March 25 is observed as a national holiday in Bangladesh commemorating massacre in East Pakistan (later to emerge as Bangladesh) in 1971. There were three major players in this historical drama – a military general who governed the state of Pakistan and two politicians from the two wings of the country that did not see eye to eye to resolve a political crisis that soon morphed into a massacre of many – something that could have been avoided if they were sincere and willing to compromise for the greater good of the country. Each of these ‘makers’ of the history had huge support within the segment of the population that they represented.
Some background information about the event may help us to understand the situation better that led up to the killings and mayhems of March 1971.
Pakistan was ruled then by a military junta that was headed by General Yahya Khan, who assumed charge as Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA). He was from West Pakistan and came to power on March 25, 1969, after President Ayub Khan had relinquished power after mass rising in 1969 in East Pakistan. He promptly abrogated the 1962 Constitution.
The Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis – without whose overwhelming support in the decisive election in 1946 (in which Muslims in Bengal voted overwhelmingly for the All-India Muslim League, winning 113 of the 119 seats for Muslims) Pakistan could not have been born – had long felt discriminated as the second-class citizens with all the political and economic powers vested in the western wing of the country. Agitation for provincial autonomy had been gaining momentum, following years of protest against domination and exploitation by West Pakistan. Even recognition of Bengali as a national language had to be won only after a struggle in 1952.
After coming to power Yahya Khan imposed martial law and declared holding the national election in 1970, much to the expectation of the people and also to pacify unrest. In his broadcast to the nation on 26 March 1969, he sought a ‘smooth transfer of power to the representatives of the people, elected freely and impartially on the basis of adult franchise’, whose ‘task’ would be ‘to give the country a workable constitution’. It took him another eight months to declare the date of the election, October 5, 1970 (which was later moved to Dec. 7).
On 28 March 1970, Yahya Khan announced the Legal Framework Order (LFO) that postulated that Provinces ‘shall be so united in a Federation that the independence, the territorial integrity and the national solidarity of Pakistan are ensured and that the unity of the Federation is not in any manner impaired.’ And, more important, while providing for maximum autonomy, it laid down that ‘the Federal Government shall also have adequate powers including legislative, administrative and financial powers, to discharge its responsibilities in relation to external and internal affairs and to preserve the independence and territorial integrity of the country.’
Twenty-four political parties participated in voting on December 7, 1970, for the 300 constituencies in the National Assembly, which was then the only chamber of a unicameral Parliament of Pakistan. Nearly 57 million voters went to the polls, out of whom over 29 million were in East Pakistan. The turnout was 57% in East Pakistan.
In that election, to the utter surprise and dismay of the ruling junta, which had expected to remain as an arbiter of a fragmented parliament, the Awami League (AL), a political party with strong support in East Pakistan that advocated for regional autonomy in the provinces, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a charismatic leader who was fondly called Bangabandhu (meaning: Friend of Bengal), won a decisive majority. The AL captured 160 of the 162 contested seats in East Pakistan (and out of 300 contested seats in entire Pakistan). Its total share was 167 out of 313 seats (that include 7 of the 13 reserve seats) of the National Assembly in the 1970 Pakistan parliamentary elections.
The previously restive and presently jubilant Bengali population expected a swift transfer of power to the victorious Awami League based on the Six Point Program that would ensure regional autonomy. It is worth noting here that the Six Point Program is based on what has been commonly referred to as the Pakistan Resolution, passed by the All-India Muslim League in Lahore on 23 March 1940, which provided that ‘geographically contiguous units’ be demarcated into ‘regions which should be so constituted … that areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority, as in the North-Western and Eastern zones of India, should be grouped to constitute the Independent States in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign’.
In this Resolution, Pakistan was not named, it was a wishful dream back then. It was not until the All-India Muslim League Legislators’ Convention was held in Delhi on 7-9 April 1946 that a resolution gave this idea definite shape: “That the zones comprising Bengal and Assam in the North-East and the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sindh and Baluchistan in the North-West of India, namely Pakistan zones where the Muslims are in a dominant majority, be constituted into a sovereign independent State … of Pakistan.”
From 1946 onwards, and certainly after the founding of Pakistan, the terms ‘States’ and ‘autonomous and sovereign’ were not given serious consideration. However, from 1966 the Awami League returned to the text of the 1940 Resolution, when its literal implications were put forward by, first, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and then Maulana Bhashani of East Pakistan.
Thanks to its wide publication by enthusiastic financiers like my father, the Six-Point Program (or Formula) soon became very popular all-over East Pakistan. It proposed for a unique federation in which the Central Government would exercise power only in relation to defense and foreign affairs, excluding foreign trade and aid.
However, both the military junta and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that garnered only 81 seats of the 138 contested seats in West Pakistan in the election were opposed to the transfer of power to the AL and its leader Sk. Mujib. They were averse to the very idea of a Pakistan governed by an East Pakistani. Their excuse was: the AL won no seat in any of four provinces of West Pakistan, namely Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Interestingly, the PPP had won the exclusive mandate in West Pakistan (esp. in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh where it won 62 and 18 seats, respectively; it won one seat in the NWFP), but none in East Pakistan.
Yet, Bhutto (the son of a Sindhi feudal and a Hindu woman of humble origin) had the audacity to claim that forming a government without him would be like staging Shakespeare’s Hamlet without the role of Prince of Denmark. He proved to be a power-hungry, egocentric person whose unfathomed arrogance derived from his support in the Punjab and Sindh, which have been the bastions of power in Pakistan, and the military that had hitherto ruled Pakistan.
In a victory procession in Lahore on 20 December, Bhutto declared, “Punjab and Sindh are the bastions of power in Pakistan. The majority alone does not count in national politics. No government at the center could be run without the cooperation of the PPP which controlled these two Provinces … I have the key of the Punjab Assembly in one pocket and that of Sindh in the other … The rightist press is saying I should sit in the opposition benches. I am no Clement Attlee.” (Pakistan Observer, Dhaka, Dec. 20, 1970)
Obviously, such a declaration from Bhutto was not only undemocratic but also a slap to tens of millions of Pakistanis who had voted for the AL. Professor Rehman Sobhan, an Awami League advisor, was dispatched to West Pakistan where he met political leaders in Lahore at the end of the year (1970) and attacked the ‘bastions of power’ speech of Bhutto. He categorically said, ‘Bengalis are no longer prepared to accept the dictates of the military-bureaucratic establishment for whom Bhutto is the spokesman.’ If the West Wing tried to obstruct Six Points, the whole of East Pakistan would ‘stand up and resist’. Such was the prevailing mood in East Pakistan, which he urged Rafi Raza, a constitutional law adviser to Bhutto, to convey to him.
In the New Year 1971, on January 3, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman publicly affirmed his position on Six Points at a mammoth meeting at the Ramna Race Course in Dhaka, claiming that, ‘None can stop it’. All the Awami League Members of the National and Provincial Assembly took an oath on Six Points. At the same time, he maintained that the people of Bangladesh believed in the integrity of Pakistan. (The Pakistan Times, Lahore, Jan. 4, 1971)
In East Pakistan, the position on Six Points hardened. Maulana Bhashani called a meeting at Santosh on January 8 of all non-Awami League parties to reject any compromise on autonomy. Mujibur Rahman himself, the following day, declared Six Points ‘a Magna Carta’, and said that he had no right to make any amendment. (The Pakistan Times, Lahore, Jan. 10, 1971)
The constitutional crisis forced Yahya Khan to come to Dhaka. Upon arrival in Dhaka on January 11, 1971, he expressed the hope that the ‘second phase’ of constitution-making, following the general elections, and the ensuing transfer of power, would proceed smoothly. Sk. Mujib described their first two-hour meeting the next day as ‘satisfactory’, and, after their final talks, said he was ‘fully satisfied’.
According to Rafi Raza, “Shortly after returning from Dhaka, the President met Bhutto in Larkana on 17 January, 1971. They were joined by Lt. Gen. Peerzada for part of the talks; General Hamid Khan, Mustafa Khar and Mumtaz Bhutto were also present in Larkana. The meeting, it was later alleged, laid the ground for the ‘conspiracy’ against Mujibur Rahman. The details of what transpired between Yahya Khan and Bhutto were never known.” [Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan: 1967-1977 by Rafi Raza (1997)]
Bhutto had serious misgivings about Six Points and handing over to Mujibur Rahman the government machinery both in the East Wing and the Centre. He said it would not work and would seriously damage the West Wing. However, he agreed to hold discussions with the Awami League leaders in Dhaka and to seek a compromise on the future constitution. [Z. A. Bhutto: The Great Tragedy, Karachi (1971), p. 20, as quoted by Rafi Raza, op. cit.]
On 22 January 1971, the Awami League announced the finalization of the draft constitution on the basis of Six Points, claiming, nevertheless, that it would ensure ‘the indivisible unity between the two Wings of Pakistan’.
On 27 January, a large PPP delegation team arrived in Dhaka for discussions with the Awami League, ‘to understand and comprehend the position’. The preliminary seventy-five-minute talk between the two leaders made no headway; Bhutto was concerned about both constitutional and governmental arrangements, namely, power-sharing, while Mujibur Rahman insisted on Six Points first being accepted before detailed discussions took place. The Press was told it was a courtesy call. The following morning the negotiating teams of the two parties met to consider constitutional matters. The Awami League insisted on Six Points: ‘This is our charter’, and nothing short of it would suffice. The PPP team endeavored in vain to explain the problems that would arise. The one-hour meeting between Bhutto and Mujibur Rahman the same day was equally unproductive. (Rafi Raza, op. cit.)
On January 30, an Indian Airlines plane ‘Ganga’ was hijacked to Lahore by two Kashmiri commandos, who after releasing the hostages blew up the plane on Feb. 2. Bhutto hailed them as ‘heroes’, ‘freedom fighters’ while Sk. Mujib smelled conspiracy in the matter. He deplored the event and called for an inquiry into the matter. Three days later, Delhi banned all flights over India forcing Pakistani planes to fly from Karachi to Dhaka via Colombo, a distance of nearly 3,000 miles.
Bhutto met President Yahya Khan in Rawalpindi on February 11 and explained that as the Awami League had already dictated the constitution, he refused to rubber-stamp it since little or nothing could be achieved by attending the Assembly. (The Pakistan Times, Lahore, Feb. 12, 1971)
The crisis was clearly deepening. After the Executive Committee of the Awami League met in Dhaka on February 14, Tajuddin Ahmed, party general secretary, announced that the basic postulates of Six Points admitted of no possible readjustment. However, he assured West Pakistani leaders that interests peculiar to their region could be accommodated. East Pakistan would not dictate the arrangements for the West Wing Provinces; nor should the West Wing interfere with the East.
In Peshawar, on February 15, Bhutto abruptly announced (without consulting with his party leadership) that the PPP would not attend the Assembly session in Dhaka as the Awami League had framed a Six-Point constitution on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. This abrupt announcement proved to be the first definite move in the tragedy that began to unfold. (Raza, op. cit.)
Bhutto became increasingly strident and inflexible, telling a news agency on his return to Karachi that his decision was ‘unshakable and irrevocable … Anyone who goes to Dhaka from West Pakistan whether in khaki or in black and white does so at his own cost.’ When warned that his Party members might lose their seats by non-attendance, he replied it would be the ‘finest thing if that happens’. The next day, he told the press that if a ‘viable’ constitution was to be framed, ‘all of us must have a hand in that’. The Assembly would be a ‘slaughter-house’ in the present circumstances, he threatened. (The Pakistan Times, Lahore, Feb. 18, 1971)
Bhutto was summoned by Yahya Khan to meet him in Rawalpindi on February 19. He left Karachi on 18 February. Talking to the Karachi Press, he rejected the idea of any arbitration or mediation. For the first time, he publicly acknowledged the importance of the army; there were three ‘forces’ in the country: the Awami League, the PPP, and the Armed Forces. Stopping briefly at Lahore, he reiterated the decision not to attend the Assembly; no Party member would dare go.
The President met him for five hours on 19 February. No other member of the PPP was present and no details were disclosed. Bhutto told the Press that the President had ‘spelled out the magnitude of current issues’, stressing, ‘of course we are now facing a crisis, rather a crisis of extreme nature, which is not of our making’. (The Pakistan Times, Lahore, Feb. 19, 1971)
“With his Party absent, the constitution-making exercise would be ‘like staging Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark’—a futile, barren, negative and counter-productive effort,” he declared.
On February 20, President Yahya Khan made a curious amendment to the LFO, permitting those elected to resign before the first meeting of the National Assembly, even prior to being sworn in as members. This was seen as accommodating Bhutto’s position. The next day, he dissolved the civilian cabinet ‘in view of the political situation in the country’.
Sk. Mujibur Rahman issued a lengthy statement on 24 February condemning what he described as a ‘conspiracy’ to prevent the transfer of power to the elected representatives’.
On February 28, Bhutto’s PPP held a public meeting in Lahore where he declared, if the Assembly session was held as scheduled, there would ‘be a general strike from Peshawar to Karachi’ and he would launch a movement. Members from the West Wing were sternly warned not to attend the Dhaka session. He was heard to say crudely that he would pull their legs apart, though reported as saying ‘break their legs’. (Raza, op. cit.)
For the first time, Bhutto had spelled out a tough position. Speculation that the speech was made after consulting Yahya Khan increased when, on the same day, the Election Commission deferred the preliminaries for the convening of the Assembly, involving indirect elections for women members in the West Wing Provinces.
The following day, the Assembly session was postponed sine die. In explanation, Yahya Khan stated, ‘A majority party, namely the PPP, as well as certain other political parties, have declared their intention not to attend the National Assembly session’. The tension created by India had further complicated the position. With so many staying away, ‘if we were to go ahead with the inaugural session on 3 March, the Assembly itself would have disintegrated and the entire effort made for the smooth transfer of power that has been outlined earlier would have been wasted. It was, therefore, imperative to give more time to the political leaders to arrive at a reasonable understanding of the issues of constitution-making.’ [The Pakistan Times, Lahore, March 2, 1971]
This postponement by the President changed the position dramatically. East Pakistan, already highly tense, now exploded. In the words of Raza, “The postponement sine die was a grave error for which no satisfactory explanation can be found: it was the result of either ignorance or complete disregard for the position in East Pakistan. It confirmed in the minds of Bengalis their worst suspicions about ‘conspiracy’ and the intentions of the West Wing. It signaled, for all practical purposes, the beginning of the end.” (Op. cit., p. 48)
The Awami League called a general strike in Dhaka on 2 March and throughout East Pakistan the following day, both completely successful. The army under Yakub took some hesitant steps the first day but then did not intervene. Sk. Mujibur Rahman assumed de facto control of the Province and declared that the movement would continue ’till the people of Bangladesh realize their emancipation.’
On March 2, the leaders of the NAP (Bhashani) and other nationalist elements in East Pakistan joined the movement and called for unity. It won’t be any exaggeration to say that it was probably the most successful non-cooperation movement in the 20th century. So successful was civil disobedience led by Bangabandhu Sk. Mujibur Rahman that Wali Khan, a NAP leader from the NWFP, reportedly observed, “Even [Mahatama] Gandhi would have marveled.” In the words of Raza, “Never has an opposition, let alone under Martial Law, asserted such total control within a state.” (Op. cit.)
The curfew, which had been re-imposed on March 3, was withdrawn the next day. Sk. Mujibur Rahman threatened that if the troops did not return to their barracks he would ask the Awami League volunteers to resist them.
On March 3, Yahya Khan invited the leaders of all the political parties to meet him in Dhaka a week later to discuss the situation and settle an early date for the National Assembly session. West Pakistani leaders accepted, but Sk. Mujibur Rahman described the invitation to sit in a meeting while people were being killed as ‘a cruel joke’—the more so ‘to sit with certain elements whose devious machinations are responsible for the deaths’. The invitation was made at ‘gunpoint’ and had to be declined, he declared.
On March 6, to somewhat diffuse the exploding situation in East Pakistan, President Yahya Khan summoned the Assembly session for March 25. In his speech, however, he laid the blame squarely on the Awami League. He concluded with these strong words: ‘I will not allow a handful of people to destroy the homeland of millions of innocent Pakistanis. It is the duty of the Pakistan Armed Forces to ensure the integrity, solidarity and security of Pakistan—a duty in which they have never failed.’ (The Pakistan Times, Rawalpindi, 7 March 1971)
East Pakistan’s Governor, Admiral Syed Mohammad Ahsan resigned on March 7 and President Yahya Khan lost a sober adviser, one whom the Awami League respected. He was opposed to any military solution and was replaced as Governor by Lt. Gen. Sahibzada Yakub, the Martial Law Administrator of East Pakistan, who lasted only a few days. Reportedly, he, too, was against a military solution for a constitutional crisis.
Yahya Khan’s firm stand was reinforced by the appointment of Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan as Governor of East Pakistan. Tikka Khan had earlier earned the reputation of ‘Butcher of Baluchistan’ and was expected to implement the hardline approach which, according to the President, Lt. Gen. Yakub had failed to carry out.
As hinted above, the non-cooperation movement led by Awami League (largely outlined in the 7 March 1971 Ramna rally) was so successful that the authority of the Pakistan government became limited to the military cantonments and government institutions in East Pakistan. The central government virtually lost its control in East Pakistan. [I recall that the next day, Mach 8, our cadet college was closed sine die and I had to return to Chittagong city to be with my parents.]
By the time Sk. Mujibur Rahman addressed the public meeting on 7 March 1971, emotions were running very high and reports of a unilateral declaration of independence gained ground, especially since, at the time, there were insufficient troops in East Pakistan to prevent it. However, despite the circumstances, Sk. Mujibur Rahman was not belligerent and announced that the Awami League would ‘consider’ attending the session on 25 March if the Government met four demands: the immediate withdrawal of Martial Law, the transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people, an inquiry into the army killings, and the return of the troops to their barracks. Countering Yahya Khan’s statement that the postponement had been ‘misunderstood’, he claimed it had been ‘effected solely in response to the machinations of a single party—constituting a minority of the total members—against the declared wishes of the majority party and also those of numerous West Pakistani members’. The PPP had obstructed the transfer of power and, he predicted, ‘military confrontation’ would follow ‘political confrontation’, because the majority would not submit to such minority dictation. He concluded: “Our struggle this time is a struggle for independence. Joy Bangla.” (The Pakistan Times, Lahore, 8 March 1971)
The Awami League issued ten directives which effectively gave them control of the entire provincial administration in East Pakistan, cutting it off from the West Wing.
Sporadic clashes between civilians and the security forces became commonplace in many parts of East Pakistan. Despite Bangabandhu’s fervent call not to attack anyone, clashes between Bengali and the Urdu-speaking Bihari (who had migrated to Pakistan from India during the 1947 Partition) communities also erupted in some parts of East Pakistan. Reportedly, some 300 Biharis were killed in rioting by mobs in Chittagong, esp. around the days leading up to March 25.
According to Raza, much killing and brutality had occurred in this early period of March. Citing David Loshak’s book – Pakistan Crisis (pub. William Heineman, London, 1971), he writes, “But, contrary to general belief, of an estimated 3000 killed, only 300 were victims of the army.” According to him, the Awami League had exaggerated the casualty figure that was publicized by the foreign press. Raza opines, “Despite provocation and hostility, the military authorities did not reveal the numbers of those supporting Pakistan who was killed by the Awami League, for fear of exacerbating-opinion in the West Wing and within the army itself.” (Op. cit.)
There is no doubt that many Urdu-speaking Biharis who were perceived as pro-Pakistan and anti-Bangladesh were killed by Bengali nationalist zealots in this early part of March. One of the survivors – Dr. Jawaid Ahsan, an ex-cadet who now lives in Atlanta – conferred to me that in places like Dinajpur (in northern Bangladesh bordering India) many Urdu-speaking Muslims were killed around March 13 when they were taken for killing under the pretext of being required for attending a peace-committee meeting.
In West Pakistan, Bhutto was blamed for the mess. He sent a telegram, drafted by his constitutional advisor Rafi Raza, to Sk. Mujib expressing readiness to visit Dhaka immediately ‘to devise a common solution to end the crisis’; and ended with the words, “Let not people say, nor history record, that we have failed them.” Sk. Mujib did not respond to that telegram.
Retired Air Marshall Asghar Khan, leader of a political party Tehrik-e-Istiqlal (lit. Movement for Solidarity Party), who was then in Dhaka, warned that only a few days remained to save the situation; mentally, the two Wings had already separated and the last link, through Sk. Mujibur Rahman was about to be broken. He urged the acceptance of Sk. Mujibur Rahman’s four preconditions. However, his words went unheeded as his recent electoral defeat made him politically irrelevant.
Meanwhile, the smaller West Wing parties resented the PPP being the sole spokesman for West Pakistan and decided to meet on March 13 to form a common front. Following the meeting, the group declared that Sk. Mujibur Rahman should form the government, ‘interim to the framing and promulgation of a new constitution’, before the session of the National Assembly on March 25. They recognized Sk. Mujib’s ‘firm commitment to the solidarity of Pakistan by putting in the present crisis four demands that were not in the least parochial or regional but exclusively based on a national approach.’ (The Pakistan Times, Lahore, 14 March 1971)
To diffuse the restive situation in East Pakistan, President Yahya Khan decided to visit Dhaka for talks with Sk. Mujibur Rahman and stopped on the way in Karachi to discuss the situation with Bhutto. No one else was present at this meeting and the precise nature of their talks remains unknown.
At a large PPP rally at Karachi on March 14, Bhutto urged that since the Awami League and the PPP were in the majority in each Wing, if power were to be transferred, it should be to both these parties. He was reported in the Urdu Press as saying, “Idhar ham, udhar tum (We here, you there).” The speech created a furor in the West Wing since it was interpreted to mean a demand for two Pakistans.
President Yahya Khan flew to Dhaka to hold talks with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in March and was later joined by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The ten days from March 16 to 25, 1971 witnessed discussions in Dhaka which were to prove fateful. Talks were held first between Yahya Khan and Sk. Mujib, and their respective negotiating teams; for the last five days, Bhutto, too, was involved.
The PPP team arrived in Dhaka, a bitterly hostile city, on March 21. Late that evening Yahya Khan briefed Bhutto on the meetings he had already held with Sk. Mujib, and outlined the proposals discussed between their advisers. If Bhutto’s memoir is to be trusted, the main features of the arrangement, to be implemented by Presidential Proclamation, were the immediate withdrawal of Martial Law and the transfer of power to the elected representatives in the five Provinces. The President would continue to run the Central Government with the assistance of advisers who would not be elected representatives. The National Assembly would be divided ab initio into two Committees representing each Wing, which would sit respectively in Dhaka and Islamabad to prepare ‘separate reports’ within a specified period to be submitted to an Assembly whose function would be restricted to discussing these proposals and devising ways for the two Wings to live together. Until the constitution had been framed, East Pakistan would have provincial autonomy on the basis of Six Points. The West Wing units would have powers under the 1962 Constitution and would settle their future autonomy, subject only to the President’s approval.
The President said Bhutto’s agreement was necessary for the proposal to be put into effect. Bhutto asked for time till the next day before endorsing the plan. The next day, Bhutto decided against the proposal. In the morning, the three leaders met together for the first and last time. Sk. Mujib asked Yahya Khan to approve the proposal. However, knowing Bhutto’s disapproval, Yahya Khan announced that, ‘In consultation with the leaders of both the Wings of Pakistan and with a view to facilitating the process of enlarging areas of agreement among’ the political parties, the President has decided to postpone the meeting of the National Assembly called on March 25.’ No new date was set for the session; this time the postponement sine die was what Mujibur Rahman had wanted.
Sk. Mujib was disappointed and when asked by newsmen whether the postponement meant progress, he replied, ‘You can see for yourself’. When asked Bhutto told the Press after leaving the President that he had no formula to solve the present crisis. He said that his team would study the proposal.
What actually transpired during those ten days is difficult to verify. What we surely know is that the negotiations ended with military action. It is widely believed that Yahya Khan ordered Tikka Khan, the newly appointed military commander of East Pakistan, to prepare for military action. So, as the political parleys continued, arms and military personnel were brought into various ports of East Pakistan, esp. the port city of Chittagong, for that planned operation.
Nevertheless, there was moment of high expectations when Sk. Mujibur Rahman told the Press, ‘Let us hope for the best and prepare for the worst.’ The prospects for a settlement brightened following Mujibur Rahman’s directive that the 23rd March, Pakistan National Day, should be observed as a holiday and not as the usual day of non-violent non-cooperation.
However, the situation changed significantly on March 23, when the new flag of Bangladesh was formally hoisted on all buildings in Dhaka and the recently created Bangladesh Militia paraded. Sk. Mujibur Rahman also raised the new flag at his residence. This action by the radicals within the student movement that wanted secession of East Pakistan as the new state of Bangladesh virtually gave the license that the Pakistani military planners were looking for to justify its massacre on the midnight of March 25. The PPP visitors felt as if they were on foreign soil.
That evening of March 23 in a meeting with Bhutto, some of the PPP members in Dhaka agreed that military action was necessary to deal with the East Pakistan crisis. However, Mustafa Khar and Raza warned that such an action would spell the end of Pakistan. (Raza, op. cit.)
The next morning, March 24, Bhutto met the President and Lt. Gen. Peerzada and told them a decision had to be made. Many of his Party leaders had gone back to Karachi that morning. Other political leaders from West Pakistan also left Dhaka shortly but Bhutto stayed back with a few of his advisors, including Raza.
By this time the Government had conveyed to Bhutto the proposals put forward by the Awami League leaders during the meetings between them on March 23 and 24. Instead of two Committees, the Awami League now demanded two ‘Constitutional Conventions’ to submit two constitutions in the National Assembly. The Assembly would meet only to tie up the two constitutions for a ‘Confederation of Pakistan’. At the end of these meetings, Tajuddin Ahmad, the Awami League General Secretary, informed the Press that they had given their ‘complete plan’, and ‘from our side there is no need of any further meeting’.
On the morning of March 25, when the PPP team met with the Yahya Khan’s advisors, they were provided with the Awami League proposals, which included amongst others:
- The Centre would only have, powers over defense and foreign affairs, excluding foreign trade and aid, for the ‘State of Bangladesh’. The Awami League insisted that Bangladesh would negotiate foreign loans directly, although the Government had suggested as a compromise that foreign affairs should include ‘policy aspects of foreign aid and foreign trade’.
- The State Bank at Dhaka should be re-designated as the Reserve Bank of Bangladesh, and placed under the Provincial legislature, while the State Bank of Pakistan would only issue currency notes and otherwise act as required by the Reserve Bank.
- The term ‘Confederation of Pakistan’ was used for the first time. The two Constituent Conventions would be sworn in separately to frame Constitutions for each Wing, and then would make the Constitution for the Confederation.
- The Awami League wanted Martial Law to be lifted and the appointment of Governors of each Province within seven days from the Proclamation. The President would have no control over a Governor after appointment.
- The President had to authenticate the Constitution within seven days of its presentation, after which it would be deemed authenticated.
- The President was to have no powers of interference in emergency.
According to Raza, it was a one-sided communication from the President’s office in which no views were exchanged from the PPP side. He opined, “However, in view of the military crackdown which took place that night, the purpose of the meeting was probably to associate the PPP with the Government’s planned action.” (Op. cit.)
That day, Awami League called for a strike on 27 March to protest against the heavy firing on the civilian population in Saidpur, Rangpur, and Joydebpur. President left Dhaka at 7 p.m. on March 25. Before leaving he gave the green signal for military action to start before the mid-night.
As can be seen, unwilling to transfer power to Sk. Mujib as demanded by Awami League – fearing a transfer of power would weaken or destroy the federation, or the fear to lose face by backing down in face of the non-cooperation movement, the Pakistani generals, most of which including Gul Hassan Khan were supportive of the PPP, finally decided on a military crackdown. Per directives of Sk. Mujib, most of the senior members of the Awami League fled while he was arrested at his Dhanmondi residence at 1:30 a.m. on March 26 and was taken to a cantonment school before flown into West Pakistan. Bhutto and his party members left Dhaka on March 26.
Before getting arrested, Sk. Mujib was able to send telegram messages about the army crackdown in Rajarbagh police barrack in Dhaka and other places asking people to fight back and declaring the independence of Bangladesh. The next day, I personally saw a cyclostyled copy of the declaration that was brought to my attention by a political worker.
The questions that beg answers are: why did the three parties – Yahya, Mujib, and Bhutto – fail to come to a common term? Did any or some of them have preconceived plans that did not allow the negotiations to reach an agreement? Was there any collusion between Bhutto and Yahya for the military solution? Why did Bhutto disapprove of the Sk. Mujibur Rahman’ s ‘two Committees’ proposal while he didn’t have a problem making that ‘idhar hum, udhar tum’ speech on March 14? Was Sk. Mujib duped by Yahya Khan? If the Awami League truly wanted an independent Bangladesh, why Bangabandhu did not declare such on the March 7 rally? While he advised his senior members to escape, why did he allow himself to be arrested and not lead the liberation war?
On his release on January 10, 1972, Sk. Mujibur Rahman declared he had been striving for a separate Bangladesh for many years, an aim which was shared by most of the top leadership of the Awami League. All this suggests that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman worked on a plan. His supporters also claim that he conducted all those negotiations with Yahya Khan and PPP hoping to realize the goal without any bloodshed in a gradual manner: through the mechanism of the national assembly. When that was not achievable, he sent the telegram urging armed struggle by his people before he was arrested. His supporters also surmise that had he tried to escape, a much bigger casualty could have occurred as a result of the house-to-house search to apprehend him, which he tried to avoid.
As noted by Raza in his book, Yahya Khan had decided on the military option as early as February 22, 1971. Why did he then engage in detailed discussions on the ‘two Committees’ arrangement during the ten days prior to the military crackdown on the night of March 25? His critics maintain that the talks were intended for three purposes: to gain time in order to build up the strength of the troops in East Pakistan; to demonstrate that he had tried the path of negotiation; and to involve the West Wing parties, particularly the PPP, in his decision.
As to the question of collusion between Yahya and Bhutto, there is little doubt that they did collude to try to uphold the interests of the West Wing and the army. They had a common goal, which was at variance with those of Sk. Mujib.
As far as Bhutto is concerned, Raza opines that he had no preconceived plan apart from the fact that he intended to stay on the same side as the military in confronting the Awami League. On the whole, he was reactive rather than proactive in his efforts to preserve what he termed a ‘united Pakistan’. Surely, he could have joined the National Assembly and make his case there objecting to the Awami League constitution, and the majority party would then have been ‘fully responsible for the results’. Instead, he refused to participate in an Awami League-led parliament, which he felt would make him irrelevant because of the majoritarian impulse of the winner party. Some of his senior party members felt that Sk. Mujib was a fascist and was, thus, more interested in a military solution than an honest political discourse with the Awami League towards finding a viable solution.
Bhutto was more interested in getting to the top, as he fondly assumed the role of Hamlet unto himself, even if that meant a broken Pakistan minus its east wing. He was warned by his advisors that if he failed to come to terms with Sk. Mujib may trigger the end of Pakistan. And yet, he ignored all such advice and relied on the military to do what ultimately dismembered the country. He obviously had to wait for four more months until April 14, 1972, to reach his cherished goals of wearing the four hats that he had craved for —President of Pakistan, Chief Martial Law Administrator, Chairman of the PPP and President of the Constituent Assembly. Little did he realize that his meteoritic rise would ultimately tumble like a rock! That momentous event came some seven years later on April 4, 1979, when he was hanged to death.
In the context of political development, it is worth noting that an identity crisis occurs when a community finds that what it had once indisputably accepted as the physical and psychological definitions of its collective self are no longer acceptable or operative in the same form, under new historic conditions, and need further explication. As far back as 1952, when they had to fight for recognition of Bengali as a national language, co-equal with Urdu, the East Pakistani Muslims have felt that they have an identity crisis vis-à-vis Pakistan. Their religious affiliation was not enough to claim an equitable share in the prosperity, let alone running of the country.
It is to be noted that the great majority of Muslims of British India supported the Pakistan Movement in the hope that Pakistan would bring prosperity to them, something that was impossible to dream in a highly bigoted and racist, let alone caste-ridden and Brahmin-dominated society, led by Hindu fascists that came to be identified as India. However, the Pakistan that was handed over to them on the night of August 14, 1947, was not only moth-eaten, thanks to Cyril Radcliffe, it soon came to be dominated by the military – all from the west wing of the new state – that had hitherto dutifully served the interest of the colonial master – the British Raj. Those British-trained military officers felt that they were more entitled to govern the nascent state than the politicians who had shed their sweat and blood against the colonial administration. And, when it came to the Bengali politicians from the eastern wing without whose sacrifice Pakistan would have only remained a dream and probably never a reality they seemed to have a serious loathing or dislike for. Thus, military coup became the new norm rather than exceptions soon after the death of its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
The concept of national unity involves the unification of disparate social, economic, ethnic and geographic elements into a single nation-state. This kind of national amalgamation implies both the capacity of a government to control and penetrate the territory under its jurisdiction, as well as a set of popular attitudes towards the nation generally described as loyalty, allegiance and a willingness to place national above local concerns. That unity at the national level simply never gelled in Pakistan. The relationship between the Centre and Provinces, that is the nature of Federalism, had plagued constitution-makers between 1950-56. The East Pakistanis became increasingly resentful of what they considered to be “colonialism” by the West, and Punjab in particular. The Armed Services and the bureaucracy, two formidable power centers, continued to be dominated by West Pakistanis till 1971, and this further alienated the East Pakistanis.
The people of East Pakistan felt second class and that perception – which I must reiterate was genuine and real – was exploited by the Awami League (formed in 1949) for regional autonomy. No wonder that the party with deep grass root support became so popular from Tekhnaf to Tetulia and from Sylhet to the Sundarbans in East Pakistan, as reflected in its sweeping victory in the 1970 election!
In my opinion, Sheikh Mujib and his party, the Awami League, were not against a united Pakistan, but they preferred a loose federation over the status quo that had turned them to be politically and economically impotent. The unpleasant experience of 1954 – when the popularly elected Jukto-Front (United Front) government from East Pakistan was dissolved by an unelected civil servant, the then Governor-General Ghulam Mohammed – had taught them to be suspicious of the bastions of power in the west wing that was unwilling to live permanently under an East wing majority. The Six Point Formula was, in essence, an East Pakistani answer to the domination by the West Pakistani-based bastions of the power.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Pakistan’s political history is the history of relative failure in achieving national integration. As I see it, Pakistan had failed to create the necessary ingredients that are required for a united nation-state since its birth. Processes of integration in a country where the two wings were separated not only by the geography of more than a thousand miles of hostile India but also culture were never institutionalized. Heavy reliance on religion by unelected, hypocritical and un-Islamic rulers to glue the two wings proved too short-sighted and suicidal!
In closing, the situation following the December 1970 elections demanded a degree of statesmanship, imagination, and courage which was not present in Pakistan. And all the three major leaders seemingly failed in that historic role, which culminated in the massacre and suffering of so many, ultimately weakening both the countries – new and old. Even the staunchest supporter of the Pakistan-cause must admit that the ‘Confederation’ proposal, which was considered treason at the time, might ultimately well have been the best for the unity of Pakistan. As wisely noted by Raza, the confederal solution would certainly have been preferable to civil war, defeat and the dismemberment of a country for which so many people had sacrificed so much since the first decade of the 20th century.
There is a lesson in this for future leaders: Ideological claims alone cannot hold a country together. Only through concrete measures that address people’s concerns can loyalty be earned and nationhood strengthened. Those aspiring to be in power cannot afford to have short memories or be oblivious of the lessons of history. People matter, the sincerity of intention and purpose matters and accountability surely matters.