How the East was lost in 1971

It is surprising how little people know about the reasons for the crisis which led to civil war and eventually a disastrous war with India in 1971

2016-12-16T13:17:59+05:00 Aamir Butt

Today, 16th of December, marks the 45th anniversary of the day when Pakistan’s Eastern Command surrendered to the Indian army thus ending the civil war in East Pakistan and creating the state of Bangladesh. While a day of jubilation for people of Bangladesh it is a black day for the Federation of Pakistan and can be considered as the lowest point in its history.

It is surprising how little people know about the reasons for the crisis which led to civil war and eventually a disastrous war with India. The common version of events is like this, ‘’General Yahya held free and fair elections in which Mujib-ur-Rehman’s Awami league won. However Bhutto did not let Mujib become the Prime Minister which led to agitation in East Pakistan . The Pakistan army urged on by Bhutto committed atrocities against Bengalis and then India attacked and dismembered Pakistan by force.’’ While this narrative is not totally false it has so many holes in it that it is of no value to any serious unbiased person interested in the events. Let me try to explain as briefly as possible what actually took place.

It is not easy to find a starting point for the crisis, some may like to start it when MA Jinnah declared in Dhaka during pro-Bengla protests that Urdu and only Urdu will be the language of Pakistan, while others would chose the imposition of the first Martial law by Ayub to prevent Bengali leaders from playing a leading role in running of Pakistan and to be honest these events and others played a role but at the end the separation of East Pakistan was the result of a political and constitutional crisis which started on 25th of March 1969 when General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan imposed the second martial law. Why he needed to do this no one has been able to explain. By his own claims he did it to save the country and in his inaugural address he promised to return the power to civilian rule as soon as the conditions are favourable for this. He promised that he has no political ambitions and would like to return to barracks as soon as possible. Well, if that was true then one wonders why there was no time table to lift the martial law from the beginning. Even General Zia came in promising to go in 90 days; of course he stayed 11 years, but for Yahya who did not even have a time in mind, one can only guess that he wanted to stay for a long time.

It is well known that the army restored law and order within a few weeks. However, Agha Jani did not announce any timetable for return to civilian rule till November 1969, eight months later. And then he set the date of election as 5th of October 1970, after another 11 months!

Keep in mind that from the day he imposed the martial law Yahya held total power and was not answerable anyone, civil or military, for his decisions.

Anyway, as they say better late than never; and we can say that eventually the General did hold free and fair elections, even though he delayed them by another two months on pretext of a cyclone much to the annoyance of Bengali leaders who said that Bengalis were quite used to cyclones.

 

While the elections of 1970 were held on one man one vote basis, to understand why things went so wrong we need to be aware of the extent of polarization between the two wings of Pakistan and certain legislations put in by Yahya which ensured that there will be a political crisis after the elections.

The extent of gulf between leaders of East and West Pakistan, which can also be taken as between people of the two wings, can be assessed from Mujib’s six points. These demands by a coalition of Bengali nationalist parties were made in 1966 and were:

1. The Constitution should provide for a Federation of Pakistan in its true sense based on the Lahore Resolution, and the parliamentary form of government with supremacy of a Legislature directly elected on the basis of universal adult franchise.

2. The federal government should deal with only two subjects: Defence and Foreign Affairs, and all other residual subjects should be vested in the federating states.

3. Two separate, but freely convertible currencies for two wings should be introduced; or if this is not feasible, there should be one currency for the whole country, but effective constitutional provisions should be introduced to stop the flight of capital from East to West Pakistan. Furthermore, a separate Banking Reserve should be established and separate fiscal and monetary policy be adopted for East Pakistan .

4. The power of taxation and revenue collection should be vested in the federating units and the federal centre would have no such power. The federation would be entitled to a share in the state taxes to meet its expenditures.

5. There should be two separate accounts for the foreign exchange earnings of the two wings; the foreign exchange requirements of the federal government should be met by the two wings equally or in a ratio to be fixed; indigenous products should move free of duty between the two wings, and the constitution should empower the units to establish trade links with foreign countries.

6. East Pakistan should have a separate military or paramilitary force, and Navy headquarters should be in East Pakistan .

By the time political activities started in the run-up to 1970 elections these 6 points had become the manifesto of Mujib’s Awami League. Strangely no one at that time did any analysis of what these demands meant and even today while some people repeatedly mention certain rhetoric statements by one politician they are totally ignorant about the significance of these points.

It is quite clear that the above presented a significant departure in the relationship between Eastern and Western wings of Pakistan. Point no 4 deprives the central government from any power of taxation and makes it dependent on hand outs from the federating units to meet its obligations. Now where on earth does such arrangement exist in the world?

Point no 5 allows the federation units to establish trade links with foreign countries independently, even fully sovereign states of European Union do not enjoy such privileges.

It can be clearly said that to the most pessimistic observer the 6 points smelled of secession while to the most optimistic they were a demand to change Pakistan from a federation to a confederation with a powerless centre. Now even the post pro-Bengali leaders or people of Pakistan with any nationalism would not have agreed to such demands let alone Pakistan army whose budget would have become something the provinces would decide.

Few people have heard of Legal Framework Order (LFO). Yahya was advised that elections and subsequent transfer of power cannot take place in a vacuum. He therefore put in place an interim constitution in March 1970 called LFO. The LFO dealt with all constitutional maters except the most contentious one which was the distribution of power between centre and provinces. This was left to the constituent assembly.

And here once again not everyone knows there was to be a constituent assembly. It so happens that the elections of 1970 were not for electing a parliament, instead they at least initially were to elect a constituent assembly which would meet and make the new constitution of Pakistan. Once the new constitution is in place the assembly will then become a normal legislative assembly; however it would have 120 days from the day it meets to make and pass the constitution and if unable to do so it will dissolve.

Curiously the LFO while allowing maximum provincial autonomy stipulated that the centre would retain sufficient power, including financial, to perform its role and this ran directly contrary to the six points.

Finally to make it into a crisis the LFO did not clarify the voting majority required to pass the constitution.

It is important to remember that a constitution is the first step in the making of a nation state and only after a constitution acceptable to all the various ethnic and political groups is in place can the democratic process take place. It cannot be allowed for one federating unit to make a constitution that suites it. Nations go to great lengths to prevent dominance in constitution making by the more populous units like for example the senate in US with equal representation of all states regardless of population etc.

And here in 1970 with a highly charged atmosphere between Bengali and non-Bengali people of Pakistan no safeguards were put in place to prevent a one sided constitution be imposed. While unanimous or at least 3/4th majority is expected to pass a constitution in 1970 it would have been possible for the majority party which we know turned out to be Awami League to impose its manifesto, the six points, as the constitution with a simple majority and there was nothing other ethnic and political groups could have done about it.

Some people insist that the six points were bargaining tools and were negotiable, this is not true for once the results of the elections were in, and Mujib realised the extent of his win and became entrapped by his own success. For if he negotiated anything away from the six points, his electorate would not have spared him for they would ask correctly that there was no need to negotiate as he did not need support from any other party. And no doubt Mujib insisted after the elections that there would be no negotiations on six points.

What happed afterwards is more well known. Yahya met Mujib and Bhutto. Initially, on the surface he looked to be a fan of Mujib even calling him his Prime Minister who in turn offered him the job of the president, but soon Yahya changed colours and became hostile to Mujib. Some would say this was Bhutto’s doing, which is possible, for even if Bhutto had just explained the implications of the six points to Yahya and other generals this would be enough to turn them against the party wanting to implement them.

In the final downwards spiral of events, Mujib refused to come to Islamabad to negotiate, which is idiotic for how can someone who wants to be the Prime Minister of a certain country refuse to visit the capital of that country. This behaviour points towards Mujib never being serious in becoming the PM of Pakistan, but only using this as a stepping stone to realise the goal of Bangladesh. Yahya then announced the assembly to meet on 3rd of March. While this was late for Mujib it was too soon for Bhutto, who wanted time to come to an understanding with Mujib on the Six Points. Bhutto then announced that his party will not attend the session of National Assembly. On February 28, in a public meeting he declared that he will break the legs of anyone who goes from West Pakistan to attend the session. Next day, on the 1st of March Yahya announced that the NA session is postponed resulting in open rebellion in East Pakistan . From here on there is just an ongoing escalation of violence ending in the all out war between India and Pakistan which was disastrous for Pakistan.

I would point out that while much is made out of Bhutto’s stupid words from February 28, they were actually of little actual impact. For, Yahya testified in front of Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission that he had decided to postpone the session as early as 22nd February. Now some would say he had done this because Bhutto asked him to, but if that was the case there was no point in Bhutto saying those words, for the session was going to be postponed anyway – so why bother? In fact Mujib was informed of this on 28th a day ahead of Bhutto.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Bhutto had been demanding an extension to the 120 day limit on the life to the constituent assembly, and once again for unexplainable reasons Yahya refused to consider this demand.

In the end one cannot see any of these three main characters of this tragic drama, Yahya, Mujib and Bhutto coming out of it smelling of roses. One has to go through the Hamood-Ur-Rehman report in detail to agree with its conclusion that the main villain of the tragedy is the man in Khaki Agha Jani.

The HRH alleges that it was Yahya who in order to extend his hold on power played Mujib and Bhutto against each other; for he knew that if the politicians cannot come to an agreement there will be scope for delaying the transfer of power or even terminating this process for several years.

Of course Yahya did not want to break up Pakistan but this resulted from his decisions.

Similarly Bhutto had no reason to want a break up of Pakistan, but due to his arrogance and short sightedness played into the hands of Yahya providing him with an alibi to subvert the political process.

Of the three Mujib arguably was the only one who desired or at least did not mind the break up if things did not go his way.

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