On 22 February 1969, the Pakistan government of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, faced with massive protests in East Pakistan, withdrew the so-called Agartala Conspiracy Case and released without conditions all thirty four accused (the thirty-fifth, Sergeant Zahurul Haque, had been killed in Dhaka cantonment on 15 February) in the case.
A recapitulation of the background against which the case was instituted is necessary here.
In June 1968, the trial of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and thirty four other Bengalis in the so-called Agartala Conspiracy Case got under way. The case was to hasten the fall of Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Pakistan's dictator had thought the case would destroy Mujib. Ironically, it ended up destroying him.
Early in January 1968, in its attempt to prove that India was involved in the conspiracy to have East Pakistan secede from the rest of Pakistan and turn itself into an independent state, the Pakistan government expelled an Indian diplomat, P.N. Ojha, from Dhaka. The first reports of junior level Bengali officers of the Pakistan air force and navy being taken into custody by the government came in December 1967. It was not until 6 January 1968 that an official statement about the arrests would come from Rawalpindi. Altogether about fifteen hundred Bengalis were placed under arrest by the authorities on charges of conspiracy to bring about the dismemberment of Pakistan. But as yet no formal charges had been filed against any individuals because Pakistan's military intelligence was frantically going around trying to turn a large number of those detained into approvers and so testify in court against those who would be formally charged with the crime. On 18 January, the Pakistan government informed the country that thirty-five individuals had been charged with conspiracy to break up Pakistan and turn East Pakistan into an independent state with help from the Indian government. Top of the list was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, president of the East Pakistan Awami League and in detention since May 1966 under the Defence of Pakistan Rules.
The trial of the Agartala case accused began in the Dhaka cantonment on 19 June 1968 before a special tribunal comprising Justice S.A. Rahman, Justice Mujibur Rahman Khan and Justice Maksumul Hakeem. The last two were Bengalis and Hakeem was later in the era of General Ziaur Rahman and Justice Abdus Sattar) to be independent Bangladesh's ambassador abroad. A galaxy of lawyers was prepared to defend the accused. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's legal team was headed by the respected lawyer Abdus Salam Khan. On hand was Sir Thomas Williams, QC, from the United Kingdom. Sir Thomas was, however, compelled to go back because of his constant tailing by Pakistani intelligence. Ataur Rahman Khan, a former chief minister of East Pakistan, was defence counsel to his brother, the CSP officer Khan Shamsur Rahman. Among other lawyers for the defence was Khan Bahadur Mohammad Ismail. The one prominent legal presence for the prosecution was Manzur Quader, who had once served as foreign minister in Ayub Khan's government.
The Agartala case marked the rise of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the spokesman of the Bengalis. His abundance of self-confidence was made clear in the early stages of the trial. When a western journalist asked him what he expected his fate to be, Mujib replied with characteristic unconcern: "You know, they can't keep me here for more than six months." In the event, he was to be a free man in seven months' time. On the opening day of the trial, Mujib spotted before him, a few feet away, a journalist he knew. He called out his name, only to see the journalist not respond, obviously out of fear of all the intelligence agents present in the room. Mujib persisted. Eventually compelled to respond, the journalist whispered, "Mujib Bhai, we can't talk here . . ." And it was then that the future Bangabandhu drew everyone's attention to himself. He said, loud enough for everyone to hear him, "Anyone who wishes to live in Bangladesh will have to talk to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman."
Bhashani threatened to lead a crowd of Bengalis into the Dhaka cantonment if Mujib was not freed. An angry mob attacked the residential quarters of Justice S.A. Rahman, who flew off to West Pakistan with alacrity. Events moved in unprecedented speed after that. On 22 February 1969, Vice Admiral A.R. Khan, Pakistan's defence minister, announced the unconditional withdrawal of the Agartala Conspiracy Case and the release of all accused. The next day, a million-strong crowd roared its approval when Tofail Ahmed, then a leading student leader, proposed honouring Mujib as Bangabandhu, friend of Bengal. On 24 February, Mujib flew to Rawalpindi to argue the case for the Six Points.
On 5 December of the year, at a meeting to commemorate the death anniversary of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Bangabandhu told Bengalis that henceforth East Pakistan would be known as Bangladesh. The path to the future had been taken. r
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer