Exactly 51 years ago, on January 20, 1969, the murder of a student leader by the police turned a seemingly non-threatening student movement into a mass upsurge, which eventually turned into a war for independence and gave birth to a new country called Bangladesh.

The name of the student leader was Amanullah Mohammad Asaduzzaman. Though few people know about him, in Bangladesh, January 20 is designated as Shaheed Asad Dibosh – the Day of Asad the Martyr.

“The independence of our country might have been delayed if Asad hadn’t sacrificed his life,” said Asad’s brother, Munir-uz-Zaman, the former principal of Anondo Mohon College in Mymensingh town.

The mass upsurge of 1969 in the former East Pakistan is a neglected footnote in Bangladesh’s history, said Zaman. “But the truth is, without it, the liberation war of ’71 might not have taken place,” he contended.

When students in East Pakistan protested against Pakistani president, “nobody could have thought that the autocratic throne of Ayub Khan could be shaken”, Zaman said. “But student leaders like Asad did.”

At the time of his death, Asad was in the final year of his MA at Dhaka University’s Department of History. He was president of the Dhaka Hall unit of East Pakistan Students Union and General Secretary of the East Pakistan Students Union (EPSU, Menon group).

Growing disenchantment

As most people know, after the British left their colony of India in 1947, Partition resulted in the creation of the geographically awkward state of Pakistan, consisting of two wings separated by 1,600 km with India in the middle. By the 1960s, disenchantment in Bengali-speaking East Pakistan began to grow. To begin with, though Ayub Khan’s economic policies helped the industrial development of East Pakistan, the life of the common people had not improved. Poverty, illiteracy and other problems loomed large.

At the same time, the economic disparity between East and West Pakistan had increased. East Pakistani intellectuals started considering the idea that Pakistan actually consisted of two economies and two political bases. They formed an influential circle to discuss visions of independence.

The 1965 war between India and Pakistan exposed East Pakistan’s military vulnerability. Bengalis realised that their low representation in the Pakistani civil service and the central cabinet had resulted in them having only a small role to play in mainstream national politics.

In order to address the disparities between East and West Pakistan, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, president of the Awami League party, announced a six-point programme of autonomy in 1966. It demanded that East and West Pakistan form a federated state.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, president of the Awami League party, announces the six-point charter of demands.

December 1968 and January 1969 were marked with strikes and a new and popular movement led by student organisations that combined calls for federalism with passionate assertions of Bengali nationalism.

On January 4, 1969. the Sarbadaliya Chhatra Sangram Parishad or All Parties Student Resistance Council was formed. It announced an 11-point charter for self-governance in East Pakistan.

Immediately after the 11-point charter had been launched on January 8, 1969, eight political parties, including Awami League and National Awami Party (Muzaffar) formed an alliance known as the Democratic Action Committee.

The committee demanded the federal form of the government, election on the basis of universal adult franchise (the right of all adult citizens to vote without discrimination), immediate withdrawal of the declaration of emergency and the release of all political detainees, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

“Meanwhile, the East Pakistani students under the umbrella of DAC were trying to give a hard push to shake off the iron regime of Ayub Khan,” Zaman explained. “Their brave movement provided a great impetus to the common public who had long been living in discontent.”

An unsung hero

On January 20, 1969, the Central Student Action Committee called for a complete shutdown of all the educational institutions in East Pakistan. To deal with the situation, the government imposed Section 144 of the constitution, prohibiting the assembly of more than four persons.

“Asad always stood up for the underdogs,” said Zaman. “He used to say that the West Pakistan would never look after our interest. The time has come to stand against them and to form a federated state.”

Zaman also said that Asad always talked about martyrdom. “Death wasn’t something that he was afraid of,” he said. “He was, from head to toe, a politically conscious person. He believed that true independence would not come without any bloodshed and he was ready to sacrifice his own blood as the cost of independence.”

He said that Asad knew that he was targeted as a student leader and his life was at risk. “Even on the morning on January 20, Asad knew something was going to happen to him. He left the house after having said goodbye to his family,” recalled Zaman.

An enormous march

On January 20, students of different colleges gathered at the university campus and after a brief meeting, nearly 10,000 students started to march in a procession at about noon, effectively violating Section 144. “Asad was leading a procession that reached near the then Post Graduate Medical College when the police charged them,” Zaman said. “After nearly an hour of scrimmage, Asad tried to lead the procession toward the centre of town beside the Dhaka Hall. In this situation, one police officer, Bahauddin, fired on Asad, killing him instantaneously.”

Amanullah Mohammad Asaduzzaman's grave.

The provincial government of Governor Monem Khan tried to cover up the death. The government sent a press note stating: “Asad was a terrorist.” What happened afterwards was something that the government didn’t envision. Thousands of students rushed to Dhaka Medical College. A vast mourning procession began. As the female student moved forward, common people joined them. The spontaneous, 3.2-km-long procession trailed through the city and finally converged on the Shaheed Minar.

On Asad’s passing, the Central Action Committee announced three days of mourning throughout East Pakistan. The Committee also spearheaded hartals and protest processions over the next four days. On the last day of hartals, the students and police clashed once more.

“The repressive measures could not restrain the people and ultimately the regime of President Ayub Khan came to an end,” Zaman said. “The truth is Asad’s death turned the mass-movement of 1969 into a mass-uprising.”

In many places people, of their own accord, brought down the nameplates at places named after Ayub Khan and replaced them with engravings of Asad’s name. Thus the Ayub Gate turned into the Asad Gate and Ayub Avenue got renamed Asad Avenue. “Since then the name of Asad has been a symbol for struggle against repression,” said Zaman.

A symbol of freedom

Engineer FM Rashid-uz-Zaman, the project engineer of Bangladesh’s national parliament building and another of Asad’s brothers, said that Asad was not only a student organiser but was also an earnest social worker.

“Whenever he came to the village [Ghatla], he didn’t stay at home,” his brother said. “He went to the houses of the poor farmers, talked with them, ate with them, and tried to make them aware of their rights.”

He formed a powerful peasant organisation in Shibpur-Hatirdia-Manohardi and the neighbouring areas of Narsingdi. “A man of fierce fighting spirit, Asad considered democracy to be the only path to attain the emancipation of our people,” said Rashid-uz-Zaman. “He was also of the opinion that in order to uplift the fortune of the helpless and oppressed people, it was necessary to educate the vast masses.”

For this, he demanded that primary education should be free and compulsory. He established a night school with the help of the members of the Students Union at Shibpur to educate the poor and the labourers of the area.

Rashid-uz-Zaman said that Asad’s political activities were not limited only to organisation of students and peasants or programmes for mass-education. He was aware of the necessity of a party with developed political ideas.

“He wrote about the formation of a study circle for carrying on the politics of the Sarbahara [have-nots] class in his diary in 1968,” said Rashid-uz-Zaman. “He was one of the leading organisers of the Coordination Committee of the Communist Revolutionaries of East Bengal, who had been working with the intention of forming a sovereign state and an exploitation-free land since 1968.”

His brother concluded: “Asad’s role during 1969 and his other contributions are beyond what the pages of history say. Asad envisaged an oppression and exploitation free nation and that was the cause he gave his life for. And surely, he deserved much more than the homage we pay him. The respect he deserved is still due.”

Faisal Mahmud is a Dhaka-based journalist. He is Asad’s nephew.