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After the 1970 poll results, things were getting out of hand. Two divergent views stood apart. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was of the opinion that his People’s Party and Shaikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League should come closer, but that needed serious discussions. Ghulam Mustafa Khar, a close friend of Bhutto’s, was chosen to persuade Mujib to hold a meeting. Khar thought that he could manage it.

A little manoeuvring was needed but before a firm date could be reached, a revolutionary students’ group of East Pakistan decided to observe an 11-point programme week during which complete freedom for East Pakistan, with slogans supporting Bangladesh, was advocated. They also announced that if any leader opposed Mujib’s six-points and their 11-point programme, he would be expelled.

Mustafa Khar’s efforts produced some result and the date to hold a meeting between Mujib and Bhutto was set as January 27, 1971. Bhutto took 15 of his political leaders with him. During the meeting it was decided that if the currency was not separated efforts would be made to prevent flight of wealth from East Pakistan; every federating unit would get a fair share from export earnings; defence, foreign affairs and taxation departments would stay with centre and Yahya Khan would continue to act as president.

The talks mostly centred on Mujib’s six-point plan and division of powers between the two wings, and finding an agreed format of the federal government. Bhutto wanted more talks to thrash out the still hung issues. He was still in Dhaka when he got trapped in an Indian ploy. A plane was hijacked from Indian-held Kashmir and force-landed at Lahore on January 30. An enthusiastic Bhutto met the ‘hijackers’, and expressed his support; the plane was blown up. A judicial inquiry later proved that it was an Indian plan to ban over-flights from West Pakistan to East Pakistan and cut its supplies in the event of a military action, which was ultimately taken.

The talks between Bhutto and Mujib at Dhaka remained inconclusive mainly on three issues: taxation, external trade and foreign aid. During the talks Mujib termed the issue of keeping foreign trade and aid centred in West Pakistan as a “continuation of the East Pakistan’s exploitation”.

Without any results acceptable to both leaders, Mujib was insisting on holding the session of the National Assembly by February 15, 1971, so that legislation could begin. Bhutto opposed it; he knew that once the session began and a Speaker was elected, the framing of the much-debated constitution would begin. He had reports that the constitution had already been prepared by the Awami League and it would be only a formality of counting heads.

Yahya favoured Bhutto by saying that some settlement be arrived at before the session. Yahya still hopeful of reaching an accord, postponed the NA session till March 3, 1971. After the announcement of that date, Bhutto discussed the issue with his party members and asked them to desist from going to Dhaka unless Mujib reciprocated.

Bhutto was insisting that two wings, over a thousand kilometres apart, could not manage a balance of power between the two parties that had been elected in each wing. Both leaders were drifting away and apparently there was no chance of rapprochement in sight.

Amid that bleak atmosphere, a brief report from Islamabad broke the ice. A reporter of the noted international news agency Associated Press of America, Arnold Zeitlen, known for his high profile reporting, was stationed at Islamabad when this political impasse gripped the country. On the morning of February 12, 1971, Bhutto was called by Yahya Khan to Rawalpindi; they stayed together for quite some time. In the evening Zeitlin was invited to see Bhutto and on February 16, 1971, a news item was released, saying:

‘Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of Pakistan People’s Party, the largest in the western province, was considering a proposal for separate prime ministers from the geographically divided country, party sources said Tuesday.’ The report further said: ‘A high-level People’s Party source said Bhutto is considering a suggestion that he and Shaikh Mujibur Rahman become Prime Ministers of their respective parts of the country and that President Yahya remain as President. Mr Bhutto is scheduled to make what his party calls a historic speech next week in Lahore after a meeting of Parliamentarians over the weekend in Karachi.’

This created ripples. However, a few days later Mr Abdul Hafiz Pirzada contradicted the report terming it ‘mischievous and concocted’.

shaikhaziz38@gmail.com