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Revisiting the Liberation War

Helal Uddin Ahmed | March 26, 2024 00:00:00

As the non-cooperation movement against the Pakistani military regime gained momentum in March 1971, many in the eastern wing of the then Pakistan felt the impending need for an armed struggle. This was reflected in the historic March 7 speech delivered at Ramna Racecourse Maidan by the leader of the movement and victor in the General Election of December 1970, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. On March 19, 1971, discussions on the issue were held between the veteran army officer Colonel M A G Osmani and the Awami League chief Sheikh Mujib. At that time, many from the East Bengal Regiment also met Mujib, but Mujib was not inclined to a violent and combative end. He did not issue directives for preparations in anticipation of an armed struggle, but at the same time did not oppose the spontaneous preparations that were taking place all over Bangladesh. Students and youths were already receiving training on armed resistance, and on March 21, Colonel Osmani took salute at a parade of former soldiers at Paltan Maidan. But overall preparations were not directed towards an armed conflict. Thus, March 25, 1971 came as a shock to all, especially for those Bangali members of the army who put up the initial resistance.

CRACKDOWN: On the night of March 25, 1971, genocide was perpetrated in Dhaka from 11.30 pm onwards. The military campaign started according to the blueprint 'Operation Searchlight' prepared in Dhaka cantonment on March 18. Between March and December 1971, the Pakistani Army was encouraged to undertake indiscriminate armed assaults against unarmed Bangali civilians in the name of Islam.

The Chattogram radio station played a crucial role during the initial stages of resistance. On March 26 afternoon at 2.30 pm, a call was transmitted through the Kalurghat transmission centre by Chattogram District Awami League Secretary MA Hannan, urging resistance against the invading forces. The station was declared as 'Revolutionary Radio of Independent Bengal'; but later, the term 'revolutionary' was omitted. Through this same radio station, Major Ziaur Rahman informed the world about the independence of Bangladesh on March 27, 28 and 30 through consecutive announcements. When the Bangali population were apprehensive about the fate of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Major Zia played a crucial role by proclaiming the independence of Bangladesh in Bangabandhu's name during the early stage of the Independence War.

RESISTANCE: However, spontaneous armed insurrections took place all over Bangladesh immediately after the army crackdown on the night of March 25. The first revolt took place in Chattogram at 8.30 pm on that night, where the East Bengal Regiment, East Pakistan Rifles, Police, Ansars, and the youth community participated. It may be mentioned here that if the Bangali army officers had not taken the swift decision to put up armed resistance at this initial stage, the history of Bangladesh's emergence might have been different. At that time, the core elements of the Awami League leadership at the helm of the movement were either on their way to India or were in hiding.

STAGES AND PATTERN OF THE WAR: On the basis of the general trend, the War of Liberation may be divided into several stages: (a) March 26 to April 17: spontaneous resistance and retreat; (b) May to June: slightly planned resistance; (c) July to September: fully planned attacks on the enemy; (d) September to December: All-out war, and in the final stage-victory with the help of the Indian army.

The spontaneous resistance that was put up in the face of sudden attack by Pakistan Army lacked proper planning or central control. The only goal was to resist the enemy at any cost. The freedom fighters continuously revised their strategies as they were fighting the Pakistanis. On the basis of war-strategy, the liberation war could be divided into three distinct phases.

a) March-October: Self-defensive Guerilla warfare;

b) October-November: Aggressive warfare;

c) December: All-out war.

As the war-strategies of the freedom fighters were determined as a response to initial attacks by the Pakistani forces, they needed to know the pattern of the attacks. These Pakistani attacks were launched in three stages. First came the combatants, who were followed by the second group that carried out indiscriminate killings and rapes. The third group indulged in looting. They looted the Bangali households and then set them on fire. It was even heard that large numbers of jailed convicts were released from West Pakistani jails and brought to Bangladesh to commit those heinous crimes. These inhuman tactics had two motives; first, to force the Bangalis into submission through terror tactics; second, to distort the ethnic characteristics of the Bangalis.

Till mid-April, whatever weapons were at hand were used by the Bangalis in resisting the Pakistan Army. These included 303 rifles, 3 inches mortar, SMG, etc. From the middle of April, the freedom fighters retreated in the face of acute shortage of arms and ammunition. India was then approached to supply arms. Initially, the Indian Government was reluctant, although they did provide arms in some emergency cases. But those were mainly successes of individual military officers. The Bangladesh Government-in-Exile was a miserable failure in this respect during the preliminary stages of the war.

INDIAN HESITATION: There were three reasons why the Indian government was hesitant to supply arms. Firstly, the Indians suspected that those arms might be used by the communists. Secondly, the Indians were not certain about the future of the liberation war and the capacity of the freedom fighters. Thirdly, the Indians wanted to be certain that if the liberation war was prolonged, the situation would remain under the control of pro-Awami League nationalists.

However, in August-September, the Bangladesh Government received modern arms and ammunitions worth Rupees 67 crore. After getting delivery of these, the freedom fighters started launching frontal attacks against the enemy deep inside the country. In many cases, they could also capture huge quantities of arms from the enemy-camps after carrying out successful raids.

MUJIBNAGAR GOVERNMENT: The Awami League leadership who took refuge in India formed the Revolutionary Government-in-Exile at Agartala on April 10, 1971. On April 17, this government took oath at the mango garden of Baidyanathtala village under Meherpur sub-division of Kushtia district (later renamed Mujibnagar). The Proclamation of Independence declared at Agartala on April 10 was also read out there. The two factions of National Awami Party led by Bhashani and Muzaffar as well as the Communist Party led by Moni Singh extended support to this government. However, there is controversy regarding the participation of Bhashani NAP, because Bhashani remained interned throughout the liberation war.

The statement that Prime Minster Tajuddin Ahmad issued on the occasion of swearing-in of the Government-in-Exile contained the sentence: "Remember, we did not seek this war". While analysing the developments, it appears that the Awami League leadership did not want this war. Rather it was the general masses-peasants, labourers, students, and the people-who fought the real war. Up to mid-July, the Government-in-Exile failed to take effective measures to properly organize the war efforts. Divisions within the leadership-in-exile, such as the tussle between Tajuddin and Khondaker Mostaq, also contributed to this failure.

The formidable Pakistani forces that the freedom fighters faced had 4 divisions of soldiers comprising 42 battalions. To strengthen the East Pakistan Rifles, 20,000 West Pakistani Rangers were brought to Dhaka. Moreover, to assist these regular forces, there were 40,000-strong para-military Razakars recruited locally. The Air Force consisted of one squadron of Sabre aircrafts, some transport planes, and helicopters. The Navy had some Gunboats.

MUKTI BAHINI: Before the formation of the Mujibnagar Government, the liberation war was progressing in an isolated and scattered fashion. However, initiative was taken in the first week of April 1971 to create a military structure for the freedom fighters. Colonel Osmani was then nominated as the Commander-in-Chief of Bangladesh Army by the Bangali officers at Teliapara headquarters on April 4. Colonel Osmani assumed the command of the Mukti Bahini or liberation forces on April 12. But Teliapara fell when the Pakistani army captured Sylhet in May.

Serious initiative to organize the army was again taken between July 11 and July 17 during the meeting of the sector commanders in Calcutta. Here, four important decisions were adopted taking into consideration various aspects of the war, existing problems, and future strategies. These decisions were:


1) Guerrilla teams comprising 5 to 10 trained members would be sent to specific areas of Bangladesh with specific assignments.

2) Combat soldiers would carry out frontal attacks against the enemy. Between 50 to 100 percent would carry arms. Spies would be used to gather information about the enemy, among whom 30 percent would be equipped with weapons.

[B] The regular forces would be organized into battalions and sectors.

[C] The following strategies would be followed while carrying out military operations against the enemy:

1) A large number of guerrillas would be sent inside Bangladesh to carry out raids and ambushes.

2) Industries would be brought to a standstill and electricity supply would be disrupted.

3) The Pakistanis would be obstructed in exporting manufactured goods or raw materials.

4) The communication network would be destroyed in order to hinder enemy movements.

5) The enemy forces would be made to disperse and scatter for strategic gains.

6) Attacks would be launched on scattered enemy soldiers in order to annihilate them.

[D] The whole area of Bangladesh would be divided into 11 sectors.

REGULAR AND IRREGULAR FORCES: The regular forces consisted of the above-mentioned sectors. Most of the soldiers came from East Bengal Regiment and East Pakistan Rifles (EPR). Those members of the EPR, Police and Army who could not be accommodated in these battalions were divided into units and sub-units to fight in different sectors.

The irregular forces were those who were trained only for guerrilla warfare. These freedom fighters belonged to the so-called 'Gano-Bahini'.

In addition, there were also some independent forces that fought in various regions of Bangladesh and liberated many areas. These included the Mujib Bahini (BLF), Kaderia Bahini, Afsar Battalion, and Hemayet Bahini. Forces belonging to the leftist political parties also played an important role in the war.

BANGLADESH NAVY AND AIR FORCE: Bangladesh Navy was constituted in August, 1971, at the behest of Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad. Initially, there were two ships and 45 navy personnel. These ships carried out many successful raids on the Pakistani fleet. But both these ships were mistakenly hit and destroyed by the Indian fighter jets on December 10, 1971, when they were about to launch a major attack on Mongla Seaport.

Bangladesh Air Force started functioning on 28 September at Dimapur in Nagaland State of India under the command of Group Captain AK Khandaker. Initially, it comprised of 17 officers, 50 technicians, 2 planes, and 1 helicopter. The Air Force carried out more than twelve raids against Pakistani targets, and were quite successful during the initial stages of the Indian attack in early December.

THE FINAL PHASE: The liberation forces started carrying out massive raids against the enemy from October'71 onwards. The Pakistani forces were completely demoralised. After the signing of the Indo-Soviet treaty in August 1971, India started to show more interest in the Bangladesh War. And finally, India entered the war on December 3, 1971 following continuous provocation by the Pakistani military. In fact, the Indian soldiers were already participating in the war since November, when the freedom fighters had launched the Belonia raid near Feni.

While launching an all-out attack within the boundary of Bangladesh, the goals of the Indian army were:

a) To liberate Bangladesh within the shortest possible time (maximum 3 weeks) with the help of freedom fighters.

b) To defend the northern borders from possible attacks by the Chinese.

c) To uphold the integrity of India through aggressive measures.

d) To contain seditious activities in Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram states of India.

Because of the geo-morphology of Bangladesh, the war could not be won too swiftly. Even then, Dhaka was liberated within a matter of two weeks, the previous successes of the freedom fighters during the preceding few months being a major contributing factor.

SURRENDER BY THE PAKISTANIS: At 10 am on December 16, 1971, commander of the 14-Division of Pakistan Army Major General Jamshed surrendered to Indian General Nagra near Mirpur bridge. At 10.40 am, the Indian allied forces and Kaderia Bahini entered Dhaka city. That signalled the end of 9-month-long liberation war of Bangladesh. Scattered battles were still raging on then at various spots of the country.

December 16, 1971: time-4.21 pm; place-Racecourse Maidan, Ramna, Dhaka. The Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan's B-Zone and commander of eastern zone Lt. General Ameer Abdullah Khan Niazi surrendered to the commander of the joint Indo-Bangladesh Forces and the chief of Indian eastern command Lt. General Jagjit Singh Aurora. The Bangladesh Government was represented at the ceremony by Group Captain AK Khandaker.

[Reference: Ahmed, Helal Uddin (2012). 'Mukti Bahini', in Sirajul Islam (ed.) Banglapedia: National Encyclopaedia of Bangladesh, Volume-10, Second Edition. Dhaka: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh.]

Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.

Email: [email protected]

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