The Partition of British India on August 15th, 1947 created two self-governing entities: a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim Pakistan; this split set the stage for the unrest that ultimately resulted in the establishment of an independent Bangla nation. The Muslim majority states of Sindh, Baluchistan, the North-West Frontier, the wester portion of Punjab, and East Bengal formed Pakistan, while the rest of the former British Raj became India (British Burma was partitioned out of the Raj in 1938). Most of Pakistan was in the far western portion of the British Raj; however, one state was separated by 2000 kilometers (1300 miles) of Indian territory: East Bengal (which was later renamed to East Pakistan). Unlike the rest of Pakistan, East Pakistanis were Banglas, and thus preferred to speak Bangla rather than Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. However, Bangla was not a recognized language of Pakistan; Urdu was designated as the sole national language in 1948. In response, many Banglas began to advocate for the recognition of the Bengali language. This movement grew out of the Bangla population’s discontent with the central government based in West Pakistan. The Pakistani government steadfastly refused to recognize Bangla as a national or provincial language. Gradually, the movement that began as “Bhasha Andolôn (Bengali Language Movement)” evolved into a massive separatist movement. Many Banglas began to advocate for independence from West Pakistan. As a result, the Pakistani government began to reconsider its “Urdu-Only Policy.” The Pakistani constitution was later revised on May 7th 1944, and Bengali was made an official language on February 29th 1946. Afterwards, tensions in East Pakistan died down.
However, the relative peace would not last. In 1958 a military coup in Pakistan resulted in a new military regime headed by Ayub Khan of the Pakistan Armed Forces. From 1956 to 1958, there was a great deal of instability in West Pakistan because of the unpopularity of President Iskander Mirza, who turned to Commander-In-Chief Ayub Khan for assistance. Ayub Khan felt that an army takeover would be the best way to bring stability back to Pakistan. Later, Mirza handed over the Presidency to Ayub Khan. Early in his presidency, Ayub Khan was revered in West Pakistan; on the other hand, he was very unpopular in East Pakistan because he put the needs of West Pakistan above those of East Pakistan. Under Ayub Khan’s regime, East Pakistan did not get proper funding or representation, making it poorer and less developed than West Pakistan. As a result, Bangla separatism was brought back into the limelight.
Throughout the 1960’s, Bangla nationalism regained momentum. The Awami League, a purely Bangla party, emerged as the dominant force of East Pakistan. Its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, advocated for Bangla autonomy in his “Six-Point Demands” of 1966, in which he demanded that Pakistan be reorganized into a federal state; that East Pakistan be renamed to “Bangladesh”(literally “the land of Bengal”); and that Bangladesh be fully autonomous, with its own currency and armed forces. The Pakistani government rejected Sheikh’s demands, even though they were largely supported by the Bangla population. In response to the almost immediate rejection of the Six-Point Demands by the Pakistani Government, many Banglas formed militias. Over the next half-decade, anti-West-Pakistani sentiment became deep-rooted among the Bangla population. During this time, Ayub Khan lost popular support and handed over power to Yahya Khan, a fellow general. The growth of anti-West-Pakistani sentiment was accelerated when Yahya Khan’s government responded unsatisfactorily to the 1970 Great Bhola Cyclone, which caused heavy damage to East Pakistan. In early 1971, Bangla resistance militias began to take control of parts of East Pakistan. The resistance movement won the support of students and other intellectuals who helped spread the movement even further. On March 2nd 1971, students at the University of Dacca (now Dhaka) raised the Bangladeshi flag for the first time in history.
The Pakistani government wanted to destroy the Bangla insurgents as quickly as possible. Yahya Khan famously declared, “Kill 3 million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands!" Accordingly, the Pakistani Armed Forces began “Operation Searchlight,” a military operation that targeted Bangla militias and intellectuals in large cities and strategic areas. Operation Searchlight was the first of many military operations against the Bangla insurgents. These operations, which were carried out in 1971, were later classified as a genocide against Banglas. The University of Dacca was a major target for the Pakistani Armed Forces, who wanted to exterminate Bangla intellectuals and their influence. During the genocide, the University of Dacca was raided on March 25th, 1971. In the raid, most of the professors and hundreds of students were killed. This massacre was the last straw for Bangla nationalists. Soon after the Dacca University massacre, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared, “Today Bangladesh is a sovereign and independent country. On Thursday night, West Pakistani armed forces suddenly attacked the police barracks at Rajarbagh and the EPR headquarters at Pilkhana in Dacca. Many innocent and unarmed have been killed in Dhaka city and other places of Bangladesh. Violent clashes between E.P.R. and Police on the one hand and the armed forces of Pakistan on the other, are going on. The Bengalis are fighting the enemy with great courage for an independent Bangladesh. May Allah aid us in our fight for freedom. Joy Bangla (Victory to Banglas)!”
Though Sheikh’s message had limited reach, within days it was heard around the world. The message first reached some students in Chittagong, who translated it into Bengali and tried to broadcast it at the nearby Agrabad Radio Station. Much to their dismay, the students found out that the Agrabad Radio Station was run by the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation, which was government-owned. Fortunately, the message made its way to the Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro Radio Station, which had been established in Kalurghat by rebel Bangla workers. Major Ziaur Rahman, who was posted at the radio station, broadcasted the message and officially defected from Pakistan to Bangladesh: “This is Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. I, Major Ziaur Rahman, at the direction of Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman, hereby declare that [the] Independent People's Republic of Bangladesh has been established. At his direction, I have taken the command as the temporary Head of the Republic. In the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, I call upon all Bengalis to rise against the attack by the West Pakistani Army. We shall fight to the last to free our motherland. Victory is, by the Grace of Allah, ours. Joy Bangla.” Sheikh, who had been arrested at around 1:30 AM on March 26th, was not able to effectively lead the revolution, so Ziaur Rahman became the de facto leader of Bangladesh. The message was also shortly also picked up in the Bay of Bengal by a Japanese ship, which sent it to Radio Australia and then to the British Broadcasting Corporation. All three parties re-broadcasted the message, which was soon heard around the world.
From March to December of 1971, the guerilla force of Bangladesh, the Mukti Bahini, conducted fierce guerilla campaigns against the Pakistani Armed Forces. Starting in April 1971, the Government of India began to consider assisting the Mukti Bahini. On December 3rd, 1971, the Pakistani Airforce conducted a preemptive strike on Indian airbases. Because India had not yet begun any operations in Bangladesh, the preemptive strikes were denounced as “an open act of unprovoked aggression” by the Indian Government. After the air strikes, the Indian Armed Forces began operations against Pakistan and provided assistance to the Mukti Bahini. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Indian foreign intelligence agency, helped professionally train Mukti Bahini soldiers. In under 14 days of Indian Intervention, Pakistan lost control of East Pakistan and a ceasefire was enacted on December 16th, 1971. As a result, Bangladesh became a de facto independent nation. Within the next few years, Bangladeshi sovereignty was recognized by most countries, and Bangladesh joined the United Nations as a full member.
In conclusion, a movement started to promote the use of a language, ended up starting a bloody civil war and freeing Bangladesh. And thus, the three-decade struggle for Bangladeshi independence ended with a triumphant Bangladesh emerging from oppression.
*Bangla and Bengali are synonymous, with Bangla being the native name and Bengali being the Sanskrit/Hindi exonym. Historically, Bangla was preferred over Bengali in Bengal/Bangladesh itself. However, due to the partitioning of Bengal/Bangladesh by religious lines, the word Bengali has become more associated with Indian Bengal/Bangladesh, and Bangla has become more associated with Independent Bangladesh; *
*Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s family name is “Sheikh.” His family name comes first in his name.*
3: Bettman via Getty Images