As February 1971 was drawing to a close, Yahya Khan became conscious that after undertaking the arduous exercise of holding the polls, he had failed to transfer power to a consensus civilian government. But he decided that it should not be the end of the ‘mission’. It could be sluggish but he would not allow himself to be cornered by two power-seekers, Mujibur Rahman in East and Z A Bhutto in West Pakistan. He decided to act. The dissolution of the federal cabinet was the next step on February 21.
The next day, he summoned a meeting of close aides at Rawalpindi, which was attended by the Deputy Chief Martial Law Administrator, General Abdul Hamid, all provincial governors and his Principal Staff Officer, Lt-Gen S G M Pirzada. From the very composition of the meeting the agenda and possible outcome became predictable. However, a report said that the participants, especially Governor Admiral Ahsan, were told in clear terms that if Mujib did not show flexibility on his six-point programme, the planned action should follow. For that purpose extra troops were promised.
Apparently there was no hope left for any change at a stage when the Bengali people only knew Joye Bangla (long live Bengal). East Pakistan’s Governor Ahsan, a British army veteran and a former military secretary to Quaid-i-Azam, met Mujib next. Though the meeting remained futile, it shook Mujib. After the meeting he appeared depressed and speechless. Perhaps Ahsan illustrated what army action meant. He could foresee destruction all around.
While leaders in West Pakistan were making various predictions, the situation in East Pakistan was very disconsolate. Mujib feared the worst and had expressed some kind of flexibility but the Awami League (AL) activists were overzealous and hoped that with street power they would cow down Islamabad. They continued working on the proposed constitution and, showing the federal government their roadmap, announced the draft constitution on February 27.
Unlike previous constitutions prepared in West Pakistan, the AL draft was almost new in all respects. For instance, the name of the country was suggested as Federal Republic of Pakistan; two capitals Dhaka and Islamabad were named; East Pakistan was to be renamed as Bangladesh and the NWFP as Pakhtunistan; headquarters of the armed forces were to be shifted to Dhaka; departments of foreign affairs, defence and currency were to stay with Centre while the rest with the provinces, and the Centre would take a share from provincial taxes. The draft constitution was striking but no political leader openly reacted to it.
Instead, it was all doom and gloom. On February 28, Bhutto reiterated his decision of not attending the NA session if a meeting between him and Mujib was not held before the session; he said he would launch a movement from Khyber to Karachi. However, the same day Mujib told businessmen at Dhaka that reasonable recommendations would be accepted, but did not mention Bhutto’s objection to his six-point programme.
The next morning no earthshaking change was expected, but it appeared that some unsolicited happening was approaching. On March 1, Yahya announced postponement of the National Assembly session indefinitely. This shocked East Pakistanis. Dhaka turned into a frenzied mob showing anguish and hatred. Even Shaikh Mujib’s press conference at his Dhanmondi residence had become impossible as angry Awami League workers besieged the venue. The event was marked by pro-Bangladesh slogans. When the press conference was over the town had already been taken over by protesters who spared nothing. Arson, looting and all kinds of lawlessness ruled the city.
What Yahya aimed at was not clear as the communication credibility had been lost in the polarisation; yet it is said that Yahya had a feeling that in the case of an army action in the province, Admiral Ahsan might not be very effective as he was a proven friend of Mujib’s. Perhaps this was not so. Anyhow, the admiral was replaced by General Yaqoob Ali Khan, who had already served in the eastern wing. Immediately after taking over Gen Yaqoob suggested that Yahya settle things politically and not militarily. Perhaps he was the first army general who had thought of settling political issues in their right perspective.
Paradoxically, this very earnest advice went down the drain. The suggestion was rejected, perhaps with condescension. Gen Yaqoob found an honourable escape and quit the job on March 4, before it became too rowdy. The next day also proved unfortunate as Begali radicals took to the streets shattering the town. Similar processions were reported from other parts of the province. They were also joined by Maulana Bhashani and Prof Muzaffar Ahmed’s groups known for their separatist intentions.