The emergence of the provisional Bangladesh government in Mujibnagar, forty five years ago on April 17, 1971, was a seminal moment for the Bengali nation. In Meherpur of Chuadanga, the senior leaders of the Awami League, close associates of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, came together to proclaim before the world that out of the fury of a swiftly enveloping war had emerged a government, the overriding purpose behind it being the liberation of an oppressed country.
Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmed, M. Mansoor Ali and A.H.M Quamruzzaman informed their fellow Bengalis and then the world that occupied Bangladesh was ready for a twilight struggle against Pakistan. It did not matter that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been spirited away to prison somewhere in Pakistan. But it did matter that he was the symbol of the struggle about to be launched by a nation brutalized by savagery. Long hours had been spent working out the details of the announcement of the government, its line-up and its objectives. Men like Amirul Islam, the eminent lawyer, had worked on the draft proclamation that would be read out on the occasion. And Yusuf Ali, teacher turned politician, was there to do the job. He would do it with finesse. Journalists from the global media had been told of the event and on the day would make sure they were there to take in the measure of Bengali resistance to Pakistan.
The moment was a first for Bengalis in their thousand-year history. Of course, Sirajuddoulah, the last independent nawab of Bengal, had perished in 1757, waging war against the British and their local cohorts in defence of a lost cause. But here was Bengal, or the eastern part of a whole truncated already through the grim turn of events in 1947, ready to rise in defence of its self-esteem. There was a qualitative difference between Sirajuddoulah and the men about to transform themselves into a government in April 1971. It was simple: the political structure which Tajuddin Ahmed and his associates hurriedly cobbled into shape would be the first Bengali government in history. Never before had Bengalis governed themselves. Now, caught between a rock and a hard place, the government that would come to be known as Mujibnagar had chosen to strike back.
Much good and many unprecedented events flowed from 17 April 1971. Students, academics, doctors, lawyers, artistes, politicians, civil servants, journalists, diplomats, soldiers, peasants, workers --- all rallied to the cause. Thousands of young men simply marched from their villages and their towns and then trekked through woodlands and swam across streams and rivers to link up with Mujibnagar. What had till 25 March been the improbable turned out to be the eminently possible. Songs of revolution that Bengalis had never heard before became part of their existence through Shwadhin Bangla Betar. Bengali officers of the Pakistan army, now no more with it and very much a moving force behind the resistance, forged a guerrilla force named the Mukti Bahini and let it loose upon the marauding men from the mountains of the distant west.
Bangabandhu had been abducted by the Pakistan army; and not one of us knew where the rest of the Awami League leadership echelon was at that point. We would, of course, know subsequently that even as we worried about the future, Tajuddin Ahmed and Amirul Islam were making frantic efforts to locate the other men who would form the core of the Mujibnagar government. Over a period of nearly a month, Syed Nazrul Islam, Mansoor Ali, Quamruzzaman, M.A.G. Osmany and a host of others would link up with Tajuddin Ahmed.
It is that lighting of the candle in the dark we celebrate this morning. The men who built the edifice of Bengali resistance little knew before 25 March 1971 of the huge ordeal that lay ahead of them. They were men whose belief in constitutional politics had been total and unequivocal. And yet these were the men on whose shoulders devolved the responsibility of guiding a bewildered, frightened nation to freedom. They did the job marvellously well. They shaped a revolution that would put into global political orbit the first sovereign Bengali republic in history.
On 17 April 1971, a nation was born anew, a dream was rekindled, a people rediscovered hope through reinventing themselves.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer