09 November 2018

Backdrop of the 1971 War - Part III

Military Crackdown

On 25 March, Yahya and his aides quietly flew back to West Pakistan, followed by Bhutto a day later. As ominous clouds gathered over the horizon, it was clear that the time for politics was over.
 
The military had planned to conduct Operation ‘Searchlight’ starting at 0100 hrs on 26 March, by which time General Yahya would have safely landed in Karachi. Maj Gen Rao Farman Ali, the advisor on civil affairs, was put in charge of operations in Dacca and its environs, while Maj Gen Khadim Hussain Raja, General Officer Commanding (GOC) 14 Division, was given charge of the rest of East Pakistan.
 
Some of the more important tasks assigned to Farman’s subordinate, Brig Jehanzeb Arbab, (Commander 57 Brigade), included disarming of about 5,000 personnel of East Pakistan Rifles, disarming of 1,000 policemen at the city’s Police Lines, neutralisation of Awami League strong points inside Dacca University, and capture of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman (code-named ‘Big Bird’). Additionally, combing operations and show of force was to be conducted, wherever required.
 
The operation in Dacca was over by first light, with all objectives achieved. The ‘Big Bird’ was in the cage, and was whisked off to Karachi three days later. The casualty figures of the Bengalis, especially at the University, remain moot. While the Army sources estimated around one hundred deaths in the University area, Bengalis insisted that these ran in thousands.
 
The main task of securing the rest of East Pakistan with a single army division was not an easy one. The rebel strongholds in Chittagong, Kushtia and Pabna were particularly formidable and well-defended, and needed to be neutralised promptly before the rebels went on the rampage against the non-Bengalis.
 
Chittagong had just one battalion with 600-odd troops to fight off an estimated 5,000 rebels. Reinforcements from the brigade headquarters at Comilla, including an infantry battalion and a mortar battery, were blocked by the rebels after blowing up of a bridge enroute. All attempts to make headway towards Chittagong were thwarted, and eventually, contact was lost with the relief column.  The GOC himself undertook a search of the column from a helicopter, braving intermittent fire and several hits, but to no avail.  A detachment of commandos was also flown in from Dacca to search for the column, but soon it came under rebel cross fire and took  substantial casualties.[1] When the Officer Commanding of 24 FF fell in action, the Brigade Commander (53 Brigade) at Comilla, Brig Iqbal Shafi, himself took charge of the battalion, and was able to break the rebel resistance not long afterwards.  The way to Chittagong was cleared, but unfortunately, the troops were too late to prevent a horrid massacre of unarmed non-Bengali men, women and children at Ispahani Jute Mills near the edge of the city.
 
The important tasks in Chittagong included destruction of radio transmitters that had been spewing virulen anti-Pakistan messages, as well as the neutralisation of East Pakistan Rifles Headquarters and Reserve Police Lines. The latter two locations had a strong presence of trained saboteurs, and were reported to have been heavily stocked with weapons.
 
After two abortive and costly attempts[2] by a commando detachment to blow up the radio transmitters, PAF Sabres were called in to do the job, which was easily accomplished.
 
The East Pakistan Rifles Headquarters was attacked with a couple of tanks, heavy mortar battery, as well as unconventional fire support from the destroyer PNS Jahangir and two gunboats Rajshahi and Balaghat. After a raging battle that lasted for three hours, the target was destroyed and the rebels subdued.
 
The defenders at the Police Reserve Lines could not face Pak Army’s battalion-sized onslaught, and promptly vacated the area.
 
While the main operations in Chittagong were over in five days, mopping up continued into the first week of April.
 
In Kushtia, the task for the Army was to maintain security and establish own presence with the help of a company detached from its battalion headquarters at Jessore, 55 miles away. On 28 March, the local Superintendent of Police informed the Company Commander that an attack on the town by rebels was imminent. The attack commenced with heavy mortar firing early on the morning of 29 March. Troops of an East Bengal battalion joined by the Indian Border Security Force charged on the police armoury occupied by Pak Army troops. In the next few hours, twenty soldiers had fallen. The company headquarters, as well as posts at the telephone exchange and VHF station were also attacked by the Bengali-Indian combine, resulting in heavy casualties. Desperate requests for reinforcements were denied due to other commitments, and air support had to be called off due to poor visibility.
 
Kushtia was abandoned, and 65 surviving soldiers out of 150 were driven out in a convoy to Jessore. Enroute, a deadly ambush cut down all but nine soldiers who managed to escape, only to be rounded up and subjected to a barbaric end. The ill-prepared company had been virtually wiped out, in what was the worst disaster faced by the Pakistan Army during Operation ‘Searchlight’.
 
In Pabna, the task was not much different from the one at Kushtia, being mostly show of military presence in the area, by a lightly armed company of troops. Some important vulnerable points like the power house and the telephone exchange were also to be defended against the rebels.  A costly mistake was made in wrongly assessing the strength of the rebels in the area. This realisation came too late when the rebels carried out a surprise raid on the telephone exchange, in which 85 troops were martyred. The remnants were evacuated by a relief party from Rajshahi, but were met with heavy resistance as they fought their way out. The column reached Rajshahi with just 18 survivors; 112 had been martyred in the operation.
 
Operation ‘Searchlight’ was deemed to have helped achieve full control over much of the province, by the end of April. While the Bengalis claimed that their casualties ran in hundreds of thousands in less than a month, Pakistan Army sources insist that rebel deaths did not exceed four figures. India had good reason to inflate the numbers to paint Pakistan Army in bad light in the eyes of the international community, an exercise in which she succeeded resoundingly. Expulsion of foreign press prior to the operation did not help matters either, and it was only too pleased to parrot India’s line on the subject.
Full-blown Insurgency
While Operation ‘Searchlight’ was underway, two more Army divisions (9 and 16 Divisions), as well as additional paramilitary forces, were flown in from West Pakistan. These forces were lightly armed, and their heavy equipment was left behind.  A new Commander of Eastern Command, Lt Gen A A K ‘Tiger’ Niazi was also posted in, and he had three new GOCs of the three divisions for conducting counter-insurgency operations.
 
The Indian government had, meanwhile, declared its full support to the rebels, having perceived a distinct possibility of Pakistan’s breakup.   The Director of Indian Institute of Strategic Studies, Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam, gave heft to that perception when he brazenly suggested at a symposium, to destroy Pakistan: “What India must realise is the fact that the breakup of Pakistan is in our interest, and opportunity the like of which will never come again.”[3] He called it a ‘chance of a century’ to destroy India’s enemy number one.
 
India started a crash programme of military preparations, including reorganisation and re-equipment. On the diplomatic front, she went all out in creating a favourable world opinion, as well as getting erstwhile Soviet Union’s commitment to help in the impending military action.[4]  The presence of Bengali refugees and their plight was also exploited advantageously.
 
The most consequential action by India was the formation of an organised, well-trained and well-equipped rebel force, to thwart Pak Army’s efforts in fighting the insurgency. The Mukti Bahini (freedom fighters) force was cobbled up with Bengali defectors from the army and para-military forces, students and able-bodied volunteers. Their task, as recalled in India’s Second Liberation by Pran Chopra, was: “Deployment in their own native land with a view to initially immobilizing and tying down the Pakistan military forces for protective tasks in Bengal, subsequently by gradual escalation of guerrilla operations, to sap and corrode the morale of the Pakistan Forces in the eastern sector, and finally to avail the cadres as ancillaries to the Eastern Field Force in the event of Pakistan initiating hostilities against us.”[5]

With a constantly growing number of training camps in India, as many as 100,000 Mukti Bahini had cycled through training courses by end of November. 300 frogmen had also been trained by India to undertake sabotage operations against shipping and riverine craft.

Pak Army had a total of 45,000 troops, including 11,000 paramilitary forces and police.[6] It also had additional support of about 50,000 Urdu-speaking Biharis and some sympathetic Bengalis under the support of an umbrella organisation called Razakars (volunteers). While the Razakars had been fired by patriotic fervour, they did not have proper training to transform their zeal into anything worthwhile. They could hardly conduct operations independent of Pak Army.
 
Pak Army earnestly started active counter-insurgency operations in April. The main focus was on maintaining occupation of border posts, and controlling major towns. Rebels followed hit-and-run tactics, and could not be countered as they disappeared before the Pak Army arrived on the scene.  This modus operandi of the Mukti Bahini continued incessantly for many months. With time – and ceaseless Indian support – their methods became more   well-planned, and the rebels became more audacious in their attacks.  Bridges, railway lines and electric power stations were the preferred targets. For the Pak Army, fighting an insurgency spread over more than 55,000 square miles was a tall order.  Besides, being involved in a prolonged insurgency without any relief resulted in indifference and apathy setting in.
 
The writing on the wall was clear: the population of East Pakistan was not going to stop short of an independent Bangla Desh, as the West Pakistani power brokers had nothing to offer that could meet their aspirations. Retracting at this stage, when too much blood had been spilt, would have been seen by the Bengalis as an insult to their dignity.  Sadly, the time for reconciliation was past.
 
General Yahya seemed completely afflicted by inaction and inertia over the nine months spanned by the insurgency. His efforts at some sort of reconciliation were confined to superficial measures, including replacement of Lt Gen Tikka Khan with a civilian Governor, to assuage the feelings of the Bengalis who saw Tikka as a tyrant.    A former dentist, trade union leader, and elderly politician, Dr A M Malik was sworn in on 3 September.  A day later, general amnesty for ‘miscreants’ was announced, but there was no mention of the release of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, which made it appear meaningless to the Bengalis. Yahya’s actions were, decidedly, too little, too late.
A Chance of a Century for India
While preparing for a military intervention in East Pakistan, India continued with shrewd diplomatic efforts in parallel. Notably, she signed the euphemistically dubbed Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation on 9 August 1971. Her diplomatic offensive centred around the ‘massive humanitarian problem’ of refugees who had fled to India because of the civil war in East Pakistan. It also helped assuage any apprehensions of a possible wider conflict, especially with regard to US and China, whose beleaguered ally, Pakistan, could have clamoured for help.  In any case, the US was unwilling, and China unable, to do much to avoid a conflagration.
 
The Indian military, in the meantime, found enough time to prepare for war on two fronts viz, West Pakistan as well as East Pakistan, the latter being considered as the main theatre. Equipment and manpower shortfalls were speedily addressed, and war plans adequately reviewed.
 
War preparations on the Pakistani side were seriously constrained by shortfalls in the Army’s fighting formations. The move of two infantry divisions from West Pakistan was clearly a short-term response to the deteriorating situation in East Pakistan; it gravely altered the balance of forces in the West, the main theater of war.  Any operational reverses that might occur were to be redressed by denuding the strategic reserves. Unfortunately, this meant that the very foundations of a Pakistani military response had been utterly weakened.
 
While the insurgency within East Pakistan continued without let, India started artillery shelling on the border outposts in late June. This activity increased in the following months, with as many as 2,000 rounds falling daily.[7]  On the one hand, it served the objective of controlled escalation by India, while on the other, it helped the Mukti Bahini in occupying many salients and enclaves, as these became indefensible under constant fire. By the time of General Yahya’s address to the nation on 12 October, in which he declared that every inch of the sacred soil of Pakistan would be defended, 3,000 square miles of  border area had already gone under Indian control.
 
India had carefully assessed that Pak Army troops in East Pakistan were tired of fighting an insurgency for over eight months, and their morale was not at its best.  Indian Army had the numbers to overwhelm Pak Army troops three times over, and had adequate mobility and logistics support to make a fast run for Dacca. In West Pakistan, India enjoyed numerical superiority, especially in the Desert Sector where it was overpowering. Her defences were strong in all sectors, and she was confident of stopping any Pakistani foray, were Pakistan to attempt capture of vital territory as a sop for the loss of East Pakistan.
 
As for the Pakistan Air Force, India saw it mostly in a supporting role for Pak Army, and if the latter’s design could be stymied through deft planning, the aerial battlefront was not seen as a major threat to her designs.
 
As war clouds appeared over the  sub-continent, India found it opportune to act on Subrahmanyam’s advice to avail the chance of a century.  Sadly, at this stage, there was hardly a way out of the morass that Pakistan found itself in but to fight, however best as was possible.




[1] 16 commandos were martyred in this action.
[2] 13 commandos were martyred in this action.
[3] The symposium was organised by the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi. Subrahymanyam’s speech was reported by The Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 1 April 1971.
[4] The Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation was signed on 9 August 1971.
[5] Pakistan Cut to Size, Manekar, D R, Delhi; page 133.
[6] This figure is quoted by Lt Gen Niazi in his book, The Betrayal of East Pakistan, Chapter 14, page 237.
[7] Witness to Surrender,  Salik, Siddiq; Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1977, page 116.
 

Backdrop of the 1971 War - Part II

A Reactionary Six-Point Programme
 
The Awami League’s Six Point election manifesto was obsessively fixated with devolution of powers from the federation to the provinces, to an unprecedented extent. The federal subjects included only foreign affairs and defence. Two mutually convertible currencies, or as an alternative, a single currency subject to establishment of separate regional Federal Reserve Banks for the two wings of the country were proposed to be established, ‘to prevent transfer of resources and flight of capital from one region to the other.’ Fiscal policy was to be the responsibility of the federating units, which would provide the requisite revenue resources to the federal government according to a laid down formula. More seditious was the proviso for separate accounts of foreign exchange earnings of each of the federating units, which were to be maintained under control of their respective governments. This stipulation entailed sanctioning the federating units to independently negotiate foreign trade and assistance with other countries. Finally, the government of each of the federating units was to be empowered to maintain a militia or para-military force for ‘effective contribution towards national security.’
 
A latent problem of the Six-Point Programme was that it had unintended consequences for the federating units in the western wing.[1]  It implied, for instance that all four federating units (provinces) in the western wing along with the eastern wing could chart out their own fiscal policy, and could conduct foreign trade and negotiate financial assistance from international donors. There was also the ripe possibility of each of the federating units of the western wing demanding its own Federal Reserve Bank, which would have virtually amounted to independence.
 
A cursory glance at the Six-Point Programme indicates that the cause of disagreement was essentially the purported flight of capital from East Pakistan to West Pakistan.  Most of the points revolved around safeguarding East Pakistan’s share of export revenues. It was also clear that a maximalist position had been adopted by the Awami League, which stemmed from absolute confidence that it had the support of the masses, and could carry the programme through without any hitch. Relenting on the extreme position was foreseen only if the showing at elections was not as expected, and some compromises had to be made.
 
Mired in multiple problems and responsibilities, President Yahya paid little heed to the consequences of the Six-Point Programme on Pakistan’s unity.  On the face of it, the Legal Framework Order[2] (LFO) that circumscribed the 1970 elections process accepted the Six-Point Programme as reasonable and legitimate.  On the other hand, it was the LFO, which irked Mujib sorely, particularly a clause that vested powers of authentication of the future Constitution with the President.  It implied that Mujib would not have a free hand to implement his Six-Point Programme, even if he obtained a majority in the National Assembly.  Apparently, Yahya felt self-assured because he could exercise his powers to veto the Constitution Bill if the need arose.  In any case, Yahya trusted his intelligence agencies’ prognosis of a split verdict, and thought that the stage of a veto may not be reached.  In case of a split electoral verdict, Yahya was sure that the points of conflict in Awami League’s radical programme could be resolved through coercive diplomacy when the time came for transfer of power.  If Yahya had foreseen that Awami League could sweep the elections, his plan of action for transfer of power would certainly have been less cavalier. Blaming the Six-Point Programme as subversive after having accepted it as a bonafide election manifesto just did not make sense. Disapproving a Constitution Bill passed by the elected representatives on grounds that its Six Points were violative of national integrity was a poor back-up plan, and an extremely provocative one at that.  Mujib is claimed to have confided to his senior colleagues, “My aim is to establish Bangla Desh.[3] I shall tear LFO into pieces as soon as the elections are over. Who could challenge me once the elections are over.”[4]
Elections and the Ensuing Impasse
Elections to the National Assembly were held on 7 December 1970, and to the Provincial Assemblies ten days later.  Overall voter turnout was fairly high, with 58% of the registered voters casting their votes in the National Assembly elections. The turnout was considerably higher in the West Pakistani provinces – 65%, compared to East Pakistan with 55%.
 
Of the 300 seats contested in the National Assembly, Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman’s Awami League won 160 (all in East Pakistan), while Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won 81 (all in the West Pakistani provinces of Punjab and Sindh).  The rest of the 59 seats were won by minor parties and independent candidates without any party affiliation. Clearly, Mujib had swept the elections, and was eager to take the chair of the Prime Minister.
 
Yahya and his coterie, as well as many West Pakistani politicians, were wary of a government led by the Awami League, whose radical programme was interpreted as thinly veiled separatism. There was also the anxiety about Awami League allying with the smaller parties and independents to get a two-thirds majority, and bulldozing its Six Point Programme in the National Assembly with full constitutional cover. Two days after the elections, Mujib unequivocally declared, “The election, for the people of Bangla Desh, was above all a referendum on the vital issue of full regional autonomy on the basis of Six Points……. therefore a Constitution securing full regional autonomy on the basis of Six Points formula has to be framed and implemented in all respects.”[5]
 
It was feared that the Awami League could even take the extreme step of an outright declaration of independence in the National Assembly, if it felt that the military was creating hurdles in its agenda. Misgivings also resurfaced regarding Mujib’s past involvement (1968) in the Agartala Conspiracy case in which he, along with 34 military officers, was accused of colluding with Indian agents in a scheme to divide Pakistan. A trial for sedition could, however, not go through due to large-scale protests and strikes in East Pakistan, and the charges were eventually dropped as a political expedient.
 
As if to fortify its position in the face of reservations in West Pakistan, the Awami League held a rally in Dacca on 3 January, where all its recently elected members of the National and Provincial Assemblies took an oath of allegiance to the Six Points. The move clearly signalled that there was no possibility of bargaining, and the Six Points were there to stay, unaltered.
 
Faced with an utterly convoluted predicament, Yahya decided to visit Dacca on 12 January for parleys with Mujib and his team, “to come to a thorough understanding of the Six Points.” Vice Admiral S M Ahsan, the Governor of East Pakistan, who was in attendance, ruefully reminisced later that it was too late to attempt a ‘thorough understanding’ of the Awami League programme. The discussions, unsurprisingly, were frustrating for Yahya, as Mujib repeatedly insisted on each point by proclaiming that, “There is nothing objectionable in it. What’s wrong with it? It is so simple.”[6]  Professor G W Chaudhry, the Minister of Communications who accompanied Yahya to Dacca, thought that Yahya was bitter and frustrated by Mujib’s betrayal. “Mujib has let me down. Those who warned me against him were right. I was wrong in trusting this person,” said Yahya, according to Chaudhry.
 
A completely flustered Yahya sought counsel from Bhutto at the latter’s family residence in Larkana, to which he flew on 17 January.  What transpired at Al Murtaza is not exactly known, but it appears that Bhutto was able to convince Yahya about the consequences of handing over power to Mujib, in view of the latter’s unrepresentative electoral standing in West Pakistan.  Bhutto and Yahya also deliberated upon the seditious nature of Awami League’s manifesto, whose actualisation was now imminent. “We discussed with the President the implications of the Six Points and expressed our serious misgivings about them.”[7]  Whatever went on at Larkana during three days of parleys (interspersed with duck shoots), Yahya emerged satisfied after having enlisted his host’s support. 
 
Backed by Yahya’s brief and confident of his own astuteness, Bhutto decided to visit Dacca on 27 January. Though piqued by the goings-on between Yahya and Bhutto in Larkana, Awami League was still amenable to the latter’s visit.  It was interested in Bhutto’s cooperation only to the extent of rendering the President’s veto on the Constitution Bill ineffective. There was to be no compromise on the Six Points by Awami League.  Bhutto, on the other hand, was seeking a power-sharing formula on the grounds that his Pakistan People’s Party had not received any mandate on the Six Point Programme, and public opinion was against it in West Pakistan. This stance was obviously unacceptable to Mujib, who was not seeking any coalition partners. With the situation at a total impasse, Bhutto returned from Dacca in a recalcitrant mood.
 
Under the rapidly deteriorating political situation, Yahya thought it wise not to delay the announcement of the National Assembly session any further. After all, the veto power vested in the President by the LFO was an adequate safeguard against the possibility of Awami League bulldozing the Six Points through the National Assembly.  Yahya had another long discussion with Bhutto on 11 February, but without arriving at any agreement.  He decided to go ahead with the logical next step following elections, and on 13 February, it was announced that the National Assembly would meet at Dacca on 3 March. Two days later, Bhutto declared at a press conference in Peshawar about his party’s inability to attend the inaugural session of the National Assembly, “in the absence of an understanding, compromise or adjustment of the Six Points.” He even threatened “a revolution from Khyber to Karachi if the People’s Party were left out.”[8]
 
With people in East Pakistan already seething with resentment at the delay in power transfer, and Bhutto outrightly threatening an uprising in West Pakistan if he did not have his way, matters had come to a head for Yahya.  He once again wore his military hat, dismissed the civilian cabinet, and reverted to Martial Law in its classic form.
 
Vice Admiral S M Ahsan and Lt Gen Sahibzada Yaqub, the Martial Law Administrator in East Pakistan, were summoned by General Yahya to Rawalpindi for a conference on 22 February. Both were told that Mujib would be given one more opportunity to prove his good intentions. This implied a political dialogue with Mujib, failing which, military plans would be operationalised to regain full control in the disorder that was bound to ensue.
 
While Lt Gen Yaqub finalised the military plans for internal security, Vice Admiral Ahsan held a round of talks with Mujib. The only outcome of the talks was that Mujib agreed not to insist on application of the Six Points to West Pakistan, but there would be no change to their application to East Pakistan.  Nonetheless, it seemed that the Awami League got the drift of military preparations, and was starting to show some flexibility.   Lt Gen Yaqub had, in the meantime, sent a telegram to Yahya, urging him to visit Dacca immediately in the hope of averting a major crisis that he saw looming.
 
Disregarding Lt Gen Yaqub’s telegram, Yahya announced on 28 February a sine die postponement of the National Assembly session, which was originally planned for 3 March.  This was done ‘to allow more time to the political parties to work out an agreement on the draft Constitution outside the Assembly.’  To the Awami League, this act was tantamount to repudiating the popular mandate. Yahya had overlooked the fact that Mujib had immense street power in East Pakistan; more ominously, he had full support of India, which would not let go the distinct possibility of Pakistan’s break-up. Regrettably, Yahya had played into India’s hands with his ill-considered announcement, and the die had been cast.
 
Postponement of the National Assembly session resulted in immediate protests, and the start of a civil disobedience movement in East Pakistan.  Radio Pakistan Dacca was taken over by Awami League miscreants and calls for protests were broadcast, triggering a complete shutdown in major cities. Mujib sternly demanded an immediate transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people of Pakistan. Sensing violence, and belatedly heeding to some sane advice, a wavering Yahya made another announcement on 6 March for the inaugural session of the National Assembly to start on 25 March. 
 
Bhutto, who had no chance of forming even a coalition government at the Centre, fast-tracked his machinations in the wake of Yahya’s latest announcement. He cleverly floated the idea that, “If power is to be transferred to the people before a constitutional settlement, then it is only fair that in East Pakistan it should go to the Awami League, and in the West to the Pakistan People’s Party, because while the former is the majority party in that wing, we have been returned by the people of this side.” The daily Azad of 15 March 1971 gave a twist to Bhutto’s speech with a startling headline that screamed,udhar tum, idhar hum’ (you there, we here).  Though the wording of the headline has been incorrectly attributed to Bhutto ever since, a confederal structure, had, in effect, been proposed by him. Bhutto’s ambition and impatience came through clearly from his statement.  His formula overlooked the fact that the Legal Framework Order had no stipulation for a political party having to win seats in other provinces, or both the wings, to be able to form a government at the Centre. Mujib’s disparaging of any such belated ploys was, thus, neither surprising, nor unfounded.
 
There were a few last-minute amendments to the Six Points suggested by the Awami League Executive Committee, which were conveyed to Lt Gen Yaqub. The amendments called for a token ratification of some of the contentious provincial subjects by the Central Government before implementation. These amendments were expected to be discussed with General Yahya, if he decided to visit Dacca, which unfortunately, he delayed until it was too late.
 
Civil Disobedience and Violence
 
The earlier decision to postpone the National Assembly session scheduled for 3 March had been met with extreme derision and widespread anger in East Pakistan.  Hartals (general strikes) all over the province were ordered by the Awami League, and Mujib made it clear that the postponement decision would not go unchallenged. Behind the scenes, though, he again pleaded with the Governor, Vice Admiral Ahsan, for a fresh date for the assembly session.  Mujib’s request was passed on to the Army Chief of Staff (COS), General Hamid, but instead, the top brass took a thoughtless decision to sack the Governor, and Lt Gen Yaqub was asked to take over that office also, on 1 March.
 
Press censorship was imposed, followed by a curfew in Dacca. Mujib reacted by closing all doors on further negotiations, and launched what he termed a ‘non-violent non-cooperation’ movement. The Bengali staff of PIA was the first to respond by refusing to handle flights, which brought troop reinforcements from Karachi to Dacca. Charged crowds attacked the Government House in which six people were killed in clashes with troops on guard duties.  On 2 March, Mujib issued a statement calling on “all sections of the society, including government servants to rise against the unlawful government and recognise peoples’ representatives as the only legitimate authority.” Lt Gen Yaqub talked to Mujib on telephone asking him to withdraw the statement, but a hostile Mujib outrightly refused to oblige. The law and order situation continued to worsen. Reports of casualties poured in from all parts of the East Pakistan, with non-Bengalis suffering the worst at the hands of rampaging mobs.
 
President Yahya initially maintained a nonchalant attitude in the face of constant pleading by Lt Gen Yaqub for some decision, as the situation deteriorated rapidly. Yahya finally decided to call a meeting of all politicians in Dacca on 10 March, but Mujib reacted furiously by refusing any more ‘round-table conferences.’ Yahya spoke to Mujib on telephone, and tried to talk him out of his obduracy. The result of the conversation became clear only when Yahya called Lt Gen Yaqub on the night of 4 March, and informed him that the planned visit to Dacca had been called off.  An exasperated Lt Gen Yaqub immediately called the President’s Principal Staff Officer (PSO), Lt Gen Peerzada, in Rawalpindi, and told him that he would be sending in his resignation the following day.  Before the resignation reached the president, Lt Gen Tikka Khan, the Martial Law Administrator of Punjab and Commander IV Corps, had been already been assigned to replace Lt Gen Yaqub as a three-hatted Commander of Eastern Command, Martial Law Administrator, and Governor East Pakistan.
 
The ‘non-violent’ movement that Mujib had promised was getting more and more violent. A particularly bloody day-long battle on 3 March between the Awami League terrorists and unarmed non-Bengalis in Pahartali, near Chittagong, resulted in 102 deaths.  In Dacca, no one felt secure.  Most of the well-off non-Bengalis had sold off their household effects for a pittance, and purchased tickets to fly off to Karachi. The poorer ones went into hiding or sought refuge in the cantonment areas that were relatively safe.
 
On 6 March, the Awami League went into session to take a final decision on the unilateral declaration of independence of Bangladesh.  Getting wind of what might follow, President Yahya called Mujib, advising him not to take a hasty decision, and assured him of honouring his (Mujib’s) aspirations and commitments to the people. Yahya also promised to visit Dacca soon. The declaration of independence was perhaps averted as a result of the timely call, much to the satisfaction of the Martial Law Headquarters in Dacca. The same day Yahya announced that the National Assembly would meet on 25 March. Mujib responded to the announcement with four preconditions for attending the session: 1) Lifting of Martial Law 2) Return of Army to the barracks 3) Transfer of power to the people’s representatives 4) A judicial inquiry into the killing of Bengali people.
 
General Yahya decided to make one last attempt at finding a political solution to the deadlock, and flew to Dacca on 15 March. Soon after arrival, he asked his military commanders for a situation report. At the end of the briefing, Yahya muttered, “Don’t worry. I will line up Mujib tomorrow … will give him a bit of my mind. Then if he doesn’t behave, I’ll know the answer.” While the Generals in attendance were dumbstruck, the PAF’s Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Air Cdre ‘Mitty’ Masud sought permission to say something. After Yahya nodded a go-ahead, Mitty opened up, “Sir, the situation is very delicate. It is essentially a political issue and needs to be resolved politically, otherwise thousands of innocent men, women and children will perish.” Nodding his head in fatherly fashion, Yahya replied, “Mitty, I know it … I know it.” A few days later, the highly decorated 1965 War hero, Air Cdre M Z Masud was relieved of his duties.
No Way Out
After a rather cold informal meeting the following day, it was evident that the time for accommodation of any sort between Yahya and Mujib had passed. Yahya was smug with his hold on absolute power, while Mujib too seemed to exude complete control due to the massive mandate of the people of East Pakistan.
 
During the formal talks on 17 and 18 March, neither side was willing to compromise, which came as no surprise. The talks failed miserably, with Yahya and Mujib emerging dejected and irate over the fiasco. The Awami League had insisted that Martial Law be lifted and power transferred immediately to Awami League, while two independent committees of the National Assembly chalked out ways to promulgate a new Constitution agreeable to both the wings. Yahya agreed to the Awami League proposal on condition that Bhutto had no objection to it.  This, despite the grave threat to Yahya’s regime as it would lose legal sanction with the removal of martial law. As for Bhutto, he was averse to any arrangement that saw him out of power, but, so as not to be seen as a spoiler, he agreed to visit Dacca nonetheless.
 
On arrival in Dacca on 21 March, Bhutto was briefed by Yahya about Awami League’s proposal for power transfer. Bhutto reacted by drawing Yahya’s attention to the impropriety of approving the scheme without full knowledge of the people. He was of the opinion that “two or more political leaders could not ignore the existence of the entire Assembly vested with constitutional and legislative power.” He also told Yahya that he saw ‘seeds of two Pakistans’ in the Awami League’s proposal.
 
Behind the scenes, an apprehensive Yahya had conveyed to Lt Gen Tikka to ‘be ready’, implying plans and preparations for military action in case the political talks failed.
 
23 March, regularly celebrated countrywide as the Pakistan Resolution Day, saw tumultuous rioting all over East Pakistan. Pakistani flags were burnt and replaced with those of Bangla Desh, while Quaid-e-Azam’s portraits in offices were replaced with those of Mujib-ur-Rahman. Joi Bangla (Long live Bangla Desh) slogans could be heard everywhere. It was quite clear that the writ of Martial Law was weak, and a parallel government, supported by the people, was in control in East Pakistan.
 
The following day, Awami League, proposed the formation of two Constitution Conventions to draw up separate Constitutions for East and West Pakistan. The National Assembly was to subsequently assimilate these Constitutions into a framework for the ‘Confederation of Pakistan.’ Yahya and Bhutto met soon after the announcement, and concluded that the Awami League had shifted radically from its demand of maximum provincial autonomy, to the outright disintegration of Pakistan. The hint of a tenuous link between the two wings in the Awami League offer was seen by Bhutto as a hindrance to his quest for absolute power – a departure from his earlier position of sharing power under the so-called udhar tum, idhar hum formula, which was no less a confederal arrangement. Yahya, on the other hand saw it as the first step towards secession under his watch, and may have apprehended a severe reaction within the Army, as well as the masses in West Pakistan. Matters had come to such a pass, that use of force to keep the country united seemed to be the only remaining option for Yahya.

[Read Part III here.]
 


[1] The four provinces, the federally administered tribal areas, and 10 of the 13 princely states of the western wing were merged into a single province of West Pakistan on 30 September 1955, although an official announcement had been made a year earlier. This arrangement, called the One Unit, lasted till it was rescinded by President Yahya Khan on 1 July 1970.
[2] The Legal Framework Order was announced by President Yahya on 31 March 1970. It laid down the principles of the future constitution to guarantee the ‘inviolability of national integrity’ and the ‘Islamic character of the Republic’.
[3] The name Bangla Desh was originally written as two words, a convention that was discontinued after independence. The two-worded nomenclature is referred to as such because of mention in various books, before the name Bangladesh was adopted.
[4] This statement is said to have been secretly recorded on tape by intelligence agents, and was played to President Yahya, as claimed in Last Days of United Pakistan, G W Chaudhry; Hurst and Company, London, page 98. The statement has also been quoted in Witness to Surrender by Siddiq Salik.
[5] The Pakistan Observer, Dacca, 10 December 1970.
[6] Quote attributed to Vice Admiral Ahsan, Governor of East Pakistan, by Siddiq Salik in Witness to Surrender, page 33.
[7] The Great Tragedy, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, 1971, page 20.
[8] The Dawn, Karachi, 16 February 1971.