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Yahya Khan: The Creation of Bangladesh

Yahya Khan

Although it was undoubtedly best for Pakistan and Bangladesh to have separated the actual sequence of events that brought it about in 1971 was a great fiasco accompanied by enormous hardship and atrocities for the Bangladesh people.

Ayub Khan had promised fair elections and Yahya Khan intended to fulfill that promise. In late 1969 Yahya Khan announced that elections were to held in October of 1970 to chose delegates to a National Assembly that would write a new constitution for civilian government.

Near that designated election time a tropical cyclone hit East Pakistan, a storm in North America would have been called a hurricane. Much of the devastation of a tropical cyclone comes from the storm surge, the rise in the water level due to the lower pressure in the cyclone center and the winds driving the water against a shore. East Pakistan with its low altitude throughout the country is particularly vulnerable to a storm surge. The cyclone of 1970 was terrible for East Pakistan and the government could do little to ameliorate the situation. Nevertheless the people of East Pakistan were resentful at how little the national government in West Pakistan was able to do.

Because of the cyclone the national election was postponed until December of 1970. There were to be 300 delegates selected for the National Assembly. In addition there were to be 13 places filled by appointment of women, seven from the East Wing and six from the West. In this election the seats were to be apportioned strictly on the basis of the population. East Pakistan would elect 162 delegates and West Pakistan 138. In the past elections the apportionment was equal numbers of delegates from the East and the West.

Since the creation of Pakistan the country had been dominated by politicians and military leaders from the West Wing despite the significantly larger population and economy in the East Wing.

The dominant political party in the East Wing was the Awami League headed by Mujibur Rahman. Rahman, popularly known as Mujib, and his Awami League had been campaigning for some years for a six point program that consisted of

  • that the government of Pakistan be parliamentary and in the nature of a federation
  • that members of the national legislature be elected on the basis of universal adult suffrage with the distribution being strictly on the basis of population
  • that the power and responsibility of the national government be limited to foreign affairs and national defense
  • that each wing have its own fiscal budget and circulate its own currency
  • that taxes be imposed and collected on a provincial level and the national government rely upon levies imposed upon the provinces without any powers of direct taxation of the people
  • that each province have control of its own foreign exchange earnings
  • that each province raise its own military and paramilitary forces.

Clearly the Awami League was promoting a political change of Pakistan to a confederation of nearly autonomous provinces. Such autonomy appealed not only to the East Wing but to the Northwest Frontier Province and to Balochistan as well.

In Punjab and Sindh provinces the dominant political party was the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) founded and led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a charismatic politician who had been minister of foreign affairs in the government of Ayub Khan. Bhutto's program was nationalistic democratic Islamic socialism. In the election campaign he promised bread, clothing and shelter for everyone but he also promised a thousand year war with India.

In the election held December 7, 1970 the Awami League won 160 out of the 162 seats allocated to East Pakistan. An affiliate of the Awami League, the National Awami League was the most popular party in the Northwest Frontier province and Balochistan winning the most seats there. Thus Mujib had won an outright majority of the seats in the National Assembly and would have the right to form a government and dominate the writing of the new constitution.

Ali Bhutto's PPP won heavily in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh. The PPP had significant representation in the National Assembly but not enough to guarantee Bhutto and the PPP an important role in an Awami-led government. Most politicians acquiesced to an Awami East Wing-oriented government. Yahya Khan referred to Mujib as the next prime minister of Pakistan. But Ali Bhutto was not willing to let the rules of parliamentary democracy prevail. He declared that Pakistan had two majorities. He found a ploy that would prevent the Awami League from forming a government. He announced that the PPP delegates would not join the National Assembly and thus deprive it of a quorum. In his intransigence Ali Bhutto destoyed the fragile ties between the East and West Wings of Pakistan.

Yahya Khan tried conscientiously to get Bhutto and Mujib to reach some compromise. Yahya Khan brought Ali Bhutto, Mujib Rahman and himself together in Dakha to try to resolve the impasse, to no avail. The tragic sequence of political chaos, death and destruction can be laid at the feet of Ali Bhutto.

The political impasse led to protests and demonstrations in the East Wing which were interpreted as rebellion against the martial law government of Yahya Khan. Mujib Rahman was arrested and flown to West Pakistan to be tried for treason. Yahya Khan then declared the Awami League illegal and and banned political activity. Censorship was imposed upon newspapers throughout Pakistan. This definitely escalated the protests into outright rebellion. The government in the West flew in troops to the East by way of Sri Lanka. The local militias and police units in the East joined actively in the rebellion.

The West Wing troops suppressed the rebellion at the cost of many thousands of casualties. The atrocities committed indicated that the West Pakistani troops had very little empathy for the culturally alien Bengalis despite the fact that they were fellow Muslims.

Refugees started pouring across the border to where the people were fellow Bengalis who had empathy for them. An army officer, Major Zizur Rahman, declared East Pakistan to be the independent nation of Bangladesh and a government in exile set up in Calcutta. The number of refugees in India soon reached ten million and the government of India announced support for the rebellion and the new nation of Bangladesh. Indian troops invaded the territory occupied by the West Pakistani troops and soon defeated them, capturing about ninety thousand. Other nations around the world besides India began to recognize the sovereignty of the new nation of Bangladesh. Pakistan, however, did not recognize Bangladesh until 1976, five years after its creation.

Bhutto, the agent of the debacle, blamed Yahya Khan for the military defeat of the Pakistani army by the Indian army and the loss of the East Wing. Yahya Khan resigned and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was declared president and chief martial law administrator of Pakistan in December of 1971.

Here is Pervez Musharraf's description of the events of that period of Pakistan history.

"In 1970, before the elections could be held, there was a devastating cyclone in East Pakistan, with winds of 120 miles (190 kilometers) per hour. It was accompanied by a huge tidal wave, or tsunami, the worst of the twentieth century and left 200,000 people dead. The response of President Yahya Khan and his government was callous in the extreme. It took him quite sometime to react. He did not even visit the devastated province for many days, and then only under pressure. The people of East Pakistan felt angry, alienated, and badly let down, as if they were a colony instead of being a part of the country. I am convinced that the government's attitude during this disaster reinforced the impression among East Pakistanis that the western wing did not care for them, and that this brought many more voters behind Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Awami League.

Pakistan's elections of December 7, 1970, were among the most fateful in its history. The country still included East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), where more than half of the population lived. The actual winner of the voting was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League, with all its seats coming from East Pakistan. They got 160 of the 162 seats for the National Assembly from East Pakistan, out of a total of 307. The two largest provinces of Pakistan's western wing, Punjab and Sindh, voted for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his PPP (Pakistan People's Party), which got 82 out of the 138 allocated to four provinces in west Pakistan. Neither of them was represented in the other wing.

Immediately after the elections Bhutto more or less declared himself prime minister, suggesting such bizarre ideas as two constitutions, one for East Pakistan and the other for "West Pakistan," with a prime minister for each wing, forgetting that the latter was no longer one but four provinces and there was no such thing as "West Pakistan" except in a geographic sense. He played on the fears of the west Pakistanis that the Awami League would use its majority to foist a constitution on Pakistan on the basis of its campaign promise to give maximum autonomy to the provinces, leaving only defense, currency, and foreign affairs with the center. He conjured up fears of everlasting domination by the Bengalis, forgetting that they too were Pakistanis and the Awami League had won the elections perfectly legitimately through democratic means. Bhutto even threatened members elected to Constituent Assembly from west Pakistan that he would break their legs if they attended its inaugural session in Dhaka, East Pakistan and that if they insisted on attending they should buy a one-way ticket. The Constituent Assembly was supposed to make a new constitution for Pakistan in three months, but it never met, not least because of Bhutto's threat. It was a nexus between Bhutto and a small coterie of military rulers that destroyed Pakistan. The myopic and rigid attitude of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman didn't help matters, and he played into Bhutto's and Yahya's hands by remaining rooted in East Pakistan, forgetting that now he was prime minister-elect of the whole of Pakistan and needed to tour the four provinces of the western wing in order to reassure the people there and allay their fears.

Under pressure from the wily Bhutto, and no doubt because he didn't want to lose power, Yahya Khan postponed the meeting of the Constituent Assembly indefinitely on March 25, 1971. He did not stop there. The very next day he outlawed the Awami League and arrested its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the clear winner of the election. This act infuriated the Bengali masses of East Pakistan, who were already agitating and had a sense of deprivation and alienation. Tempers rose so high with the arrest of the undisputed Bengali leader that an open insurgency was launched by the populace. This was massively supported by the Indians from across the border. With the army completely bogged down in quelling the insurgency, India stabbed Pakistan in the back by blatantly attacking it across its border on several fronts in East Pakistan on November 21, 1971. All-out war between India and Pakistan commenced on December 3, 1971. "

Pervez Musharraf, In the Line of Fire, pp. 52-54.

Nine Unknown Men

Nine Unknown Men are a two millennia-old secret society founded by the Indian Emperor Asoka.