Based on the thread initiated by Dr. Hassaan Bokhari (@shbokhari13), we are presenting the subject matter in its more expansive format. Enjoy reading!
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.
Soon after the 1965 war, Sheikh Mujib ur Rahman launched his six-point movement for provincial autonomy. Ayub Khan’s government asserted that this movement was using the issue of provincial autonomy as a smokescreen and that 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 therefore fizzled out soon.
The Agartala conspiracy was named so because the conspirators held meetings with Indian officials in the Indian town of Agartala (located close to the India-East Pakistan border). An official of the Indian Foreign Service, PN 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 named Shaukat Ali, but the extent of his active involvement after his arrest is unclear. GW 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 number-one accused.
Pakistani authorities first learnt about the conspiracy through a tip-oﬀ from a patriotic Bengali citizen to Lt Col 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 (in December 1967), 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 January 18, 1968. Then 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 SA Rahman was set up.
1968 was a very hard year for the Ayub government. A very vibrant protest movement had erupted against him in West Pakistan, led by Bhutto. Now, ZA Bhutto himself went to Dhaka to represent Sheikh Mujib in the Agartala case. A couple of years later, he was calling Mujib a traitor based on the Agartala conspiracy!
Many other anti-Ayub politicians in West Pakistan also jumped on the bandwagon and started demanding Sheikh Mujib’s immediate release and withdrawal of the Agartala case. On February 15, 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 February 22, 1969, and released all the accused. Sheikh Mujib was lauded and given the title of “Bangabandhu” (Friend of Bengal) at a grand reception in the Dhaka Race Course by the Awami League.
Thus, a traitor was turned into a hero. Instead of taking a principled stance by refusing to bow before the opposition’s demands, Ayub Khan chose to ignore high treason (the evidence for which was already before him, unlike most of the West Pakistani opposition leaders who fell for the propaganda that the Agartala case was politically motivated) and tried to save his throne. He only succeeded in legitimizing the traitors and emboldening more secessionism in East Pakistan through his weak, inept, and unprincipled handling of the case. Ayub’s capitulation regarding the Agartala case didn’t save him, and he was forced to resign a month later. But his capitulation made it clear to many fence-sitters (especially students) in East Pakistan that the Pakistani government was too weak to punish or even diligently prosecute a case of high treason. This would significantly swell the number of avowed secessionists in East Pakistan (especially in the urban middle class). Ayub Khan’s government also failed miserably in the battle of narratives. The Awami League was able to convince the bulk of the innocent East Pakistan population that the Agartala case was nothing more than a political ploy by an embattled government to crush the “tyrannized” opposition. The government miserably failed to convince the masses to believe its narrative, which was truthful. This incompetence of Ayub’s information apparatus (run by desi babu bureaucrats) cost Pakistan dearly.
There is a lesson for the people here: Don’t believe sensationalist or convenient rumors without factual basis even if those rumors chime in well with your political preferences.
There is a lesson for the government and establishment here: don’t lie so often that even your truth becomes suspect. Self-righteousness is a poor substitute for diligence and hard work. Don’t label people traitors and then validate them afterwards for political expediency. If they are traitors, they deserve exemplary punishment. If they aren’t, those who insinuated that they were must be severely penalized.