The meaning of the 'Agartala Conspiracy' cannot be made clear without a short discussion of the birth of Pakistan and how Pakistan turned into an undemocratic state, ignoring the rights and aspirations of the Bengal Muslims.
Ironically it was the Bangalis who played a critical role in the creation of Pakistan when the British decided to leave the subcontinent after 200 years of colonial rule.
The beginning of the Second World War, the advent of the age when colonialism was no more in moral vogue and the Indian independence movement gaining pace --- all of these factors together made it clear that the end of British rule was imminent.
It was then that the demand for a separate land for Muslims got louder. There are many and complex tenets as to why the Muslims wanted a separate land. In simple terms, it could be said that the Muslims were lagging in political, economic and social spheres than their Hindu counterparts.
The Bangalis had the bitter memory of 1911 when the British were forced to annul the partition of Bengal in the face of tooth and nail opposition from the Congress, seen by the Muslims as a forum representing the cause of the Hindus.
The British partitioned Bengal in 1905 with the aim that the Muslim majority in the eastern part of Bengal (that today represents Bangladesh) would advance economically and socially if it was made a separate unit.
The Muslims had welcomed the move and so when the partition was annulled they thought the Hindus would not let them grow and rallied around Mohammad Ali Jinnah for a separate homeland.
So history found one Bangali in AK Fazlul Huq, who moved the Lahore Resolution at the 1940 All India Muslim League general session, which effectively demanded the creation of separate independent states for Muslims. That marked a defining moment for the creation of Pakistan.
As a precursor to independence, the British government called an election in 1946 for establishing a constituent assembly to draw up the constitution of an independent India.
The Congress and the Muslim League got into a direct fray over their domination in the provinces. The creation of Pakistan, a separate state for the Muslims, was high on the Muslim League's agenda and the League desperately needed support from the Muslim majority provinces because so far all its support came from Muslim minority provinces where the Muslims were fearful of Hindu domination.
In the election, the Muslim League got an overwhelming majority only in Bengal and Sindh, which bolstered Jinnah's demand for Pakistan.
It was on the strength of this election result that Jinnah stood his ground for Pakistan when negotiating with the last viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, whose sole mission was to oversee the independence of India. When all efforts to keep India united failed, the British created two states – India and Pakistan.
But the Pakistan that was born on August 14, 1947, was soon to become a huge disillusionment for the Bangalis and the Agartala Conspiracy was an outcome of the disappointment.
From the beginning, the new country failed to put on a democratic face and neither had it enacted a constitution nor had an election to hand over power to the people's representatives. Instead, it continued to be governed under the 1935 Government of India Act with a governor-general heading the government.
Moreover, those who held power in Pakistan themselves had migrated from India during partition that saw history's largest movement of uprooted people. Since they had no constituency of their own, they did not want any elections.
So Pakistan began its journey with the rubric of an undemocratic country. The central Muslim League completely forgot the Bangalis, whose support created Pakistan. Rather the central leaders embarked on a mission to impose their wishes on the Bengali Muslims.
The first blow
The first blow came when Bangla was omitted from the coins and stamps of the republic and in public service tests.
An education summit in Karachi in 1947 stated that Urdu should be the state language of Pakistan which sparked deep resentment among students and intellectuals. Politician and writer Abul Mansur Ahmed said if Urdu became the state language, the educated society of East Bengal would become 'illiterate' and 'ineligible' for government positions.
And then in 1948, Jinnah arrived in Dhaka and told a gathering that 'Urdu and only Urdu' would be the state language of Pakistan.
The public outcry was immediate and vehement in angst. Students brought out protest rallies. For the first time, it was clear that Bangalis were not regarded as worthy Muslims to be truly representing Pakistan. It was like a shattered dream.
From such feelings that the Bangalis who had very much wanted Pakistan formed the Pakistan Awami Muslim League in 1949 with Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani as its first president. Later Husseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy joined it to give it a new impetus. The aim was clear – to give a voice to the aspirations of the Bangalis, to put forward the demands of the Bangalis from a political platform.
Meantime, the Language debate dragged and culminated in the 1952 Language Movement. On February 21 that year students violating a ban on gatherings brought out a procession and gathered in front of the legislative assembly. But soon it turned into mayhem as police opened fire killing scores of students.
The deaths erupted the whole country into protest. Government offices, educational institutions, and banks were shut down. And finally, in 1954, Bangla along with Urdu was made the state language.
But by then, the first seed of disenchantment and the idea of Bangali nationalism had been sowed. It along with many later events acted as a catalyst for the Agartala event.
Pakistan's political history had by that time taken a reverse walk. The zeal and aspiration with which the Bangalis voted for Pakistan soon fizzled out as non-Bangali elites, generals and bureaucrats kept power close to their hearts, ignoring the political rights of the Bangalis on whose vote Pakistan was created.
Although it gained independence in 1947, Pakistan had its first constitution in 1956, but that also after much bickering. Meanwhile, an election was due in 1954, through which the Bangalis would find a big opportunity to vent their dissension with the West Pakistani rulers and the ruling Muslim League.
Birth of Jukta Front
Four political parties in East Pakistan – Awami Muslim League, the Krishak Praja Party, the Ganatantri Dal, and Nizam-e-Islam – formed a coalition called the Jukto Front under the leadership of AK Fazlul Huq, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Maulana Bhashani and handed a crushing defeat to the Muslim League in the first provincial general election. A year later, the Awami Muslim League would drop the word 'Muslim' from its name at the insistence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was then the general secretary of the party, to become a secular platform truly representing all Bangalis.
Fazlul Huq, a great leader of the Bangalis, became the chief minister of East Pakistan but Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad dissolved the assembly within two months and by applying his emergency powers called a Constituent Convention which later turned out to have been the second Constituent Assembly and enacted the first constitution of Pakistan in 1956.
Meanwhile, General Ayub Khan, although junior to other generals with a lacklustre career, had succeeded General Sir Douglas Gracey as commander in chief of the Pakistan Army in 1951, becoming the first Pakistani in that position.
Pakistan's tumultuous power struggle can be observed from the fact that between 1947 and 1958, Pakistan was governed by four heads of state and seven prime ministers.
At the centrefold of the political power play were the non-Bangali civil-military bureaucracy and their political allies who were so removed from the political aspirations of the Bangalis. All this while the Bangalis only stood by the side-line, watching and protesting the onslaught of exploitation that they had been subjected to.
Ayub's time came when then-president, General Iskander Mirza imposed martial law, suspended parliament, abrogated the constitution, banned political activities and appointed a new cabinet with General Ayub Khan as chief martial law administrator on October 7, 1958.
Discrimination between East and West
Within twenty days, Ayub removed Mirza and declared himself president of Pakistan on October 27. Mirza was sent off to exile in London.
For the first time in Pakistan's political history, the country went under martial law rule that would continue until 1962, when Ayub would give Pakistan a new constitution under a façade of democracy which was essentially yet military rule.
In March 1969 Ayub would be toppled through a mass movement ignited by the Agartala Conspiracy Plot and the arrest of Bangabandhu.
By now Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the young leader, had shown his unmatchable mettle in politics and had become hugely popular for his struggle to realize the demands of the Bangalis.
Being a close follower of Suhrawardy, his rise was meteoric and he worked on overdrive to ensure a landslide victory for the Jukto Front in the 1954 elections.
In the Jukto Front government, he became the commerce minister but then he resigned after only nine months to concentrate on organizing the Awami League.
By now Mujib was already disillusioned about the concept of Pakistan and became vocal about the exploitation of the Bangalis by the West Pakistani rulers.
Mujib through his fiery speeches had highlighted the inequality prevailing between the two wings of Pakistan.
The Korean War had made it glaringly apparent that East Pakistan was being used as a land to exploit its natural resources for the development of the West wing. The war had created a huge demand for jute sacks to be used as revetment and all the sacks were exported from East Pakistan. Yet none of the earnings flowed into here.
But Mujib and his party Awami League could project the inequalities and exploitation in every other sector as well.
There was a big bias in recruitment in the defence forces which were predominantly manned by the Punjabis. Bangalis were not deemed fit to be soldiers. The minimum required height for a soldier was increased intentionally to restrict the entry of Bangalis into the forces.
Later, the East Bengal Regiment was specially formed to accommodate Bangalis but ironically half the troops were Punjabis. In all the forces combined, only about two percent of the troops were Bangalis while the Bangalis made up more than half the population of Pakistan. All the forces' headquarters were based in West Pakistan.
Similarly, Bangalis were neglected in other government jobs as well. Most government and private company head offices were in the west wing and job advertisements were rarely published in East Pakistan newspapers. Even if vacancies ever caught the eyes of the Bangalis it was difficult for them to travel to West Pakistan to appear in interviews.
A few figures would make the situation even clearer. In general service, 84 percent of the job holders came from the west wing and only 16 percent from the east. In the Foreign Service, the figures were similarly close, there was only one army general from the east while 16 from the west, in the air force 89 percent of the pilots were from the west and 11 percent from the east. There were 500,000 troops from the west in armed forces and only 20,000 from the east.
Industrialisation was sparse in East Pakistan with 75 percent of the investments being done in the west wing. Whatever industries existed in the east were mostly owned by the west Pakistanis.
Official figures show that since 1947 the real transfer of resources from East to West has been to the tune of 3,000 million pounds.
So with a disparity of this proportion, Mujib's fiery speeches further solidified the feeling of Bangali nationalism.
In 1956, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy became the prime minister and he announced elections for 1959 that created new hope for the Bangalis who thought if Suhrawardy could come back for a second time, the fate of the Bangalis would change.
But then in 1958, General Ayub Khan staged the coup and captured power.
Preparation to try Mujib
The Agartala case was investigated by the Central Intelligence Bureau under the monitoring of army intelligence agency Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) one Major Hasan was appointed from the General Head Quarters of the army to prepare documents of the case and gather the key witnesses.
Governor of East Pakistan Monem Khan played a key role in convincing Ayub that Agartala Conspiracy was a golden chance to implicate Bangabandhu in the case.
Ayub and Monem banked on this India spin in the hope that in the aftermath of the 1965 war with India Bangalis would be shocked to know that their leader Bangabandhu was colluding with the enemy state and thereby ruin his career.
But in its thinking, the Ayub regime failed to fathom the popularity of Bangabandhu and the warmth and trust with which the Bangalis had embraced him. So implicating Bangabandhu sparked a series of protests, civil disobedience, and strikes.
Dhaka turned into a city of processions and rallies. The city reverberated with slogans like "Ayub, Monem dui bhai, ek doritey fashi chai" (Ayub and Monem are two brothers, hang them from the same gallows) as protesters marched through the cities day and night. East Pakistan had never seen anything like this. It was clear to them that Bangabandhu was arrested because of his six-point demand to protect the interest of the Bangalis and to muzzle the movement for equality and autonomy.
Amidst such turmoil, Ayub prepared to try Mujib and others.
Ayub's first thought to hold the trial in a military tribunal. But since civilians cannot be tried in a military court, a special tribunal was set up in the Dhaka cantonment. SA Rahman, a retired Pakistani chief justice, was made head of the tribunal assisted by two Bangalis, Justice Mujibur Rahman Khan and Justice Muksumul Hakim.
These also raised suspicions in the minds of the people. Why should the court be set up inside the cantonment where Bangabandhu and 34 other prisoners implicated in the case were held and why should a West Pakistani head the trial?
A few more things also discredited the merit of the case in the eyes of the Bangalis and revealed the real intention of Ayub.
Bangabandhu was made the main accused of the case opened in 1968. But Bangabandhu was arrested in on 8 May 1966 after he started campaigning on his six-point demand and had been in jail when he was implicated in the case. This exposed the political dimension of the allegations that Ayub, unable to tackle the ardour created by the six-point demand, had tried to defame Bangabandhu to undermine the movement.
The naming of the case as Agartala Conspiracy Case also backfired. The case was originally logged as State vs Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Others. But when the trial began, the intelligence officers tipped the journalists that the case would be better represented as the Agartala Conspiracy Case, which the newspapers coined in their reporting.
Ayub had thought that implicating India with the charges would create a negative image of Bangabandhu. However, it worked the other way round. Bangalis took Bangabandhu as a true patriot who had gone to the extent of planning a declaration of independence.
As the question of a defence of the accused arose, the 35 accused defended their cases with individual lawyers. For Bangabandhu, a British lawyer, Sir Thomas Williams QC, arrived in Dhaka to defend him.
How the British lawyer was appointed is itself an interesting story. The chief minister of Tripura Sachindra Lal Singha is said to have played a key role in finding a lawyer for Bangabandhu.
Bangabandhu became close to Sachindra Lal when he went to Agartala in 1963 to discuss the issue of East Pakistan's secession.
According to a report by Manas Paul, Sachindra Lal at the request of one editor of an East Pakistan newspaper had sent a senior journalist, Jiten Paul, to Kolkata to contact an eminent lawyer, Snehangshu Acharya, to fight the legal battle for Mujib.
But lawyer Snehangshu did not agree to represent Mujib as he felt that an Indian lawyer would give a wrong signal in such a sensitive case where Indian conspiracy is alleged. He rather requested eminent educationist Nirode C Choudhury in London to find a British lawyer.
Meanwhile, expatriate Bangalis in the UK got together to organize Mujib's defence. In the end, it was Sir Thomas Williams QC who was persuaded to defend the Bangali leader. Sir Thomas Williams came to Dhaka on the day the trial began on June 19, 1968.
The news that a British lawyer would defend Bangabandhu further enlivened the protestors. Bangalis now knew that Ayub would not be able to hold a kangaroo trial as the presence of a British lawyer would put the case under international scrutiny.
On the first day of the trial, Bangabandhu and the 34 other accused were brought out of confinement. With his usual style, Bangabandhu warmly embraced one by one 12 of the accused who were standing in front of their mess before boarding a bus for the short ride to the court in the cantonment. The rest joined them soon.
In his baritone voice, Bangabandhu addressed the prisoners: "Don't worry at all. Nothing will happen to us. A barrister has come from the UK to defend us."
Bangabandhu then asked if anybody could sing. At this, one of the accused, Col Shamsul Alam, started singing a patriotic Tagore song "Dhono Dhanney Pushpey Bhora, amader ei boshundhora" (our earth is full of paddy fields and flowers).
All the prisoners, including Bangabandhu, were singing in chorus when the prison van stopped in front of the makeshift trial room. On the first day, a 42-page charge sheet was read out that detailed a scheme by the accused to stage a coup and capture power.
On the next day of the trial as Sir Thomas William entered the courtroom, Ayub's former foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was already there to symbolically represent Bangabandhu in the case. Bhutto had a reason for that because he had fallen out with Ayub and got the sack. He was waging his anti-Ayub movement in West Pakistan and so found common ground in morally supporting Mujib.
Sir Thomas opened his arguments with the view that the tribunal was illegal and ran counter to the constitution. But the court rejected his claim.
In the course of the trial, the court heard the witnesses of the case which often turned into farcical shows.
The first witness was a lieutenant of the navy Mozammel Hossain who said a meeting of some Bangali members of the armed forces was held at his residence in Karachi 1964 with the aim to have an independent Bangladesh through an armed coup. In the same meeting, they formed a revolutionary organisation and decided to meet Bangabandhu.
This meeting with Bangabandhu took place in September 1964 at the residence of another witness, Kamaluddin Ahmed where Mujib said his thinking had a similarity with the revolutionary organisation's schemes.
Lt. Mozammel further said Bangabandhu had assured all kinds of help for an armed revolution.
The next meeting with Bangabandhu took place in January 1965 at the residence of Lt Commander Moazzem Hossain, an accused of the case. In that meeting, Mujib is said to have urged the plotters to speed up their work.
So as the charge sheet reads, these armed officers planned to overwhelm the small contingents of West Pakistani troops, seize power and announce independence with Bangabandhu as their leader. For this, they raised money to buy arms from India. An Indian diplomat in Dhaka worked as a go-between and held several meetings with the plotters at his residence, assuring them of arms and money. A three-member team of the plotters later went to Agartala to finalise the arms deal, but it did not happen as the Indians felt the team was a low-level one.
The reaction of the Bangalis to the Agartala Conspiracy Case was completely unexpected for the Ayub regime. Ayub thought of discrediting Bangabandhu as a conspirator. Instead, it sparked and congealed the idea of Bangla nationalism.
Before the case got underway, Bangabandhu had put forward his six-point demand in 1966 and played a dominant role in the political struggle of the people of Bangladesh for self-rule. His whirlwind campaigns across the country to make people understand the six-point demand had forged a sense of separate nationhood for the people of East Pakistan for the first time.
He had been successful in instilling the sense of separateness between the people of East and West Pakistan into his nation.
So when he was arrested and implicated in the Agartala case, the natural reaction of the people of East Pakistan was that it was a conspiracy against the Bangalis to snuff out their legitimate demand for self-rule and economic independence.
The details of the case as reported in newspapers revealed a lot of details about the desire for independence, including what would be the name of the new country, its colours and design of the national flag, the main principles of the state and so on, which hiked the impetus of the Bangalis for a separate nation.
Detained in prison, Bangabandhu became a symbol of the Bangalis' fettered aspirations for independence. The Awami League and its student wing Chhatra League in East Pakistan and other political parties in the West waged a similar movement against Ayub. In the east wing, the movement turned into a forceful agitation for the release of Bangabandhu.
The fury of the people raged further with the killing of one of the arrestees in the case, Sergeant Zahurul Haque, while in custody. Thousands of people came out on the streets and attacked the residence where the chief of the tribunal SA Rahman was staying. To save himself from the wrath of the people, a frightened Rahman went straight to the airport and left Dhaka. The authorities imposed a curfew, only to be broken by the people who were killed in scores by paramilitary forces.
Unable to contain the situation, Ayub called a roundtable conference and invited all political parties. Bangabandhu and Moulana Bhashani were invited too. The government proposed to free Mujib on parole to join the roundtable, which he rejected and said he could join the conference only as a free man by the withdrawal of the Agartala case. Bhashani also refused to participate in the roundtable with similar demands which ruined Ayub's plan to have East Pakistan represented by Bhashani.
Finally, on February 22, 1969, Bangabandhu was released from prison as the case was lifted. Brigadier Rao Farman Ali, who later in 1971 played a key role in executing Operation Searchlight on the night of March 25, 1971, and oversaw the genocide in Bangladesh, escorted Bangabandhu to his Dhanmondi residence to the jubilation and cheers of the people of Bangladesh.
Henceforth, Bangabandhu was the unparalleled leader of the Bangalis in their struggle for freedom, a brave leader upon whose strategy and courage the Awami League won the general election of 1970 and ultimately led Bangladesh to freedom.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman grew in political eminence in the early 1960s. Through his captivating organizing ability, he was able to retrieve the Awami League from intraparty politics and exits of several factions from the party's mainstream. A magnetic organiser, Sheikh Mujib had established his full command over the party.
In 1966, he announced his famous six-point programme what he called 'Our' [Bangalis'] Charter of Survival'. The points are: 1) a federal State and introduction of parliamentary form of government based on universal adult franchise; 2) all departments except defence and foreign affairs will be vested in the hands of the federating units or provincial governments; 3) separate currencies for two states or effective measures to stop flight of capital from East Pakistan to West Pakistan; 4) transfer of all rights of taxation to the states; 5) independence of the states in international trades; and finally 6) rights of the states to create' militia or para-military forces for self-defence. In short, the programme envisioned a new approach to political life. In letters and spirit, the Six-Point Programme meant virtual independence for East Pakistan. Though conservative elements of all political parties looked at it with consternation, it roused the imagination of the younger generation right away, particularly the students, youth and working classes.
During the time of general Ayub Khan, Mujib had the nerve to revive the Awami League in 1964, though his political guru, Suhrawardy, was in favour of keeping political parties defunct and work under the political amalgam called National Democratic Front for the restoration of constitutional rule in Pakistan. Mujib, after all, was already quite disillusioned about the concept of Pakistan. The impression that he got as a member of Pakistan's Second Constituent Assembly-cum-Legislature (1955-1956) and later as a member of Pakistan National Assembly (1956-1958) was that the attitude of West Pakistani leaders to East Pakistan was not one of equality and fraternity.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was returning from a public rally in Khulna on May 8, 1966 where he had spoken to a sea of people about how the West Pakistani rulers had been repressing the Bangalis and how the East had been exploited by the West wing.
Bangabandhu had been drumming up support across the country for his six-point charter that talked about effective autonomy of East Pakistan with economic independence, a popular demand given the economic exploitation of the East wing by the West. Earlier, he had made public the six-point demand at Lahore, the same city from where Jinnah had presented his scheme for Pakistan in 1940.
As Bangabandhu reached Jessore, he was arrested under the Defence of Pakistan Rules (DPR) for making 'anti-state' statements in Dhaka. He appealed against his arrest but was reject the SDO which was ultimately granted by the session's judge. But then he was shown arrested in another case.
Similarly, his senior colleagues at the party --- Syed Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, Khondokar Moshtaque Ahmed, M Mansoor Ali, AHM Quamruzzaman --- and hundreds of Awami League leaders were put in prison too.
Again, the reaction among the Bangalis was swift. There were protests and strikes.
Ayub already had a topsy-turvy time following the twists of events and his shine as 'strong leader' was already weaning off. The war with India in 1965 hugely damaged his image as a soldier. The 17-day war that began on September 6, 1965 had no clear winner; and the hawkish generals in the Pakistan army resented that he agreed to end the war without even trying to win. China, which just had so badly trounced India in the war in 1962, was willing to help Pakistan, which the generals saw as a golden chance to have missed to 'teach India a lesson'. Ayub's acceptance of the ceasefire made him look a weak general.
That is not all. The war culminated in a signing of the Tashkent Declaration in January 1966 which made the two warring countries withdraw troops to the pre-war positions. Ayub was criticized by the army establishment as being weak and vulnerable to 'outside powers' into signing the treaty.
But the one stark truth that the war revealed is how vulnerable the east wing of Pakistan was in case of a war. It brought forth the reality that the east was always treated as a lesser part of a country that had the unique and impractical geographical division of 2,000 miles between the two wings. The Bangalis in the east had already felt so deeply the deprivation and discrimination that West Pakistan and its ruling class had put them under both economically and politically. And now the war had exposed the extent of military exploitation as well.
The events found one crafty politician in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Ayub's own foreign minister until he was sacked in 1966. Bhutto had developed differences with Ayub over the Tashkent Declaration. Bhutto jumped into action and launched a concerted campaign against the dictator.
Bhutto was all along an opportunist who never bothered to change sides and grab opportunities with the ultimate aim to be Pakistan's prime minister. He had been with Iskandar Mirza and then with Ayub. And when he ditched Ayub, he joined the bandwagon of the anti-Ayub movement. Then he joined hands with General Yahya Khan.
Bhutto found two strong allies within the Pakistan army establishment – General Yahya Khan and General Peerzada. Peerzada, who had been harbouring a special hatred for Ayub when he was asked to quit as Ayub's military secretary in 1964 after suffering a heart attack.
So the trio had been hatching schemes to topple Ayub's regime. Ayub himself walked into the trap when he made Yahya the commander-in-chief.
With all these events taking place, the Agartala Conspiracy Case was what it took to build a perfect storm.