Transfer of power

Published December 15, 2021
Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

AMONG the more surreal moments in Pakistani history there was the occasion 50 years ago when the nation was addressed by the man who wasn’t there.

He was, obviously, sequestered somewhere. But for reasons that have never been publicly shared, General Yahya Khan’s exit speech could not be broadcast on television. It has been claimed that Yahya and a couple of other leading generals were no longer bothering to add water to their favourite tipple, so it’s perfectly possible that the outgoing dictator was unfit to be displayed on national TV.

It wasn’t just the leadership’s beverages, though. Pakistan, too, was on the rocks, after a ceasefire on one battlefront and an unconditional surrender in East Bengal. Which was the wisest option at the time — even though it came as a shock to most West Pakistanis, who had for months been primed for a victory, through fake news sanctioned by the government and unquestioningly transmitted by much of the media.

Special report: The Breakup of Pakistan 1969-1971

Yahya was persuaded to step down. He might have preferred to shuffle off without a public whimper, but an address to the nation was deemed necessary to formalise the transition.

A new Pakistan emerged in bizarre circumstances 50 years ago.

That posed a dilemma for PTV, accustomed as it was to telecasting presidential perorations. Once the powers that be concluded that the outgoing dictator was only fit to be heard, not seen, instead of changing the schedule or relaying the audio alongside stills of the speaker’s visage, it was decided to display a transistor instead — artistically filmed, if memory serves, from various angles.

The absurdity of the experience was mitigated by relief at Yahya’s departure. The only obvious civilian alternative had by then flown back from New York, where he had kept the United Nations entertained with his dramatic antics. On the way home he had lapped up the imprimatur of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in Florida, and the Shah in Tehran.

In New York, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto told the Security Council: “My country beckons me.”

At the UN, ZAB had also declared: “I am talking as the authentic leader of the people of West Pakistan who elected me at the polls in a more impressive victory than the victory that Mujibur Rahman received in East Pakistan…”

That’s obviously nonsense. Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League accomplished almost a clean sweep in the eastern wing. In the west, Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party performed impressively well in Sindh and Punjab, but failed to make substantial inroads into what was then NWFP and was practically ignored in Balochistan.

Notwithstanding that, it was clearly the most successful party in the western wing, and ZAB could credibly claim a democratic mandate in what remained of Pakistan. There are many who claim that this was always his aim in refusing to strike a deal with Mujib that would have made it incredibly hard for the Yahya junta to thwart the convening of a constituent assembly. At the same time, though, had the army truly been determined to make way for a democratic dispensation, ZAB would have found it hard to stand in the way.

The two sides played off one another, and the consequence was a catastrophe. It is intriguing, though, to find — in Stanley Wol­pert’s biography — that in his talks with Mujib before the Bengali leader was freed, after Bhutto had already risen to power, ZAB was still probing the possibility of a Mujib-led confederation.

Mujib — who had been kept in the dark about events since his incarceration in March — wasn’t overtly hostile to the idea, saying he opposed an Indian occupation, but sensibly declared that he would need to consult his people before agreeing to anything.

Read more: Sheikh Mujib didn’t want independent nation, documentary reveals

ZAB could not possibly been unaware by late December that the idea of any kind of reunion was preposterous. There is no indication that it ever resurfaced once Mujib was allowed to fly to Heathrow, from where he returned to Dhaka via Delhi, and was greeted as a hero in both capitals.

The big question was what was become of what was left of Pakistan. Bhutto’s first speech as the president — as well as chief martial administrator and foreign, finance and interior minister — was not televised, as far as I can recall. I remember listening to it in bed, way past my usual bedtime, and the bit about picking up the pieces — “very small pieces” has stuck in the memory.

It did not turn out too well. Bhutto was a bundle of contradictions ranging from radical impulses to reactionary instincts. He briefly held near-absolute power. The new Pakistan he liked to talk about was within his grasp. But he let it slip away. What seemed possible in 1971-71 made way by 1977 for a seemingly bottomless descent into darkness.

Published in Dawn, December 15th, 2021



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