Soon after the 1965 war, Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman launched his Six points movement for provincial autonomy. Ayub Khan’s government asserted that this movement was using the issue of provincial autonomy as a smokescreen and its real aim was the secession of East Pakistan. In the beginning, Ayub Khan’s government itself publicized the six points because it was thought that by projecting the six points as a “secessionist conspiracy”, Sheikh Mujib would become discredited as a traitor in East Pakistan. This poorly thought out tactic backfired spectacularly and instead resulted in increasing popularity for both Sheikh Mujib and the Six points in East Pakistan. Feeling a bit threatened, the government arrested Sheikh Mujib in May 1966. The Awami League tried to launch a mass movement for his release but it couldn’t get off the ground due to public apathy and fizzle out soon.
In December 1967, many Bengali civil servants and military officers were arrested. It was alleged that these people had been conspiring to break up Pakistan with the help of India. There was also talk that some Bengali Military personnel had tried to kidnap or assassinate President Ayub Khan in Dhaka in order to attain their nefarious objectives. Later, it was revealed that a group of thirty-five Bengali military and civil officials were to be tried for conspiracy and treason against the state of Pakistan under the “Agartala Conspiracy Case”. In the first list of the accused, released by the government, there was no mention of Sheikh Mujib. But, in January 1968 Sheikh Mujib’s was added to the list. Not only that but he was listed as the no.1 accused.
Facts of the case and the events which transpired
In 1965, Sheikh Mujib visited India and met Indian officials. He also had a meeting with some dissident Bengali officials in which he encouraged them to continue their anti-Pakistan activities. Thus, was born the Agartala conspiracy. It was named so because the conspirators held meetings with Indian officials in the Indian town of Agartala (located close to the Indo-East Pakistan border). An official of the Indian Foreign service P. N. Ojha facilitated the meetings.
There is no doubt that Sheikh Mujib gave his blessings to the Agartala conspiracy and it has been openly acknowledged by his daughter Sheikh Hasina, and an Agartala conspirator Shaukat Ali, but the extent of his active involvement after his arrest is unclear. G. W. Chaudhry has reported that Sheikh Mujib kept active contact with the conspiracy even while he was in jail, and in fact, he was leading the conspiracy from his jail cell. Other sources, however, report that Lt. Commander Moazzam Hossein of the Pakistan Navy was practically leading the conspiracy on the ground. In the first list of conspirators released by the government of Pakistan, Moazzam Hossein was listed as the no. 1 accused.
Pakistani authorities first learned about the conspiracy through a tip-off from a patriotic Bengali citizen to Lt. Colonel Amir of the ISI in July 1966. Initially, Colonel Amir’s reports about the conspiracy weren’t taken too seriously by the higher-ups but soon the evidence started to pile up. Sheikh Mujib was already in jail but the correspondences and phone calls of the other leading conspirators including Moazzam Hossein left no doubt that a serious conspiracy to dismember Pakistan was being planned.
When the case was first made public, the initial reaction of the East Pakistan press and civil society was to denounce the traitors vociferously. This changed overnight when Sheikh Mujib was listed as the no. 1 accused on 18 January 1968. Now, it was alleged in East Pakistan that the whole case was a forgery and nothing more than a political ploy by the government in order to discredit Sheikh Mujib. A special tribunal under Justice S. A. Rahman was set up. It was also decided that instead of a trial behind closed doors, there will be an open trial.
In November 1968, Z.A. Bhutto launched a huge popular movement in West Pakistan against General Ayub Khan’s government. It has been reported by some sources that this movement had the acquiescence of Army Chief General Yahya Khan and a coterie of other Generals. Soon after, the unrest also engulfed East Pakistan and Sheikh Mujib was lauded there as a brave leader who was facing the might of a tyrannical government. Z. A. Bhutto himself went to Dhaka to represent Sheikh Mujib in the Agartala case. Many other politicians in West Pakistan also jumped on the bandwagon and started demanding Sheikh Mujib’s immediate release and withdrawal of the Agartala case.
On 15 February, Sergeant Zahurul Huq, an accused in the Agartala case, was killed in custody. It was alleged that he was trying to escape but no one in East Pakistan was ready to believe it. As a result, public anger against the government multiplied manifold. Under pressure in both West and East Pakistan, the government withdrew the Agartala case on 22nd February 1968 and released all the accused. Sheikh Mujib was lauded and given the title “Bangabandhu” (Friend of Bengal) at a grand reception in the Dhaka Racecourse by the Awami League.
A detailed analysis
The absence of Sheikh Mujib’s name in the first list of the accused, the fact of his being in jail for the past 19 months, and lack of any concrete evidence against Sheikh Mujib doomed the case as soon as Sheikh Mujib’s name was included in it. The government failed to appreciate that a leader with huge mass appeal like Sheikh Mujib cant is labeled a traitor lightly. In order to do so, either concrete evidence is needed (for example Vidkun Quisling’s conviction for high treason in Norway), or the state must have huge coercive power and complete control of all communications and media (Stalin’s liquidation of Old Bolsheviks like Bukharin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, etc in the 1930s). The flippant view of the situation hit the government, and the state, hard when the whole case had to be scrapped and all the traitors were “vindicated”.
Withdrawal of the case made it clear to all and sundry that the state was incapable of defending herself against treason. By this time, there was a clear faction (albeit in a huge minority) that advocated the break-up of Pakistan even with the help of India. That faction received huge encouragement and recruitment after the botched Agartala case.
The West Pakistani politicians who wanted to oust Ayub Khan (Bhutto, Asghar Khan, etc) also helped in making Mujib a hero. Mr. Bhutto (who was later to declare that Mujib was a confirmed traitor) even claimed credit for his release by the Ayub Khan government Gullibility, power-hunger and hatred of Ayub Khan blinded the West Pakistani politicians to the dangers posed to Pakistan by the treacherous conspirators.
What should have been done?
Einstein once said, “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” The Agartala conspiracy was such a crisis. It afforded a great opportunity for the government to destroy the secessionists in East Pakistan but instead, it made heroes out of them through clumsy handling and poor planning.
The government publicized the case before collecting rock-hard evidence against Sheikh Mujib. If the investigations had continued in secret, even after the arrests carried out in December 1967, it was likely that clear evidence of Sheikh Mujib’s collusion with the Indians would have surfaced. On the other hand, if it were to be deemed essential to make the conspiracy public due to a large number of arrests (1500 according to one account), then a different tactic could have been applied. The case could have been pursued vigorously without including Sheikh Mujib in it (due to lack of concrete evidence).
It was likely that in such a case, some conspirators would have implicated Sheikh Mujib anyway (without pressure from the authorities) in order to save themselves. Even if that had failed to pass, it would have greatly strengthened the state if it had successfully prosecuted and punished the treasonous officials. It would have acted as a deterrent for other would-be secessionists.
Instead of bowing down to this pressure, Ayub Khan should have stayed firm on the Agartala case. Had the case been properly run, and investigations did diligently, Ayub Khan could have used the case to counterattack his opponents by asserting that those advocating the withdrawal of the case were playing in the hands of the enemy. But, the slipshod investigative work and the poorly conducted judicial proceedings instead generated doubts about the veracity of the conspiracy even in the minds of patriotic Pakistanis.
The state of affairs after the event
Conducting an open trial also proved to be a mistake. It led to an open discussion on secession in East Pakistan. A closed-doors trial would have enabled the government to channel and modulate the discourse (which was necessary given the sensitive nature of the case). Competent officers should have been charged to handle the public relations/media aspects of the case in both national and international media. Patriotic political leaders (Nurul Amin, Ghulam Azam, Moulvi Farid, Fazl ul Qadir etc) should have been utilized to generate popular rhetoric to appeal to the masses against treason.
Simultaneously, demands for legitimate provincial autonomy and economic measures for East Pakistan should have been made in public meetings headed by these leaders. Subsequently, the government should have accepted these demands. That would have created the image of Mujib as a good-for-nothing traitor who couldn’t do any practical good for East Pakistan in contrast with the patriotic leaders who weren’t traitors and got the “West Pakistan dominated” Ayub Khan government to give in to the demands of East Pakistan.
The Awami League and Sheikh Mujib received a huge boost and left competitors like Maulana Bhashani (NAP), Nurul Amin (PDP), Fazl ul Qadir Chaudhry (Muslim League), Maulana Maududi and Professor Ghulam Azam (Jamaat-e-Islami) way behind in popularity. Many secessionists among the students and intelligentsia of East Pakistan now joined the Awami League and radicalized it further. Bhutto gained popularity in West Pakistan on the wave of his success against Ayub Khan. Ayub Khan was vanquished and a junta of Generals under Yahya Khan took over power in March 1969.
The writer is a doctor and an avid reader of history. His columns have been published in the Urdu daily “Nawa-e-Waqt”. He also runs a social media channel “Tarikh aur Tajziya” which is dedicated to the study of history and current affairs. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.