The mystery of the Agartala visitby Azizul Jalil
Most of the background and events leading to the war of liberation of 1971 are well-known. A mystery, however, remained whether Sheikh Mujibur Rahman went to Agartala to seek India’s assistance to liberate East Pakistan and if so, when did he go?
Sheikh Mujib visited London in 1956 on his way back from a trip to the USA. I had the privilege to spend a day with him, taking him round to different places, including the British Museum and Hyde Park Corner. At a small private dinner attended by the Sheikh that evening, he was asked whether the Awami League was an all-Pakistan party. Sheikh Mujib replied that he had hung up a signboard of the party through Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan in Lahore- the Awami League, however, was an East Bengal political party. He spiritedly stated that one should really consider how long East Bengal should remain within Pakistan.
In his ‘Unfinished Autobiography’, one can see how from the early days of Pakistan he and the Awami League had waged a struggle for more autonomy for East Bengal. The idea of independence was simmering in his mind since the mid-fifties and he was waiting for the right time to push it. That opportunity finally came when the verdict of the 1970 national polls was utterly disregarded and the army was let loose on the people of East Pakistan on March 25, 1971. But even before that, in the early nineteen-sixties, attempts were made by him to hasten its freedom by using every opportunity and means, including external support.
Let us begin with my conversation with Abdul Khaleque, who was the Superintendant of Police in Kushtia in 1966-67 when I was the Deputy Commissioner. I went from Kushtia to the President’s Secretariat in Rawalpindi. In early 1968, Khaleque came to Pindi for a conference with the Director of Central Intelligence. He was then the East Pakistan coordinator of the so-called Agartala Conspiracy Case. When he came to see me, I found him completely alienated from the actions of the government. In answer to my question whether there was any concrete evidence, he told me that there was none. It was the indiscrete talk by a few low-level Bengali army men that caught intelligence’s attention. When I enquired whether anyone had gone to Agartala, he said only a couple of junior- commissioned officers had gone but the Indians did not wish to deal with them.
In early 2005, I met the first foreign secretary of Bangladesh, S. A. Karim, in Dhaka. I conveyed to him my information that Sheikh Mujib had not gone to Agartala to seek Indian help. He said Mujib had definitely gone but much earlier than thought-in 1963. The revised edition of his book, Sheikh Mujib: Triumph and Tragedy published by UPL in 2009 mentions the details of Mujib’s journey and its outcome. The book in a footnote quotes one Muazzem Ahmed Choudhury, an old college friend of Mujibur Rahman, on Jawaharlal Nehru’s ambivalent reply: ‘We are prepared to help politically all democratic movements.’ Karim’s book also reports an interview in 1991 with Tripura Chief Minister, Sachin Sinha in which Nehru is said to have advised against any activity by Sheikh Mujib from Indian soil. Nehru was not desirous of undertaking any serious task so soon after India’s humiliating defeat in the north-eastern border war with China in October 1962. Karim writes that the visit remained a well-kept secret and even after the independence, the participants involved in this episode were reticent to talk about it. He also mentions that Shekh Mujib, in a discussion in 1974 with one Shamsuzzaman Khan said on condition that he would not be quoted until after twenty years that he did go to Agartala and had a useful discussion with the leaders there. He said it was not a conspiracy but ‘our striving for independence.’
Since then, I have read Sashanka Banerjee’s book titled ‘India, Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh Liberation and Pakistan’ published in 2011 and an Indian media personality, Manas Pal’s account in Bengal Newz of November 5, 2012. They also mention Sheikh Mujib’s secret visit to Agartala but their and Karim’s accounts vary in a few details.
Banerjee was a political officer in the Indian diplomatic mission in Dhaka in the early sixties, living next door to the Ittefaq office. He was surprised when on December 24, 1962 he was requested to visit the office of the Ittefaq editor, Tofazzal Hossain-popularly known as Manik Mia. At the office, he was introduced to Sheikh Mujib who handed over a confidential letter, which was to be sent to the Indian prime minister. The letter requesting Indian government’s material support to Bangladesh’s independence movement was forwarded to Delhi by cypher message. According to Banerjee, Sheikh Mujib’s plan was to go to London, declare independence of East Pakistan and form a provisional government there.
Due to the absence of senior government leaders at the time, response to the letter got delayed. Mujib became impatient and decided to hasten India’s response through the Tripura chief minister, Sinha. He, along with Manik Mia, secretly traveled to Tripura via Kulaura (Sylhet) in early 1963 and first reached the office-cum-residence of Samarjit Chakravarty, SDO Khowai. Samarjit had recorded the visit in his diary on a page, which showed the date-Feb. 5, 1962: ‘Today at about 1300 hrs, one Mr. Mujibur Rahman with Amir Hossain and T. Choudhury arrived here from Ashrambari. They were sent to Agartala under instruction from DM.’ In view of references to the post India-China border war of October 1962 in all discussions; it is possible that Samarjit was using a year-old diary. That note is the only available records of the Sheikh’s Agartala visit, until the Indian intelligence or the prime minister’s office declassify their old archive.
Sinha urgently went to Delhi to convey Sheikh Mujib’s request. Nehru’s opinion was that the moment was inopportune and he was not clear what material help was requested from India. He also wondered if Sheikh Mujib then had sufficient following among the Bengali people for a mass uprising. A frustrated Mujib decided to proceed no further and return to East Pakistan. While the matter was referred to in the Agartala Conspiracy Case trials in 1968-69, it was not pursued due to lack of any concrete evidence in respect of Sheikh Mujib.
After long fifty years, information on the visit is coming out. It would be appropriate now to consider whether Sheikh Mujib’s plan in the early-sixties was a practical proposition even if Nehru had decided to bless it. Would it have received the national and international support and sympathy that the Bangladesh’s independence struggle eventually received in 1971?
The move might have been premature. India, whose help was critical, was not ready to assist. I believe that Indian reluctance to support in 1963 was based on some or all of the following considerations: Firstly, there was no evidence that the people of East Pakistan were prepared at the time for such a sudden and abrupt separation from Pakistan. Secondly, most East Pakistanis had an adverse opinion of India and its intentions. The older generations had not forgotten the communal riots before and after the partition of India and the attitude of the Hindu Mahasabha and the right-wing of the Congress. Thirdly, Pakistan was solidly in the US camp and recipient of heavy economic and military aid from the US. It had a sufficiently strong army. Ayub Khan was still enjoying a high stature, both nationally and internationally. Fourthly, the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, which showed how defenseless East Pakistan was from Indian aggression, had not taken place. And lastly, no coherent program of autonomy had yet been announced. Awami League’s radical Six-point demands for autonomy and a democratic, political framework for inter-wing relationship on the basis of a possible confederation came only in 1966.
Thus, the objective conditions for a successful attempt by East Pakistanis for their liberation were not obtaining in 1963. Nehru’s benign neglect of East Pakistan’s national aspirations was perhaps a blessing in disguise. Mujib was statesmanlike, thereafter, in his constitutional step-by-step approach from 1966 on. He organized the people and the Awami League, relentlessly carried on a political movement for complete autonomy and succeeded in liberating the country.
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