interviewed 213 persons of interest that included former president Yahya Khan, politician Nurul Amin, Abdul Hamid Khan (Chief of Army), Abdul Rahim Khan (Chief of Air Force), Muzaffar Hassan (Chief of Navy), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, senior commanders, activists, journalists, and various political leaders.

The Commission also interviewed Gen Tikka Khan, Gen AAK Niazi, and Gen Rao Farman Ali who were responsible for the horrific war crimes in Bangladesh.

In 1974, the Commission again resumed its work and interviewed 300 freed POWs and recorded 73 more bureaucrats’ testimonies that served on government assignments in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

The report recognized the atrocities and systematic massacre at Dhaka University which led to recommendations of holding public trials for civilian bureaucrats and court-martials for the senior officers. It is theorized that the first report is very critical of the Pakistan military’s interference in politics and misconduct of politicians in the country’s political atmosphere.

The military headquarters in Rawalpindi and Bhutto himself maintained that the first report should be classified to “save [the military’s] honour”. The report was marked Top Secret because Bhutto told Indian journalist Salil Tripathi in 1976 that he was concerned that it would demoralize the military and might trigger unrest.

Both the first and the supplementary report lashed out at the Pakistan Army for “senseless and wanton arson, killings in the countryside, killing of intellectuals and professionals and burying them in mass graves, killing of officers of East Pakistan Army and soldiers on the pretense of quelling their rebellion, killing East Pakistani civilian officers, businessmen and industrialists, raping a large number of East Pakistani women as a deliberate act of revenge, retaliation and torture, and deliberate killing of members of the Hindu minority.”

The report also did not hesitate to accuse military dictator General Yahya Khan of being a womanizer, debaucher, and an alcoholic. He was forced to step down after Pakistan’s defeat in December 1971.

Rahman asked Bhutto for the feedback and status of the report. Bhutto remained silent for a while and replied that the report was missing. It was either lost, or stolen, and was nowhere to be found, he remarked.

Justice Rahman also asked the Chief of Army Staff General Zia-ul-Haq on the fate of the report who also commented that the original report was nowhere to be found, and nobody knew where the report went missing -- either at the Army GHQ or the National Archives of Pakistan.

In the 1990s, curiosity over the report grew when a Pakistan daily newspaper leaked the classified report which was lying at the army HQ in Rawalpindi. 

The trials of Gul Hassan, Abdul Rahim Khan, and Muzaffar Hassan were held in the light of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission’s recommendations. 

In December 2000, 29 years after the report was compiled, the War Report was finally declassified by Pakistan’s military dictator Pervez Musharraf. Subsequently, Bangladesh officially requested a copy of the report through diplomatic channels.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 13 April 2021

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Understanding Arab world’s response to Bangladesh Liberation War

Liberation war guerrillas with Bangladesh flag - Photo: Anwar Hossain Foundation


The conspicuous silence of the Arab world in 1971 shouldn’t be interpreted as mysterious, as the Muslim countries blatantly supported Pakistan’s occupation of Bangladesh.

The heavily censored media of the Arabs failed to speak out on the crimes against humanity, war refugees, and the persecution of people who dreamed of an independent homeland.

Overtly, China, the United States, and the rest of the Arab countries joined Pakistan without understanding what conspired after the crackdown of “Operation Searchlight,” a genocidal campaign to neutralize the self-determination of its Eastern province (now Bangladesh).

The Arabs were carried away by the conspiracy theory that a Hindu nation, India, had hatched plans to bifurcate the world’s largest Muslim nation -- Pakistan, and eventually colonize East Pakistan.

Well, the culture, language, tradition, heritage, physical features, and even the weather of the four provinces of Pakistan were starkly different from East Bengal.

The only bond between the five provinces (including East Bengal) of Pakistan was laid on the thin rope of Islam. Fresh jargons of “Islam is in danger” were repeatedly heard since the weak “Unity Government” was overthrown in a bloodless military coup d’état in 1958.

Mohammad Redowanul Karim, a researcher on Islamic history and culture writes: “Consequently, an independent Bangladesh was inevitable. After starting the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971, the myth that Islam was a stronger binding force than cultural heritage [was] refuted.”

The Liberation War and independence of Bangladesh shattered the much talked about “Two-Nation Theory” articulated by the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

The doctrine rationalized the division of India politically into two independent nations -- India and Pakistan -- in the 1940s on the eve of the winding up of the British rule in India.

The Arab leaders were convinced that Pakistan’s military operations, besides flushing out “miscreants” and anti-Islamic terrorists, are also exterminating “kafirs” (or kufrs) from the “Muslim holy land.”

Therefore, it’s obvious that Pakistan, under the state obligation, had to exercise excessive force to restore law and order -- blaming the political crisis on Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, his Awami League, and millions of his sympathizers in the eastern province.

The Arabs were also convinced that to restore a political crisis, the military had to come down heavily. Most importantly, India had to be given a “befitting reply” for “interfering into internal affairs of Pakistan,” as repeated by Radio Pakistan.

The Arab leaders unwittingly provided moral, spiritual, political, and diplomatic support to Pakistan, despite knowing the marauding army was committing genocide and ethnic cleansing of religious minorities. 

In absence of elective democracy and free press in the 1970s, the Arab governments under kingdoms or autocratic regimes swallowed the narrative of their all-weather friend Pakistan.

The two alliances, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), instead of cautioning Pakistan, had extended moral and political support to strengthen “Islamic nationalism,” which provided the base for united Pakistan which was in the spirit of “Muslim Ummah,” while the Pakistan military committed war crimes in Bangladesh.

The discourse of the liberation war which transformed East Pakistan into Bangladesh was not understood by the Middle East leaders and Arab organizations.

Obviously, during the Cold War, the Arabs were left out by the superpowers. From Algeria to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan embraced the Western hegemony of America as their trusted ally.

Bangladesh, while licking the scars of the Liberation War, did not hesitate to connect with the Arab nations and establish diplomatic relations with them, thus, opening a strategic inroad to the Arabs.

Sheikh Mujib’s statesmanship dented the wall created by Pakistan and penetrated deep into the heartland of the Middle East. In July 1972, Iraq was the first Arab country to recognize Bangladesh as an independent state, and gradually all countries accepted the existence of the newly independent country.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 6 April 2021

Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad