09 November 2018

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.

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