Chapter 1: March 1971 The impending disaster and the beginning of the end

Chapter 1: March 1971 The impending disaster and the beginning of the end

Analyses and Contexts: How and why explained

1. Daily Mirror - 10 March 1971

‘On the brink’

Gordon Jeffry explored whether the situation in East Pakistan was ‘On the brink’. He wanted to know whether there would be a last-minute compromise or a civil war.

His major points:

  • ‘Pakistan has been a freak since' its creation. It consists of 'an eastern region and a western region divided by more than 1,000 miles of … Indian territory’.
  • The current problems arose due to the economic and political systems in Pakistan. They were responsible for the relative poverty and wealth of the two wings.
  • Kashmir issues added to the problems of Pakistan as a central state with two wings.
  • The cyclone in December 1970 in East Pakistan caused thousands of deaths. The response of the Pakistani authorities to this, failed to impress the Bengalis. The recent explosion of their anger was due to a feeling that the ‘central government' was 'ignoring their plight’.
  • Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s demand for a new constitution would have turned East Pakistan into a virtually independent country.
  • To prevent a showdown, Yahya Khan announced on 9 March 1971 that he would go to the eastern wing to make a final bid to resolve the impasse.

Illustrated London News - 20 March 1971

‘Crisis in Pakistan – International commentary’

Neville Maxwell explored the similarities and differences between two movements. One to create Pakistan in the 1940s and the other to ‘present Bengal demand for autonomy’.

His major points: 

  • “Then religion was the sharp point of division, now it is culture, race and religion'. He thought that 'the emotion, the rhetoric, even sometimes the tactics... of the present Bengal demand for autonomy ring very close to those of the Muslim demand of the 1940s.”
  • Both Yahya Khan and Lord Mountbatten faced a similar problem of how to transfer power to the elected representatives. But there were many differences between them too.
  • Mountbatten had an option of divide and quit in the face of threats of boycotts of the process. The ‘Pakistani army' did not have the same option as it 'is not going away. It has nowhere else to go'. The 'option of “divide and quit”, which Lord Mountbatten had was 'not there for President Yahya’.
  • Yahya Khan’s stated position was the integrity of Pakistan. But there was a longer historical context of Bengal nationalism. This means that it would not be so easy for the Pakistani military ruler to confront what he was facing.
  • West Pakistan looked towards the Middle East for identity and cultural connections. The East Pakistanis wanted to re-establish their relationship with the Bengali people in India.
  • The Bengalis of East Pakistan thought the culture of West Pakistan was more alien to them, but their Bengali culture was part of south-east Asia.
  • Important factors that divided the two wings of Pakistan include:
    • the attempt to ‘make Urdu the national language, to the exclusion of Bengali’
    • the economic disparity and political inequality
  • The demands of the Bengalis amounted to an ‘insistence on de facto independence’.
  • Sheikh Mujibur Rahman refrained from declaring independence. Maulana Bhashani was ‘saying that only a sovereign East Bengal would... satisfy the people’s aspirations’.
  • The positions of the two sides were such that it was ‘hard to see any middle ground for a genuine compromise’.
  • The gulf between the Bengalis ‘demand for autonomy and the soldiers’ commitment to the integrity of Pakistan' was vast.
  • Both sides saw the situation somewhat differently.
  • Yahya Khan judged the movement behind Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to be shallow.  As such, he will be ‘more willing to resort finally to repression if he feels that is the only alternative to secession’.
  • ‘But suppression could only fuel rebelliousness’. The movement in East Pakistan could ‘transfer its leadership to the small radical groups’.
  • Bengali Nationalism has shown itself resilient and irrepressible in the past. As such, 'any short-term victory won now by President Yahya promises to make his – or his successors – final defeat more sure’. 

Daily Mirror - 31 March 1971Mirror scope

‘The Next Vietnam?’ 

Tariq Ali wrote a scathing attack on the Pakistani military action in East Pakistan. He also explored why the ‘present explosion in East Bengal was not unexpected'.

The article provided details of disparities between the two provinces of Pakistan. An example was that although the population of the East was larger than the West, it ‘has not been allowed to exercise political power’.

A litany of reasons was provided to explain the rebellion in East Pakistan: 

  • ‘West Pakistani businessmen have exploited it as a semi-colony'. They 'used the profits to promote industrial development in West Pakistan’. 
  • The ‘Pakistani Army… composed almost exclusively of West Pakistanis'.  The 'Civil Service has discriminated against Bengalis and used racist arguments to maintain Punjabi hierarchy’. 
  • An example of east-west disparity was that there were ‘26,000 hospital beds in the West', and 'only 6,000 in the East’ 
  • The revolt by East Pakistanis and the current explosive situation was due to the ‘mammoth election victory’ of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s nationalist Awami League in the 1970 general election.
  • The ‘Awami League in office would begin to right some of the wrongs’. To prevent this, the racist minority force, invaded the eastern wing.
  • It would be impossible for the Pakistani military to survive in an ‘unfamiliar terrain surrounded by an extremely hostile and embittered people'. They 'speak a different language, have a different culture and possess a vigorous revolutionary nationalist background’. 
  • The geographical and other contexts mean that the Bengalis will ‘force the invading armies out’.

Photo caption: Daily Mirror, 31 March 1971: The New Vietnam by Tariq Ali. Image/article courtesy of

News reports 1

Towards the point of no return

 On 2 March 1971, the Birmingham Daily Post reported that on 1 March 1971, President Yahya Khan of Pakistan postponed the National Assembly. In response, a crowd gathered outside the stadium and stopped a scheduled international cricket match. The players and officials involved were escorted, under protection, to a hotel.

On 5 March 1971, the Belfast Telegraph reported that the Pakistani authorities were reinforcing ‘Dacca’. This was in response to the anger of the people who took to the streets and began to blockade the city. Earlier Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had ‘bluntly’ turned down Yahya Khan’s invitation for talks.

The authorities had cut off communications. The airport was closed, and the police disappeared from the streets. Awami League supporters were patrolling the streets. The Pakistan army guarded key points, supported by two helicopters patrolling overhead.

On the same day, 5 March 1971, the Aberdeen Evening Press thought that Pakistan was on the 'brink of spilt after clashes’. It reported Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s claim that 300 people were killed during the last few days from clashes with security forces. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman also branded President Yahya Khan’s invitation for the round table talk as ‘a cruel joke’. The general strike called by Rahman had turned ‘Dacca’ into a ghost town.

The Birmingham Daily Post simultaneously reported Sheikh Mujibur Rahman saying that the Pakistani army was 'behaving like an occupation force'. He also claimed that soldiers had 'opened machine gun fire on unarmed people’.  ‘At Iqbal Hall of Dacca University, students guarded eight bodies retrieved after overnight firing'. In 'one hospital, there were 13 dead and 60 seriously wounded people. Martial law and a 12-hour curfew were imposed 'after looting, arson, killing in various districts. Effigies and flag were burnt. Hotel Intercontinental was forced to remove English signs’.

On the eve of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's now famous 7 March speech, rumours circulated that he would be making an independent declaration. The Birmingham Daily Post reported on 6 March that President Yahya Khan would be speaking that day. The situation continued to deteriorate. A crowd claimed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to be the founder of Bangladesh. They burnt an effigy of Jinnah and flew a new “Bengal Flag”.

The Sunday Mirror, dated 7 March 1971, published a story with the headline ‘Pakistan won’t split up says leader’. It reported that on the 6 March 1971, Yahya Khan promised that “No matter what happens” he will “ensure the complete integrity of Pakistan’. The purpose of postponing the planned assembly was “to allow time for passions to cool.” The president fixed 25 March as the day for the new Assembly.

On 8 March 1971, the Aberdeen Press Journal reported that ‘East Pakistan leader offers breathing space’. Instead of declaring independence, Sheikh Mujib made new demands during his 7 March 1971 speech. He called for an end to martial law and return to popular rule before he would consider attending the National Assembly. He listed four conditions: end martial law, an enquiry into the killings, troops go back to barracks and transfer of power.

On 22 March 1971, the Birmingham Daily Post produced a report on the continuing escalation under the headline ‘Troops fire on market’.  On 21 March 1971 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman claimed that troops opened fire and killed several people in a crowded market. He did not know the number of casualties. On the same day, the Birmingham Daily Post reported that strict security measures were taken as Bhutto arrived in Dhaka for talks with Yahya.

About 200 people chanted “Bhutto go home,” when he arrived, and “we don’t want you as a guest”. Radio Dhaka  reported that an immediate meeting took place between Yahya and Bhutto after the latter's arrival.

While Bhutto was flying into 'Dacca', Yahya Khan had an unscheduled meeting with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Mujib said that the civil disobedience movement would continue, and the Bengalis were determined to live as free citizens, not as a colony. Bhutto sought clarification and threatened to boycott the scheduled National Assembly. The region was plunged into crisis when Yahya Khan postponed the National Assembly session until 25 March 1971.

News reports 2

On 8 March 1971, the Coventry Evening Telegraph reported that the British Foreign Office urged ‘Britons... to quit East Pakistan’, advising all non-essential British community to leave East Pakistan - women and children to be the priority.

The paper pointed out that there were about 1,000 British people in East Pakistan, of which, 400 were in ‘Dacca’. The British High Commission in East Pakistan made efforts to contact the British community in the country. So far, no incidents involving any British people had been reported. Flights were still operating.

On 10 March 1971, the Belfast Telegraph on ran a story on the arrival of ‘British Refugees from East Pakistan'. About 76 British evacuees were flown back to London via a BOAC VC-10 flight, arriving at Heathrow early in the morning. Most were women and children. Some talked about their ‘fears of civil war’ in East Pakistan.

The situation deteriorated when East Pakistan’s leaders gave new orders to its population. Government taxes and money transfers from East to West Pakistan were to stop. Austrian born Mary Brindle from Osterley, gave an interview to reporters. She said: “No food was coming, and the Government offices and hospitals' closed down.

On 12 March 1971 The Birmingham Daily Post reported on the chaotic scenes of Bengalis trying to leave West Pakistan, who thronged to Karachi airport fearing a bloodbath. It looked like a refugee camp, as the place became cramped with Bengali families and their belongings. The paper provided some examples of chaos and the impact on those trying to leave. In the chaos, some passengers found it difficult to get to their seat on the booked Boeing 707 flight and some were left stranded as the plane took off without them.

The Birmingham Daily Post ran a headline on 16 March 1971: ‘Worst is yet to come, say Britons Leaving East Pakistan'. It reported that the impending crisis has triggered population movements in different directions. RAF Britannia evacuated 119 people from Dhaka and flew them to Singapore on 14 March 1971. “The group included many women and children, and six Roman Catholic Sisters from the Oxford Mission at Barisal, about 160 miles from Dacca.”

The Birmingham Daily Post reported on 31 March 1971 that many French and Yugoslav refugees were evacuated. The USA, Russia and India were reported to be seeking a common approach to help end the fighting.

No British local newspapers published any reports of Hindu refugees leaving East Pakistan for India during March 1971. The Hindu refugee migration became the main feature of the mass population movements during the nine-month war.

News reports 3

East Pakistani responses in BritainPakistan will it be war or peace

For the Pakistanis in the UK from both wings, March 1971 was a very tense month. On 8 March 1971 The Birmingham Daily Post reported a demonstration outside the Pakistan High Commission in London which has taken place the previous day. About 2,000 Pakistanis were protesting against developments in their country of origin.

There was a clash between the demonstrators and the police. The organisers handed in a resolution protesting the position of the Pakistani army leadership. It is likely that this was timed to coincide with the planned 7th March speech of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Later in the month, after the 25th-night crackdown had started British, local newspapers covered two more stories of developments in the UK. On 29 March 1971 The Birmingham Daily Post reported ‘Ten arrests at a meeting to back East Pakistan’. This happened at a gathering of about 6,000 people in Small Heath Park, Birmingham on 28 March. Details of the charges were not revealed. The event was organised to ‘express solidarity with the leader of breakaway East Pakistan, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’.

The Secretary of the Bangla Desh Action Committee, Aziz Ul Haq Bhuia, said at the gathering that 'they were trying to raise a million pound to buy at least 100,000 rifles’. The new flag of Bangla Desh was raised at the event.

On 30 March 1971, The Coventry Evening Telegraph ran a story looking at the 'shattered… dreams’ of two Pakistanis. Fazlul Haque, a senior salesman with Phillips, no longer believed in Pakistan. He was now supporting the liberation efforts of the Bengalis in the eastern wing. Zia Butt, General Secretary of the Pakistan Workers Association, thought that ‘common people in both wings have been exploited’.

East Pakistani responses in Britain Fazlul spoke about how his heart was bleeding at the deaths of his people by the guns of Yahya Khan, describing the latter as ‘the most vile enemy of Pakistan’. He thought although the ‘East Bengalis' were 'not a war-like race' like 'the people of West Pakistan', the desire for 'freedom and liberties were indestructible. No guns and brutal force' were 'enough to conquer the soul and desire of the people’. He claimed that East Pakistan became a colony. The people ‘lived in a dream world', now 'shattered by the bullets of Yahya Khan’s army’.

Zia saw the unfolding story in a different light. He blamed the ‘leader of the majority party in the National Assembly’, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, for ‘not waiting for the political power to come to him through the democratic process'. He thought that Rahman had 'regrettably allowed the situation to get completely out of control’.

In contrast to Fazlu's view that East Pakistan had become a colony, Zia pointed out that 'two heads of state and three prime ministers' of Pakistan were 'East Pakistanis'. There were also 'many ministers in the central government’.

Zia considered the Bengalis to be responsible for their lack of economic development. He claimed that ‘West Pakistani industrialists came to the rescue and established industries in East Pakistan for the benefit of our brethren’. He felt that it was ‘shameful when one brother kills another', but the 'President (Yahya Khan) had no choice but to step in and normalize the situation and transfer the power to the elected representatives of the people’.

Photo captions: Reading Evening Post, 19 August 1971: PAKISTAN Will it be was or peace?
Image/article courtesy of (Top image) 

The Coventry Evening Telegraph, 30 March 1971: Bullets have shattered our dreams v. The Est has neglected its own people.
Image/article courtesy of (Bottom image)

News reports 4

The point of no return
The military action on the night of 25 March

According to the Aberdeen Evening Press on 27 March 1971, ‘at least 10,000 civilians... killed in East Pakistan when troops used tanks and artillery' against the supporters of 'Sheikh Mujibur Rahman'. The newspaper said that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had 'proclaimed independence for the eastern wing of the country’. This report was based on information provided by the Press Trust of India.

On 27 March, the Aberdeen Evening Press also reported that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was 'under arrest and that the situation' was “well in hand”. This was from a broadcast by Radio Pakistan. The Coventry Evening Telegraph on the same day contradicted the Radio Pakistan report, based on information provided by 'India radio monitors'.

According to a 'clandestine broadcast' from East Pakistan, picked up by the Indians, the '51-year old head of the Awami League said he was free’. “The radio quoted the Sheikh as saying he was in the port of Chittagong'.  According to 'unconfirmed reports reaching India', the city was 'under the control of the Awami League'. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman said in the broadcast, “I am in Chittagong.”

On 27 March 1971 the Liverpool Echo reported: ‘Martial law chief killed’. Based on a report from United News of India, ‘that the chief martial law administrator of East Pakistan, Lieutenant-General Tikka Khan, died of injuries received during an attack on his residence in Dhaka by supporter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’. The newspaper pointed out that no other sources had confirmed ‘this latest report’. It also reported that the ‘Pakistan air Force planes today bombed East Pakistan town of Comilla. This was based on 'reliable reports received by the Press Trust of India news agency’.

The People reported on 28 March 1971 that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman promised victory in a day or two to the people of East Pakistan. This was from ‘a clandestine radio broadcast picked up in the Indian capital’. The People pointed out that most of the news about what was going on in East Pakistan was coming from rival sides and that they contradicted each other.

On 28 March 1971 the Sunday Mirror reported that in Jessore ‘1,500 rebels died when they tried to seize the airport'. They were 'clad only in loin-cloths and carrying bamboo staves and daggers’. The ‘conditions of 800 Britons still in East Pakistan' was still 'uncertain’, according to a Foreign Office spokesman in London.

The Aberdeen Press and Journal reported on 29 March 1971 that 'the martial law authorities' claimed that 'the army were in complete control throughout East Pakistan'. But 'radio reports monitored in India said troop reinforcements had been called for’.

On 29 March 1971 the Reading Evening Post reported that “Free Bangla Radio,” monitored in Calcutta announced the establishment of a provisional Government of Bangla Desh (Bengali Nation) under Major Jia Khan, described as the “head of the liberation army.”

'The clandestine station said that Sheikh Mujibur would guide the government from Chittagong. But Radio Pakistan reiterated Sheikh Mujibur was under arrest. The simmering Indo-Pakistan dispute was brought into the crisis, when the Pakistan Government accused India of interference in its domestic affairs. It also charged that India had set up a clandestine radio on a ship in the River Hooghly near Calcutta which was broadcasting concocted stories about the situation in East Pakistan.’

On 30 March 1971 the Birmingham Post reported clashes in 'Dacca' based on information provided by the Press Trust of India. ‘Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s “Liberation Army” and West Pakistani troops' were said to be involved in 'fighting pitched battle in Dacca’. The Pakistan radio contradicted this by claiming that 'all was calm in East Pakistan'. The curfew was now 'relaxed and life returning to normal in the capital’.

Based on reports from the United News of India, the newspaper reported that 'Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’’s Dacca residence had been destroyed by the army'. They also 'used machine guns to kill 75 Awami League volunteers guarding it’.

Foreign correspondents who managed to leave East Pakistan felt that 'the East Pakistan resistance movement could not last long in the face of the well-armed West Pakistani troops’, most of whom were Punjabis.

The last report on the conflict during the month was on the wrecking of ‘E. Pakistan naval base’. On 31 March 1971 the Birmingham Daily Post reported contradictory accounts coming from Indian news media and Pakistan official radio. The Indians reported heavy fighting taking place in East Pakistan. The 'port of Chittagong had been set on fire by artillery shelling and the naval base there wrecked’. Whereas according to Pakistani sources, ‘Dacca and other cities were calm’. More independent, Tokyo’s Kyodo agency's report supported the Indian version of developments in Chittagong. Captains of Japanese ships moored in the harbour reported that ‘big fires had been raging since Monday night and that many bodies were floating in the harbour’.