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Crucial moments were drawing closer by March 1971. The postponed meeting between Yahya Khan and Shaikh Mujib was held on March 20 and 21. When the President and Awami League head were in a meeting on March 21, Bhutto landed in Dhaka. He could assess the gravity of the situation. Leading a team of 15 leaders he was straightaway driven to the President House. Bhutto knew that Yahya and Mujib had been meeting, thus, the contents of those meetings were first conveyed to him by Yahya.

Bhutto was told that a general understanding had taken place between Yahya and Mujib agreeing on immediate end to martial law; establishment of federal and provincial ministries; assemblies empowered to legislate; and East Pakistan granted more provincial autonomy. According to the agreement, Yahya Khan was to continue as president for the time being and a coalition cabinet would be formed comprising all political parities.

It was also agreed that the power at the Centre would not be immediately transferred but the powers to the provinces would be delegated to the majority party of the respective province and martial law would be lifted on the day provincial cabinets took oath. These points, in fact, were to form the basis of the future constitution.

A draft statement covering all these points was also prepared for making public and was released to the Press in the evening by the official news agency. But after a couple of hours, the news agency withdrew the statement with the advice that no substitute would follow.

It later transpired that when the draft was shown to Bhutto, he disagreed saying that lifting of martial law would create a vacuum nullifying the proposed constitutional structure. He emphasised that to avoid that lacuna the approval of the constitution should bear the support of members of the assemblies of both wings.

On March 22, the three —Yahya, Mujib and Bhutto — met, but that proved very unfortunate. At this meeting Bhutto said that his party was examining various clauses of the agreement prepared by Mujib and agreed by Yahya. The same evening a crucial development took place which was an indicator to what may happen in the next few days or hours.

Shaikh Mujib and his confidant, Tajuddin Ahmad, met Yhaya Khan without any previous schedule. At this meeting Mujib in clear terms rejected the proposal of a coalition cabinet insisting that he being the leader of the majority would not take other parties on board. Mujib and Tajuddin thought that to defuse the situation, power should be transferred to both wings.

At the same time, Dr Kamal Hussain, a lawyer and activist of the Awami League, who later became the law minister in Shaikh Mujib’s government, met aides of Yahya and presented a draft constitution prepared by the Awami League experts. In the background of the history of constitution making, this draft was a formal announcement of granting a separate constitutional status or making Pakistan a country with two constitutions. Kamal Husain insisted that the draft be announced in the form of a proclamation within two days. There was no immediate response but it made clear what was to follow.

A day later, Pakistan Day was to be celebrated to mark the adoption of the Lahore Resolution. On the eve of March 23 Mujib announced that it would be observed as Resistance Day. The day began with the hoisting of the then Bangladesh flag over the house of Shaikh Mujib. Armed processions were taken out in Dhaka and other cities. Mujib went to every building where the Bangladesh flag was being unfurled. On one occasion Mujib was reported as saying that a new country had emerged on the map of the world.

Disturbances had taken over East Pakistan. Reports of arson, looting and killing were pouring in from all corners. What measures had been planned to face the new situation were not known to the people. President Yhaya left for Karachi in the afternoon. Bhutto had also sent some of the members of his team to Karachi, himself staying behind with Ghulam Mustafa Khar and J A Rahim. Bhutto was told that the meeting between Khar and Mujib was of no use.

Mujib announced another protest day for March 26 — the day Bhutto and his party’s men had booked their seats for Karachi. Most of the West Pakistani leaders were staying at a hotel. Soon they saw a huge crowd outside shouting pro-Bangla slogans. The leaders saw Dhaka in flames. Tanks were rolling on the roads and the thud of firing could be heard all over.

Tikka Khan’s Operation Searchlight had begun.