As letters were being exchanged between Z.A. Bhutto and the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) leadership, the arrest of the alliance leaders created yet more tension. In the spate of the protests Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani, Asghar Khan, Professor Ghafoor Ahmed, Sardar Sherbaz Khan Mazari, Mian Mahmood Ali Kasuri, Mian Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, Mian Zahid Sarfraz, Begum Nasim Wali Khan, Muhammad Shaukat, etc, were arrested and sent to jail. This provided further provocation in the wake of the general uprising.
But along with the agitation, negotiations also continued. Bhutto tried to smooth over the situation and attempted to convince the opposition to settle for 36 seats in the National Assembly. The PNA, on the other hand, maintained its stance that the elections were a farce and only a fair election under a neutral administration could satisfy them, come what may.
In a letter on March 19, Bhutto again reiterated his point of view and stressed the need for holding talks without conceding anything in advance. Mufti Mahmood replied in a one-paragraph letter and declined to commit to anything, saying that the key members of the alliance were in jail and he could not act alone.
The letter said: “Dear Mr Bhutto, I acknowledge receipt of your letter of March 19. I am afraid I cannot give you any reply unless I consult the PNA leaders. Since most of the leaders of the PNA, including Professor Ghafoor, General Secretary of the PNA, are in jail, their immediate release is essential so that I may convene a meeting of the PNA heads tomorrow evening for considering the text of your letter of March 19. Yours sincerely. Maulana Mufti Mahmood, President Pakistan National Alliance.”
Although the government released four leaders — Asghar Khan, Sardar Sherbaz Mazari, Maulana Shah Ahmad Noorani and Professor Ghafoor Ahmed — ostensibly for facilitating talks, it did not satisfy the PNA leadership; they wanted the release of all the detainees. The PNA stuck to its standpoint and called for a countrywide strike on March 21.
In the meantime, Rafiq Ahmad Bajwa, secretary general of the PNA acted on his own initiative and managed to call on Prime Minister Bhutto on March 16. Bhutto thought this was a sign of a crack in the PNA ranks but Bajwa was merely attempting to create a conciliatory atmosphere. However, the PNA also saw this as a setback to their strategy and although Bajwa clarified that he met in the capacity of vice president of the JUP, the PNA asked him to quit. He was quickly replaced by Professor Ghafoor Ahmed.
This gave a new twist to the ‘battle of nerves’. Bhutto added to the tension by calling for the convening of the National Assembly Session without discussing with his core cabinet. This action was liable to create more disturbances but to satisfy the opposition, an ordinance was issued empowering the Chief Election Commissioner to set the results aside in any constituency where gross electoral irregularities had been committed. The calling of the National Assembly session was an attempt on Bhutto’s part to send a message to the PNA that he stood by his conviction that the elections were fair. Legally that was wrong as the assembly session could not be called before the final results of the election had been announced. The NA was to meet on March 26.
The demand for the release of its leaders was only partially met and the PNA called a meeting on March 22 and endorsed its previous stance of holding talks with the government only if all their demands were met. It approved a long letter in reply to Bhutto’s letter on March 19.
The PNA’s letter basically asserted that Bhutto’s rigid stance was unacceptable and concluded by saying:
“The stand of the PNA is clear. If you accept our demands made on March 12 namely: your resignation from the office of Prime Minister, constitution of a new Election Commission enjoying the confidence of the people and holding of fresh elections with the assistance of the Judiciary and the Armed Forces of Pakistan, we are prepared to discuss with you how these can be implemented within the four corners of the Constitution wherever and whenever you like. I am confident that no amendment of the Constitution would be required for the fulfillment of our demands.”
This was the first time the PNA had mentioned the Armed Forces in their letter. And it was a sign of things to come…
firstname.lastname@example.org Next week: The National Assembly session is held without the opposition’s participation. The PNA calls on the President to act.