President General Yahya Khan’s decision to indefinitely postpone the national assembly session on 1 March metaphorically opened the gates of hell. The provincial government practically collapsed. Even bureaucrats and government servants stopped taking orders from the Governor House, and instead obeyed instructions from the Awami League. On Sheikh Mujib’s orders, directives drafted and issued by Awami League Leaders Tajuddin Ahmed, Dr. Kamal Hossein and Barrister Amirul Islam replaced the governmental orders.
A no-tax campaign was launched and the flow of remittances from East to West Pakistan was forcibly stopped. West Pakistanis on their way to the airport were stopped, searched, looted and sometimes killed. In many areas (including Dhaka and Chittagong), goons and mobs killed multitudes of non-Bengalis. Some Awami League workers and mobs even tried to storm government buildings but were stopped by the military which even resorted to live-fire. The whole province descended into anarchy and revolt. Here, a question arises. Why there was such a severe reaction in East Pakistan against the postponement of the national assembly session?
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Basically, it was the fear of the Awami League that it will be cheated, and deprived of the fruits of its electoral victory by the Martial Law authorities. This was going to be the first-ever democratic transition of government in Pakistan, and political leaders were uncertain whether it would ever take place at all. Even the original date of the session (3 March) was announced after much delay and that delay had led to misgivings about the government’s intentions. Now, the abrupt decision to “indefinitely” postpone the session apparently “confirmed” Awami League’s doubts that the government didn’t intend to transfer power.
The events which transpired
On 3rd March 1971, important developments took place. First, Sheikh Mujib delivered a fiery speech to militant students and threatened the government with dire consequences if power wasn’t immediately transferred to the elected representatives. Second, Yahya Khan announced that a Round Table Conference of all parties will be convened in Dhaka on 10 March. Sheikh Mujib termed the Round Table Conference a transparent attempt to equate his party with all the other defeated parties and labeled it “a cruel joke”. Apart from the PPP, no other party expressed interest in the idea of a Round Table Conference, and the idea was shelved.
Third, General Sahibzada Yaqub (Governor and Chief Martial Law Administrator East Pakistan) pleaded with General Peerzada (Yahya’s right-hand man) to convince the President to immediately come to Dhaka for negotiations with the Awami League. Yahya Khan refused, and Yaqub promptly sent his resignation. Presciently, in his resignation letter, Yaqub warned Yahya that a Military Operation against Awami League was not a “sane” option, and it would only result in bloodshed, disaster and disintegration.
General Yaqub’s resignation irked Yahya but stimulated him enough to make some significant, but contradictory moves. On one hand, he showed hawkishness by replacing Yaqub with General Tikka Khan, who had a fearsome reputation. In his speech on 6 March, he squarely and solely blamed the Awami League for the anarchy and deadlock on constitutional issues. On the other hand, he showed a conciliatory spirit by announcing in the same speech that the national assembly session will be held on 25 March. On the same day, he privately communicated to Sheikh Mujib that he would be coming to Dhaka soon, and will satisfy Mujib even beyond his expectations.
Sheikh Mujib was in a quandary at this time
The militant faction of the Awami League was pressing him to issue a unilateral declaration of independence, but he was still hesitating to take that irreversible step. Apparently, he still had some hope that he might to able to become the Prime Minister of a United Pakistan. He was also fearful that the military would attempt to crush him after the declaration of independence, and the Awami League’s preparations to counter this was far from complete as yet. True, the Awami League had encouraged its goons and militant students to organize and train themselves for an armed conflict under the leadership of Colonel Osmany but these ragtag elements were no match for the professional Pakistan Army.
Read more: Forks in the Road: December 1970, the Election that bred secession
To face the army, Mujib needed the support of the Bengali East Bengal Regiment of the Pak Army, the paramilitary troops of the East Pakistan Rifles, and the Police. At this point, the Awami League was busy inciting the ranks and officers of these organizations, but it wasn’t yet sure that they will rebel alongside the Awami League if independence is declared. Sheikh Mujib also received a blunt warning from General Khadim Raja (General Officer Commanding in East Pakistan) that if he tried to issue a unilateral declaration of independence in his speech on 7 March, the army would promptly use all the firepower at its disposal to crush the rebellion. Sheikh Mujib assumed that if he issued a declaration of independence in the public meeting on 7 March, he might be attacked and killed in the open.
So, Sheikh Mujib chose to temporize. On 7 March 1971, Sheikh Mujib addressed more than a hundred thousand people in Dhaka. He delivered a speech full of contradictions. On one hand, he thundered that the (West Pakistani) Army men shouldn’t receive either food or water, but in the same breath, he called them brothers. He shouted that this time the struggle of the Awami League is for independence, but he also ended his speech with the words “Jai Pakistan” (Hail Pakistan). Instead of issuing a unilateral declaration of independence, Sheikh Mujib demanded the abrogation of Martial-law, the return of troops to their barracks, an inquiry into shootings by the police and army during the period since the postponement of the Assembly (not into the killings of Biharis and West Pakistanis though), and an immediate transfer of power to elected representatives. Mujib’s speech, even though it was at times contradictory and vague, did keep the option of a united Pakistan with Mujib at the helm open.
Another important speech was delivered by Z. A. Bhutto on 14 March about which it was reported in the press that he had proclaimed, “Idhar hum, udhar tum”. He hadn’t actually used those words but he had indeed demanded a transfer of power to the provinces i.e. to Mujib in the East and to him in the West. It has also been reported that he advocated the transfer of power to “two prime ministers” in a “confederated scheme of things”. If Mujib was guilty of conspiring for the disintegration of Pakistan, then now Bhutto echoed him!
Yahya khan’s meeting with Sheikh Mujib
On 15 March, Yahya Khan came to Dhaka and became very crestfallen after his first meeting with Sheikh Mujib. Reportedly, he ordered Tikka Khan to get ready for a military operation against the Awami League. Accordingly, a plan named “Operation Searchlight” was prepared on 18 March by Generals Khadim Raja and Rao Farman Ali (though both of these generals had vehemently opposed a military operation, they duly, and properly, complied with the orders issued by the supreme comment despite their own misgivings). By this date, though, the situation seemed to be improving, and the government and Awami League were reported to be nearing an agreement. This spelled doom for the political aspirations of Mr. Bhutto who immediately sent a belligerent message to Yahya Khan stating that any agreement without PPP’s concurrence will break down due to vehement resistance by his party.
Read more: Forks in the Road: The 1965 war’s impact on East Pakistan
Deterred, Yahya Khan invited Bhutto to Dhaka so that he could also participate in the negotiations. After Bhutto’s arrival on 21st March events took an ominous turn. Bhutto raised some objections regarding the proposed transfer of power scheme by the Awami League. On the same day, in an unscheduled meeting, Sheikh Mujib and Tajuddin (reported to be the most anti-Pakistan among Awami Leaguers) met Yahya and asked that power be only transferred at the provincial level, with complete legislative authority vested in the provinces. This demand was almost identical to Bhutto’s demand of 14 March and clearly represented a path towards separation.
Two days later, on 23 March, Awami League further upped the ante when the Awami League negotiators demanded a “confederation” instead of a “federation”. The governmental delegation members were flabbergasted and retorted that confederation is an arrangement between two sovereign states, and that option wasn’t even on the table. The Awami Leaguers refused to budge and later Tajuddin termed these demands as “final”. Now, it became clear to all that the Awami League was bent on the separation of “Bangla Desh” from Pakistan.
Yahya now had only two options
He could launch Operation Searchlight, or he could give in to the Awami League demands. He chose the former option. On the morning of 25th March, General Tikka Khan ordered General Khadim to launch Operation Searchlight that night. Yahya, despite being the army chief, chose not to command the operation from Dhaka but flew to Karachi in the evening.
He also ordered to Tikka, in the interest of his personal safety, that the operation should only be started after his arrival at Karachi (lest the Indians attack his aircraft en route to Karachi). Yahya’s departure became known to the Awami League as soon as he embarked on a plane at the Dhaka airbase. This was sure proof for them that the negotiations were over. Hence, they received advance notice of the impending military action. All leaders, except Sheikh Mujib, fled towards India. Around midnight on 25 March, the military operation, which ultimately tore Pakistan asunder, began.
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Understanding the analysis
The commonality between Mujib, Bhutto and Yahya was a quest for power. But their paths to power differed markedly. Yahya could only hold onto power if he could crush or sideline Mujib and Bhutto. The attainment of his goal required a political failure of both Mujib and Bhutto to acquire legitimacy but he failed in bringing it about. Sheikh Mujib wanted to become the Prime Minister of either Pakistan or Bangladesh. He could become the Prime Minister of Pakistan by showing a little flexibility but instead, he became paranoid after the postponement of the national assembly session.
The success of his non-cooperation movement and accompanying violence convinced him of the weakness of the Pak Army. He assumed, wrongly, that the army would bow down to his pressure tactics. Thus, he miscalculated greatly, and as a result, civil war erupted in East Pakistan. Bhutto was in the weakest position in this three-way competition. He didn’t have either the power of guns (like the army) or electoral legitimacy (like the Awami League). The only way for him was to engineer chaos (which is a ladder according to the unscrupulous) through encouraging a destructive conflict between the Awami League and the Army. Thus, he did everything in his power to prevent a Yahya-Mujib agreement and a peaceful/democratic transfer of power. Of the three, Bhutto was the only one to achieve his objective, even though he was the least likely to do so.
All three managed to commit heinous crimes during this quest for power. Yahya Khan tried to equalize Bhutto’s 81 seats with Mujib’s 160 in order to create the semblance of political stalemate (which was necessary for his holding onto power). Then, he launched a bloody and certain-to-fail military operation despite being warned by the likes of General Yaqub, General Khadim, General Farman, Admiral Ahsan and Air Commodore Masood. He also chose to flee instead of leading the operation himself.
Mujib conspired for the separation of East Pakistan
He sought help from India and the USA for his nefarious schemes and was given full support by the former (though the latter rejected his entreaties). He incited revolt against Pakistan and was responsible for the grizzly violence against non-Bengalis and West Pakistanis (in which thousands perished) just to bully the government into transferring power to him.
Read more: The Agartala conspiracy and the resultant deification of Sheikh Mujib in East Pakistan
Bhutto tore all democratic norms to pieces and insisted on parity with the Awami League despite having earned no such mandate from the elections. He also threatened to set West Pakistan ablaze from Karachi to Khyber if his demand weren’t met (had Yahya not obliged Bhutto at every step along the way, Bhutto (instead of Mujib) might well have launched a destructive agitation). He also made it clear that he was even willing to consider the country’s disintegration if only he be made Prime Minister of West Pakistan. If Mujib was guilty of treason in March 1971, then so was Bhutto!
What Should have been done
When the Awami League had removed all the veils of dissimulation and deception by demanding a confederation, the government was only left with the options of acquiescence or military action. The government should have chosen the former option. At least, it would have retained a symbolic link between East and West Pakistan. More importantly, it wouldn’t have led to a murderous civil war and the consequent defeat of Pakistan at India’s hands. It wouldn’t have given the Indians and their agents in East Pakistan/Bangladesh the foundational myth of the “murderous Pakistani Army” which is still being used in Bangladesh to undermine Bangladesh’s Islamic identity and its links to the fraternal country of Pakistan.
The military option was very, very, very longshot. With East, Pakistan surrounded on three sides by India, and 1000 miles away from West Pakistan, it was very easy for India to support the anti-Pakistan rebels whereas the logistical realities made a long struggle by Pak Army in East Pakistan virtually impossible. Then, every civil war unleashes a cycle of repression which alienates the local population even further. That is why General Yaqub had said that the military operation would achieve no sane aim. The only way for Pakistan’s success in a military operation was that it be completed very quickly.
The state of affairs after the event
This was only possible if all Awami League leadership were captured at the very beginning. In this way, the rebels would have suffered from a leadership crisis at a nascent stage and might well have wilted under pressure. Then the arrested Awami League leadership could have been used to generate a political solution. But Yahya Khan’s cowardice destroyed this fragile hope of success by facilitating the escape of Awami League leadership to India.
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The failure of negotiations, the launching of Operation Searchlight, and the escape of Awami League leadership into the welcoming embrace of India practically destroyed all chances of a United Pakistan. Now, Pakistan needed a resounding military victory over the rebels and at least a military stalemate with India on the Eastern front to resurrect a slim chance for even a symbolic union/confederation. Failing in any one of these would make even a confederation impossible. Fratricide, defeat and disgrace seemed on the cards as India made herself ready to make hay while the sun shone!
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 of Global Village Space.