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Monday, May 20, 2024

Forks in the Road: The fatal decision that precipitated a revolt in East Pakistan

The first-ever General Elections in the history of Pakistan were conducted on 7 December 1970. The results were a bad omen for the unity and integrity of Pakistan. Mujib’s secessionist leanings and exclusive focus on East Pakistan helped Bhutto greatly. Bhutto’s close relations with some key generals also made Yahya fearful that if he opposed Bhutto sternly, he might be toppled.

The first-ever General Elections in the history of Pakistan were conducted on 7 December 1970. The results were a bad omen for the unity and integrity of Pakistan. The polarization between East Pakistan and the rest of Pakistan was made evident by the fact that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won 160/162 seats in East Pakistan but failed to win a single seat from West Pakistan. On the other hand, Z. A. Bhutto’s PPP managed to win 81/138 seats from West Pakistan but didn’t even field a candidate in East Pakistan. Outwardly, it looked plainly evident that the Awami League alone had enough seats to make the government and frame the constitution.

But, it wasn’t that simple. Never before had Pakistan witnessed a democratic transfer of power. So, naturally, the victors were apprehensive of the military which had been in power for the last 12 years. Then there was the problem of Awami League’s reputation as a secessionist organization in West Pakistan. How could a party which only had representation in one province make a constitution for all 5 provinces of Pakistan? The military junta didn’t want to give up power, Sheikh Mujib wanted a speedy transfer of power whereas Mr. Bhutto wanted a share of power at all costs.

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

In this uncertain climate, with the military looming large in the background, both Awami League and PPP were apprehensive that if they compromised or failed to gain power immediately, the opportunistic elements in their ranks will desert them, resulting in the disintegration of their respective political organizations. The welfare and integrity of Pakistan were completely ignored, and all actors became engaged in a political game of cat-and-mouse.

The events which transpired

Instead of opting for statesmanship, Sheikh Mujib continued and enhanced his belligerent anti-West Pakistan rhetoric immediately after the elections. It was advised to him that he should visit West Pakistan as Prime Minister-in-waiting and conduct some public meetings there to show that as Pakistan’s most popular leader, he was cognizant of West Pakistani sensitivities as well. But Sheikh Mujib rejected this advice. He only seemed concerned with holding onto his popular base in East Pakistan.

Bhutto took an even more controversial and fallacious course. He made provocative statements and claimed that there were “two majority parties” in the country. He claimed equivalence with the Awami League despite having half the number of seats. He also declared that as the “sole” representative of West Pakistan, the PPP couldn’t be denied a share in the government.

General Yahya Khan was much demoralized by the election results. He had expected a hung parliament that could be manipulated or discredited easily but instead was faced by a rock-solid and total Awami League majority. In January 1971, he went to Dhaka and met with Sheikh Mujib. He hoped that Mujib would abide by his promises of softening the six-point demand. But, like Yahya, the election results were surprising for Sheikh Mujib as well. Those promises were made because Sheikh Mujib had wanted Yahya’s goodwill in the pre-election period and because he didn’t think that he would attain an unassailable majority in the National Assembly.

Another issue was that Yahya Khan and his team were so incompetent that they hadn’t bothered to study and analyze the six-point demand yet. So, when confronted by Sheikh Mujib’s team of constitutional advisers, Yahya and his advisers found themselves at sea. At the end of the tour, Yahya publicly declared that Sheikh Mujib will be the future Prime Minister of Pakistan. Nevertheless, privately he confided to his inner circle that Mujib had “betrayed” him.

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

Why was General Yahya onto Bhutto?

From Dhaka, General Yahya (and his coterie of generals) headed straight to Bhutto’s home at Larkana. This led to great consternation and apprehension in Awami League circles. It was widely believed in East Pakistan that Yahya had gone to Larkana in order to “conspire” with Bhutto and use him as a tool against the Awami League. Bhutto used Yahya’s Larkana visit to further poison his mind against the Awami League. He whispered that Mujib would cut the military budget, promote and inject Bengali officers loyal to Awami League into the armed forces’ hierarchy, penalize senior generals through appointing Colonel Osmany (an Awami Leaguer ex-army officer who had grudges against many senior generals) as Minister of Defence and abandon Kashmir to India. Yahya advised Bhutto to visit Dhaka and try to make an agreement for a grand coalition of PPP and the Awami League.

Bhutto did go to Dhaka in end-January 1971 and met with the Awami League leadership. He didn’t show much interest in the six points and communicated that he was ready to accept them (apart from the single exception of making negotiation of foreign aid a provincial responsibility) as long as the Awami League would give him the post of Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. He also demanded four out of ten cabinet positions for PPP. Sheikh Mujib flatly rejected his demand and the negotiations failed.

One thing which Bhutto successfully managed to do in Dhaka, was to further augment the suspicions of Sheikh Mujib. Bhutto frankly told Mujib that the Army would never transfer power to a Bengali like him, and the only way he could become the Prime Minister of Pakistan was to cooperate with PPP. So, on one hand, Mr. Bhutto was telling Yahya that Mujib is a traitor who would ruin Pakistan and her fine army if given power. On the other hand, he was telling Mujib as an “insider” that the army would never let him assume power and he needed the PPP supremo to save him from the army’s clutches.

Bhutto’s machinations succeeded in multiplying the mutual distrust between General Yahya and Sheikh Mujib. Sheikh Mujib’s past record suggested that whenever faced with governmental hindrance in his quest for power, he opted for the path of treason and secession, whereas whenever he saw a chance of attaining power within Pakistan, he became a vocal patriot (eg Sheikh Mujib fathered the Agartala conspiracy after facing defeat in the 1965 elections). Now, Bhutto’s whispers led him to become paranoid about Yahya Khan. As a response, at the beginning of February, he contacted the US consulate in Dhaka and attempted to find out whether the US would be supportive of East Pakistan’s secession. He also ordered his lieutenants Tajuddin Ahmed and Kamal Hossein to draft a declaration of independence for Bangladesh.

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

Sheikh Mujib’s suspicions

Sheikh Mujib’s suspicions had also been amplified by Yahya Khan’s refusal to declare a date for the National Assembly session. Mujib thought that Yahya Khan was purposely delaying this in order to gain time for crushing the Awami League. But, suddenly on 13th February, Yahya Khan declared that the National Assembly session will take place in Dhaka on the 3rd of March. Now, Sheikh Mujib again regained the hope of becoming the PM of all Pakistan, and as a result, put his secessionist schemes on hold. But, Bhutto was infuriated and on 15th February, he declared that he won’t attend the assembly session. In order to incite Mujib, he started using provocative language once again and termed the Dhaka assembly hall a “slaughterhouse” for PPP and West Pakistan.

This “slaughterhouse” statement had far-reaching consequences. In February, Yahya Khan had invited Sheikh Mujib to come to West Pakistan as his guest for political consultations. At that time, Mujib was very apprehensive of Yahya Khan’s intentions and even feared that he might be assassinated in West Pakistan. So, he declined. Yahya Khan deemed it a personal insult and became more convinced that Mujib was completely unconcerned about West Pakistan. But, after the announcement of the date for the assembly session, Mujib had felt somewhat mollified.

Accordingly, Yahya re-invited him through a Bengali officer Brigadier Karim. This time Mujib seemed willing but after Bhutto’s slaughterhouse statement, he lost his cool and declared that if Dhaka was a slaughterhouse for Bhutto, then the whole of West Pakistan was a slaughterhouse for him! In his mind, he had conflated Bhutto and Yahya and thought that Bhutto was merely a pawn of Yahya.

This fresh snub incensed Yahya to no end. And then there was the omnipresent Bhutto whispering, “I told you so!” in his ear. Mujib’s refusal confirmed him as a traitor bent on secession in Yahya’s mind. So, Yahya decided to punish Mujib for his temerity. On 22 February 1971, Yahya called a fateful meeting of his leading generals and declared that he had decided to infinitely postpone the National Assembly session. He rationalized his decision by saying that a single-province party couldn’t be allowed to bulldoze a constitution for all of Pakistan.

Admiral Ahsan (Governor East Pakistan) and General Yaqub (Chief Martial Law Administrator East Pakistan) opposed Yahya and opined that this decision would bring about the disintegration of Pakistan. But their sane voices were drowned in a chorus of sycophancy and belligerence by the rest. The only concession Yahya made was that the decision was not to be made public until later. In order to get this decision reversed, Admiral Ahsan and General Rao Farman Ali (in charge of civil affairs at Dhaka) met Mr. Bhutto on 25 February and tried to convince him to attend the National Assembly session in the broad national interest.

But, Mr. Bhutto airily dismissed their concern and “sagely” commented that Awami League was a mere bourgeoisie party incapable of launching and sustaining a guerilla war. Then, on 28 February Mr. Bhutto made his infamous speech in which he threatened to break the legs of any PPP member who dared to go to Dhaka. He also threatened the other West Pakistani politicians willing to go to Dhaka for the assembly session. On this same fateful day, General Yahya Khan ordered Admiral Ahsan to inform Sheikh Mujib about the indefinite postponement of the National Assembly session.

Read more: Political differences; was this the only reason for the separation of East Pakistan?

After informing Mujib, Admiral Ahsan again contacted Yahya and argued that at the very least a new date for the session should be announced simultaneously to allay some of Awami League’s suspicions but was refused, and fired. The next day, when the decision was broadcast over the radio, Sheikh Mujib and Awami League were ready. Their response was swift and drastic. The Awami League declared a non-cooperation movement which practically turned into a revolt against the central government.

Analysis/What Should have been done

After the elections, Bhutto appeared as the weakest among the 3 key actors. He didn’t have democratic legitimacy (which Mujib had), and he didn’t have brute force (which Yahya had). All he had was a hope that if he could somehow make the other actors mutually suspicious, a serious conflict may be generated. That conflict might create space for the PPP to enter the corridors of power. Mujib’s secessionist leanings and exclusive focus on East Pakistan helped Bhutto greatly. Bhutto’s close relations with some key generals also made Yahya fearful that if he opposed Bhutto sternly, he might be toppled.

This situation generated an escalatory cycle in which Yahya and Mujib successively antagonized each other through aggressive moves and deepened their mutual mistrust. This cycle resulted in the fateful decision to postpone the National Assembly session by Yahya. The indefinite postponement of the session convinced Mujib of Yahya’s bad faith. As Mujib only wanted power (whether in Pakistan or Bangladesh) and cared little for Pakistan’s integrity, it made little sense for him to be cooperative after he became convinced that Yahya wasn’t going to transfer power easily.

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

The State of affairs after the event

As President, Yahya should have done his duty and transferred power to the newly elected national assembly. Even if Bhutto’s 81 members had boycotted the session, the national assembly could have carried on with its business. As for the question: What could have been done to avoid this tragic chain of events? The answer is simple. The other parties of West Pakistan were willing to participate in the national assembly session. All Yahya had to do was to let democracy take its course. This would have increased goodwill for the army in East Pakistan and even mollified the non-extremist Awami Leaguers (like Khandekar Moshtaque).

A general had opined in a meeting with Yahya on 20 February that Sheikh Mujib was a very incompetent person and would be resented and kicked out by the Bengalis themselves within 6 months. He had suggested that a democratic transition should be allowed to take place and Sheikh Mujib should be allowed a full chance to display his monumental incompetence. After Sheikh Mujib’s abysmal failure, the secessionist elements would be deeply discredited in the eyes of East Pakistanis, and as a result, the unity of Pakistan would receive a huge boost. Yahya should have heeded this advice instead of falling into Bhutto’s trap and letting his egoistic rage cloud his judgment.

On 1 March, the Awami League practically launched a revolt against central authority and the governmental writ almost completely disappeared from East Pakistan. Now, a unilateral declaration of independence by the Awami League, and a bloody civil war looked imminent. The largest Islamic state in the world, and the only country created in the name of Islam, teetered on the brink of fratricide! Could anything be done to save the situation?


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 the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy