Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan
Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan (4 February 1917 – 10 August 1980), known as Yahya Khan was Pakistan’s military leader, martial law administrator, and President of Pakistan. He served as President from 1969 until 1971. His presidency witnessed the breakup of Pakistan,
He participated in WWII with the British Indian Army in the Mediterranean theatre, and opted for Pakistan’s military after Britain partitioned India in 1947. He abetted in the covert infiltration in Indian Kashmir that led to the 1965 war with India.
After being appointed to the army command, Yahya Khan took over the presidency, and enforced martial law by suspending the Constitution in 1969. He held the first nationwide election in 1970 but delayed transferring power to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; this started the civil unrest in East-Pakistan. He authorized the military to suppress the rebellion and at the same time tried to restore order within West-Pakistan.
The crisis deepened following reports of:
- the Bhola disaster
- widespread genocide by Pakistan military, and
- persecution of Western Pakistanis by Mukti Bahini (rebel army)
- This allowed India to consolidate its moral and political position.
Pakistan suffered a decisive defeat from India in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, with loss of geopolitical influence in the Muslim world. The secession of East Pakistan as Bangladesh broke up Pakistan. Following these events, Yahya Khan handed power to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and resigned from the army. He was disgraced when the service honours were revoked, and he was put under house surveillance for the 1970s decade. After release of restrictions in 1977, he died in 1980 in Rawalpindi.
He is viewed negatively by Pakistan’s historians, and is considered the least successful of the country’s leaders.
Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan was born in Chakwal, Punjab in British India on 4 February 1917. He and his family were Pashtuns (Pathans).
Few Pakistanis knew anything about Yahya Khan when he was vaulted into the presidency two years ago. The stocky, bushy–browed Pathan had been the army chief of staff since 1966… Editorial, Time, 2 August 1971
Yahya Khan was commissioned from Indian Military Academy Dehra Dun on 15 July 1939. As an infantry officer in the 4th Battalion of the 10th Baluch Regiment, he saw action during World War II in North Africa with the 4th infantry division, and was captured by the Axis Forces in June 1942. He was interned in a prisoner of war camp in Italy but escaped. He served in Iraq, Italy, and North Africa.
1965 war and Commander-in-chief
After World War II, he joined Pakistan Army in 1947, and was instrumental in preventing the Indian officers from shifting books from the British Indian Army Staff College Library at Quetta. He was the only Muslim instructor at the time of partition of India. At age 34, he was promoted to Brigadier and appointed commander of the “105 Independent Brigade” that was deployed at the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir in 1951-1952. He was described as a “hard drinking professional soldier” who liked both his women, and wine. Later as Deputy Chief of General Staff, he was selected to head the army’s planning board set up to modernize the army in 1954-57.
Yahya was Chief of General Staff from 1958 to 1962; he went on to command an infantry division from 1962 to 1965. He co-founded the Command and Staff College in Quetta, Balochistan. He played a pivotal role supporting President Ayub Khan’s campaign in 1965 presidential elections against Fatima Jinnah. In recognition for this, he was promoted to Major-General and made GOC of 7th Infantry Division. He commanded the division during the 1965 war with India. He was not instrumental in planning the military infiltration operation (Operation Gibraltar). Operation Grand Slam which followed failed miserably as there was a change of command and resultant delay on part of Yahya Khan as the new commander to push operations. This allowed the Indian Army to cross the intentional border and make for Lahore.
It is interesting that in response to a question by a student at the Staff College where he served as an instructor after the war, he replied that he had no orders to continue operations after relieving Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik of command.
Yahya Khan was promoted to Lieutenant-General and his promotion was approved by President Ayub Khan in 1966; he was appointed Deputy Army Commander in Chief and later Commander-in-Chief of Pakistan Army in March 1966. At promotion, he superseded two of his seniors: Lieutenant-General Altaf Qadir and Lieutenant-General Bakhtiar Rana.
He energetically started reorganizing the army in 1965; post 1965 saw major organizational and technical changes in the army. Till 1965 it was thought that divisions could function effectively while taking orders from the GHQ. This planning failed in the 1965 war and the need to have an intermediate corps headquarters between the GHQ and the combat divisions was recognized as an operational necessity. In the 1965 war, the army had only one corps headquarters (i.e. the 1st Corps Headquarters).
Soon after the war started, the U.S. imposed an embargo on military aid to both India and Pakistan. This embargo did not affect the Indian Army but produced major changes in the Pakistan Army’s technical composition. US Secretary of State Dean Rusk well summed it up when he said, “Well if you are going to fight, go ahead and fight, but we’re not going to pay for it”.
Pakistan turned to China for military aid and the Chinese T-59 tank started replacing the US M-47/48 tank from 1966 as the army’s main battle tank (MBT). The first batch of 80 T59 tanks, a low-grade version of the Russian T-54/55 series were delivered to Pakistan in 1965-66.
The 1965 War had signaled that the army’s tank to infantry ratio was lopsided and more infantry was required. Three infantry divisions (9, 16 and 17 Divisions) largely equipped with Chinese equipment and referred to as “The China Divisions” were raised by the beginning of 1968. Two more corps headquarters i.e. 2nd Corps Headquarters (Jhelum-Ravi Corridor) and 4th Corps Headquarters (Ravi-Sutlej Corridor) were raised.
President of Pakistan
President Ayub Khan handed power on 25 March 1969 because of increasing public resentment against him. Yahya Khan imposed martial law. Yahya inherited a twenty year constitutional problem of inter-provincial ethnic rivalry between the Punjabi-Pashtun-Mohajir dominated West Pakistan province and the ethnic Bengali Muslim East Pakistan province. Yahya also inherited an 11 year old problem of transforming an essentially one man ruled country to a democratic country, which was the basis of the anti-Ayub movement of 1968-69. As an Army Chief, he had the capabilities, qualifications and potential but he inherited a complex problem and was forced to perform multiple roles of:
- caretaker head of the country,
- drafter of a provisional constitution,
- resolving the One Unit question,
- satisfying the frustrations and the sense of exploitation and discrimination successively created in the East Wing by a series of government policies since 1948.
All these were complex problems. The seeds of Pakistan Army’s defeat and humiliation in December 1971 lay in the fact that Yahya Khan blundered unwittingly into the thankless task of fixing problems of Pakistan’s political and administrative system which had been accumulating for 20 years and had their origins in the pre-1947 British policies towards the Bengali Muslims.
The American author Ziring observed that, “Yahya Khan has been widely portrayed as a ruthless uncompromising insensitive and grossly inept leader…While Yahya cannot escape responsibility for these tragic events, it is also on record that he did not act alone…All the major actors of the period were creatures of a historic legacy and a psycho-political milieu which did not lend itself to accommodation and compromise, to bargaining and a reasonable settlement. Nurtured on conspiracy theories, they were all conditioned to act in a manner that neglected agreeable solutions and promoted violent judgements”.
The tragedy of the whole affair was the fact that all actions that Yahya took, although correct in principle, were too late, and served only to further intensify the political polarization between the East and West wings. He dissolved the one unit restoring the pre-1955 provinces of West Pakistan, and promised one man one vote, fair elections on an adult franchise basis, This was a basic human right which had been denied to the Pakistani people since the 1946 pre-independence elections by political inefficiency, double play and intrigue by civilian governments, from 1947 to 1958 and by Ayub’s dictatorship from 1958 to 1969.
However dissolution of One Unit did not lead to results that might have happened had this been done earlier. Yahya made an attempt to accommodate the East Pakistanis by abolishing the parity principle; hoping that the greater share in the assembly would redress their wounded ethnic regional pride and ensure the integrity of the country. This this not satisfy the Bengalis; it intensified their separatism, since they felt that West Pakistan had politically suppressed them since 1958 and anti-west wing sentiment increased in East Pakistan.
During 1968, political pressure exerted by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had weakened President Ayub Khan, who had earlier sacked him when he disagreed with the President’s decision to implement on Tashkent Agreement. To ease the situation, President Ayub tried reaching out to Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Awami League (AL), but was unsuccessful. In poor health, President Ayub abrogated his own Constitution and resigned from the presidency.
On 24 March 1969, President Ayub via a directive invited General Yahya Khan to deal with the situation as it was “the beyond the capacity of (civil) government to deal with the… complex situation.”
On 26 March 1969, General Yahya appeared on national television and announced martial law all over the country. The 1962 Constitution was abrogated, the parliament dissolved and civilian officials dismissed. In his first nationwide address, Yahya maintained: “I will not tolerate disorder. Let everyone remain at his post.”The immediate effect was a military government and featured military officials:
Yahya Khan Administration
||Portraits||Ministries and departments||Inter–Services|
|President and Chief Martial Law Administrator; Information and Broadcasting; Law and Justice; Foreign and Defence||Pakistan Army|
Abdul Hamid Khan
|Deputy CMLA; Interior and Kashmir Affairs||Pakistan Army|
Syed Mohammad Ahsan
|Deputy CMLA; Finance and Planning Commission; Statistics, Commerce, and Industry||Pakistan Navy|
|Deputy CMLA; Communications and Health; Labour and Science and Technology||
Pakistan Air Force
National Security Council and LFO
President Yahya was well aware of this explosive situation and decided to bring changes all over the country. His earlier initiatives directed towards establishing the National Security Council (NSC) with Major-General Ghulam Omar as the first adviser. The NSC was formed to analyze and prepare assessments of issues relating to political and national security.
In 1969, President Yahya promulgated the Legal Framework Order No. 1970 which disestablished the One Unit programme and West Pakistan was formed. The decree had no effect on East Pakistan. Following this, President Yahya announced nationwide general elections in 1970, and appointed Judge Abdus Sattar as Chief Election Commissioner of the Election Commission of Pakistan. Changes were carried out by President Yahya to reverse the country back towards parliamentary democracy.
1970 general elections
By 28 July 1969, President Yahya had set a framework for elections that were to be held in December 1970. Finally, the general elections were held all over the country. In East Pakistan, the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won almost all the mandate, but had no seat in any of four provinces of West Pakistan. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won the mandate in the four provinces of West Pakistan, but none in East-Pakistan. The Pakistan Muslim League (PML) led by Nurul Amin was the only party to have representation all over the country, though it failed to gain the mandate to run the government. The Awami League had 160 seats, all won from the East-Pakistan; the PPP had secured 81; the conservative PML had 10 seats in the National Assembly. The general elections’ results truly reflected the ugly political reality:
the division of the Pakistani electorate along regional lines and political polarization of the country between the two states, East Pakistan and Pakistan.
In political terms, Pakistan as a nation stood divided. Bilateral talks between PPP and the Awami League of Mujibur Rahman produced no results and they were unable to come to an agreement of transfer of power to East-Pakistan’s representatives on the basis of the Six-Point programme. In West Pakistan, the people felt that the six-point agenda was a step towards secession. In media reports, it has since emerged that Mujib met Indian diplomats in London in 1969 according to his daughter and agreed to secede from Pakistan.
Genocide in East-Pakistan
The political deadlock remained between the Awami League, PPP, and the military government after the general elections of 1970. During this time, Yahya began coordinating several meetings with his military strategists over this issue in East Pakistan.
On 25 March 1971, President Yahya initiated Operation Searchlight to restore the writ of the government. Partially successful but the situation in East-Pakistan worsened. The gulf between the two wings was too wide to be bridged. Agitation was transformed into an insurgency as Bengali elements of the Pakistan armed forces and police mutinied, and along with the people launched hit and run operations. Operation Searchlight ordered by Yahya was a planned military pacification carried out by the Pakistan Armed Forces to curb the Bengali nationalist movement in East Pakistan in March 1971; this was a sequel to Operation Blitz which had been launched in November 1970.
The original plan envisioned taking control of the major cities on 26 March 1971, and then eliminating all opposition, political or military, within one month. The prolonged Bengali resistance was not anticipated by Pakistani planners. The main phase of Operation Searchlight ended with the fall of the last major town in Bengali hands in mid May.
The total number of people killed in East Pakistan is not known with any degree of accuracy. Bangladesh authorities claim that 3 million people were killed, while the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, an official Pakistan Government investigation, put the figure at 26,000 civilian casualties. According to Sarmila Bose, between 50,000 and 100,000 combatants and civilians were killed on both sides during the war. A 2008 British Medical Journal study by Ziad Obermeyer, Christopher J. L. Murray, and Emmanuela Gakidou estimated that up to 269,000 civilians died as a result of the conflict; the authors note that this is far higher than a previous estimate of 58,000 from Uppsala University and the Peace Research Institute, Oslo. According to Serajur Rahman, the official Bangladesh estimate of “3 lakhs” (300,000) was wrongly translated into English as 3 million.
Yahya Khan had Sheikh Mujibur Rahman arrested on charges of sedition. He appointed Brigadier Rahimuddin Khan (later General) to preside over a special tribunal dealing with case. He was awarded the death sentence, and President Yahya put the verdict into abeyance. Yahya’s crackdown, however, led to a Bangladesh Liberation War within East Pakistan. This drew India into the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. The result was the establishment of Bangladesh as an independent republic. Yahya Khan apologized for his mistakes and voluntarily stepped down.
The United States had been a major sponsor of President Yahya’s military government, as noted in a reference written by Gary Bass in the “The Blood Telegram”: “President Nixon liked very few people, but he liked General Yahya Khan.” Personal initiatives of President Yahya had helped in establishing a communication channel between the United States and China, which would be used to set up Nixon’s trip in 1972.
Since 1960, Pakistan was perceived in the United States as a bulwark against Communism in the Cold War. The United States cautiously supported Pakistan during 1971, although Congress kept in place an arms embargo. India with a heavily socialist economy entered in a formal alliance with the Soviet Union in August 1971.
Nixon relayed several written and oral messages to President Yahya, strongly urging him to restrain Pakistan forces. His objective was to prevent a war and safeguard Pakistan’s interests, though he feared that an Indian invasion of Pakistan would lead to Indian domination of the subcontinent and strengthen the the Soviet Union. Similarly, President Yahya feared that an independent Bangladesh could lead to the disintegration of West Pakistan. Indian military participation and support to Bengali guerrillas led to war between India and Pakistan.
In November 1971, Richard Nixon met Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He did not believe that she would not invade Pakistan. Kissinger pointed out that Nixon made specific proposals to Prime Minister Gandhi on a solution for the crisis, some of which she heard for the first time, including a mutual withdrawal of troops from East Pakistan borders.
Nixon also expressed a wish to fix a time limit for Yahya about political accommodation for East Pakistan. Nixon asserted that India could count on US endeavors to ease the crisis within a short time. Both Kissinger and Gandhi’s aide Jayakar maintained that she did not respond to these proposals. Kissinger noted that she “listened to what was in fact one of Nixon’s better presentations with aloof indifference” but “took up none of the points.” Jayakar pointed out that Gandhi listened to Nixon “without a single comment, creating an impregnable space so that no real contact was possible.” She also refrained from assuring that India would follow Pakistan’s suit if it withdrew from India’s borders. As a result, this agenda was “dropped altogether.”
On 3 December, Yahya preemptively attacked the Indian Air Force bases and Gandhi retaliated, pushing into East Pakistan. Nixon issued a statement blaming Pakistan for starting the conflict and blaming India for escalating it because he favored a cease-fire. The United States was secretly encouraging the shipment of military equipment from Iran, Turkey, and Jordan to Pakistan, reimbursing those countries despite Congressional objections. The US used the threat of an aid cut-off to force Pakistan to back down, while its continued military aid to Islamabad. The US prevented India from launching incursions deeper into West Pakistan. Pakistan forces in East Pakistan surrendered on 16 December 1971 leading to the creation of the independent state of Bangladesh.
Fall from power
When the news of surrender of East Pakistan reached through the national television, an overwhelming public anger rose over Pakistan’s defeat by Bangladeshi rebels and the Indian Army, followed by the breakup of Pakistan The anger boiled into street demonstrations throughout Pakistan. Rumours of an impending coup d’état by junior military officers against President Yahya swept the country. Yahya became the highest-ranking casualty of the war. On 20 December, 1971, to forestall further unrest, he handed over the presidency and government to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto— the leader of Pakistan People’s Party.
Within hours of Yahya stepping down, President Bhutto reversed judge advocate general’s (JAG’s) verdict against Mujibur Rehman and released him to go to London. President Bhutto also signed orders for Yahya’s house confinement, the man who imprisoned Mujib in the first place.
Yahya remained under house arrest until 1979 when he was released from the custody by martial law administrator General Fazle Haq. He remained away from public events and died on 10 August 1980 in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan
- 3rd President of Pakistan: 25 March 1969 – 20 December 1971
- Commander in Chief of Pakistan Army: 18 June 1966 – 20 December 1971
- Born: Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan
- 4 February 1917, Chakwal, Punjab, British Indian Empire (now in Punjab, Pakistan)
- Died: 10 August 1980 (aged 63)
- Rawalpindi, Pakistan
- Resting place: Westridge
- British Indian Empire
- British Subject (1917–1947)
- Pakistan (1947–1980)
- Political party: None
- Domestic partner: Akleem Akhtar
- Punjab University
- Indian Military Academy
- Command and General Staff College
- Nishane-e-Pakistan (withdrawn)
- Hilal-e-Pakistan (withdrawn)
- Order of Pahlavi (Iran).gif Neshan-e-Pahlavi
- British Indian Army
- Pakistan Army
- Years of service: 1939–1971
- Rank OF-9 Pakistan Army.svgUS-O10 insignia.svg General
- Unit: 4/10th Baluch Regiment (S/No. PA–98)
- Deputy Chief of Army Staff
- GOC 7th Division (Peshawar)
- 15th Division, Sialkot
- 14th Division, Dacca
- 105th Independent Brigade
- World War II-Mediterranean theatre
- Indo-Pakistani War of 1965
- Battle of Chawinda
- Indo-Pakistani War of 1971
- Bangladesh Liberation War
- Hilal-e-Jurat (withdrawn)
By courtesy Wikipedia.org (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15585926).
The First Free and Fair Elections
The tales of the refugees were harrowing, their plight truly pitiful. Important visitors came to see them. One was the American senator Edward Kennedy, his handsome face and shirt sleeves translucent amidst the sea of human misery. George Harrison sang in Bengali, ‘O bhagaban khodatallah, moder chhaira kotha gela’ (O Lord God, where have you gone abandoning us). A Bengali singer sang ‘ Shono ekti Mujborer theke lakkha Mujiborer kanthaswarer dhwani pratidhwani akashe batase othe roni—Bangladesh, amar Bangladesh!’ (Listen, from the voice of one Mujib a lakh Mujib’s voices speak and echo around the wind and sky—Bangladesh, my Bangladesh!).
Finally full-fledged war broke out between India and Pakistan. There had been a war between India and Pakistan just a few years before, when I was very small. At that time the people of East Pakistan were fighting against India. “The war was short-lived, however. India won, Bangladesh became free. There was euphoria all round. The Indian army was led by Sam Manekshaw, who exuded a dashing ‘can do’. But the man of the moment was the commander of the Eastern command, General Jagjit Singh Aurora, a smartly turbaned Sikh, framed for history as he sat with a large man in a beret called General A.A.K. Niazi, who signed the surrender documents on behalf of Pakistan. Sheikh Mujib, a prisoner in West Pakistan for nine months, returned to Dhaka to a hero’s welcome.
Twenty years later I was recording a radio interview for the BBC in Bush House in London, where I was one of the presenters of a South Asia news programme. My interviewee, in Delhi, was General Jagjit Singh Aurora. As we tried to get the sound right, I talked to General Aurora. I told him that I was from Calcutta and remembered him as a war- hero. ‘Thank you, my dear,’ said a kindly voice from the other end of a crackly line. For the most part, however, General Aurora was agitated. His interview was about human rights violations against Sikhs in Indian Punjab and draconian laws like TADA*.
* Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act.
I was sympathetic to the issue and the interview went smoothly. Later I heard that it had not gone as well with an Indian language program and General Aurora had gone upset. Here was a war- hero of 1971 pitted against the very state he had served, on the grounds of violation of the rights of his people. I thought I might write something of the irony.
Another decade passed before the spark became a full- fledged research project on 1971. In the meantime General Aurora’s public status as a war- hero did not correspond to the view of some of his fellow officers. One wrote that ‘his command did not take him seriously as a fighter because he did not display the flamboyance of a soldiers’ general’. Another sneered that he ‘was not regarded in the Army as a commander of any distinction, and that ‘he had failed to win the trust and confidence of most field commanders’. A third, not content with a book’s worth of disparaging remarks, even sniped at his wife. General Aurora did not write his memoirs. By the time I met him face to face, it was no longer possible to discuss the details of 1971 with him.
If this was the fate of the winning commander, I wondered what had become of the one who had lost. The result was a revelation. General A.A.K. Niazi turned out to have a distinguished past and a tragic fate. Honoured by the British with the Military Cross for his performance on the Burma front during the Second World War, he was a general who had literally fought his way up from the ranks of a humble background. In his book and his discussions with me, he condemned the way in which General Tikka Khan had conducted the military action in Dhaka on 25 March 1971, but also criticised General Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, the previous Governor, for copping out at the eleventh hour of the crisis. The Bengal insurgency was wiped out within a few weeks of Niazi’s arrival in East Pakistan in April 1971. But in the continuing absence of any political settlement, his men ended up fighting a weary war against Indian assisted guerillas for months and then a full scale invasion by India from all directions, helped by the population, largely hostile to the Pakistan army. By all accounts the Pakistan army performed astonishingly well against India in East Pakistan under almost impossible odds. Nevertheless, suffering the humiliation of becoming the face of Pakistan ‘surrender’, Niazi found himself vilified by his own people for losing to India.
Much of the literature on 1971 is preoccupied with the conflict between India and Pakistan, with the Cold War as backdrop, marginalising the people of the land where it was fought. Indian accounts are predictably triumphal with regard to victory over Pakistan, with the memoirs of a few officers peppered with self- promotion and derogation of others. Most of the key players did not publish memoirs. Pakistani discussions on 1971 are full of bitter recriminations, mostly with regard to losing to India, with deafening silence from the majority of those who served in East Pakistan. The Bangladeshi refrain, by contrast, plays volubly and melodramatically on the theme of Pakistani ‘villains’ and Bengali ‘victims’, often with scant regard for factual accuracy or analytical sophistication. The material from all parties to the conflict is relentlessly partisan, with the Bangladeshi ones infused with a deep sense of grievance that their suffering has not been given due acknowledgement in the world. Yet, in spite of the passage of three decades, Bangladeshis collectively failed to produce well-researched, documented and thoughtful histories of 1971 which might influence world opinion with any degree of credibility.
I started the study with enormous sympathy for the Bangladeshis as ‘victims’ in a conflict in which they had justice on their side- the other side, after all, was a military regime that had refused to let a legitimately elected party assume the powers of government and tried to suppress the Bengali rebellion by military force. I agreed with the complaint that the traumatic birth of Bangladesh had been quickly marginalised in the discourse on world politics, but was less sure of the reasons. Perhaps, it was because Bangladesh was a poor ‘brown’ country, as many Bengals believe, with no role to play in the remainder of the Cold War. However, Bangladeshis were clearly responsible for their own marginalization, having failed to produce well-documented and analytical histories of the 1971 conflict in thirty years of independence. I expected my work to start the process of filling that void, by careful chronicling and thoughtful analyses of a few events on the ground that would provide insights on the conflict as a whole.
By the end of the study, I still had enormous sympathy for those who had truly suffered in the 1971 conflict, but who they were had changed substantially along with the story- line. The Bengalis splintered into many fragments- those who wanted an independent Bangladesh, those who supported a united Pakistan, those who desired autonomy but not secession, those who actively fought for whichever side they supported, and those who like Dr. Zhivago wanted to ‘just live’ but got caught in the upheaval nevertheless. There were combatants and non- combatants, victims of violence and its perpetrators. The West Pakistanis did not present a united front either, politically or militarily, and the armed forces ranged widely in the manner in which they carried out martial law duties or counter- insurgency operations in East Pakistan.
In the terrible violence of fratricidal war the victims were from every ethnic and religious group and from both sides of the political divide, and so were the perpetrators, as is normal. Humanity was just as normally distributed. Both sides had legitimate political arguments and their idealistic followers, along with those who indulged in opportunism, expediency and inhumanity. Many Bengalis- supposed to be fighting for freedom and dignity- committed appalling atrocities; many Pakistani Army officers, carrying out a military action against a political rebellion, turned out to be fine men doing their best to fight an unconventional war within the conventions of war. Moreover, the war turned out not to have been a battle between East and West Pakistan, nor between democracy and authoritarianism. It defies all such easy dichotomies, particularly those aspiring to be approximations of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. If some of this seems but natural in conflicts of this nature, it is yet to touch the discourse on the 1971 war. Many things taken to be established facts in the dominant narrative with which I grew up were demonstrated to be either false or seriously distorted; equally, the study revealed events and aspects that were entirely missing from the discourse so far.
A longstanding theme of the 1971 conflict, confirmed by the study in unexpected ways, is the state of denial in Pakistan: a refusal to confront what really happened in East Pakistan. However, the study revealed a greater state of denial in Bangladesh and to some extent in India with regard to the true nature of the conflict. In many ways the subsequent political formations in Bangladesh have been fighting out the battles of 1971 ever since, each constructing its own version of history. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this trend is the tendency on the part of pro-liberation Bangladeshi to deny, minimise or justify the brutalities committed by Bengali nationalists against non-Bengalis and non- nationalists during 1971. The culture of violence fomented by 1971 explains much of what happened in Bangladesh subsequently and the cultivated mythologies of all sides aim to bequeath the legacies of hatred to successive generations.
By the end of the study I had a far better understanding as to why the fairy- tale ending of 1971 for Bangladesh went so horribly wrong. As Sheikh Mujib arrived in Dhaka on 10 January 1972 via London and Delhi to a collective euphoria, Peter Hazelhurst reported in The Times on public resentment towards the Indians, the’ liberators‘ greeted with flowers only a few days before, disillusionment with the new government, and ‘a xenophobia so deep that only those who speak East Bengali with a pure dialect are considered sons of the soil’. Within months of the creation of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujib and his party, the Awami League, who had fought the war in the name of democracy, turned the country into a personal autocracy formalised later as a one party state. In August 975 Bengali army officers who had supported the liberation movement assassinated Mujib and massacred his entire family except for two daughters who were away at the time. Several former ‘freedom fighters’ and Mujib’s cabinet colleagues were imprisoned and then murdered in jail. Bengali army officers who had fought for Bangladesh’s liberation then fought each other in coups and counter coups until Zia- ur Rahman prevailed. Zia was assassinated in a coup in 1981 and Bangladesh remained under military rule until the 1990s. A new era of democratic politics thereafter manifested itself as an implacable rivalry between the daughter of one slain leader and the widow of another. Violence as the answer to political difference remains the dominant political currency.
Meanwhile, the remaining part of Pakistan also returned to lengthy periods of military rule and is still fighting armed rebellion in its other provinces. India intervened with military force in a neighbouring country again in 1975, annexing the kingdom of Sikkim, and Indira Gandhi–‘deliverer’ of freedom and democracy in Bangladesh-tried to impose personal dictatorship in India. Both wings of the ‘Muslim nation’ broken by the 1971 war- Pakistan and Bangladesh- remain dogged by concerns that they are ‘failed’ or ‘failing’ states and are perceived to be involved on both sides of the ‘global war on terrorism’.
By courtesy: Dead Reckoning by Sarmila Bose, Columbia University Press, New York 2011
The PPP and Pakistan’s Year of Crisis
The elections of 1970 opened up the possibility of a major re-alignment of power in Pakistan, both downward to new social groups and outward to regionalist parties. In giving unexpected majorities to the Awami League in East Pakistan and the Pakistan People’s Party in the West, the elections rocked the elite institutions and power groups in control of the Centre. Instead of finding themselves in a position neatly to manipulate a plethora of competing minority parties, they found themselves faced by two parties, both of which could claim to speak for mass constituencies demanding democratic institutions and economic reforms. In East Pakistan, of course, a substantial degree of autonomy was seen as crucial to the introduction of necessary reforms; and it was this question of the ‘quantum of autonomy’ for East Pakistan that came to dominate the three months of negotiations after the elections. Nineteen seventy-one became Pakistan’s year of deepest crisis. The elections were barely over when what was hoped would be a period of negotiations leading to a new constitution turned into one of bitter and intense confrontation in which the future of Pakistan’s survival as a united state came to hang in the balance. This was the year that saw the failure of the Yahya-Mujib-Bhutto negotiations, the de facto Awami League government of East Pakistan (night of 25-26 March), the proclamation of an independent Bangladesh, growing foreign involvement in the crisis, the India-Pakistan War (20 November to 18 December) the fall of Dhaka (16 December), the dismemberment of Pakistan and the replacement of the Yahya Regime in West Pakistan by a PPP government (20 December). It was a year of extra-ordinary complexity and controversy, of monumental miscalculations by all the major parties and of cataclysmic human tragedy. Much has been written about the circumstances surrounding the emergence of Bangladesh, and more can be expected. Here, we want to avoid too deep an entanglement in the crisis, though at least an overview of it is unavoidable.
For Bhutto and the PPP, the elections were a major victory. Under normal parliamentary conventions, the PPP could expect to control both the Sindh and Punjab Assemblies and lead the opposition in the National Assembly, where it held 82 to 85 of 300 seats-about half of the Awami League’s majority of 162. But Bhutto was not content to sit in the opposition. He insisted that the PPP’s holding of the majority of West Pakistan NA seats gave his party the right not only to speak for all of West Pakistan, but also to have a share of power at the Centre. He also insisted that after the elections only three major power centres existed in Pakistan: the Yahya Regime, representing the military, the Awami League, representing East Pakistan, and the PPP, representing West Pakistan. Undoubtedly, Bhutto, who always claimed to understand ‘the facts of power,’ realized the PPP was very much the junior partner in this triad of power centres, but he also understood that, at the very least, a political and constitutional settlement would have to be arrived at between two of the power centres. His statements and maneuvers during the post-election period become much more explicable if it is understood that he was attempting to position the PPP to be one of them. For Bhutto, the politician and party leader, to gain political power was sufficient to greatly augment it, but to lose the game would jeopardize his hold over the PPP and open the way for its more opportunistic elements to be bought off by the winners.
It is important, during this period, to keep in mind the political situation in West Pakistan. There the elites industrial, landed and bureaucratic- had begun to pull together to face the PPP threat to their interests. Shocked at the defeat they had not expected, they reacted strongly to prove that while an election may be a measure of opinion, it is not finally a measure of power and influence. This process had begun even before the holding of the Provincial Assembly elections (17 December), but it continued with growing force during the first three months of 1971. The elite-counter movement was most successful in the countryside, where, aided by the bureaucracy and the police, it produced a spate of tenant ejections. Out of power during the long months while the East Pakistan situation was being decided, the PPP had to rely on its party organizations to counter the attacks on its rural support base l ( property less kammis and tenants and small landholder-cum- tenant farmers). But, while there were exceptions, the highly touted kissan communities, implanted in the countryside by urban based PPP left wing, proved unable to stem the quiet ‘counterrevolution’ in the countryside. In the cities, where PPP organizations were stronger, the rapid rise of prices after the elections and a wave of worker retrenchments, in the large and medium industrial sectors, created more palpable tensions. Buoyed by the PPP election victory, the party left wing and its worker’s committees demanded the immediate transfer of power to a Kisan-Mazdur-Raj (‘Peasant-Worker-Rule’). Increasing incidents of factory takeovers, strikes (hartals), blockades (gheraos) occurred in all of the major industrial cities, but it was in Lyallpur that the most serious outbreak occurred. There on 25 March 1971, after the arrest of Mukhtar Rana, PPP MNA and Lyallpur party Chairman, worker-led mobs went on a city-wide rampage of arson and looting. People’s guards fought pitched battles with the police, destroying the Jhang Bazaar Police station. By nightfall the city was put under a curfew and the army called in to maintain civil order. This kind of incendiary outbreak was not entirely unwelcome to the elites, for it strengthened their own efforts to convince the military junta of the dangers of PPP radicalism. Bhutto, who was aware of the elite lobby’s attempt to turn the military regime into the savior of their interests, found it necessary to bring the PPP left wing under greater control. This as we shall note shortly, had a distinct impact on party organization and the balance of its internal factions.
But, to return to the larger national crisis, Bhutto was prepared to negotiate with either of the two other power centres, though in both cases there were risks as well as advantages. In the flush of the election victory, his first effort was to seek a settlement with Mujib on the basis of a democratic alternative to military rule. But Bhutto’s approach to Mujib was a public one, made from a position that emphasized the PPP’s strengths rather than its weaknesses. The PPP Chairman thus portrayed himself as the leader of West Pakistan and insisted that the constitution could neither be framed nor a government formed at the Centre without the cooperation of the PPP. Speaking before the Punjab Assembly Chambers on 20 December 1970, Bhutto declared that the PPP was not prepared to occupy the opposition benches in the National Assembly. The party could not wait for another five years to hold power, redeem its pledges to the people and solve the country’s problems. He took the position that a ‘majority alone doesn’t count in national politics,’ that the PPP had won the Punjab and Sindh- the two provinces where the ‘real power’ of the centre lay, -and that therefore no government at the Centre could be run without the cooperation of his party. The next day he told a news conference that the ‘quantum of autonomy’ ( for East Pakistan) could not be determined by the force of a majority in the House, as in that case the National Assembly would not be able to give a Constitution acceptable to both wings of the country. Pointing to the extreme regional bifurcation of the country along party lines, Bhutto called for a ‘grand coalition’ between the PPP and Awami League at the Centre so that both ‘majority’ parties could fulfill their promises to the people in their respective wings. During this early post-election period, the PPP Chairman emphasized his party’s program of social and economic reform, denounced the industrial and business sectors for an ‘artificial inflation of prices,’ and promised ‘oppressive feudal lords’ that the day would soon come when they would have to answer to the People’s Party. These themes were fully consistent with his post-election strategy of pressing for the transfer of power from the military junta to a PPP-Awami League coalition at the Centre. Behind Bhutto’s demand for a share of power and a broader constitutional settlement was his expressed desire to safeguard the interests not only of West Pakistan, but of Pakistan as a whole. Hence some concession by the Awami League on the Six Points was crucial to the success of a ‘grand coalition’ strategy. Writing later in his own explanation of the events of this period, Bhutto noted the dilemma for the PPP was:
whether to surrender to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Six Point demand which would have led to constitutional secession within a few months, or to resist the demand, which would endanger the return to democracy and civilian rule, and carry with it the possibility of a violent parting of the ways. It was therefore essential to make every endeavor to find a political compromise on Six Points so that democracy could be restored and Pakistan saved from disintegration.
Perhaps because the stridency of its tone masked its real purpose, Bhutto’s initial push for a ‘grand coalition’ was greeted with outrage and derision in East Pakistan. More importantly, it was rejected by Mujib, who pointed out that under normal parliamentary convention the PPP would lead the opposition in the National Assembly and that Bhutto would have to be content with that and the PPP’s control of the Sindh and Punjab Assemblies. But, while spurning Bhutto, Mujib made a mistake of also alienating the other ‘power centre’ the Yahya Regime. This he accomplished by adopting an uncompromising position on the Six Points, despite his earlier promises to Yahya that these would be modified after the elections. Needless to say, President Yahya felt personally betrayed by Mujib. Not only had his position within his own power group been undermined by his failure to moderate Mujib’s demands, but his hope to retain the Presidency of Pakistan under the new constitution was now unlikely. He had begun his post-election trip to Dhaka observing that he was going for consultations with the man who would be the next Prime Minister of Pakistan, but returned to West Pakistan a disillusioned and embittered man.
On his return, his first stop after Karachi was Larkarna, where on 17 January he met with Bhutto. It was here, Professor G.W. Chaudhury and others believe, that a ‘new and sinister alliance . . . between the military junta and Bhutto ….’ was formed. The nature and extent of this ‘alliance’ is difficult to judge. Certainly, both Bhutto and the military hawks- a group that did not include Yahya-believed that the Six Points demand was more than a plan that would emasculate the Central Government and cut the economic ground from under the military, but was in reality a ‘concealed formula for secession.’ There is ample evidence that during the next month (17 January to 17 February) Bhutto developed closer understandings and relationships with the hard line element of the GHQ. Undoubtedly these contacts were directed at gaining a power sharing role for Bhutto, or, at the very least, giving him a veto over the constitutional formula. It is interesting that in this period the main emphasis in Bhutto’s public statements shifted from socialist to nationalist themes. Also, on the day before he met Yahya at Larkarna, he moved to cool the class confrontationist atmosphere inside West Pakistan by forcing an end to the tense hunger strike at the Progressive Papers Limited in Lahore, in which the left wing of the Punjab PPP was deeply involved. These were signs that Bhutto was acting to make himself more palatable to the junta by toning down his socialist rhetoric, proving that he could control the radicals in his party, and shifting the attention of Punjabis away from local issues and toward the East Pakistan-West Pakistan confrontation.
By mid-February, the political situation began to mob rapidly. At his 12 February meeting with Yahya, Bhutto evidently received assurances that the President was now backing him. On 13 February at a reception in Peshawar, he is reported to have said:
Bhutto is once again in the saddle. It had been decided by the powers that are. Mujib is out. I’m to be Prime Minister.
But, on 14 February Yahya, who had little love for Bhutto, announced that the National Assembly would meet on 3 March thus disregarding Bhutto’s demand that the sessions be postponed until a PPP-Awami League agreement on a constitutional formula had been achieved.
Needless to say, Mujib had been consistently demanding an immediate summoning of the NA. Bhutto’s response to the Yahya move was to declare a PPP boycott of the National Assembly sessions. This declaration was made at Peshawar on 15 February and ratified by a meeting of the PPP Central Committee, provincial party leaders, MNAs and MPAs, at Karachi on 22 February. Despite efforts by Bhutto to bring leaders like Daultana, Wali Khan and Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan behind the PPP, only one other party in West Pakistan supported the boycott. This was the QML, the party with the closest ties to the GHQ. There were also reports that some of the hawks in the GHQ lobbied in favour of the boycott with the MNAs of other West Pakistan parties. The hawks were also exerting great pressure on Yahya. On 17 February Yahya’s civilian cabinet was dissolved and a meeting of the top echelons of the military–Military Governors, Chief Martial Law Administrators, Chief of Staff, service chiefs and the Presidential circle- was held in Rawalpindi. It was at this meeting where the decision to confront the Awami League was taken. Those who protested-Admiral Ahsan, E.P. Governor, and Lt. Gen. Sahibzada Yakub Khan, E.P. Chief Martial Law Administrator- were shortly removed from their positions.
The machinery of confrontation was put into effect and the build-up of troops in East Pakistan begun.
On 28 February unable to persuade any other party but the QML to support his boycott an facing an incipient rebellion from a group of PPP MNAs who wanted to attend the NA, Bhutto raised the ante by threatening a ‘people’s movement’ from Khyber to Karachi unless (1) the National Assembly session were postponed or (2) the 120 day deadline for completing the constitution were removed. He also threatened to ‘break the legs’ of anyone who went to Dhaka from West Pakistan. The next day Yahya obliged- some would say ‘rescued’- the PPP Chairman by announcing the indefinite postponement of the NA session due to the internal political stalemate and external (I.e., Indian) interference. He Awami also gave Bhutto a veto over the constitution making process by agreeing that ‘both East and West Pakistan have an adequate sense of participation in the process of constitution making.’ According to Professor Choudhury:
Yahya’s announcement on 1 March . . . could not have been more provocative or tragic. When I asked him about it on 5 March he looked vacant and helpless; I was convinced he had only been a signatory to it. Bhutto and Peerzada were reported to have drafted the statement. Yahya, unlike on previous occasions, did not broadcast it; it was only read out over the radio.
The reaction in East Pakistan was galvanic. Blamed for the deadlock by the President’s 1 March statement, the Awami League was now certain that the PPP and junta had combined to deny the majority party its right to rule and make the new constitution. Calls were heard for an independent Bangladesh and the Awami League moved to assert de facto control over the civil and economic life of the province. After bloody clashes in the streets between mobs and the army, the troops were withdrawn to their cantonments (5 March), where they came under a social and economic boycott. At the same time the Awami league organized its own irregular forces. In parts of East Pakistan, the killings of West Pakistanis and Biharis and the settling of old scores between Bengalis began.
The unprecedentedly massive reaction in East Pakistan–Bhutto called it an ‘overreaction’-put something of the initiative back into Yahya’s hands. On 14 March Bhutto, now in danger of being pushed to the periphery of events, made the extraordinary demand that power be transferred to the PPP in West Pakistan and the Awami League in East Pakistan, after which the two parties should be left alone to settle the constitutional problems between themselves. He also re-emphasized his party’s socialist program. On the same date, Yahya and Mujib began their final dialogue in Dhaka, a city under Awami League control. On 19 March they reached a tentative agreement on the holding of the National Assembly. It would be divided abd initio into two committees, one comprising all West Pakistan MNAs, the other of all those from East Pakistan, each of which would formulate the special provisions for its own area. The NA would then meet as a body to frame constitution. In the meantime martial law would be lifted and cabinet governments formed at the Centre and in the provinces by the relevant majority or coalition. These proposals were placed in a Draft Proclamation for the President’s signature prepared by the Awami League team in the form of a final offer on 24 March. A perusal of this document shows that Yahya, as he admitted in his broadcast on 26 March, made a number of important concessions on the Six Points. But Yahya made his agreement contingent on that of the other political leaders, principally Bhutto, and the latter was called to Dhaka, where he arrived on 21 March with a PPP delegation. Bhutto and his delegation found the Yahya-Mujib agreement impossible to accept, as did the military hard liners in the GHQ, the QML politicians and now those in the CML. The PPP rejection was made known on 22 March, but it was assumed the talks would continue. This they did on 23 March, ‘Pakistan Day,’ the day on which Pakistan flags and pictures of Jinnah were burned throughout East Pakistan an replaced by the flag of Bangladesh. On 24 and 25 March in an atmosphere of explosive tensions, contacts and talks continued. But by the time the die was cast and the army was gathering to move, the preparatory signal having been given by Yahya on 24 March. Indeed, many have argued that the last round of talks was merely a charade, carried on to give the army time to complete its build- up. Claiming later to have acted to pre-empt an imminent armed uprising by Awami League irregulars, the police, the East Pakistan Rifles and the East Bengal Regiment, the army began its ‘crackdown’ about midnight on 25 March. The final, most horrendous miscalculations was that of the military hawks. Believing that they could ‘fix up’ the situation in 72 hours, the generals struck with savagery at the classes and social groups that were the backbone of the Awami League. But it would be more than a month before the army regained a tenuous ‘daylight’ control over the East Pakistan countryside. By then the army’s action had precipitated a growing international crisis and a man-made human disaster, the like of which had not been seen in the post war era. For the Awami League, there was no turning back. Even as the army moved but before his own arrest, Mujibur Rahman recorded a Declaration of Independence of Bangladesh. A formal proclamation was made on 10 April 1971 by the ‘government of Bangladesh’ (later the Government-in -Exile under Tajuddin Ahmad) from ‘Mujeeb Nagar’ on the East Bengal-West Bengal border.
The army action in East Pakistan did not end the pressure for a transfer of power in West Pakistan. Yahya may have contributed to these expectations when he promised in his speech of 26 March:
In the end let me assure you that my main aim remains the same, namely transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people. As soon as the situation permits it, I will take fresh steps towards the achievement of this objective.
In the meantime, however, all political activities were banned throughout the country and the Awami League was completely banned as a political party. Despite Yahya’s assurances, the army action and the banning of the Awami League threw the politics of the country into uncertainty and abruptly halted the movement toward ‘popular rule’ under way since the fall of Ayub.
Perhaps it was this uncertainty about the direction the country was taking that accounted for Bhutto’s sombre mood on his return from Dhaka. Nevertheless, Bhutto’s post-25 March public statements reveal an expectation, possibly based on his understandings with hard line elements in the GHQ that the Regime would shortly transfer power to the PPP in West Pakistan. The PPP Chairman supported the army crackdown in East Pakistan saying that it had acted only hours before a planned Declaration of Independence, and asked his party men to ‘strengthen Yahya’s hands’ by keeping an eye on ‘anti Pakistan elements’ in West Pakistan. He defended his pre-25 March demand for a share in power and constitution making by saying that he did not trust the intentions of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his party vis a vis the country’s integrity.
Bhutto’s sense of optimism proved to be false. He met Yahya on 28 April and was told that no move towards transfer of power could be made until the political situation in East Pakistan was ‘normalized.’ it was evident that he junta had little need for the PPP for the time being. Mujib had warned the PPP Chairman not to trust the army, pointing out that ‘if they destroyed him first, they will also destroy me.’ Bhutto cannot have been unaware of an element of truth in this statement, though any move against the PPP would be political and not military, for the army was West Pakistan. Some officers, using the Jama’at-i-Islami as their spokesman, already were attempting to blame the PPP for the failure in East Pakistan and demanding that in no case should the PPP be given a share in power.
The PPP Chairman now found himself in a difficult position. Without the assurance of immediate political power, his party would come under centrifugal strains. Yet, in acting to maintain its unity by re- emphasizing its ‘revolutionary’ nature, he had to keep from too directly threatening the junta. He refused to ‘rock the boat’ by undertaking a ‘people’s’ movement as some in the party wanted, and instead started a two-month long tour of Punjab and Sindh ‘to consult his party’. This enabled him to deal with party organizational matters, explain the events in East Pakistan, re- emphasize his image as the ‘people’s choice,’ and gradually build up pressure for a transfer of power to the PPP so that the ‘people’s representatives’ could solve the country’s problems. Bhutto’s demands became more insistent as the scope of the army’s action in East Pakistan became apparent and the international situation turned against Pakistan. He urged the placing of ‘political responsibility in political leaders’ and said he was in ‘a terribly shocked state of mind and a tremendous state of agony ‘on seeing ‘my country kicked around.’
In mid- July, the junta decided to negotiate a limited transfer of power with the political parties. Bhutto’s talks with Yahya on 16 July were ‘satisfactory’ and the PPP leader continued to point out that with the Awami League banned; the PPP was the majority party in the National Assembly. Bhutto had the backing of the hard liners in the GHQ, but others in the high command and the upper bureaucracy were hostile to the appointment of Bhutto as Prime Minister. The period between 16 July and 7 December when a civilian cabinet was formed, was one of frenetic manoeuvring both inside and outside the junta. The Yahya group attempted to obstruct Bhutto by producing a draft constitution that was even more restrictive than that of 1962. It also acted to destroy Bhutto’s ‘majority.’ This was accomplished by negotiating with the Awami League MNAs still in East Pakistan, most of who were willing to attend the NA, and by unseating those who had joined the Bangladesh Government-in-Exile in Calcutta. The latter, who numbered 79, were replaced in thoroughly rigged elections. The PPP was allowed’ to win 4 of the 79 NA seats in the by- elections, enabling it to present itself as a truly ‘national’ party.
Nevertheless, there was still strong elite resistance to the appointment of Bhutto as Prime Minister, a resistance which is visible in the character of Bhutto’s speeches and statements during this period. Indeed, to have appointed a man so deeply disliked in East Pakistan would have been provocative at a time when efforts at reconciliation with various groups in East Pakistan were being made. In the end, Nur uL Amin, a venerable East Pakistani politician who had lost in 1970, but won in the 1971 by-elections, and who had put together a loose coalition of parties and MNAs called the United Coalition Party, was made Prime Minister on 7 December. Bhutto, who was regarded as the real power in the cabinet, took up the posts of Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.
By the time this government was named, India and Pakistan were engaged in full scale hostilities all along their common borders in both the East and West. This was a war that involved the interests of major powers, most particularly those of the USSR and the People’s Republic of China, and was quickly taken to the United Nations Security Council by the United States. Bhutto spent most of the thirteen days the Amin-Bhutto cabinet was in existence at the UN Security Council, where outraged and helpless, he watched the Soviet Union stall a ceasefire resolution until the Indian Army had won its victory in East Pakistan. Then, as Dhaka was falling, Bhutto made his dramatic and tearful exit from the Security Council. After consultations with Chinese representatives in New York and a visit to the White House, he headed for London and then flew on to Rawalpindi.. There, a stunned nation, heretofore kept ignorant about the real happenings in East Pakistan, awaited him as the only viable political alternative. The political power of the army lay buried, for the moment, in the ruins of defeat and dismemberment. In the last ten days of the Yahya Regime, various initiatives to keep Bhutto out of power failed. Backed by the younger officers, Lt. Gen. Gul Hasan and Air Marshal Rahim Khan held Yahya a virtual prisoner in the President’s House and kept the way open for a transfer of power to the PPP, now, in reality, the majority party in Pakistan. At about noon on 20 December Yahya resigned the Presidency and appointed Bhutto to the two positions of President and Chief Martial Law Administrator.
By courtesy: The Pakistan People’s Party by Phillip E. Jones. Oxford University Press Oxford, New York 2003
Against the background of the escalating demonstration of people’s power, General Ayub did what generals do best: he conducted a coup d’état against his own parliament and government by declaring martial law for the second time. But the anger of the people did not die down. It increased. Ayub Khan refused to lift the martial law and turn over the power under the provisions of his hand-drawn Constitution. Instead, on March 25, 1968, he stepped down, handing power to his second in command in the military, General Yahya Khan. The national and provincial assemblies were dissolved, the Constitution was abrogated, and political activities were banned. The artificially constructed Ayub “decade of development” collapsed into ruins, and Pakistan now had a second martial law administrator.
The martial law continued until November 1969, when General Yahya announced that he would hold direct elections the following October. Conceding to the opposition’s demand that the parliamentary representation be determined by the size of the population, Yahya did away with representational parity between East and West Pakistan in the national assembly. Given the population distribution, this meant a quantum leap in representation to East Pakistan. In March 1970, Yahya issued the Legal Framework Order (LFO). Under the terms of the LFO, the new assembly would be both a constituent assembly and a parliament.
Although Sheikh Mujib, the leader of the majority party, had the sole right to form the government (even though he had no representation from the western wing in Pakistan), he did not have the right to impose a constitution on all the people and federating units of Pakistan. He did not have one member representing the remaining four federating units and the people elected on his ticket. General Yahya ordered that the constitution must be completed within 120 days or the assembly would be dismissed. It would have 120 days in which to draw up a constitution. Many feared that the term limit was imposed to set the new Parliament up for failure. If the new parliament failed to write a constitution within 120 days, the dictator had an excuse to say “democracy has failed” and go back to dictatorship. If the Constitution were bulldozed by some of the parties, the dictator would reject it on the grounds that it was “against the unity and integrity of Pakistan.”
General Yahya planned to script to scare the Pakistani Army and the West into acquiescing to his continued leadership. The LFO established a 313 member National Assembly with an outright majority of seats going to the Bengalis in the East. Free elections for the new National Assembly and five new provincial assemblies concluded in December 1970. With Mr. Bhashani’s party boycotting the elections, it was a clean sweep for Sheikh Mujib and the Awami league in East Pakistan. The Awami League won 160 of the 162 seats allocated to East Pakistan in the National Assembly. Mujib’s win had a lot to do with pent-up East Pakistani grievances against West Pakistan, whose elite had exploited its resources and insulted its people.This first set of true multiparty democratic elections was a big step forward for the development of Pakistan democracy. The jubilation was, sadly short-lived. The Awami League’s six point constitutional proposal frightened the daylights out of the Pakistan security establishment, just as Yahya had planned. It threatened West Pakistan with disintegration. The newly created state of Pakistan was confronted with an ugly reality striking at the core of its security, stability, and unity. Mujib insisted that since he had the majority in the National Assembly he would reject the views the federating units of Pakistan and impose his unilateral constitution on the country. This was contrary to the spirit of constitution making. A constitution is drawn up as an agreement setting the terms under which federating units voluntarily agree to live together. The PPP argued that a constitution could not ignore representatives from the rest of the country, where the Awami league had been totally rejected, failing to win even a single seat.
On January 3, 1971, Mujib once again rejected the right of other federating units to have a say in the framing of the constitution. He said he would form a constitution based on his six points:
1. The constitution should construct a federal state with supremacy of parliamentary legislature (in other words, Bengali domination of West Pakistan in the formulation of all laws and resources to pay West Pakistan back for its domination of East Pakistan)
2. The national legislature should deal only with foreign affairs and defense. All other rights should states’ rights.
3. Two currencies should be introduced, one for East Pakistan and one for West Pakistan
4. The federal government should have no taxing power. The power should be reserved for the provincial governments (in other words, there was no money to maintain an army or conduct either a foreign or defense policy).
5. The two wings should have separate accounts for foreign exchange.
6. East Pakistan should be allowed to maintain its own separate militia force (interpreted to mean that East Pakistan should have its own army).
Separate armies, separate currencies, separate central bank accounts, and no federal income to administer a federal government: Mujib’s six points were akin to signing the dismissal orders for the entire civil service and military command. The state of Pakistan would be constitutionally dismantled through the Awami League’s six points, letting the cat free among the pigeons. Neither the military nor the West nor the people of West Pakistan could countenance the breakup of a country for which so many had sacrificed their lives and suffered hardships just twenty-three years earlier.
Yahya’s script was playing out perfectly. “Pakistan in danger” was a cry he could exploit to scuttle the whole process. He could declare that “the country was not ready for democracy.” Meanwhile, he had to go through the motions. So in mid-January, he travelled to Dacca to see Mujib to work out an agreement. On Jan 17, he travelled to Larkana, the ancestral home of my family, to meet with my father. My father asked Yahya to either delay the holding of the Constituent Assembly or lift the 120-day limit for drawing up a constitution to enable legislators to arrive at a consensus. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto continued to work for a constitution that would reflect the wishes of all five federating units of Pakistan. But Yahya was adamant. He would neither lift the 120-day ban for arriving at a constitution nor postpone the session to provide more time to thrash out a consensus. However, he said he was ready to consider if Mujib agreed.
My father travelled to Dacca on Jan 27, hoping to persuade Mujib, but the meeting bore no fruits. Mujib insisted that he would show no flexibility on the six points, or on the 120 –day limit to pass the constitution. At that point, Yahya announced that the National Assembly would convene on March 3. My father represented the federating units in West Pakistan. For them Mujib’s constitutional prescription was a recipe for the disintegration of Pakistan. As leader of West Pakistan my father concluded he had two bad choices. He could go to Dacca, attend the Constituent Assembly session, and acquiesce to an imposed six-point constitution, thus legitimizing it. Or he could boycott the session to visibly demonstrate the PPP’s opposition to a unilateral constitution imposed on the nation by Sheikh Mujib. He declared that he and his supporters would not attend the constituent session of the National Assembly. He would not be a party to the disintegration of all Pakistan through the dismantling of the federal state structure. He wanted consensus on the future constitution worked out before the Assembly’s meeting, while conceding that Sheikh Mujib had every right to form a government on his own once the Constituent Assembly session was over. There was little point in showing up for a session of the National Assembly, where the only point on the agenda would be to endorse Mujib’s six point constitution. Still Mujib remained adamant. He was ready to go it alone. He played into Yahya’s hands, surrounded by advisers, some of whom had been infiltrated by security agencies.
On March 1, General Yahya postponed the convening of the National Assembly session. Meanwhile, Sheikh Mujib had formed a militia that started dismantling the state from within. His Mukti Bahini militants took on police duties and provoked the army. It seemed a matter of time before Sheikh would announce a unilateral declaration of independence. Separately Yahya Khan and my father attempted to negotiate a realistic compromise with Mujib, but the Awami league wanted all or nothing. My father was in Dacca the night General Yahya Khan ordered a military crackdown*. General Yahya then suspended the formation of the national assembly, and Mujib and the Awami league responded with a general strike in East Pakistan. Responding to this military crackdown, a Bengali officer by the name of Major Ziaur Rahman declared independence for East Pakistan. India taking advantage of the situation and always fearing a strong united Pakistan allowed the leaders of the Awami league into India to form a government in exile. Relations between India and Pakistan, always bad, deteriorated as millions of Bengali refugees poured across the border into India. In early December, Indian troops attacked Pakistan. As the brutal military crackdown began to crush the insurgents, Bengali women were raped and their male children slaughtered. Violence was met with counter violence in a horrifying sequence of unfolding events. A million refugees fled from their homes across the border to India. In mid-April, a Bangladesh government in exile was formed in Calcutta, India, indicating a role the Indian government would play in the conflict.
*on March 25, General Yahya ordered a military crackdown in a bid to forcibly keep East Pakistan part of Pakistan. As the crackdown began, students at Dacca University, in the capital reacted. The army fired back, killing students and enraging Bengalis even further. The uprising was intense. The people, the police, and the paramilitary forces had all risen up against what they called “the Punjabi Army.” Even as the army tried to quell the uprising, units of the army revolted against GHQ in faraway Rawalpindi. Major Ziaur Rahman (who would go on to become President of Bangladesh and his wife prime minister) was the first to mutiny. With the military defections adding to defections that had taken place in the police and paramilitary forces, the armed resistance for the formation of the independent state of Bangladesh was established.”
Excerpts: Reconciliation by Benazir Bhutto, Harper Collins New York 2008
Photo by courtesy of Wikipedia.org
In Fairness to Yahya
When Ayub Khan wrote to Yahya that he was stepping aside and expressed his belief that he (Yahya) had the capacity, patriotism, dedication and imagination to deal with the formidable problems facing the country and called upon him to discharge his legal and constitutional responsibility to defend the country, not only against external aggression but also to save it from internal disorder and chaos, I am inclined to believe he meant what he said. Ayub was aware of Yahya’s weaknesses and knew he was an extrovert and bon vivant appreciative of the good things of life. What Ayub failed to realize was that he was giving Yahya an impossible task for which he was ill-suited both by experience and temperament. Ayub was leaving behind a mess of his own creation. How could Yahya succeed where Ayub had failed? Yahya’s only advantage over Ayub was that his hands were clean and his record untainted. Ayub knew that Yahya would be pitted against two most unscrupulous politicians and that he was no match for them. After eleven years of absolute rule, he was leaving behind a country on the verge of total collapse, and deserted his post saying, ‘I could not sign away the future of the country.’ He conveniently left that to Yahya, knowing that the task was beyond him.
Yahya started very well. The disturbances in the country came to an abrupt end; law and order was restored without any difficulty; the country rallied round him and gave him full support. His initial moves were very popular. He dissolved One Unit, which had been imposed on the people of West Pakistan, and earned the gratitude of at least three minority provinces. He sacked most corrupt officers. He held the first free, fair, and impartial election Pakistan ever had. He allowed the government controlled media, both radio and television, to cover the election without any interference from the government. Within twenty-four hours of his accession to power on 25 March 1969, Yahya pledged to transfer power to the elected representatives of the people, elected on the basis of direct adult franchise, and announced that it would be for the representatives of the people to give the country a workable Constitution. This was, in a sense, a revolutionary development in the politics of Pakistan.
Yahya did not ban political parties when he imposed martial law on 25th March, 1969. In one of his speeches in 1970, he said, ‘This caused both surprise and relief. The first action of any martial law regime is to ban political parties, for the existence of martial law regime side by side with political parties is a most unusual phenomenon.’ There were guidelines for political activity contained in Martial Law Regulations (MLR 60), but these were honoured more in the breach than in the observance.
‘The Government decided to give facilities to the leaders of various parties to project their political manifestos and policies through radio and television. This was the first time that politicians were freely and impartially given the chance to use the government-controlled radio and television for their political activities.’
Political broadcasts began on 28 October and continued until 19 November 1970. The series began with Mujib who was given the chance to speak first, and ended with the leader of the Sindh United Front, G.M. Syed. Bhashani alone spoke in the two national languages, in Bengali from Dhaka, and in Urdu from West Pakistan. His speech was a masterpiece and it met with very good reception in both Wings, especially West Pakistan. Bhashani spoke not as an East Pakistani or a West Pakistani, but as a true Pakistani. Mujib emphasized regionalism. Bhutto’s main emphasis was on Islamic socialism, confrontation with India, etc.
I met all the political leaders and discussed their scripts with them. I met Mujib at his residence in Dhan Mandi in Dhaka. This was my very first meeting with him. He gave the impression of being an angry young man in a hurry. His script contained references to Bangladesh. I suggested their deletion, because it clashed with the guidelines and Legal Framework Order. He did not agree. I suggested its substitution by East Bengal. This too was unacceptable to him. In the end, he was allowed by Rawalpindi to have his own way. He threatened not to say anything on the radio and television if the government insisted on the deletion of the word Bangladesh. He was otherwise very courteous and very hospitable. He entertained me to tea and mishti. When the tension eased, I suggested that, being a national leader, he should come to West Pakistan, tour the four provinces and meet the people who, I was sure, would welcome him. His reply stunned me. He said, ‘West Pakistan is too far away and it costs a lot of money to go there.’ Mujib seemed uninterested in visiting West Pakistan. Whatever the reasons, Mujib had lost faith in a united Pakistan. Next on my list was the ‘Red Maulana’. I met Bhashani in his village. When I got there, he was lying on a cot. He sat up, shook hands, and began the conversation in a very weak, inaudible voice. I thought he was seriously ill and did not expect the conversation to last too long. Very soon, he warmed up and gave me a brilliant expose of the political situation in chaste Urdu, punctuated with verses from Iqbal and the Quran, for one whole hour.
My Minister, Major General (retd) Sher Ali, was a great champion of the Islam Pasand (Islam-loving) parties (as they were then known). He was most upset at the turn of events when I met him in his office. He told me, almost prophetically, that the election results would lead to the breakup of the country and must therefore be scrapped. His prophecy unfortunately turned out to be correct, but how could the result of an election universally recognized as free, fair, and impartial be scrapped with a stroke of a pen?
Yahya had redeemed the pledge to hold free and fair elections on the basis of direct adult franchise. The Awami League led by Sheikh Mujib obtained 160 out of the 162 seats allotted to East Pakistan. In West Pakistan, it could not secure a single seat. The Pakistan People’s Party headed by Mr. Bhutto won 82 out of the 138 seats for West Pakistan. It had not nominated a single candidate in East Pakistan.
Yahya did not have the political vision or capacity to handle the complex situation arising out of the election results and the emergence of two unscrupulous politicians, who had neither political honesty nor any broad vision and statesmanship. The result was the total collapse of his plan to transfer power to the elected representatives of the people, eventually culminating in a bloody civil war and the secession of East Pakistan. I never had any doubt that Yahya genuinely wanted to transfer power to the elected representatives of the people within the framework of a single, undivided Pakistan. In fairness to Yahya, it must be said that he had inherited from Ayub a discontented, disillusioned, and highly agitated Bengali population, and an explosive political situation, not of his making.
Neither Ayub nor Yahya had the statesmanship or political skill required to resolve the East Pakistan crisis in accordance with the aspirations of the people of East Pakistan. Commenting on President Ayub, a ‘Muslim de Gaulle,’ The Economist wrote that the President wanted essentially what his brother soldier sought for France. But faced with a similar situation in Algeria, de Gaulle ‘realizing that whatever aspirations of grandeur he might hold for France, it would come to nothing as long as the nation remained mired and locked in the draining and divisive Algerian crisis,’ in a moment of inspiration, took off for Algeria to ‘grasp the Algerian nettle’ and to speak to the people himself. By the end of the afternoon a crowd of 20,000, almost entirely European, had massed in the open square, the Forum, in front of the Government General Building to greet de Gaulle with a mighty roar when at last he stepped out on a balcony, arms outstretched and fist clenched in the defiant gesture of exhortation that was his permanent hallmark. But he responded to the cheers with one of the most famous and most elusive utterances of his life. ‘Je vous ai compris’—I have understood you.
On his return to Paris, de Gaulle held a referendum on the future of Algeria in the teeth of opposition from hawkish generals, the so called ultras. In June 1962, 99.7 per cent of Algerians voted for independence and Algeria emerged as an independent state on 3 July 1962. Without settling the Algerian crisis, all else for de Gaulle would have been failure. ‘Of all the services de Gaulle rendered to France, extraction from Algeria was the most difficult and decisive. It was his masterpiece in the skilled exercise of political power, and if he had failed, history would have been far different and his stature diminished.’
Both Ayub, the ‘Muslim de Gaulle,’ and Yahya, his fun-loving successor who used to describe himself as a part-time President, failed to comprehend the rising tide of Bengali nationalism and failed to meet the challenge in a realistic and flexible manner, with disastrous consequences for Jinnah’s Pakistan. This was their greatest failure, and this, in my view, was also their greatest disservice to Pakistan.
Yahya was a true hedonist and believed that the art of life was to crowd in as much enjoyment as possible into each moment. His detractors and enemies charged that he was drunk day and night and that, in his scheme of things, all good things had reference to his belly. This is an unfair assessment of the man. There are innumerable instances of Yahya’s unsurpassable kindness. He was devoted to his family, generous and gentle to his servants, loyal to his friends, and he lived without pretence. Yahya derived a lot of happiness from friendship and human relationships. His creed was a likeably honest creed. His friendships were proverbial for their permanence.”
By courtesy: Pakistan—A Dream Gone Sour by Roedad Khan, Oxford University Press Karachi 1998.