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Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Forks in the Road: December 1970, the Election that bred secession

Yahya Khan put forward his plan for elections and power transfer in a speech on 28 November 1969. He declared that he will promulgate a Legal Framework Order (LFO) which will lay down the rules for the election and post-election period until the newly elected national assembly frames a constitution.

After the ouster of Ayub Khan in 1969, General Yahya Khan accrued supreme power in the country. At that time the main issue facing the country was the restoration of democracy and transfer of power to a democratic government. The catch was that East and West Pakistan sharply differed on how to do it. West Pakistan preferred a bicameral legislature, parity between two wings, and very limited provincial autonomy. General elections were held in Pakistan on 7 December 1970 to elect members of the National Assembly.

On the other hand, East Pakistan preferred a unicameral legislature with 54% seats for East Pakistan (on the basis of population) and complete provincial autonomy. Post-election constitution-making was also a divisive issue with East Pakistan advocating that the constitution be passed by a simple majority in contrast to the West Pakistani demand of making a two-third majority a prerequisite.

Read more: The Agartala conspiracy and the resultant deification of Sheikh Mujib in East Pakistan

The events which transpired

Yahya Khan put forward his plan for elections and power transfer in a speech on 28 November 1969. He declared that he will promulgate a Legal Framework Order (LFO) which will lay down the rules for the election and post-election period until the newly elected national assembly frames a constitution. The LFO (issued in March 1970) conceded almost all of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s demands (at the expense of other political parties). It ended parity and gave 54% seats (162/300) to East Pakistan. The constitution was to be passed by a simple majority, and, most significantly, the extent of provincial autonomy to be permitted was left undefined.

This last point gave Sheikh Mujib a full license for turning the elections into a “referendum on provincial autonomy/six points” in East Pakistan. Many East Pakistani leaders (Nurul Amin, Maulana Bhashani, Professor Ghulam Azam, etc) had warned Yahya Khan that leaving the explosive issue of provincial autonomy unsettled would give Awami League a huge edge.  On the other hand, Sheikh Mujib had made it perfectly clear to the Martial law authorities that any attempt by the government to define the extent of provincial autonomy would lead to serious consequences. The only issue on which Yahya Khan refused to placate Mujib was the insertion of a clause in the LFO that the new constitution would require presidential assent. This angered Mujib so much that he privately vowed to tear the LFO to pieces after winning the elections.

On 1 January 1971, all restrictions on political activities were lifted and the year-long election campaign for the first-ever General Elections in Pakistan commenced. In East Pakistan, the Awami League disrupted public meetings of Jamaat-e-Islami and Nurul Amin’s PDP early on through thuggery. The Martial law authorities did nothing to stop the strong-arm tactics of the Awami League, and as a result, no other political party apart from the Awami League was able to hold mass meetings in East Pakistan. Interestingly, instead of restricting the excesses of the Awami League, the Martial law authorities further helped it by curbing Maulana Bhashani and his National Awami Party (NAP).

Read more: Forks in the Road: The 1965 war’s impact on East Pakistan

The Awami League and Sheikh Mujib adopted a two-pronged strategy for the election campaign. They wanted to appeal both to the rural populace (the vast majority of whom didn’t want secession) and to the radical students/ urban intelligentsia (most of whom were for secession and were politically hyperactive in contrast to the rural masses). Making good use of the popular inability to comprehend glaring contradictions, Sheikh Mujib vowed that Pakistan has come to stay and even declared his aversion to secession while holding the Quran in his hand.

On the other hand, he made inflammatory speeches and demonized West Pakistan

He knew that the rural masses could give him the votes required for becoming the Prime Minister of Pakistan, but only the radicals would struggle for an independent Bangladesh if the former scenario didn’t pan out. Mujib’s rhetoric of six points frequently bordered on secession but the government refused to restrain him as Mujib had craftily assured Yahya that the six points were a mere elect the pioneering slogan and he would modify them significantly after the elections.

Interestingly, where leaders like Nurul Amin (PDP), Maulana Maududi (JI), Fazal ul Qadir (Convention Muslim League), and Qayyum Khan (Qayyum Muslim League) publicly denounced the six-points as a veiled scheme of secession, Mr. Bhutto of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) failed to even mention them during the year-long campaign. Mr. Butto’s sole focus was to portray himself as a revolutionary who would undo the forces of the “status-quo”. More interestingly, Mr. Bhutto solely focused on West Pakistan and didn’t even bother to register a single PPP candidate in East Pakistan. For a person who was claiming to “revolutionize” Pakistan, it appeared odd that he had completely neglected the majority wing unless it can be assumed that Mr. Bhutto thought that after securing a “democratic” victory in West Pakistan, he could just subjugate East Pakistan through “other” means.

In November 1970, just weeks before the election, the monstrous Bhola Cyclone hit East Pakistan and claimed an estimated 5 lac lives. The government’s response to this huge tragedy was deemed inadequate and callous by the Awami League, and it made full use of the tragedy to further its campaign of generating hate against West Pakistan. Maulana Bhashani, quite reasonably, suggested that in the wake of this disaster elections should be postponed and all governmental resources galvanized to help the poor victims of the cyclone. Sheikh Mujib reacted angrily to this demand and strongly opposed it. Yahya Khan once again gave in to Sheikh Mujib’s demand. Maulana Bhashani was already distressed by the pre-poll Awami League rigging. This proved to be the last straw for him, and he withdrew from the elections.

Read more: East Pakistan dead while two-nation theory still alive

The December 1970 elections were described as fair in the sense that there was no governmental interference but there were numerous reports of rigging by Awami League workers. The results were devastating for the unity of Pakistan. Awami League won 160/162 seats in East Pakistan but failed to one a single seat in West Pakistan. PPP emerged as the second-largest party with 81/138 seats (all from West Pakistan).

The Analysis

The spectacular victory of the Awami League wouldn’t have been possible without Yahya Khan’s cooperation who gave in to almost all of their demands and refused to restrain them from muscling out the other parties from the political picture of East Pakistan. Why did Yahya appease Mujib so much? The most frequently proffered argument is that Mujib had assured Yahya that he would radically alter the six points after the election. Does Yahya’s “gullibility” explain his odd behavior? For me, it doesn’t. The answer lies elsewhere. It is now well known that Pakistani intelligence services had predicted that the Awami League would win only 45-70 seats.

Now, Yahya wanted a hung parliament in order to perpetuate his rule. A hung parliament wouldn’t be able to frame a constitution and would leave Yahya securely in control. Awami League was notorious in West Pakistan, so its winning a significant number of seats would have secured Yahya’s hand among all pro-Pakistan elements in East and West Pakistan who would have turned to Yahya as the only “savior” capable of restraining the Awami League and its separatism. A hung parliament with Awami League as the largest party with 60 odd seats would have suited Yahya perfectly. That’s why he curbed Maulana Bhashani who was supposed to be a bigger threat than Mujib on account of his fiery rhetoric and militant socialist followers.

That’s why the only demand he refused Mujib was related to the power of presidential veto. He didn’t want constitutional restraints on Mujib, he wanted his own personal authority to “fix” him. Even Mujib himself hadn’t imagined such a huge electoral victory in his wildest dreams. He had offered Mumtaz Daultana of the Council Muslim League 29 uncontested seats in East Pakistan for a political alliance (an offer which was refused by Daultana). Bhutto’s victory was similarly a huge surprise for Yahya whose intelligence officials had predicted 25 seats for the PPP. The intelligence failures left Yahya fuming on General Ghulam Umar on election night. Yahya’s ineptitude and power-lust had brought Pakistan on the brink of disintegration with the victory of two completely province-centric parties.

Read more: East Pakistan: A National Debacle Owned by None, Forgotten by All

What should have been done?

Instead of plotting to manipulate the political process, Yahya Khan should have done his duty and ensured truly fair elections under a workable legal framework. In order to ensure that both wings participated in the constitution-making exercise, it was essential that either the legislature be bi-cameral, or the prerequisite for passing a constitution by a two-thirds majority.

According to Professor Donald Sassoon, “‘Democratic’ politics, that is, modern mass politics is a battlefield in which the most important move is that which decides what the battle is about, what the issue is.” Yahya let Mujib decide the pivotal issue on which the election would be contested. The limits of provincial autonomy should have been defined to deny a single party this decisive advantage and had it led to violence on Mujib’s part, it could have been dealt with in a better way as at that time as Mujib hadn’t yet earned the legitimacy from a successful election.

The cyclone was a grave crisis, as well as an opportunity. West Pakistani sources mention that the army in East Pakistan did its utmost in the relief operation, but it was deliberately maligned by the East Pakistan press in order to create a perception (contrary to reality) of a callous West Pakistan. Bangladeshi sources insist that Yahya Khan and the Martial law authorities in East Pakistan were insensitive and negligent.

Neutral sources are divided on this issue. But in politics perception is more important than reality. The key battle was the battle of perception which Yahya Khan lost due to his negligence. Compassion, diligence, and a well-executed media strategy could have gone a long way towards denying the Awami League in politicizing the largest natural disaster in Pakistan’s history till then.

The State of affairs after the event

Yahya Khan’s (and his cohorts’) power-lust did almost as much damage as their incompetence. They had conceded Sheikh Mujib’s demand for the universal adult franchise as Mujib had convincingly argued that only an election in which everyone votes could be judged “democratic”. Why not go a step further then? Why not ensure that each vote cast is truly counted? Why not conduct the elections under a party-list system instead of the first-past-the-post system. In the latter, if a candidate gets 60000 votes, and his opponent gets 65000, he and his 60000 voters get no representation. On the other hand, each vote is important in the party-list system and the number of seats of each party in the legislature depends on the total number of votes secured.

Read more: Dec 16: remembering the Indian-backed tragedies of APS & East Pakistan

If the party-list formula is applied to the 1970 election, Awami League gets 117 seats, PPP gets 57 whereas Jamaat-e-Islami, Council Muslim League, Qayyum Muslim League, and JUI get 18, 17, 13, and 12 seats respectively. This way the success of one-province parties like the PPP and Awami League would have been circumscribed, and parties with popular bases in both provinces (like the Muslim Leagues and JI, etc) would have received seats commensurate with their popularity. Like the first-past-the-post system, the party-list system is also widely used and is currently used in many successful democracies like Germany and Turkey.

The 1970 elections decisively augmented the dissociation between East and West Pakistan. It gave Sheikh Mujib enough strength under the LFO to unilaterally “bulldoze” a constitution through the National Assembly. This threatened the military junta enough to contemplate desperate measures. Bhutto, having won his “democratic” victory, was now aiming to neutralize East Pakistan through “other” means. The situation looked extremely grim.


The writer is a doctor and an avid reader of history. His columns have been published in the Urdu daily “Nawa-e-Waqt”. He also runs a social media channel “Tarikh aur Tajziya” which is dedicated to the study of history and current affairs. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.