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Updated: January 11, 2012 01:50 IST

Sheikh Hasina set to revisit history

Haroon Habib
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Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on a official visit to India, in New Delhi during January 2010. Photo: V.V. Krishnan
The Hindu Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on a official visit to India, in New Delhi during January 2010. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

The Prime Minister's two-day tour to Tripura is historic. The tiny State was the unofficial war headquarters of the Bangladesh liberation war.

For Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh and daughter of the country's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the January 11-12 visit to Tripura is a historic tour. It will turn the pages of history, recollecting the events of 1969-1971 when the tiny Indian State played a key role in the creation of Bangladesh.

The visit is the first to Tripura by a Bangladesh Prime Minister since its creation 40 years ago. It is in response to an invitation from Tripura University, which will confer an honorary Doctorate of Literature on her. The tour will also be seen as a compliment to the outstanding support of Tripura and other northeastern States to Bangladesh's liberation fighters in 1971.

After the brutal assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, Dhaka not only deviated from the spirit of the liberation war but also politically distanced itself from New Delhi, reversing the historic ties built over the crucial nine months of 1971. Tripura not only shares an 856-km border with Bangladesh but was also the unofficial war headquarters of the liberation war.

Agartala conspiracy case

The Pakistan government initiated the “Agartala [capital of Tripura] conspiracy case” in 1968, in which Mujibur Rahman was the main accused. Besides the Awami League chief, a host of Bengali servicemen were accused of involvement in a “conspiracy” to secede East Pakistan from West Pakistan with the help of the Indian government.

Initially, the Pakistan government decided to court-martial the accused, with the intent to tame the growing Bengali resurgence led by Mujibur Rahman. But the authorities framed charges against 35 political personalities and top civil and Bengali military officials under the civil law.

The hearing in the historic case — “State versus Sheikh Mujibur Rahman & others” — started on June 19, 1968 before a special tribunal in Dhaka Cantonment with 227 witnesses, including 11 approvers, testifying. However, four approvers were declared hostile by the government.

Assisted by top-ranking Bengali lawyers, Thomas William, a British lawyer and Member of British Parliament, filed a writ petition in the Dhaka High Court on behalf of Mujibur Rahman challenging the legality of the tribunal. Government lawyers who led the case were the former Foreign Minister, Manzur Quader, and Advocate-General T.H. Khan. Justice S.A. Rahman, Chairman of the three-member tribunal, was a non-Bengali.

Mujib called ‘Indian agent'

The Pakistani military authorities were bent on identifying Mujib as a ‘separatist' and “Indian agent,” thereby inciting the public against him. But the approvers declared that the government had compelled them to give false evidence in its favour.

The government stood exposed. The Sarbadaliya Chhatra Sangram Parishad (all-party Students Action Committee), meanwhile, mobilised a nationwide mass uprising against the “Pakistani conspiracy” and demanded immediate withdrawal of the case and release of all prisoners, including Mujibur Rahman.

At a point when the streets of Dhaka and other major towns became a hotbed of turmoil, Sergeant Zahurul Haq, accused number 17, was shot dead in Dhaka Cantonment. The news led a furious mob to set fire to the State Guest House as well as other buildings. Many important files pertaining to the case were destroyed. Ayub Khan was forced to withdraw the case on February 22, 1969. All the accused were released unconditionally. Ayub had to quit and hand over power to army chief Yahya Khan.

The plan of the Bengali officers of the Pakistan military did not succeed as it was neither strategically well-defined nor clearly chalked out. But despite the failure, the plan contributed to the ultimate people's upsurge for the secession of East Pakistan, resulting in the creation of Bangladesh. Ahead of the formal charge, P.N. Ojha, First Secretary to the Indian High Commission in Dhaka, was declared persona non grata by the Pakistan government.

Agartala thus played a significant role in mobilising public opinion against the Pakistani misrule. While the largest influx of refugees from East Pakistan was in West Bengal, Tripura sheltered more than 15 lakh of them — more than the State's total population at that time. Its jungles and terrain were also the hub of Mukti Bahini's activities.

On Wednesday, Sheikh Hasina will call on Vice-President Hamid Ansari and attend a banquet hosted by him. Chief Minister Manik Sarkar and Governor D.Y. Patil will meet her later in the day. Sheikh Hasina is also expected to meet businessmen to discuss ways to boost trade between Bangladesh and India's northeast.

On January 12, Sheikh Hasina will inaugurate an open-air theatre and unveil a statue of Rabindranath Tagore at Tripura University and join the convocation. Later in the afternoon, she will be accorded a grand civic reception on the Assam Rifles ground by the Tripura government and the Agartala Municipal Council.

MFN status

Recently, media reports quoting Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram said India decided to accord Bangladesh the “most preferred nation” status to boost cross-border trade. It is welcome, particularly when there is criticism that India wants to turn Bangladesh into its market, giving very little access to the smaller neighbour to enter India with its products.

Even moderate Bangladeshis who steadfastly believe in greater India-Bangladesh relations say that in the interest of the durability of the new found relations between the two countries, the Teesta water-sharing deal should be concluded without wasting much time, people of Bangladesh be assured that the proposed Tipaimukh hydro project in Manipur will not be environmentally detrimental to them, and that transit facilities to India, yet to operationalise formally, will be economically beneficial for Bangladesh.

(The writer, a Bangladesh author and journalist, can be reached at hh1971@gmail.com.)

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