Losing East Pakistan

East Pakistan’s possible secession had always troubled Pakistan’s first military ruler. Ayub Khan’s worst fears came true when the radical Bengali leader Maulana Bhashani, after sitting out the 1970 elections, upped the ante by calling for an independent and sovereign state of East Bengal as envisaged in the Muslim League’s Lahore Resolution of March 1940. The general pondered whether he was witnessing the beginning of the end.

This was what most Bengali nationalists always meant when they talked of complete provincial autonomy. The fiery left-leaning Maulana may have been venting his fury against West Pakistani callousness towards the recent cyclone victims and, by the same token, cashing in on an opportunity to take some of the shine off the Awami League. Even before the results of the 1970 elections were out, Ayub suspected that Bhashani’s firecracker would spur Mujib into lighting the bonfire of Pakistani unity. The Sheikh seemed to have been waiting for such an opportunitymaking independence a common cry of Bengal and turning it into an irresistible movement. Several of Ayub’s visitors, including former as well as serving members of the federal cabinet, agreed with him that it was now only a matter of time before the eastern wing separated from the rest of Pakistan. With the Awami League’s landslide victory, Mujib was no longer a free agent but a prisoner of his vast support. Bhutto, too, would be loath to make any compromise that would allow his opponents to accuse him of selling West Pakistan down the drain.

As the architect of a political system that was threatening to fall apart, Ayub’s forebodings offer a poignant insight into his reading of history. On January 4, 1971, he recorded the strange irony of fate that had seen Pakistan escaping the tyranny of an inflexible and hostile Hindu majority, only to end up facing an untenable situation where one wing was about to establish its permanent majority without bearing a proportionally higher burden or higher liability. The alternative to this artificial alliance was independence or a loose confederation. Ayub thought that Bhashani’s call for independence, if premature, was more representative of the inner feelings of his people. The President was unimpressed by the fact that Mujib was not asking for independence but wanted complete autonomy for the eastern wing within a federal arrangement. From Ayub’s angle of vision, Mujib was stalling for time in a calculated attempt to milk Punjab and Sindh of their surpluses before opting out. Although in the 1970 elections, Punjab and Sindh sold themselves to Bhutto and had no choice of their own left, Ayub wondered whether they would not rebel against such an idea. He surmised that the demand for separation may well start in these provinces once the reality dawns, as it was bound to in course of time, that they are being robbed.*

*Italics are diary entries of Ayub

Ayub had put his finger on the crux of the 1971 crisis. Who was liable to secede from whom, the majority in the eastern wing or sections of minority in the west? If Pakistan was to remain united, by what democratic or federal principle could anyone prevent the majority population in the eastern wing from redressing past injustices by diverting resources from the western wing to develop its own economy? Mujib interpreted the Awami League’s absolute majority as a validation of his six-point program for provincial autonomy. But the program had not formed part of the electorate debate in West Pakistan, where the Awami League did not win a single seat. Bhutto had taken the PPP into the 1970 elections on a socialist platform. The PPP leader told the commission investigating the causes of Pakistan’s military defeat in 1971 that he had refrained from attacking the Awami League’s program at public meetings because they were venues for emotional outbursts, not reasoned arguments about the political and constitutional niceties of the six points. Bhutto had criticized the Awami League’s provincial autonomy demands at small gatherings of lawyers and intellectuals in West Pakistan, arguing that they were not in the best interests of the country and could lead to secession.

In the run-up to the 1970 elections, right-wing parties opposed to the PPP in the western wing were more vocal in criticizing the Awami League’s six points, which they often equated with the breakup of the country. After the elections, the PPP reaffirmed its commitment to a constitutional settlement within the framework of Pakistan. Because Pakistan was a federal and not a unitary state, Bhutto argued , it was vital to secure the consensus of the federations units. He never explained how a consensus was to be obtained after the elections. Though it emerged as the majority party in West Pakistan, the PPP’s support base was confined to the Punjab and Sindh. In the NWFP and Baluchistan, the Deobandi-oriented Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) fared better at the polls. Along with the defeated parties and politicians of West Pakistan, the JUI led by Maulana Mufti Mahmud could not be shut out of discussions on the future constitutional arrangements.

This made Bhutto’s claim to speak on behalf of West Pakistan indefensible and hints at the essence of his dilemma. On the threshold of a historic opportunity, the PPP chairman found himself between a rock and a hard place. The PPP had done well but not well enough. Although the party’s radical program accounted for its electoral success in central Punjab, where the Green Revolution coupled with the Ayub’s regime irrigation projects had made the most impact , Bhutto’s controversial decision to enlist the support of conservative landlords in south Punjab and Sindh had played an equally important part in the PPP’s victory.

Tensions within the left and right wings of the PPP threatened to split the party even before Bhutto had succeeded in registering his claim to power. To make matters worse, in cutting a deal with Mujib, Bhutto ran the risk of being denounced as a traitor in West Pakistan. Wary of becoming the butt of West Pakistani criticism if he compromised with Mujib, Bhutto miscalculated his ability to withstand the ill effects of becoming a willing pawn in the regime’s game plan to thwart the Awami League’s bid for power. If he wanted to avoid being called a traitor to West Pakistan at all costs, Bhutto was equally determined not be cast in the role of arch-conspirator in the breakup of Pakistan. Bhutto’s role in the post- 1970 election crisis has to be assessed in the light of the positions taken by Mujib and Yahya Khan, not to mention the structural obstacles in the way of a smooth transfer of power from military to civilian rule in Pakistan.

The basic democracies system had been designed to safeguard the centre from challenges mounted by political parties with broad-based support at the provincial level. instead, opposition to Ayub’s exclusionary political system crystallized in East Pakistan in the form of six points, which for all practical purposes, made the centre redundant. Most political parties in the western wing wanted an effective, if not a strong centre that could lend credence to the existence of Pakistan as a sovereign independent state. There was scope for discussions between the representatives of the two wings, leading to a narrowing of differences on the question of centre-province relations. But the localization of political horizons under the basic democracies system had prevented the forging of meaningful alliances between political parties both within and between the two wings. This in large part explains why the six points elicited such different responses in East and West Pakistan.

The main bone of contention between the two wings was the powers of the federal centre. The Awami League’s vision of a limited centre was a red flag for the gendarmes of the Pakistani State.

1. The first of the six points called for the creation of a federation of Pakistan in the true spirit of the Lahore Resolution with a parliamentary form of government based on the supremacy of a legislature directly elected on the basis of universal adult franchise.

2. The second point confined the powers of the federal government to defence and foreign affairs and vested all the residual subjects in the constituent units.

3. According to the third point, there were to be two separate but freely convertible currencies for the two wings and, if that proved unworkable, a single currency for the whole country with constitutional safeguards to prevent the flight of capital from East to West Pakistan. Moreover, the eastern wing was to have its own reserve bank and a separate fiscal and monetary policy.

4. The fourth point stripped the federal centre of its powers of taxation and revenue collection and handed them to the federation units. Turning the twenty-four year logic of military fiscalism in Pakistan on its head, the fourth point made the federal centre dependent on handouts from states taxes to meet its expenditures.

5. If this did not raise the hackles of the military brass, the fifth point certainly did. It envisaged separate accounts for the foreign exchange earnings of the two wings, with the federal centre getting an agreed percentage of their financial resources. Indigenous products were to move free of duty between the two wings. But this gesture to federalism was offset by the provision empowering the constituent units to establish trade links with foreign countries.

6. The sixth point’s demand for a separate militia or paramilitary force in East Pakistan was anodyne by comparison to the drastic readjustment that was being proposed in the apportioning of finances between the federal centre and the federating units.

Yet for all the clouds darkening the political horizon, there was also an element of creative ambiguity in the post electoral context. It was evident that Mujib’s six points were negotiable, and he was not thinking of secession. His conception of a free Bengali nation was not incompatible with something less than a fully separate and sovereign state. If the military junta had seized this opening to negotiate the terms for a transfer of power with the newly elected representatives of the people, the course of Pakistani history might have been different. Stung by election results that were completely contrary to the intelligence reports, Yahya delayed announcing a date for the meeting of the National Assembly, which was to function as both the legislature and the constitution- making body. This aroused Bengali suspicions, prompting Mujib to take a more rigid stance on the six points. On January 3, 1971, at a mass meeting of a million people at the Dhaka Race Course ground, all the Awami League members of the national and provincial assemblies took an oath of allegiance to the six points. Most telling was Mujib’s assertion that the six points were the property of the people of Bangladesh and there could be no question of a compromise on them.

Yet when he met Yahya Khan in the second week of January 1971, Mujib was a paragon of moderation. As the general had not bothered studying the six points, Mujib explained them to him and asked whether he had any objections. Yahya said he had none but noted that the Awami League would have to carry the West Pakistani political parties, the PPP in particular. Mujib urged him to convene the National Assembly by February 15 and predicted that he would obtain not only a simple majority but almost 2/3 majority. Admiral Ahsan, who was then still governor of East Pakistan, noted that with its absolute majority, the Awami League could bulldoze their constitution through without bothering about West Pakistan’s interest. Mujib was quick to the defence: No, I am a democrat and the majority leader of all Pakistan. I cannot ignore the interests of West Pakistan. I am not only responsible to the people of East and West Pakistan but also to world opinion. I shall do everything on democratic principles. Mujib wanted to invite Yahya to Dhaka three or four days before the assembly session to see the draft constitution. If you find objections, Mujib told Yahya, I will try to accommodate your wishes. Towards that end he promised to seek cooperation of the PPP as well as other parties in West Pakistan. The Awami League realized that the western wing did not need the same measure of autonomy as East Pakistan. In a telling statement of the inner thinking of the Awami League leadership, Mujib said that although he was prepared to be of help, he did not wish to interfere in any arrangements that the West Pakistani leadership may wish to make. Looking forward, Mujib talked of about drafting Yahya’s address to the National Assembly, which he wanted convened no later than February 15, and went so far as to say that the Awami League intended to elect the general as its presidential candidate. Mujib spoke of a democratic parliament and discussions on issues to find acceptable formulas inside and outside the Assembly. The meeting ended with Yahya flattering Mujib by calling him the next prime minister of Pakistan.*

*The Report of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission of Inquiry into the 1971 War (as declassified by the Government of Pakistan) (Lahore Vanguard).

An uncompromising public posture contrasted with private reassurances exchanged by the main actors and complicates the story of the tripartite negotiations that preceded the military action in East Pakistan. As far as Mujib was concerned, a formula could be worked out to save the unity of Pakistan even while pursuing legitimate Bengali demands. Soon after the elections, Mujib is said to have conveyed to Bhutto through a personal emissary that he could have the big job in return for accepting the six points and joining hands with the Awami League to force the military back into the barracks. Taken aback but excited about the idea, Bhutto declared that he was personally not opposed to the six points but had to carry the party with him. Secure in his knowledge of his powers under the LFO, Yahya Khan exploited Bhutto’s uncertainty about the PPP’s reaction to striking a deal with the Awami League. On his return to West Pakistan, Yahya stopped off in Larkana to visit Bhutto at his ancestral home. There is no record of what transpired at the meeting but the president would almost certainly have mentioned his conversation with Mujib, though he did not tell Bhutto about the Awami League leader’s readiness to discuss the outstanding constitutional issues both inside and outside the National Assembly. Yahya might also have hinted at the limits to which the regime was prepared to accommodate the Awami League’s demands. Any reference to the LFO and Pakistan’s national interest would have alerted Bhutto to the military establishment’s distaste for the six points.

The junta downplayed the meeting between Yahya and Bhutto, describing it as coincidental. There were several subsequent consultations between the two men that were far from incidental. The existence of a secret channel of communication between the PPP chairman and the martial law administrator pointed to a collusion, generating a rash of negative speculation in the eastern wing. Bhutto was already held in high suspicion when he arrived in Dhaka on January 27 for the first round of talks with the Awami League leader. Bengali doubts about Bhutto’s intentions were strengthened when, after eight hours of being holed up alone in a room with Mujib, the PPP leader did not go beyond seeking clarification on the six points. There was no mention of joining hands to oust the military regime. Mujib was understandably disappointed and puzzled by these tactics.

Upon returning from East Pakistan, Bhutto denied any differences with Mujib and said that their talks had been exploratory in nature. Before these statements could have a salutary effect, two Kashmiris hijacked a Indian Airlines Fokker on January 25, 1971, and forced it to land in Lahore. While Mujib condemned the hijacking on principle, Bhutto rushed to Lahore airport to greet the freedom fighters who were granted asylum by Pakistan. That the regime and the PPP chairman had been ensnared soon became apparent when the hijackers blew up the plane two days later and New Delhi reacted by banning all Pakistani connecting flights from using Indian airspace. This increased the distance between East and West Pakistan from 1,000 to 3,000 miles around the coast of Sri Lanka. The hijacking widened the gulf between Bhutto and Mujib and brought Indo-Pakistan relations to an all-time low, especially once the tribunal set up to investigate the incident concluded that the hijackers were not heroes but Indian agents. Mujib’s stance on the hijacking intensified Punjabi hostility towards him, making it more difficult for Bhutto to compromise. On February 21 a PPP convention vowed to abide by the chairman’s decision not to attend the session of the National Assembly scheduled for March 3.

Yahya Khan used the excuse of a deteriorating political situation and the Indian threat looming on the borders to dismiss his civilian cabinet and invest the governors with martial law powers, a first step to clearing any hurdles in the way of a military action. The decision indicated the president’s semi-isolation and made him more dependent on the military hawks in the National Security Council (NSC). On the evening of February 22, he presided over a conference in Rawalpindi attended by the governors, martial law administrators, and intelligence officials where a decision was taken in principle to deploy force in East Pakistan. An operational plan was discussed that envisaged the deployment of troops and the mass arrest of Awami League leaders on charges of sedition.* 

  • Brigadier A.R. Siddiqi, East Pakistan, the End Game 1969-71 Karachi Oxford University Press

The governor of East Pakistan, Admiral Ahsan was the only one to raise his voice in objection. Along with Sahibzada Yaqui Ali Khan, the commander of the eastern forces, the governor insisted on the imperative of finding a political solution and openly expressed dismay at the unthinking jingoism of West Pakistani officials who regarded the people of East Pakistan as a vast colonial population waiting to be proselytized.** Until the third week of February, Yahya had appeared to endorse his views, but now the tide had turned. On arriving in the capital from Dhaka, Ahsan was alarmed to notice a high tide of militarism flowing turbulently. There was open talk at the conference of a military solution according to plan. Ahsan’s refusal to endorse such a course of action made him unpopular with his colleagues, who thought he had sold out to the Bengalis.

**Admiral S.M. Ahsan in his testimony to the Hamoodur Rahman Commission

There is no indication that Bhutto was privy to the regime’s plans to clamp down on the Awami League leaders. Publicly, he persisted in calling for a political solution acceptable to both wings. Signs of the military leaning on Bhutto, albeit for its own institutional reasons, created the impression of complicity. The election results had blown Yahya’s cover under the LFO. A counter foil was needed to stop Mujib’s thunderous march to power. In his narrative of the events, Brigadier A. R. Siddiqi, the head of the military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) wing, maintains that after the elections, General Gul Hassan, the chief of the general staff, told him, Let’s back Bhutto. In his memoir, Gul Hassan holds both Bhutto and Mujib in contempt and refers to them as creative liars whose ambition and vindictiveness made them prone to fabrications if that served their political purpose. What is undeniable is that the army had a clear self-interest in the outcome of the post electoral negotiations. According to Siddiqi, the right of a provincial-cum-regional party to frame the national constitution and run the national government for the next five years was not acceptable to the military high command. Bhutto was preferred not because he was more worthy of trust than Mujib. The generals knew that the Awami League leader was no friend of theirs and feared he might try to seek a drastic cut in the army’s size and power. Circumstantially, Bhutto had better credentials. The PPP’s biggest majority was in Punjab, home to 75% of the army’s rank and file. This would force Bhutto to be “more reasonable and not touch the army.

Encouraged by the regular exchange of missives with Yahya Khan and his contact with other top generals in the regime, Bhutto became more insistent on not attending the National Assembly. While denying any fundamental opposition to the six points, he charged the Awami League with wanting to impose its preferred constitution on West Pakistan. Letting the majority frame the constitution of its choosing would make sense if Pakistan was a unitary state. In a country split in two parts that lacked any semblance off political cohesion, the federal constitution had to be based on the consensus of all the federations units. In the interest of national unity, Bhutto agreed to the six points barring the second and the fifth relating to currency, taxation, international trade, and foreign assistance. When push came to shove, he was prepared to accept all the points except the one pertaining to foreign trade and aid. If these were adjusted in favour of the centre, the PPP was prepared to cooperate with the Awami League in formulating the constitution.

The more ruthless of Bhutto’s critics have persisted in accusing him of stalling for time at Yahya’s behest. There is no question that Bhutto over estimated his ability to get the better of the general. Spurning Mujib’s offer to help eject the military from the political arena was an error for which history cannot absolve Bhutto. Like any politician, Bhutto needed the support of his party leadership. Notwithstanding the PPP’s studied public silence on the Awami League’s demands, Bhutto remained remarkably consistent in his stance on the six points. Raising the PPP’s objections to the conception of federation in the six points, he noted that there was no federation in the world without a second House of Parliament, a proposition Mujib had rejected. Equally objectionable was the fact that although some of the points upheld the principles of federalism, others implied a confederal arrangement between the two wings. The Awami League wanted West Pakistan to assume responsibility for the bulk of the external debt of the federal government. East Pakistan was to contribute only 24% of the centre’s running costs, and even this sum was to be set against “reparations” due from West Pakistan for its past exploitation of the eastern wing. On this basis, the entire central levy would have to be borne by the western wing for several years to come.

For a West Pakistani politician, let alone a Sindhi, to agree to such an arrangement was political suicide. Right-wing parties considered the six points blasphemous and would invariably denounce Bhutto for being opportunistic and, worse still, a traitor. His own ideologically divided party cadres were liable to revolt, certainly in Punjab, where the PPP had received strong electoral support in military cantonments. Leery of the Awami League’s absolute majority, Bhutto stuck to his guns about discussing the main points of difference before the meeting of the National Assembly. If Mujib had wanted Yahya to call the National Assembly by mid-February, Bhutto wanted the meeting postponed until the end of March so that the two parties could thrash out all the contentious issues. Ignoring Bhutto’s arguments but also falling short of accepting Mujib’s, Yahya had announced on February 13 that the National Assembly would meet on March 3, 1971. Bhutto said his party would not attend unless assurances were given that it would be heard. The PPP was not boycotting the Assembly but asking the Awami League to reciprocate its gesture of accepting four out of the six points. Likening the constitution to an essay, Bhutto said we accept the essay written in East Pakistan—but we want to write some concluding paragraphs which are of vital national importance. We have gone a mile to accommodate the Six Points, he continued, and request our East Pakistani friends to move at least an inch to accommodate our views. In a deliberate act of omission, Yahya Khan did not tell Bhutto about Mujib’s readiness to engage in discussions outside the Assembly. This implies that far from colluding with Bhutto, or for that matter with Mujib, as the PPP claimed, Yahya was looking to extend his regime’s continuation in office by pitting the two main parties against each other.

The tactic worked. Sensing the army’s reluctance to transfer power, Bhutto went on a verbal rampage through the populist alleyways of the historic city of Lahore. In a stormy speech to a mammoth crowd at Lahore’s Mochi Gate on February 28, he reiterated his line that Mujib had decided on the constitution and wanted the PPP to rubber-stamp the document. Bhutto demanded a postponement of the National Assembly or an extension of the 120 day-period for the formulation of the constitution. Getting carried away by the force of his own words, he threatened to break the legs of anyone, whether from the PPP or any other West Pakistani Party, who attended the National Assembly session in Dhaka. This was provocative in the extreme. The die had been cast; the Awami League leadership’s distrust of Bhutto was complete. Egged on by the intelligence agencies, most political parties in West Pakistan refused to attend the assembly session. On March 1, Yahya used the excuse to postpone the National Assembly and aggravated matters by not announcing an alternative e date for its meeting. While this sparked disappointment in West Pakistani political circles, the eastern wing exploded in violent frenzy. In clear evidence of serious differences in higher military circles, both Admiral Ahsan and General Yaqub resigned from their positions. With the removal of the two senior most West Pakistani officials who still believed in the need for a political solution, the military gunned down several demonstrations in East Pakistan on March 2 and 3 before returning to the barracks.

From March 1 until the fateful moment on March 25, 1971, when a crackle of gunfire disrupted the silence of the night in Dhaka, Bengali antipathy for the Pakistani military presence in East Pakistan soared. Food sellers refused to supply meat and fresh produce to the army while West Pakistanis and pro-government Urdu speaking Biharis were targeted by the Awami League muscle men. Despite clear and present provocation, the army desisted from taking action, purportedly to allow the political negotiations to succeed. Yet since a decision to resort to military action had been taken in principle, the lack of any remedial measure on the part of the military can equally well be seen as marking time to fly in troop reinforcements from West Pakistan. The state’s inaction after a vicious display of its coercive power emboldened Awami League workers to begin taking over state institutions. After March 2, Mujib popularly known as Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal) was running the civilian administration in East Pakistan from his unassuming two-storied home at 32 Dhanmandi. The three-member Hamoodur Rahman Commission set up to investigate the causes of the military defeat in East Pakistan chastised the military regime for letting the situation get out of hand, with the result that much greater use of force was needed later to regain control. There was no reason why keeping the door open for negotiations with Mujib was inconsistent with maintaining law and order. As far as the Commission could discern, the majority of the people of East Pakistan were not in favour of secession. But with the government doing nothing to stop the violence, it was difficult to prevent people from thinking that it was making ready to pack up and go. Even those who may have wished to oppose the Awami League were deflected from doing so.

By the time Yahya came around to announcing that the National Assembly would meet on March 25, Mujib’s stance had stiffened. Mindful of the extreme views in the Awami League cadres, who considered the six-points non-negotiable, he now demanded the immediate withdrawal of martial law and a return of all military personnel to the barracks, an inquiry into the loss of life, and an immediate transfer of power to the representatives of the people. Reluctant to transfer power, Yahya could not agree to these demands prior to the completion of the constitution making process. But he was prepared to ask the army to hold their fire until he had gone through the motions of trying to make Mujib see sense. Banking on the inability of the two main political parties to agree, Yahya Khan had eased into a life of excess in wine, women, and song. Yet the Hamoodur Rahman Commission did not attribute the general’s dereliction of duty to his heavy drinking. The supreme commander of the armed forces held his drink, though his mental reflexes had evidently slowed down. The information garnered by the Commission indicated that Yahya Khan, flanked by a close circle of military officials, played out a game in which no clear cut decision could be reached.

Such a game was played out in the vitiated atmosphere of the negotiations. Yahya had set the tone on March 6 while announcing a new date for the National Assembly. Slamming the Awami League for misunderstanding his reasons for postponing the meeting of the National Assembly, he had said: I will not allow a handful of people to destroy the homeland of millions of innocent Pakistanis. It was the duty of the Pakistan Armed Forces to ensure the integrity, solidarity and security of Pakistan, and it was a duty in which they never failed. With Bhutto demanding time out at the decisive moment in the match, and the junta cloaking the threat of force in the flighty language of national unity, the Bangabandhu had few options. Mujib was now even more of a captive of his Awami League supporters who, realizing that the regime had no real intention of either sharing or transferring power, wanted Bengali to fight and take what was theirs by right.

On March 7, 1971, Mujib addressed a massive political rally at the Ramna Race Course in Dhaka. A skilled public orator in Bengali, the Bangabandhu delivered a stirring speech that reflected the mood of his people. He called for every Bengali home to be turned into a fortress. As blood had already been shed, he was prepared to offer more blood to free the people of his country. The struggle this time is a struggle for freedom. The struggle this time is a struggle for independence, he proclaimed passionately, before concluding with the slogan Jai Bangla ( Victory to Bengal). A virtual declaration of independence, Mujib ‘s March 7 speech did not, however, completely shut the door on further talks.

The negotiations that got underway in Dhaka in mid-March 1971 were peculiar in many respects. The presidential team closely choreographed the meetings. No minutes were kept, making it impossible to cross-check and verify either Yahya’s or Bhutto’s testimony to the Hamoodur Rahman Commission. Mujib did not appear before the Commission. He was assassinated in 1975, and the report was not declassified until 2001. Whatever the limitations of the inquiry commission’s findings, they do make it possible to piece together a proximate account of what transpired at the negotiations. At his first meeting with Yahya, Mujib demanded the immediate lifting of martial law and convening of the National Assembly. There was to be a simultaneous transfer of power at the centre and the provinces. Yahya accepted all the demands except the lifting of martial law on the rather lame excuse that this would create a legal lacuna. By the time the two men met again on March 20, their aides had worked out the modalities for ending martial law. Power was to be transferred to all five provinces but not for the time being at the centre, where Yahya was to remain in office. The National Assembly was to be divided into two committees, one for each wing. These committees were to meet together to frame a constitution on the basis of their respective reports.

This was a circuitous way to keep a divided country united. But, then, Pakistan was no ordinary country. Considering the Lahore Resolution of 1940, the idea of a confederation was not nearly so far-fetched. On arriving in Dhaka on March 21, 1971, Bhutto rejected the proposal to divide the assembly into two parts on the grounds that it pointed to a confederation and paved the way for secession. This was in line with Yahya’s own thinking. That night Bhutto consulted other PPP leaders, who concurred with the assessment. The next morning when the three protagonists met together for the first and only time, Yahya said that the PPP’s agreement was required for the Awami League’s proposals. Mujib bluntly told Yahya that it was up to him to persuade Bhutto. The discussions ended with the two politicians saying nothing to each other in the president’s presence. Outside the presidential salon, Mujib took Bhutto aside and asked for his help to overcome an increasingly grave situation. Afraid that the conversation might be tapped, the two walked out into the verandah and sat in the portico, where Yahya saw them, honeymooning with each other,  as he snidely commented later. Mujib told Bhutto to become prime minister of West Pakistan and leave the eastern wing to the Awami League, warning him not to trust the military, as it would destroy both of them. Bhutto replied that he would rather be destroyed by the military than by history. While agreeing to consider the Awami League’s proposals, the PPP leader urged Mujib to place them before the National Assembly, as he was not prepared to give a personal pledge on such a serious matter. According to Bhutto, Mujib rejected the idea of the National Assembly being convened even briefly.

The only direct exchange between Mujib and Bhutto in the tripartite talks ended in a stalemate, though the two had planned on meeting again in secret. For a second time within a matter of months, Mujibur Rahman had solicited Bhutto’s help in dislodging the military regime. That the effort failed is not surprising once the haze is lifted from the moves and countermoves in the final days of a united Pakistan. Recourse to thick narrative detail reveals that the principle hurdle in the way of a united Pakistan was not disagreement on constitutional matters but the transfer of power from military to civilian hands.

More concerned with perpetuating himself in office, Yahya Khan was strikingly nonchalant about the six points. He left that to the West Pakistani politicians, in particular Bhutto, who, contrary to the impression in some quarters, was more of a fall guy for the military junta than a partner in crime. In his testimony to the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, Yahya blamed Bhutto for the failure of negotiations to make headway. What he did not reveal was that the policy of divide and rule had survived colonialism and become the preferred policy instrument of the post colonial state in handling an intractable and increasingly violent polity. It was a recipe for disaster at the service of a drunken and dissolute ruler, more capable of dividing than ruling according to any known norms of governance.

Given the historical evidence, the verdict on apportioning responsibility for the 1971 debacle in East Pakistan must go decisively against Yahya Khan and his senior military associates in the NSC.*

*The associates included, most notably:

  • General Abdul Hamid Khan
  • Lt. General S.G.M.M. Pirzada
  • Lt. General Gul Hassan
  • Major General Umar
  • Major General Mitha.

What clinched the issue for the military high command was the law-and-order situation in East Pakistan, where the Awami League was running a parallel government with bruising effect on the morale of the armed forces. Irritated by the daily abuse levied at the military presence by the Bengali press, they were incensed to find that India was actively supporting the dissidents. What the military’s eastern command did not gauge, thanks to a linguistically impaired intelligence network, was that its own Bengali troops strongly supported the Awami League miscreants. Although the decision to use military force in East Pakistan was taken only on February 22, plans had been put in place much earlier. As early as December 1970, East Pakistan’s martial law administrator, General Yaqub Khan, had worked out the operational aspects of imposing law and order in what was code named Operation Blitz. Yaqub subsequently resigned, warning against taking military action in a situation that required a political resolution. The alarm bells went off on March 23 when the Awami League marked Pakistan Day by hoisting Bangladeshi flags but fell short of declaring independence. There were reports of Jinnah’s portraits being defaced. More seriously from a military point of view, fighting broke out in Chittagong that day, with the East Pakistan Rifles and East Bengal Regiment joining hands with the dissidents against West Pakistani forces, completely paralyzing the port city. Faced with supply difficulties, the eastern command under General Tikka Khan was implementing the first stages of its Operation Searchlight Plan, while Yahya Khan and his aides continued their talks with Mujib and Bhutto.

It is commonly held that military action followed the breakdown of negotiations. But the talks never actually broke down; they were unilaterally abandoned on the orders of the president acting in unison with his inner military circle in Rawalpindi. A transfer of power acceptable to Mujib and Bhutto was still not outside the realm of possibility. The PPP leaders saw the Awami League’s revised proposals on March 25. These called for a confederation of Pakistan and two constitutional conventions, instead of the separate committees in the earlier version, which were to frame the constitution for each wing. The conventions would then meet to frame a constitution for the confederation. In shifting from a vaguely federal to a clearly confederal arrangement, the Awami League addressed the PPP’s main objection that the six points said contradictory things about the future constitutional structure. Separate constitutions for the two wings, followed by one for the confederation of Pakistan, accommodated the PPP leader’s fear of being diddled out of power by the Awami League. On March 14, he had made a similar demand at a public rally in Karachi’s Nishtar Park. Remembered in Pakistan as his udhar tum, idhar hum (you there, us here) speech, Bhutto had maintained that power ought to be transferred to the Awami League in the east and the PPP in the west. He was widely condemned in West Pakistan for sanctioning the division of the country. Dismissing accusations of colluding with Yahya Khan and being responsible for the political gridlock, Bhutto spoke of one Pakistan. The rule of majority for the whole country could become applicable only if the six-point demand with its secessionist overtones was dropped. As that was not being done, the rationale and logic of the six-point demand necessitated agreement of the majority parties of both the wings.

Bhutto’s two-majority thesis was conceded in the final version of the Awami League’s constitutional proposals. However, the notion of a confederation was wholly alien to the thinking of the military command in Pakistan. Having run Pakistan as a quasi-unitary state despite its federal configuration, the guardians of military privilege were not about to concede ground to those they saw as traitors. Instead of trying to bring the situation under control by disarming the East Pakistan Rifles and the East Bengal Regiment, the army gave vent to its rage by unleashing a reign of terror. Dhaka University was stormed and many students, faculty and staff killed. There was indiscriminate killing of civilians, with Hindus and intellectuals serving as main targets. The sheer ferocity of the military action ensured that Dhaka was quickly subdued, but fighting continued to rage in Chittagong and other key cities while the countryside remained in ferment. In a glaring instance of strategic oversight, Yahya and his aides moved to pummel the Awami League without fully considering India’s or, for that matter the world’s, likely reaction. The Pakistan Foreign Office should have had no difficulty anticipating India’s likely response. But the merrymaking general and his inner coterie of military generals in their ineptitude cut themselves off from the thinking of the Foreign Office. They also had made no clear plans on how to deal with East Pakistan after the objectives of the crackdown were achieved. Yahya Khan left for West Pakistan a few hours before the start of the military operation. From his room in the Intercontinental Hotel, Bhutto watched the army setting ablaze the horizon with breathtaking ruthlessness. Punitive action without any thought to reopening the political dialogue made no sense. Yet at no time after the first shots were fired in the barricaded streets of Dhaka on March 25,1971 did Yahya Khan restart negotiations with the Awami League. While most of the top Bengali leadership fled across the border to West Bengal, Mujib was promptly arrested and transported to a West Pakistani jail. Apart from a facetious trial in which he was given a death sentence, the regime made no effort to initiate dialogue with the Awami League leader.

With the international media flush with harrowing tales of the army’s atrocities and the plight of millions of refugees who had fled to India, Pakistan ‘s stocks slumped internationally. Archer Blood, the American consul general in Dhaka, thought it unconscionable for the United States to turn a blind eye to the reality of the oppression Bengalis were facing and to which the overworked term genocide is applicable. The only likely outcome of the conflict was a Bengali victory and the consequent establishment of an independent Bangladesh. It was foolish to give one sided support to the likely loser. In contrast to 1965, China politely distanced itself from a regime charged with genocide. Washington was a bit more forthcoming because the Pakistani government had recently helped the Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, to make contact with Beijing. But American support was more symbolic than real— a morale-boosting assurance that India would not be permitted to rip through West Pakistan. It did not extend to absolving the Pakistani regime of its crimes and misdemeanours. The story of the junta’s botched international diplomacy is a trifle less appalling than its abysmal failure on the military front. A brutal military crackdown in late March and April may have resulted in a semblance of order in key urban centres and around the cantonments. Once the monsoon set in, however, the army was constantly harried by the Bangladesh Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) resorting to guerrilla tactics in the watery terrain of the Bengal delta. In late August 1971, India, which was actively training the Bangladesh liberation forces, buttressed its international position by entering into a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union. The Pakistani Army’s strategic doctrine of defending East Pakistan from the western wing exploded in its face when India launched a full-scale attack on the eastern front. There were no effective lines of communications between key players in the regime and an internally divided GHQ, far less between them and the eastern command. Pakistani troops did fight the advancing Indian troops effectively in key sectors. The United States sent its nuclear carrier USS Enterprise from the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal to hover on the edges of Indian territorial waters. But the surrender of 93,000 soldiers without a whimper on December 16, 1971, highlighted the magnitude of the defeat suffered by the Pakistani Army at the hands of its primary rival. General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, then in command of the eastern front alleged that the ignominy of surrender, which is a death warrant for a soldier was imposed on him and his men by our selfish rulers and selfish officers sitting in GHQ in order to save West Pakistan. We accepted humiliation to save our homeland, the disgraced general claimed in his memoir.

Strategic blundering and political ineptitude combined to create a horrific nightmare for a military high command that was ill equipped to handle the situation. Once orders had been given to put boots on the ground and enforce law and order, pent-up frustrations shredded the last remnants of humanity still adorning the hearts of the West Pakistani troops. The ethical dilemma of killing fellow Muslims was quickly overcome. Bengalis were not just black men; they were Muslims in name only and had to be purged of their infidelity. Whatever the reasoning of the perpetrators, nothing can justify the horrendous crimes committed in the name of a false sense of nationalism. As in any war, there was violence on both sides against unarmed men, women, and children. But there was a world of difference between organized state coercion against a largely unarmed populace and the targeted violence of armed dissidents against known collaborators of the military regime.

A blackout on national and international news from East Pakistan kept the majority of the people of West Pakistan in a state of blissful ignorance. Some accounts of the massacre of civilians and rape of women in East Pakistan by the national army and its hastily raised Islamist militias known as razakars did filter through. Some West Pakistanis registered their protest. But few in the western wing were listening, convinced that the armed forces were performing their duty to protect the national integrity of the country against Indian machinations. This makes the words and actions of those brave souls from the western wing who did speak out that much more significant. Habib Jalib bewailed the savagery that had ravished East Pakistan. For whom should I sing my songs of love, he asked, when the garden is a bloody mess, when they were battered flower buds and blood drenched leaves everywhere despite an unstoppable rain of tears. Jalib had sensed that nothing could wash away the sins of the cabal of generals who had presided over the most inglorious moment in the history of Pakistan. The noted Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz also wrote poems in 1971 lamenting that events in East Pakistan had shaken his faith in humanity. Three years later when he visited Dhaka, Faiz felt a strange kind of estrangement upon meeting with intimate Bengali friends. After how many more meetings, he wondered, will we be that close once again? How many monsoons would it take to usher in a spring of unstained green in east Bengal?

The end of love has been so cruel and pitiless that the crushed heart longed in vain just to quarrel once again with old friends. Faiz had gone to Bangladesh, ready to offer everything, even the gift of his own life. Such was the distance between him and his closest friends that these healing words remained unspoken after all else had been said.

More than four decades after the bloody separation, the gulf between the erstwhile wings of Pakistan has grown wider in the absence of any remedial measure. Unable to forget, the people of Bangladesh might at least try and forgive if presented with a formal apology by their tormentors, Unwilling to learn the lessons of their own history, successive rulers of what remained of Pakistan in the west avoided owning up to the crimes committed by their defeated and disgraced predecessors. The tragedy of East Pakistan had been partially foretold by the wilful manipulation of centre-province relations in the 1950s and 1960s by a military dominated state. Yet a fully separate and sovereign state was an option of the last resort in the spring of 1971 once the military junta shut down all prospects of realizing Bengali national aspirations within a federal or confederal framework. What came in the wake of 1971 promised to be an endless trial by fire for the constituent units of a Pakistani federation that the military in league with the central bureaucracy insisted on governing as a quasi-unitary state.

By courtesy of: The Struggle for Pakistan by Ayesha Jalal, Harvard University Press 2014

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