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Agartala Conspiracy

The First Battle Won By The Bengalese

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Dr. Forqan Uddin Ahmed :
The Agartala Conspiracy Case was a sedition case in Pakistan during the Ayub Regime against Awami League, brought by the government of Pakistan in 1968 against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the then leader of the Awami League and East Pakistan, and 34 other persons. The case was filed in early 1968 and implicated Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and others in conspiring with India against the stability of Pakistan. The case is officially called State vs. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and others, but is popularly known as Agartala Shorojontro Mamla (Agartala Conspiracy Case) as the main conspiracy was purported to have taken place in the Indian city of Agartala in Tripura State, where Sheikh Mujib's associates met Indian military officials. Pakistan decided to try the accused by court-martial since a lot of the accused were military personnel. However, this was overturned in favor of a civil trial to implicate the politicians ahead of the 1970 elections as well as to provide transparency of the trials. Hence, only 35 were finally accused. The accused were then moved from Dhaka Central Jail to the secured borders of the Dhaka Cantonment.  The penal codes were amended to benefit the prosecution of the accused, and the trial began on 19 June 1968 under a special tribunal. The hearings took place inside a secured chamber within the Dhaka Cantonment.
The hearing became for Mujib an opportunity to publicise the Awami League demands. The charge sheets of 100 paragraphs were presented before the tribunal, with 227 witnesses and 7 approvers. The tribunal was headed by 3 judges - the chair, Justice SA Rahman was a non-Bengali; the other members M.R Khan and Maksum-ul-Hakim were Bengalis. The government was represented by the Attorney General TH Khan and former Foreign Minister Manzur Quader. Thomas Williams, a British lawyer, along with local attorneys challenged the formation of the tribunal by filing a petition in favour of Sheikh Mujib. The approvers appeared in the witness box and testified that they provided false evidence under the coercion of the State. Angry protesters formed an action committee. This popular hostility forced Ayub Khan to withdraw the case and convene a Round Table Conference, which Sheikh Mujib triumphantly attended but walked out of when his Six-Point demand was ignored. The case and the resulting uprising was a major factor in the fall of Ayub Khan's government and also seen as one of the major events leading to Bengali nationalism and the Bangladesh Liberation War.
Sergeant Zahurul Haq was honoured by the naming of a students' residential hall of the University of Dhaka after him.
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.
In East Pakistan, political agitation against Ayub Khan reached increasing heights, with Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani spearheading the movement against President Ayub Khan. As the Agartala Case trial wore on, increasing numbers of social and political groups began to voice the demand for its withdrawal and for Mujib to be freed. A worsening political situation forced Ayub Khan, in early 1969, to call a round table conference of political leaders in Rawalpindi. He made contact with Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, a leading opposition politician from the Punjab, who in turn passed on Ayub's invitation to other opposition figures. The opposition, united under the banner of the Democratic Action Committee, informed the government that Mujib needed to be allowed to take part in the RTC.
It was a plain conflagration that erupted in East Pakistan by February 1969. Angry crowds of Bengalis overran the residential quarters of Justice S.A. Rehman, who briskly flew off to safety in his native West Pakistan. Politicians across the spectrum demanded that Mujib to be freed and the case against him to be lifted. On February 22, 1969, Vice Admiral A.R. Khan, Pakistan's Minister of Defence, announced the withdrawal of the Agartala Case and the unconditional release of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his entire fellow accused. The next day, February 23, Mujib addressed a million-strong crowd of Bengalis at the Race Course (now Suhrawardy Udyan) in Dhaka. Student leader Tofail Ahmed, today a prominent Awami League politician and former Minister, extolled him as Bangabandhu, friend of Bengal.

(Dr. Forqan Uddin Ahmed, writer, researcher & columnist)

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