Two cyclones

The India-Pakistan Crisis of 1971

Ever since it had come into being, Pakistan had sought a sustained legitimacy. No government after the death of the founder of the state had served out its term. Every change had occurred through some sort of coup; military and civilian governments alternated with the military dominant. The year 1970 was expected to see a constitutional government. Elections would finally take place in December. Pakistan’s President Yahya Khan visited Nixon in October during the United Nation’ twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations, when Nixon gave him the message to Chou En-lai. I took the opportunity to ask Yahya what would happen to the powers of the President after the election. Yahya could not have been more confident. He expected a multiplicity of parties to emerge in both West and East Pakistan, which would continually fight each other in each wing of the country and between the two wings; the President would therefore remain the arbiter of Pakistan’s politics.

Before his prediction could be tested a devastating cyclone struck East Pakistan over November 12-13. By most accounts, I wrote Nixon, this was the greatest disaster of the century in terms of destruction of property and human life; over 200,000 were thought to have died. The all-out relief program that Nixon ordered could only touch the surface of the suffering. Recovery efforts were chaotic and ineffective. The opposition charged the Yahya government with gross incompetence and worse. The political storm turned out in the end to be even more destructive than the natural one.

Whether the cyclone crystallised opposition to the central government and enhanced East Pakistan’s sense of grievance and identity, or whether Yahya had misjudged the mood all along, the elections held on December 7, 1970, turned into a plebiscite on Yahya’s handling of the crisis and produced a catastrophe for the military rulers. The Awami League, dedicated to East Pakistan autonomy, won 167 out of 169 seats contested in the East, giving it a majority of the 313 seats in the National Assembly. Its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (known as Mujib), was thus bound to be an unchallengeable figure in East Pakistan and a powerful influence in the entire country. To heighten the political drama, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, emerged in a comparably dominant position in West Pakistan. While opposed to military rule, Bhutto was an advocate of a strong central government and of a united Pakistan; he fiercely resisted Mujib’s insistence on East Pakistani autonomy and in this he was certain to be supported by the military. (Indeed, he may well have adopted this position in order to become more acceptable to the military.) The Awami League had put forward a six-point program for full provincial autonomy for East Pakistan that left the central government some vague responsibility only in the fields of foreign policy and defense. Each of the two constituent units of Pakistan, it proposed, would have its own currency, keep its own separate account for foreign exchange, raise its own taxes, set its own fiscal policy, and maintaòin its own militia and paramilitary units. Yahya and Bhutto rejected this as tantamount to secession. A stalemate-or crisis-was imminent.

On February 16, 1971, I requested an interagency study of the alternatives should East Pakistan try to make a break; on February 22, I sent my own analysis to the President:

[Mujib and Bhutto] have failed so far to forge even the beginning of an informal consensus on the new constitution. President Yahya remains committed to turning his military government over to the civilian politicians, but maintains that he will not preside over the splitting of Pakistan . . .[Mujib] is now planning to stick with his demands for the virtual autonomy of East Pakistan and if he does not get his way– which is very likely– to declare East Pakistan independence.

Yahya was caught between his reluctance to make common cause with Bhutto and his resistance to the quasi-independence of East Pakistan demanded by Mujib. He postponed the convening of the National Assembly set for early March to give the political leaders more time to sort out their differences, but this move further antagonised the East. Yahya ultimately rescheduled the Assembly for March 25, gambling that the two civilian antagonists, faced with a deadlock that might break up the country, would choose to compromise. In this judgement, too, Yahya proved to be mistaken. Bhutto was undoubtedly the most brilliant man in Pakistan politics; he was also arrogant and strong-willed. Later on, he would preside over the recovery of his dismembered country with statesmanship and courage. In early 1971, he feared that compromise would bring down on him the wrath of the very masses in West Pakistan whose support had swept him to the threshold of power. Mujib, for his part, could not arrest the forces he had unleashed. He was far less inclined to do so than Bhutto, and more prone to believe in his own rhetoric. Like figures in a Greek tragedy, each of these two popular Pakistani leaders refused to let the other cross the threshold beyond which lay power for both of them; they would yield to necessity but not to each other.

As the tension increased, our government reviewed its options. The Senior Review Group met on March 6 to consider the interagency study I had requested on February 16. Our consensus was that Pakistan would not be able to hold the East by force. I made it clear to the agencies that the President would be reluctant to confront Yahya, but that the White House would not object to other countries’ efforts to dissuade him from using force. If Pakistan broke up, it should be the result of its internal dynamics, not of American pressures. All agencies agreed that the United States should not get involved. This was also the policy of Great Britain, which had a much longer historical relationship.

During March we experienced the confusions that mark the onset of most crisis. In a major speech on March 7, Mujib stopped short of a total break with West Pakistan, but he demanded an end to martial law and a return to popular rule, making clear his goal remained the “emancipation” of the East. Yahya announced he was flying to Dacca, capital of East Pakistan to negotiate with Mujib on March 15. Meanwhile, in India in early March, Prime Minister Gandhi scored an enormous victory in the Indian general elections. Until then events in Pakistan had been the internal problems of a friendly country; we might have our view but they were not a foreign policy issue. Busy with the election campaign and its immediate aftermath, Mrs. Gandhi adopted a hands-off policy. As late as the middle of March, the permanent head of the Indian Foreign Office, T.N. Kaul, told our ambassador in New Delhi, Kenneth Keating, that India wanted Pakistan to remain united. On March 17, the Indian Ambassador in Washington, the skilful L.K. Jha, spoke in the same sense to me. Neither gave the slightest indication that India would consider the troubles in neighbouring East Pakistan as affecting its own vital interests.

But sometimes the nerves of public figures snap. Incapable of abiding events, they seek to force the pace and lose their balance. So, it was that Yahya Khan, with less than 40,000 troops, decided to establish military rule over the 75 million people of East Pakistan, to suppress the Awami League, and to arrest Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The crisis in Pakistan then became international.

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