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1970’s general elections: The beginning of the end

After the elections, Shiekh Mujibur Rahman met with Yahya to discuss his party's (Awami league) six points. Mujib assured Yahya that while being announced in the National Assembly session, his party's six points would not threaten Pakistan's unity.

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To elect members of the National Assembly, Pakistan held its first general elections in December 1970, after gaining independence in 1947. Bangladesh was still a part of Pakistan at that time. Approximately 55% of people voted in the eastern part of the country and 61% voted in the western half.

75.1% of the votes from East Pakistan were won by Awami League and it obtained 160/162 seats. Contesting from West Pakistan, PPP won a total of 81/120 seats and 2.3% of the votes in Balochistan, 14.2% in NWFP, 44.9% in Sindh, and 41.6% in Punjab. “As far as I am concerned, my job is finished,” said Yahya post-election results.

After the elections, Shiekh Mujibur Rahman met with Yahya to discuss his party’s (Awami league) six points. Mujib assured Yahya that while being announced in the National Assembly session, his party’s six points would not threaten Pakistan’s unity. He further told Yahya that he would praise Yahya for conducting Pakistan’s first free and fair elections, and his contributions to Pakistan. Mujib stated further, that under the country’s new constitution, he would suggest Yahya’s name to be the first president of Pakistan. All in all, the meeting was a success and ended on a positive note.

The power struggle between Mujib and Bhutto

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did not get enough votes from West Pakistan, which he did not expect. In view of the election result, Bhutto said “no constitution could be made without PPP’s cooperation…Punjab and Sindh are centers of power…PPP and Awami league should share power at the center..” “If the People’s Party does not support it, no government will be able to work, nor will the constitution be framed. The center needs our cooperation,” warned Bhutto during a rally in Lahore.

In January 1971, Awami League’s first meeting post-election was held in Dacca. The party’s sentiments were strong about making sacrifices if their six points were not included in the new constitution. Bhutto was finding it hard to grasp Mujib’s victory. Post-election Pakistan majorly consisted of a constant power struggle between Mujib and Bhutto. The military also played a part in this political tiff, as several military personnel higher up in the hierarchy had reservations about Mujib winning the elections. 

Read more: Nepotism in Pakistani politics

“I have received information that Bhutto thinks that just as I am here he too has a similar position in West Pakistan. This is not so. I have no rival in East Pakistan. I represent the entire eastern wing. Bhutto cannot say the same about himself in West Pakistan. There are other political parties in the West Wing who have a substantial number of seats who could be included in the future cabinet,” Mujib reminded Bhutto.  In a response to this Bhutto reminded Mujib that he had the Army’s support and said, “don’t forget I got the highest votes from the cantonments..”.

Then came Bhutto’s invitation to Yahya in Larkana. Yahya accepted and went there with General Abdul Hamid Khan, Chief of staff, and General Peerzada. To tackle the off-balanced election result, Bhutto suggested three options. First, Mujib with some smaller parties from the government runs the country alone. Second, Mujib joins Bhutto and they run the country together and form a government. And third, which Bhutto called the “three-legged stool position”, was that Bhutto along with Mujib and the army’s support rule the country. Responding to the third option, Yahya said “It is not going to be three-legged..I am out of it”. 

Bhutto then responded with a direct proposal and said, “Please tell Mujib that the West Pakistani leadership is in my (Bhutto’s) hand and it will be good for the country if he (Mujib), for the sake of the nation, took Bhutto in the government and that if he does not do so we (Army) will use military force.” To this Yahya said, “Zulfi Zulfi mind your words – The army is not going to threaten anyone, nor is it going to plead anyone’s case. It is for you to talk to Mujib on all such matters and for Mujib to take anyone he likes.”

“Bhutto you should sort it out with Mujib or else sit in the opposition benches. It will be a strong opposition indeed,” Yahya stated further.

Bhutto and Mujib finally meet on 27th January 1971. During their meeting, they discussed the Awami League’s six points as well as “power-sharing and allocation of portfolios to the PPP.” Bhutto wanted Mujib to make him the foreign minister or the vice president. However, Mujib did not fulfill Bhutto’s wishes and he returned empty-handed.

Read more: Pakistan’s politics: Art of manipulating societal sentiment for personal aggrandizement

The inaugural of the National Assembly was set to take place on 3rd March 1970 at Dacca. Yahya set this date which was in the middle of the dates suggested by both Bhutto and Mujib. Agitated by the announcement, Bhutto called General Peerzada and said, “We are elected leaders. The least you could have done was to have consulted us before announcing the date..You will know the consequences when I do no go. My party will not go. I will see how anyone from West Pakistan will go.”

Sticking true to his words, in a public rally in Peshawar Bhutto announced, “PPP will not attend the NA session..we cannot go there only to endorse the constitution already prepared by a party and to return humiliated.” Further exacerbating the conflict, Bhutto warned of a “revolution from Karachi to Khyber.” He said, “Anybody who goes to Dacca from West Pakistan whether in khaki or in black will do so at his own cost..the assembly would be a slaughterhouse.”

In order to calm the conflict, Yahya tried to convince Mujib to consider a different date, to which Mujib refused. “I cannot accept a change in the date, I cannot come now. I will come later,” said Mujib. It was only after General Farman talked to Mujib that he agreed to go to Islamabad on 19th February 1971. However, Mujib went back on his promise when Bhutto announced a day before that he will not to go Dacca. 

Taking advantage of Yahya’s agitation, Bhutto met him on 19th February and warned him that West Pakistan’s interests would be neglected under Mujib’s rule. Post their meeting, Bhutto announced, “NA session will take place on the appointed date but without the PPP.” Even though, neither did Yahya specifically mention the NA session’s date nor did he say anything about postponing it. 

Read more: Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto: A Challenge to Status Quo

Yahya turned to martial law administrators and governors to ease his burden. A meeting was held between them on 22nd February. He reiterated that conflict between the two parties in question would drive him to delay the inaugural NA session. Yahya and General Yaqub decided to visit Bhutto on 24th February. “We do not see any reason for you to boycott the NA session, we have been sent to ask you to attend the session,” Bhutto was told by Yahya. “Instead of telling me tell Mujib to come to West Pakistan,” Bhutto replied. “We will speak to him also. “Bhutto responded, “The party is adamant that they will not attend.”

Yahya had already announced his decision to postpone the session on 22nd February. Admiral Ahsan was asked to meet Mujib and inform him about the postponement. Mujib responded, “..please get a new date for the session..as he would not be able to control the forces which would be released if that was not done. The picture is now quite clear. The parleys at Larkana have tilted the balance in Bhutto’s favor. There will now be a pressing demand by my people for a unilateral declaration of Independence (UDI). After the announcement even if I try not to I will be carried away with the flood..I will still try not to declare the UDI. Please save the situation. If this is done i.e. a new date is given, I would be able to control the situation.”

Mujib’s request was overlooked and the postponement of the NA session was announced on 1st March 1971. No new date was announced and the consequences followed.

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