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Why is March 26 observed as Independence Day in Bangladesh instead of December 16?


26 March is observed as Independence Day to commemorate the fact that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (our first president and one of the leaders of the independence movement) declared independence in the late hours of 25 March 1971 (or the early hours of 26 March). The people of East Pakistan no longer considered themselves a part of Pakistan but rather citizens of the new country of Bangladesh [1].

This didn't imply that all countries of the world recognized Bangladesh as an independent nation, nor that Bangladesh had "effective" sovereignty (e.g. control over its land, ability to organize a government and state affairs, etc) . That took another nine months. The Bangladesh Liberation War ensued from 26 March onward as the Pakistani military (under orders from their president Yahya Khan) tried to restore the West Pakistani government's authority over Bangladesh.

Personally I think Bangladesh differentiates between Mukti/Freedom and Swadhinota/Independence. 26th March is the Independence day because it's the day where Bangladesh declared itself as an independent country, but 16th December is the day where Bangladesh earned freedom.

Other answers have provided great historical context. But I just wanted to give some broader idea's I guess. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman delivered a grand speech at 7th March which influenced Bangladeshi people to get mentally prepared for a struggle of independence and threatened Pakistani government as they understood the situation is going to get out of their control. Not to mention Sheikh Mujib had won the election in 1970, so they understood that a policy change needs to happen otherwise people might revolt.

26th March is observed as the Independence Day because it commemorates the "Declaration of Independence" by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of our nation. In the late hours of 25th March 1971, when the Pakistani forces unleashed Operation Searchlight, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signed an official declaration that read:

Today Bangladesh is a sovereign and independent country. On Thursday night, West Pakistani armed forces suddenly attacked the police barracks at Razarbagh and the EPR headquarters at Pilkhana in Dhaka. Many innocent and unarmed have been killed in Dhaka city and other places of Bangladesh. Violent clashes between E.P.R. and Police on the one hand and the armed forces of Pakistan on the other, are going on. The Bengalis are fighting the enemy with great courage for an independent Bangladesh. May Allah aid us in our fight for freedom. Joy Bangla [May Bangladesh be victorious].

Sometime around 1.30 am on 25-26th March after his declaration, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested and taken to Pakistan. A telegram containing the message was translated and read several times over the independent Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendro Radio established by some rebel Bengali Radio workers. On 27th of March 1971, Major Ziaur Rahman broadcast the announcement of the declaration of independence on behalf of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

This is Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. I, Major Ziaur Rahman, at the direction of Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman, hereby declare that Independent People's Republic of Bangladesh has been established. At his direction , I have taken the command as the temporary Head of the Republic. In the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, I call upon all Bengalees to rise against the attack by the West Pakistani Army. We shall fight to the last to free our motherland. Victory is, by the Grace of Allah, ours. Joy Bangla [May Bangladesh be victorious].

16th December, however, commemorates the Victory Day when Lt. Gen A. A. K. Niazi, Commanding Officer of the Pakistani Armed Forces in East Pakistan signed the Instrument of Surrender and the Pakistani forces officially surrendered to the Mitra Bahini (Allied Forces). This marked the official end to the 9-month war. The day is also celebrated in India as Vijay Diwas. 

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Anika Devi received her Bachelor’s degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University in 2012. She began freelancing for Business Solutions BD in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant editor.
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