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Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, chief of the Awami League, addressing a public rally in Dhaka’s Paltan Maidan during his election campaign | Photo: Dawn/White Star Archives
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, chief of the Awami League, addressing a public rally in Dhaka’s Paltan Maidan during his election campaign | Photo: Dawn/White Star Archives

Pakistan lost its eastern wing on December 16, 1971, but the seeds of discord were sown much earlier. It’s not possible to pinpoint what led to the dismemberment of Pakistan and why the Bengalis who played a pivotal role in Pakistan Movement opted for a separatist path, but there were some significant developments such as the postponement of the inaugural session, on March 3, of the National Assembly after the December 7, 1970 elections that led to the splitting of a country in 1971.

Following the postponement of this inaugural session of National Assembly till the launching of ‘Operation Search Light’ on March 25 to crush the civil disobedience movement launched by the majority party Awami League (162 out of 300 seats of National Assembly in December 1970 elections), East Pakistan existed as a part of Pakistan. Events taking place after the military operation, however, diminished the hopes to save Jinnah’s Pakistan from dismemberment.

Around 47 years have passed since a chain of events unfolding in March 1971 deepened the wedge and hostility between the two wings of Pakistan leading to their violent break-up. How the unilateral postponement of the National Assembly session acted as a catalyst to accelerate the disintegration of Pakistan, and was there a thought process at the national level to visualise the grave consequences, remain unanswered questions.

The postponed assembly session may have triggered a series of events that led to the emergence of Bangladesh

In February 1971, the hawkish generals of Yahya Khan’s regime in connivance with Z.A. Bhutto, whose party was in the minority and mostly represented Punjab and Sindh (in West Pakistan) had decided to sort out Bengalis for their refusal to compromise on Awami League’s six points. G.W. Choudhury, who served in the cabinet of Presidents Ayub and Yahya from 1967-71 in his book The Last Days of United Pakistan (Dhaka: The University Press Limited, 1998) reveals that when President Yahya Khan decided to postpone the inaugural session of the National Assembly. Choudhury, as part of the three-member committee set up by the president to transfer power to the elected representatives, advised him to give another date for the Assembly session so as to diffuse the reaction of the people of East Pakistan. He even drafted the postponement announcement to be delivered by the president in which he wrote that, “I would, however, wish to make it absolutely clear that the postponement will not exceed two to three weeks and during this short period I shall make all endeavours to bring rapprochement between the elected representatives of the two regions of our country.”

Choudhury laments that “I handed over the draft of the statement to President Yahya who gave it to Lt Gen G.S.M.M Peerzada (PSO of Yahya Khan), who in alliance with Bhutto, torpedoed it.” Unfortunately, Choudhury’s conciliatory and damage control sentence about the timeline to hold the assembly session within two to three weeks was deleted and the statement to indefinitely postpone the assembly session was issued, triggering a violent response from the majority party Awami League.

The reaction of Awami League was predictable. According to Choudhury, “As soon as the postponement of the assembly session was announced over the radio, the reaction in Dhaka was violent. Mujib started what he termed non-violent non-cooperation, but it was not the Gandhian type of non-violent non-cooperation, nor was the Pakistan ruling junta’s reaction marked by any moderation as was that of British authorities. Mujib’s open revolt virtually amounted to a unilateral declaration of independence for Bangladesh, and an almost parallel government began to function under Mujib’s instructions. Between March 3 and 25, the central government’s writ did not run in East Pakistan.” The die was cast and the days of united Pakistan were numbered.

It cannot be said whether it was a well-crafted plan by the Yahya regime to provoke Mujib and his Awami League by postponing the assembly session in order to pave the way for military action, or whether Islamabad miscalculated the reaction of the people of East Pakistan who had overwhelmingly voted for the Awami League. By early February 1971, it became clear to the military regime and Bhutto that the Awami League would not be flexible about its six points which, according to them, would have meant a weak central government.

Three different perceptions on the postponement of assembly session and the subsequent mishandling of the crisis in East Pakistan reflect how unprofessional and imprudent the political leaders and the military regime were to save the country from an impending disaster. Was Bhutto’s invitation to the top military brass in February 1971 for a hunting trip, just a cover for launching the military operation?

By January 1971, it was quite clear that neither the Awami League nor the West Pakistani leadership led by the military generals and Z.A. Bhutto wanted a solution based on flexibility, accommodation and political wisdom. Likewise, Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman remained inflexible as far as his party’s six points were concerned. There was one country and two contenders for prime minister. Principally, since the Awami League had gained a simple majority in the 300-member national assembly, Mujib was sure to be elected as prime minister. But Bhutto raised the issue of his party’s non-acceptance of Mujib’s six points which, according to him, were against the interests of West Pakistan and the territorial integrity of the country as a whole. In a public meeting in Lahore in February 1971, Bhutto threatened dire consequences for the newly-elected National Assembly members from West Pakistan if they dared to attend the inaugural session in Dhaka. Yet 30 members, including the PPP MNA Ahmed Raza Kasuri, reached Dhaka.

In January 1971, President Yahya Khan had visited East Pakistan and congratulated Mujib for his electoral victory. He had invited Mujib to visit West Pakistan as the leader of the majority party and asked him to dispel the reservations and apprehensions there about his six-point programme. But instead of being magnanimous and wise, Mujib rejected Yahya’s offer, thus missing a chance to gain the confidence of the people of West Pakistan. His hard line, intransigent and unwise approach to deal with an impending crisis, provided an opportunity to the Yahya regime to postpone the assembly session.

Had Mujib and his party been serious in assuming the reins of power after the 1970 general elections, they would have pursued a conciliatory approach instead of an arrogant and irrational approach while addressing the reservations of West Pakistan vis-à-vis the six points. His speech on March 7 at Ramna Race Course ground in Dhaka is often quoted as just short of a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). However, after the postponement of the assembly session, it seemed that apparently Mujib was pressurised by his party hardliners and student groups to take extreme action and declare UDI from Pakistan.

In his book A Stranger in My Own Country (2012), Major General Khadim Hussain Raja, who was GOC 14th Division in East Pakistan at the time of military operation, gave a vivid account of the events unfolding after the postponement of the assembly session and Mujib’s March 7 speech. According to him, “Early in the evening on March 6, one of my senior staff officers, accompanied by a Bengali gentleman, came to my residence and asked to see me. He said he was a close confident of Sheikh Mujib who had sent him to plead with me that he [Mujib] was under great pressure from the extremists and student leaders within the party to declare unilateral declaration of independence during his public address on the afternoon of March 7. Sheikh Mujib claimed that he was a patriot and did not want any responsibility for the break-up of Pakistan. He therefore, wanted me to take him into protective custody and confine him in the cantonment. For this he wanted me to send a military escort to fetch him from his Dhanmandi residence.”

Three different perceptions on the postponement of assembly session and the subsequent mishandling of crisis in East Pakistan reflect how unprofessional and imprudent the political leaders and the military regime were to save the country from an impending disaster.

But Raja refused to send a military escort to Mujib’s residence, assuring him that if he came of his own will, he would be given full protection. Interestingly, according to Raja “Sheikh Mujib did not give up. He decided to try one more time. At 2 am between March 6 and 7, I was woken up and informed that two guests, accompanied by my staff officers, were waiting in the drawing room to see me for an urgent matter.” Mujib’s emissary once again stressed “the threat on Sheikh Mujib’s person and the need to take him in protective custody. As before, I did not buy the story.” But Raja warned Mujib’s emissary to tell Mujib that in case he declares UDI in his speech “I would have the army march immediately with orders to wreck the meeting and, if necessary, raze Dhaka to the ground.” Succumbing to the threat, Mujib refrained from announcing UDI in the March 7 public meeting.

In his speech, Mujib talked about how West Pakistan had been exploiting the people of East Pakistan and was not ready to transfer power to the elected representatives. By calling the West Pakistani army deployed in East Pakistan ‘brothers’ he, however, warned them not to kill Bengali people otherwise he would take extreme action. The four demands made in his speech reflected popular Bengali sentiments: immediate lifting of martial law; immediate withdrawal of all military personnel to their barracks; immediate transfer of power to elected representatives of the people; and proper inquiry into the loss of life during the conflict.

He also asked the people not to provide food and other essential supplies to the West Pakistani forces and to prevent the flight of capital from East to West Pakistan. Through these measures, Mujib had literally taken control of East Pakistan and the writ of the state of Pakistan was limited to the airport in Dhaka, the President House and cantonment areas. After the March 7 speech, attacks on and the killing of non-Bengalis and West Pakistan forces acquired impetus.

The postponement of the assembly session was a pretext to provoke the Awami League, particularly those who wanted to use the results of the 1971 elections to declare independence. In fact, the decision to use force because of the inflexibility of the Awami League on its six points was made much earlier. Contingency plans for a crackdown were prepared, but neither the then governor of East Pakistan, Vice Admiral Syed Mohammad Ahsan, nor the martial administrator of East Pakistan, Lt Gen Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, were in favour of a military operation and called for a political solution. They were relieved from their positions and Lt Gen Tikka Khan was appointed as governor of East Pakistan by the Yahya regime. The rest is history.

The election results of December 1970 clearly showed that the conflict which led to the final break-up of Pakistan lay between Bengal and Punjab. If East Pakistan had overwhelmingly voted for Awami League, Bhutto’s PPP had swept in Punjab, which dominated the military and bureaucracy. Bhutto’s landslide victory in Punjab was sufficient to convince the Awami League that the nexus would never hand over power to the Bengali majority because of their suspicion, mistrust, antagonism and hatred against them. The Punjab-Bengal conflict and hostility eventually led to civil war in the then East Pakistan, and as a result, Bangladesh emerged.

(The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi. Email:

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 4th, 2018