It may be interesting to mention that the Government of Yahya Khan requested the British Government to withdraw the invitation but the British Foreign office informed them that it could not interfere with the working of the Royal Commonwealth Society which in turn informed that invitation once extended could not be withdrawn. The High Commissioner for Pakistan in U.K., an Ex-officio Vice-President of the Royal Commonwealth Society resigned in protest.
As you open newspapers you read that East Pakistanis are fleeing their country, taking shelter in refugee camps and dying in thousands from cholera. But why? What is the genesis of this holocaust? Who is responsible for this human misery?
As you are aware two countries emerged in the Indian sub-continent in August 1947 when the British Government transferred power to the people. While India had a Constitution within a very short time, Pakistan failed to frame one for a long time. When it ultimately did so in 1956, it was on the basis of parity between majority and minority provinces. The major province of East Bengal had to accept an equal number of seats as obtained in West Pakistan.
Despite this incongruity, the Constitution at least guaranteed fundamental human rights, independence of the judiciary, and many other things we hold so dear. However, before a general election could take place, the Constitution was abrogated and Field-Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan seized power. That election was not allowed to be held, but Ayub Khan soon realised the force of public opinion and appointed a Constitution Commission which was headed by Mr. Justice Shahabuddin, a former Chief Justice of Dacca High Court who was at that time Chief Justice of Pakistan, and who had originally come from Madras and settled in Pakistan. I was a member of that Commission. Although we were chosen by the Field-Marshal our consciences were clear and we knew our duties.
We recommended a Constitution with adult franchise, fundamental human rights, independence of the judiciary, and a very large measure of autonomy in the provinces, despite the fact that a government delegation forcefully advocated – this is on record – a unitary form of government. Even in 1961 they did not want a provincial legislature at all. Then the President wrote to Chief Justice Shahabuddin that he wanted to meet the members of the Commission. At that meeting, Ayub Khan emphasised that there must be a unitary form of government. To this day I recall him saying. ‘To do otherwise would be committing hara-kiri.’
After we came away from the President’s House in Karachi, I asked the Chairman, ‘What are you going to do? A unitary form of government as distinguished from a federal form of government will never be acceptable to people of East Bengal.’ The Chairman was very firm in his opinion about a federal form of government. Ultimately, we recommended a representative form of government, but that was not accepted. We recommended it should be a real federal form of government.
The other day I came across the shocking news that Justice Shahabuddin had died. The Pakistan Times of Lahore wrote: “Justice Shahabuddin who retired as Chief Justice of Pakistan in 1960 was one of the ablest constitutional experts in the country. He was chairman during the time of the Constitution Commission and the report submitted by him was not accepted by the regime. This always remained a matter of deep regret for the late Judge and in 1962 he declined a decoration which the government had offered to him.”
It was not possible to have a representative form of government without agitation. The recommendation of a Commission constituted by the President himself had not been accepted by him because there was never any intention to transfer power to people. The country was being ruled by a ruthless military regime but yet the President had to bring about some sort of constitution although disregarding our recommendation. In the Constitution of 1962, he gave provincial legislatures limited powers, an electoral college, a ‘basic democracy’ which was unheard of anywhere else. This, however, did not satisfy anybody.
Ayub Khan steps down
In 1969 there was such an upsurge of feeling that Ayub Khan had to step down. His Commander-in-Chief, Yahya Khan succeeded him. He soon realised, because of the upsurge of feeling, that a promise had to be made about a representative form of government and he announced that an election would be held in December. So far, so good.
However, the people of East Bengal had been suffering for a long time from the frustrations of their hopes and aspirations, and from political domination and economic exploitation. They had seen that although East Bengal was the majority province, the capital was at Karachi. Then, this capital city was given to the Provincial Government of West Pakistan, and another magnificent capital was built at Islamabad in West Pakistan, but nothing was done to improve communications or to control floods, or to improve the agriculture or the industry of East Bengal.
The central administration was heavily manned by West Pakistani civil servants, and the army was practically manned by West Pakistanis, except for the East Bengal Regiment. Under the influence of feelings about economic and political exploitation, the people of East Bengal went to the polls in December 1971. They voted Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s party, the Awami League, into power, because he promised them six points which gave control of the foreign trade and all other matters to the provinces, so that both the provinces could march forward together, hand in hand, as one Pakistan in the paths of peach and progress, with only foreign affairs and defence in the federal government.
General Yahya Khan’s advisers could not tolerate Sheikh Mujib getting all the seats from East Bengal except two. (His party got 167 seats out of 169.) The military dictatorship felt that time had come when they would be required to translate power to the elected representatives. This upset them, and they in turn set up Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who got eighty odd seats in West Pakistan.
The President did not call a meeting of the Constituent Assembly to frame a Consitution. But there was a clamour for it, and he ultimately convened it on 3rd March 1971. But Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto demanded that Sheikh Mujib should compromise on his six points; he should give a guarantee that the members of the Parliament should pass a Constitution agreed to by him. You will appreciate who was obstinate- who put the obstacles in the path of a constitutional development towards a representative form of government for which the people had been aspiring for a long time.
At a Lahore meeting, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto declared that he would boycott the meeting on 3rd March and that he would not allow any Constitution without the consent of his party. In a very fascist manner, he declared that no West Pakistani would be allowed to go. However, disregarding his order, nearly thirty members from West Pakistan went to Dacca. Then under the pressure of the Army junta, General Yahya Khan cancelled the meeting. Sheikh Mujib tried to keep the Pakistanis together; he only expressed his resentment by a very well-known expression of disapproval, a method adopted by Mahatma Gandhi when he wanted independence – civil disobedience. In this case, the difference was this – the entire population of East Bengal joined in the movement. Nobody worked anywhere. The courts did not function, the Secretariate was empty.
The people of East Pakistan accepted Sheikh Mujib as the legal ruler of East Bengal. At this stage General Yahya Khan offered to negotiate. The Sheikh agreed to it. While keeping him engaged in negotiation, General Yahya Khan brought shiploads of arms and the army from West Pakistan, and then the most tragic event of human history, referred to by me at the outset took place.
It began at midnight on Thursday, 25th March. When my students were sleeping in their halls of residence at the University and the professors were in their apartments with their families and the city of Dacca was asleep, the army moved in, went to my university, shelled the halls of residence and killed the students and teachers. You have read the horrifying reports in the newspapers. You know how the foreign journalists were bundled out of Dacca and were not allowed to bring any photographs or notes out with them. Why? Because the Army had to hide their sins, their crimes.
The nation in East Pakistan rose and a cry went up for independence. A new country emerged which today is Bangladesh. Whether any country has given it recognition or not is a technicality. The reality is that General Yahya’s army has destroyed the city; they went to the villages and burnt the huts of the poverty-stricken people who had to carry out agriculture without modern improvements. The whoel nation has rejected this army. It is not possible for any authority, anybody, to keep Bangladesh under the control of the invading army. It cannot rule the 75 million people. The sooner this grim reality is recognised the better.
In East Bengal today, I feel, there is no semblance of civilisation. If this is the feeling of one who has never been in politics in his life, you can imagine the feelings of others. My duty is to uphold the rule of law, but I cannot go back to my country because I cannot function in accordance with the oath I had taken to discharge my duties without favour or ill-will and to uphold the rule of law and to defend the Constitution. Under what authority of law did these killings take place when people were asleep? What remedy can I guarantee them?
In my university there is a mass grave in a hall of residence where dead bodies were thrown into it. I did not hear this from a Bangladesh national but from a British friend who is an eye-witness but has not permitted me to disclose his name.
This is clearly government by murder. It has been rejected by the people of Bangladesh. It is not correct to say that the West Pakistani army and government have full control over East Pakistan. Under gunpoint, some senior officers of the Dacca Secretariate go to Secretariate, and return home under military escort. They have practically no subordinate staff to work. The city of Dacca is dead. More than 70 per cent of the population have left the city of Dacca, a still higher percentage of employees are away from the Secretariate. The writ of the government does not reach any village; courts there cannot function.
You cannot rule a country by tyranny or by terrorising people. The army has killed Pakistan. The sole responsibility for the destruction of Pakistan lies on Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the army junta. I have never discriminated in my life between a Hindu or a Muslim, Christian or a Buddhist, or an East Paksitani or a West Pakistani. But the rule of Yahya Khan today is the rule of West Pakistan over East Bengal, and the people of East Bengal now feel that it is no longer a Pakistan by consent; it is conquest by army. Since it is now sought to reduce us to the status of a colony we must get back our territory and throw out the invading army.
We are a betrayed nation. We are different in habits, in culture, in language. We constitute a separate people. Under the Charter of the United Nations, we have been guaranteed the right of self-determination, and it is now an article of faith with us that we must exercise this right of self-determination. While we must not lose sight of the colossal human misery, we must treat the disease itself and not the symptom. That can only be done by recognising a reality, and that is the will of the people of Bangladesh. Without recognition of that reality, if we stick to mere technicality, we shall not be able to trace the genesis of the suffering and we shall not be able to bring permanent peace in the sub-continent.
Today, the troubles could lead to a continental war. There is a potential threat to peace; the people of East Bengal refuse to be politically dominated and the economically exploited by West Pakistan any longer.
Foreign aid taken in our name is spent in developing the industries of West Pakistan; foreign earnings by the sale of our jute and our tea are spent in West Pakistan. Therefore, we must be independent, and must have control of our own foreign earnings. With this and with the foreign aid we shall be receiving, we will be able to develop our agriculture and our industries. We shall build up a prosperous sovereign republic of Bangladesh. We shall have a policy of non-alignment.