Based on the thread initiated by Dr. Hassaan Bokhari (@shbokhari13), we are presenting the subject matter in its more expansive format. Enjoy reading!
After Ayub’s ouster, Pakistan was left with two populist movements (led by Bhutto and Mujib), and a military dictator. Yahya Khan came to power with a promise to hold free elections as soon as possible and then leave the task of framing the new constitution to the new assembly. But an interim substitute for a constitution was needed under which the elections could take place. There was a strong body of opinion that supported restoring the 1956 constitution before the elections and then holding the elections under that consensus document. But this option was vetoed by Sheikh Mujib, who was against the principles of inter-wing parity and limited provincial autonomy enshrined in that constitution.
So, Yahya Khan promulgated a Legal Framework Order (LFO), under which the country would be governed until the new assembly could make the new constitution. There were some important issues on which differing opinions were present. LFO had to make a ruling about all of them. These were:
1) A unicameral or bicameral legislature?
West Pakistanis wanted a bicameral legislature, but Sheikh Mujib wanted a unicameral one. Most Pakistanis in East Pakistan supported him in this matter.
2) Parity or representation proportional to the population of each wing?
West Pakistanis and many East Pakistani leaders like Nurul Amin, Prof. Ghulam Azam, and Molvi Farid supported parity, but Sheikh Mujib was vehemently against it.
3) After elections, is the constitution to be passed by a simple majority or a 2/3 majority?
Almost everyone, apart from Sheikh Mujib, wanted the constitution to be passed by a 2/3 majority.
4) What would be the extent of provincial autonomy?
This was a very important question. According to G. W. Chaudhry, “many East Pakistani leaders (Nurul Amin, Maulana Bhashani, Professor Ghulam Azam, etc.) had warned Yahya Khan that leaving the explosive issue of provincial autonomy unsettled would give the Awami League a huge edge.” On the other hand, Sheikh Mujib had made it perfectly clear to the martial law authorities that any attempt by the government to define the extent of provincial autonomy would lead to serious consequences.
Sheikh Mujib wanted to contest the election on the issue of provincial autonomy (six points). Had significant provincial autonomy been conceded (as advocated by other East Pakistan leaders), it would have taken the central plank out of Mujib’s election campaign. How could Mujib bring “liberation” to Bengalis and become their “savior” if the government conceded real provincial autonomy even before the elections? That is why he was very aggressive about leaving the provincial autonomy undefined so that only the new assembly could legislate on it. As Professor Donald Sassoon has sagely remarked, “democratic” politics, that is, modern mass politics, is a battlefield in which the most important move is that which decides what the battle is about, what the issue is.
5) The powers of the current president, i.e., Yahya
The most important question here was: could the unelected military president veto the constitution made by the new assembly?
On each of the first four questions, Yahya completely conceded to Sheikh Mujib, much to the horror of other leaders from both wings. Only on the 5th question did he take a stand and insert a clause that gave the president the authority to veto the constitution.
Hindsight can torture many historians. Why did Yahya give in to Mujib’s demands? Maybe the answer lies in the one demand that he didn’t accept. Privately, he was already telling his friends in 1969 that he might have to govern the country for 14 years. There was a clause in the LFO that said if the newly elected assembly proved unable to frame a constitution in 120 days, it would be dissolved. Now, if a hung parliament were to be elected, Yahya could dissolve the assembly, successfully blame the politicians, and then rule with absolute authority like Ayub Khan. But he needed the two main leaders from both wings, i.e., Bhutto and Mujib, to contest in the elections if they were to be thought of as legitimate by the vocal urban section of the population. He was also assured by his “sage” advisors like Maj. Gen. Ghulam Umar that the Awami League was a “great boast, little roast,” and it wouldn’t win more than 70 out of 162 seats in East Pakistan. According to those advisors and analysts, Bhutto would not win more than 30 of West Pakistan’s 138 seats. The intelligence officers told their boss what he wanted to hear: There would be a hung parliament, but the only thing that could deny it (and a subsequent Yahya dictatorship) wasn’t Bhutto or Mujib but the 3 quarrelling Muslim Leagues or the leftists led by Bhashani who could somehow eke out a majority! This nonsensical assessment was based on faulty sources, and almost all the officials posted in East Pakistan in 1970 disagreed. The GOC of the sole army division in East Pakistan, Gen. Khadim himself, told Gen. Umar that the Awami League was poised to win at least 75% of seats in East Pakistan!
Mujib was also confident of commanding a sizable majority in East Pakistan. He planned to win 130–140 seats and then use horse trading after the elections to secure the remaining 10-15 needed for a majority. He needed to be on Yahya’s good side prior to the elections, so he told Yahya that the six points were no more than a bargaining position. On the other hand, privately, he was declaring, “My aim is to establish Bangladesh; I will tear the L.F.O. into pieces as soon as the elections are over.” “Who could challenge me once the elections are over?”
Yahya, fooled by Mujib and misled by his intelligence (which was trying to make the boss happy by giving him the analysis he wanted), gave free rein to Mujib during the year-long election campaign. On the other hand, Mujib’s most significant East Pakistani rival, Maulana Bhashani (the leftist maulana), was curbed by the government. The Awami League’s goons were given immunity from the law, and they didn’t even let any other party conduct a major public meeting throughout the election year. Maulana Maududi’s Jamaat-e-Islami and Nurul Amin’s PDP rallies were attacked and trashed by Awami League goons at the start of the election campaign in January and February 1970. This served as a warning to all the other parties that wilted before the Awami League’s street and student power. Mujib lied through his teeth during the campaign. In the rural areas, which were mostly pro-Pakistan, Mujib swore that he was a patriot and only wanted fair rights for Bengalis within Pakistan. Among the secessionist students, he declared that an independent Bangladesh was his sole goal and that everything else was merely a means to that end. Some of his militant followers formed the Mukti Bahini, a private army led by a retired Pakistan Army officer named Colonel Osmany. Their logic was that if the elections failed to grant them their country, they would take it by force of arms.
1970 also brought unprecedented natural disasters to East Pakistan. In the words of Sehgal/Robotka, “Even nature conspired against a united Pakistan!” First, there were devastating floods in August. To his credit, Yahya managed the situation well. He showed compassion and supervised the relief efforts from Dhaka. As a result, the floods couldn’t be used by secessionists like Mujib to preach hatred against Pakistan. But in November, the devastating Bhola Cyclone killed about half a million people and wreaked havoc on the coast of East Pakistan. Yahya visited Dhaka, but on the advice of Governor Admiral Ahsan and other local officials, who said that there didn’t appear to be much damage caused by the cyclone, he went back to Rawalpindi. It took the state government several days to realize the magnitude of the disaster. By that time, Mujib and co. had already started harping non-stop about the “callous” Pakistani government and army. Interestingly, on the ground, the army and foreign NGOs led the relief effort, whereas the Awami League was nowhere to be seen. Even the donations collected for the victims in Dhaka were meager, whereas huge amounts of donations came from West Pakistan in sharp contrast. All these facts went unreported by the Bengali press, which was mostly run by Mujib’s touts or influenced by secessionist students (who were a big force in urban politics and media in East Pakistan). David Loshak wrote in his book “Pakistan Crisis,” “Despite the enormity of the tragedy, the disaster was again cynically exploited for political purposes and was a handy stick to beat West Pakistan with.” “Bengali nationalists spread rumors and exaggerated already heinous death tolls to incite resentment against West Pakistan while diverting attention away from Bengali corruption and bungling.”
The cyclone conferred a great electoral advantage to Sheikh Mujib due to the government’s failed information policy and Mujib’s control of the East Pakistan media. Sensing this situation, Maulana Bhashani demanded that elections be delayed and all focus be shifted towards relief efforts. Mujib reacted very angrily to this demand (a bit ironic from someone who was lambasting the government 24/7 for ignoring the plight of cyclone victims). Yahya again placated Mujib and snubbed Bhashani. Disgusted and disappointed, Bhashani boycotted the elections and left the field open for Mujib.
Yahya trusted his election “manager,” Gen. Ghulam Umar. As per his advice, he didn’t interfere with the Awami League’s massive and unprecedented pre-poll rigging. Now, even on election day (7 December 1970), the Awami League was given free rein to stuff the ballot boxes. Numerous instances of bogus votes, voters casting multiple votes, and Awami League goons harassing supporters of other parties in order to prevent them from voting took place. The Bengali Chief Election Commissioner, Justice Abdus Salam (later President of Bangladesh), took no action against the Awami League’s pre-poll and election-day rigging. Maybe he was powerless to do so as the army, despite being in power, refused to ensure fairness in order to “ensure” the success of the political games being played by Yahya and Ghulam Umar. As a result of such tactics, turnout in the majority province, which is more politically active, was much lower than in the more tranquil Western wing. 17.2 million (55%) votes were cast in East Pakistan, whereas 17.8 million (61%) votes were cast in West Pakistan.
Yahya received a rude surprise on the morning of December 8 when the results started coming in. “What in the devil’s name is happening here?” “Where on earth has your assessment gone?” was the question shouted by Yahya Khan at Gen. Umar that morning.
Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League won 160 of the 300 seats, all from East Pakistan. The Awami League received 130 lakh votes (39% of the total votes cast). The PPP of Z.A. Bhutto won 81 of 300 seats, all in West Pakistan. PPP got 61 lakh votes (19% of the total votes polled). The Pakistan Muslim League (Qayyum) was the third-largest party in terms of seats won in the National Assembly, with 9 out of 300. It received 15 lakh votes (4.5% of the total votes polled). Jamaat-e-Islami was the third-largest party by the number of votes. It received 20 lakh votes, or 6% of the total votes polled (in almost equal proportion from East and West Pakistan). However, the JI only won four seats.
Among Mujib’s signal successes was securing the support of the Hindus for his party’s vision of Bengali nationalism, a relationship that was crystallized in the East Pakistan Minority Conference’s decision to work closely with the Awami League. According to Safdar Mahmood (Pakistan Divided), “The election result also revealed that, whereas only 57% of the total number of registered voters in East Pakistan had turned up to exercise the right to vote, the Hindu community poll was 100%.” “It was an unprecedented phenomenon.” He further writes: “According to the announcement of the Election Commission, 57% of the total enrolled voters participated in the polls, and the Awami League secured 75% of the total votes cast.” In other words, the Awami League secured 42% of the total registered votes, and the Hindus constituted 15% of the total, and they all, it is believed, voted for the Awami League. “If the number of bogus votes is placed at 10%, which is a very reasonable figure, the Awami League secured only 17% of the Muslim votes in East Pakistan.”
Yahya had bet on a hung parliament and lost. His short-sightedness and foolish political gimmickry had brought Pakistan to the brink of disaster. The Awami League and PPP had won heavily in one wing but were non-existent in the other. On top of it, the Awami League, with its visible secessionist tendencies, attained a simple majority (enough to frame a constitution without any partner). Bhutto had only campaigned in the western wing, where he won a majority, but he had barely half the number of seats won by Awami League. Nonetheless, Bhutto had no intention of playing second fiddle, and he signaled his dangerous intentions by declaring “parity” with the Awami League and claiming that no government would be legitimate without West Pakistan’s participation. In the same breath, he referred to himself as the sole representative of West Pakistan!
At this juncture, if Pakistan was to survive, the only way was to follow the law and let the majority party, i.e., the Awami League, exercise its democratic rights. After all, Bhutto had himself gone to represent Mujib in the Agartala case, and the military itself had given him the clean chit. But suddenly, after Mujib’s electoral victory, both Bhutto and the military seemed to remember vividly that Mujib was a secessionist and a traitor.
Mujib, for his part, was only interested in power, either within or without Pakistan. That is why he played on both sides during the election campaign. On one hand, he had given his blessing to the militant students, who had even created a flag for Bangladesh and written a declaration of independence. On the other hand, he had sworn on the Quran during public meetings in rural areas that he was not a secessionist and that Pakistan couldn’t and wouldn’t be undone. Had he been allowed to assume power at the center, he might well have taken a more conciliatory course.
Alas, this was not to be.