19 June 1968 is today an indelible part of the history of the Bengali nation.
On this day, thirty five Bengalis, accused of conspiracy to break up Pakistan through declaring its eastern province as an independent state, were produced before a special tribunal in the Dhaka cantonment. The Agartala Conspiracy Case, officially known as State Versus Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Others, instituted by the government of Pakistan against Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and thirty-four other Bengalis remains a point of reference for students of Bangladesh's history. Much debate has ensued about the way the case changed the course of Bengali history and transformed the nature of politics and geography in South Asia, especially in the context of Pakistan and Bangladesh. There remains the opinion of those who have believed that the case effectively hastened the fall of the military regime of Field Marshal Ayub Khan. There are yet others who have held fast to the idea that when the Pakistan government decided to go ahead with the case and in fact gave formal shape to it, the state of Pakistan, by nature fragile, took an inexorable step toward decline in its eastern province.
The first hint of something going on in the Pakistani establishment came in December 1967, with reports of junior level Bengali officers of the Pakistan army, air force and navy being taken into custody by the government. It was not until 6 January 1968 that an official statement about the arrests would come from the ruling circles in Rawalpindi. Altogether about fifteen hundred Bengalis were placed under arrest by the authorities on charges of conspiracy to bring about the dismemberment of Pakistan. But as yet no formal charges were filed against any individuals, for the good reason that Pakistani military intelligence was frantically going around trying to convince a large number of those detained to turn approver and testify in court against those who would be formally charged with the crime. On 18 January, matters became somewhat clearer. The Pakistan government informed the country that thirty-five individuals had been charged with conspiracy to break up Pakistan and turn East Pakistan into an independent state with assistance from the Indian government. At the top of the list was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, president of the East Pakistan Awami League and in detention since May 1966 under the Defence of Pakistan Rules. The implication was clear: Mujib had spearheaded the conspiracy. In stark terms, the inference was that one of the more prominent of Bengali politicians had engaged in subterfuge and conspiracy to destroy the unity of the state of Pakistan!
The trial of the Agartala case accused began in the Dhaka cantonment on 19 June 1968 before a special tribunal comprising Justice S.A. Rahman, Justice Mujibur Rahman Khan and Justice Maksumul Hakeem. The last two were Bengalis and Hakeem was later to be independent Bangladesh's ambassador abroad. A galaxy of lawyers was on hand to defend the accused. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's legal team was headed by the respected lawyer Abdus Salam Khan. On hand was Sir Thomas Williams, QC, from the United Kingdom. Sir Thomas was, however, compelled to go back because of his constant tailing by Pakistani intelligence. Ataur Rahman Khan, a former chief minister of East Pakistan, was defence counsel to his brother, the CSP officer Khan Shamsur Rahman. Among other lawyers for the defence was Khan Bahadur Mohammad Ismail. The one prominent legal presence for the prosecution was Manzur Quader, a noted lawyer who had once served as foreign minister in Ayub Khan's government.
The proceedings of the trial were presented in detail through the print media, which perhaps was one particular reason why the Bengalis of East Pakistan began to develop the notion that the whole show was a farce and aimed at humiliating not just Mujib but also an entire people. Such feelings gained ground when quite a few government witnesses turned hostile and told the tribunal that they had been physically and psychologically tortured into becoming approvers in the case. And then came the death in custody of one accused, Sergeant Zahurul Haq, on 15 February 1969. With the country already seething in anger and with demands for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's unconditional release rising in crescendo for him to take part in a round table conference called by President Ayub Khan, the Agartala case looked doomed. For a while, the idea of Mujib going to the Rawalpindi talks on parole was bandied about, until Mujib decided to ask for a withdrawal of the case and the unconditional release of all detainees. But all this was in early 1969, when Ayub Khan faced problems on the West Pakistan front as well. Having imprisoned Khan Abdul Wali Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in November 1968, he was now on the back foot trying to have them freed without any loss to his dignity.
The Agartala case marked the rise, in meteoric manner, of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the spokesman of the Bengalis. His courage of conviction where his principles were concerned and an abundance of self-confidence were made clear in the early stages of the trial. When a western journalist asked him what he expected his fate to be, Mujib replied with characteristic unconcern: "You know, they can't keep me here for more than six months." In the event, he was to be a free man in seven months' time. On the opening day of the trial, Mujib spotted before him, a few feet away, a journalist he knew well. He called out his name, only to find the journalist not responding, obviously out of fear of all those intelligence agents present in the room. Mujib persisted. Eventually compelled to respond, the journalist whispered, "Mujib Bhai, we can't talk here . . ." And it was at that point that the future Bangabandhu drew everyone's attention to himself. He said, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Anyone who wishes to live in Bangladesh will have to talk to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman."
Everyone eventually did. Bhashani threatened to lead a crowd of Bengalis into the Dhaka cantonment if Mujib was not freed. An angry mob swooped on the residential quarters of Justice S.A. Rahman, who quickly flew off to West Pakistan. Events moved in unprecedented speed after that. On 22 February 1969, Vice Admiral A.R. Khan, Pakistan's defence minister, announced in Dhaka the unconditional withdrawal of the Agartala Conspiracy Case and the release of all accused. The next day, a million-strong crowd roared its approval when Tofail Ahmed, then a leading student leader, proposed honouring Mujib as Bangabandhu, friend of Bengal. On 24 February, Bangabandhu flew off to Rawalpindi to argue the case for the Six Points.
On 5 December of that year, at a meeting to remember Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, Bangabandhu would inform Bengalis that henceforth East Pakistan would be known as Bangladesh. It was light unto the future. A nation was coming of age. A leader had arrived.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer