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The March to Madness of Massacre of Mid-night March 25 - Part I The March to Madness of Massacre of Mid-night March 25 - Part I
by Dr. Habib Siddiqui
2020-04-15 09:22:05
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March 25 is observed as a national holiday in Bangladesh commemorating massacre in East Pakistan (later to emerge as Bangladesh) in 1971. There were three major players in this historical drama – a military general who governed the state of Pakistan and two politicians from the two wings of the country that did not see eye to eye to resolve a political crisis that soon morphed into massacre of many – something that could have been avoided if they were sincere and willing to compromise for the greater good of the country. Each of these ‘makers’ of the history had huge support within the segment of population that they represented.

Some background information of the event may help us to understand the situation better that led up to the killings and mayhems of March 1971.

Pakistan was ruled then by a military junta that was headed by General Yahya Khan, who assumed charge as Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA). He was from West Pakistan and came to power on March 25, 1969 after President Ayub Khan had relinquished power after mass rising in 1969 in East Pakistan. He promptly abrogated the 1962 Constitution.

The Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis – without whose overwhelming support in the decisive election in 1946 (in which Muslims in Bengal voted overwhelmingly for the All-India Muslim League, winning 113 of the 119 seats for Muslims) Pakistan could not have been born – had long felt discriminated as the second-class citizens with all the political and economic powers vested in the western wing of the country. Agitation for provincial autonomy had been gaining momentum, following years of protest against domination and exploitation by West Pakistan. Even recognition of Bengali as a national language had to be won only after a struggle in 1952.

After coming to power Yahya Khan imposed martial law and declared holding the national election in 1970, much to the expectation of the people and also to pacify unrest. In his broadcast to the nation on 26 March 1969, he sought a 'smooth transfer of power to the representatives of the people, elected freely and impartially on the basis of adult franchise', whose 'task' would be 'to give the country a workable constitution'. It took him another eight months to declare the date of election, October 5, 1970 (which was later moved to Dec. 7).

bangla002_400On 28 March 1970, Yahya Khan announced the Legal Framework Order (LFO) that postulated that Provinces 'shall be so united in a Federation that the independence, the territorial integrity and the national solidarity of Pakistan are ensured and that the unity of the Federation is not in any manner impaired.' And, more important, while providing for maximum autonomy, it laid down that 'the Federal Government shall also have adequate powers including legislative, administrative and financial powers, to discharge its responsibilities in relation to external and internal affairs and to preserve the independence and territorial integrity of the country.'

Twenty-four political parties participated in voting on December 7, 1970 for the 300 constituencies in the National Assembly, which was then the only chamber of a unicameral Parliament of Pakistan. Nearly 57 million voters went to the polls, out of whom over 29 million were in East Pakistan. The turnout was 57% in East Pakistan.

In that election, to the utter surprise and dismay of the ruling junta, which had expected to remain as arbiter of a fragmented parliament, the Awami League (AL), a political party with strong support in East Pakistan that advocated for regional autonomy in the provinces, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a charismatic leader who was fondly called Bangabandhu (meaning: Friend of Bengal), won a decisive majority. The AL captured 160 of the 162 contested seats in East Pakistan (and out of 300 contested seats in entire Pakistan). Its total share was 167 out of 313 seats (that include 7 of the 13 reserve seats) of the National Assembly in the 1970 Pakistan parliamentary elections.

The previously restive and presently jubilant Bengali population expected a swift transfer of power to the victorious Awami League based on the Six Point Program that would ensure regional autonomy. It is worth noting here that the Six Point Program is based on what has been commonly referred to as the Pakistan Resolution, passed by the All-India Muslim League in Lahore on 23 March 1940, which provided that 'geographically contiguous units' be demarcated into 'regions which should be so constituted ... that areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority, as in the North-Western and Eastern zones of India, should be grouped to constitute Independent States in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign'.

In this Resolution, Pakistan was not named, it was a wishful dream back then. It was not until the All-India Muslim League Legislators' Convention was held in Delhi on 7-9 April 1946 that a resolution gave this idea definite shape: “That the zones comprising Bengal and Assam in the North-East and the Punjab, North-West Frontier Province, Sindh and Baluchistan in the North-West of India, namely Pakistan zones where the Muslims are in a dominant majority, be constituted into a sovereign independent State ... of Pakistan.”

From 1946 onwards, and certainly after the founding of Pakistan, the terms 'States' and 'autonomous and sovereign' were not given serious consideration. However, from 1966 the Awami League returned to the text of the 1940 Resolution, when its literal implications were put forward by, first, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and then Maulana Bhashani of East Pakistan.

Thanks to its wide publication by enthusiastic financiers like my father, the Six-Point Program (or Formula) soon became very popular all-over East Pakistan. It proposed for a unique federation in which the Central Government would exercise power only in relation to defense and foreign affairs, excluding foreign trade and aid.

However, both the military junta and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that garnered only 81 seats of the 138 contested seats in West Pakistan in the election were opposed to the transfer of power to the AL and its leader Sk. Mujib. They were averse to the very idea of a Pakistan governed by an East Pakistani. Their excuse was: the AL won no seat in any of four provinces of West Pakistan, namely Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Interestingly, the PPP had won the exclusive mandate in West Pakistan (esp. in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh where it won 62 and 18 seats, respectively; it won one seat in the NWFP), but none in the East Pakistan.

Yet, Bhutto (the son of a Sindhi feudal and a Hindu woman of humble origin) had the audacity to claim that forming a government without him would be like staging Shakespeare’s Hamlet without the role of Prince of Denmark. He proved to be a power-hungry, egocentric person whose unfathomed arrogance derived from his support in the Punjab and Sindh, which have been the bastions of power in Pakistan, and the military that had hitherto ruled Pakistan.

In a victory procession in Lahore on 20 December, Bhutto declared, “Punjab and Sindh are the bastions of power in Pakistan. Majority alone does not count in national politics. No government at the centre could be run without the cooperation of the PPP which controlled these two Provinces ... I have the key of the Punjab Assembly in one pocket and that of Sindh in the other ... The rightist press is saying I should sit in the opposition benches. I am no Clement Attlee.” (Pakistan Observer, Dhaka, Dec. 20, 1970)

Obviously, such a declaration from Bhutto was not only undemocratic but also a slap to tens of millions of Pakistanis who had voted for the AL. Professor Rehman Sobhan, an Awami League advisor, was dispatched to West Pakistan where he met political leaders in Lahore at the end of the year (1970) and attacked the 'bastions of power' speech of Bhutto. He categorically said, 'Bengalis are no longer prepared to accept the dictates of the military bureaucratic establishment for whom Bhutto is the spokesman.' If the West Wing tried to obstruct Six Points, the whole of East Pakistan would 'stand up and resist'. Such was the prevailing mood in East Pakistan, which he urged Rafi Raza, a constitutional law adviser to Bhutto, to convey to him.

In the New Year 1971, on January 3, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman publicly affirmed his position on Six Points at a mammoth meeting at the Ramna Race Course in Dhaka, claiming that, 'None can stop it'. All the Awami League Members of the National and Provincial Assembly took an oath on Six Points. At the same time, he maintained that the people of Bangladesh believed in the integrity of Pakistan. (The Pakistan Times, Lahore, Jan. 4, 1971)

In East Pakistan, the position on Six Points hardened. Maulana Bhashani called a meeting at Santosh on January 8 of all non-Awami League parties to reject any compromise on autonomy. Mujibur Rahman himself, the following day, declared Six Points 'a Magna Carta', and said that he had no right to make any amendment. (The Pakistan Times, Lahore, Jan. 10, 1971)

The constitutional crisis forced Yahya Khan to come to Dhaka. Upon arrival in Dhaka on January 11, 1971, he expressed the hope that the 'second phase' of constitution-making, following the general elections, and the ensuing transfer of power, would proceed smoothly. Sk. Mujib described their first two-hour meeting the next day as 'satisfactory', and, after their final talks, said he was 'fully satisfied'.

According to Rafi Raza, “Shortly after returning from Dhaka, the President met Bhutto in Larkana on 17 January, 1971. They were joined by Lt. Gen. Peerzada for part of the talks; General Hamid Khan, Mustafa Khar and Mumtaz Bhutto were also present in Larkana. The meeting, it was later alleged, laid the ground for the 'conspiracy' against Mujibur Rahman. The details of what transpired between Yahya Khan and Bhutto were never known.” [Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan: 1967-1977 by Rafi Raza (1997)]

Bhutto had serious misgivings about Six Points and handing over to Mujibur Rahman the government machinery both in the East Wing and the Centre. He said it would not work and would seriously damage the West Wing. However, he agreed to hold discussions with the Awami League leaders in Dhaka, and to seek a compromise on the future constitution. [Z. A. Bhutto: The Great Tragedy, Karachi (1971), p. 20, as quoted by Rafi Raza, op. cit.]

On 22 January, 1971 the Awami League announced the finalization of the draft constitution on the basis of Six Points, claiming, nevertheless, that it would ensure 'the indivisible unity between the two Wings of Pakistan'.

On 27 January, a large PPP delegation team arrived in Dhaka for discussions with the Awami League, 'to understand and comprehend the position'. The preliminary seventy-five-minute talk between the two leaders made no headway; Bhutto was concerned about both constitutional and governmental arrangements, namely, power-sharing, while Mujibur Rahman insisted on Six Points first being accepted before detailed discussions took place. The Press were told it was a courtesy call. The following morning the negotiating teams of the two parties met to consider constitutional matters. The Awami League insisted on Six Points: 'This is our charter', and nothing short of it would suffice. The PPP team endeavored in vain to explain the problems that would arise. The one-hour meeting between Bhutto and Mujibur Rahman the same day was equally unproductive. (Rafi Raza, op. cit.)

On January 30, an Indian Airlines plane ‘Ganga’ was hijacked to Lahore by two Kashmiri commandos, who after releasing the hostages blew up the plane on Feb. 2. Bhutto hailed them as ‘heroes’, ‘freedom fighters’ while Sk. Mujib smelled conspiracy in the matter. He deplored the event and called for an inquiry into the matter. Three days later, Delhi banned all flights over India forcing Pakistani planes to fly from Karachi to Dhaka via Colombo, a distance of nearly 3,000 miles.

Bhutto met President Yahya Khan in Rawalpindi on February 11 and explained that as the Awami League had already dictated the constitution, he refused to rubber-stamp it since little or nothing could be achieved by attending the Assembly. (The Pakistan Times, Lahore, Feb. 12, 1971)

The crisis was clearly deepening. After the Executive Committee of the Awami League met in Dhaka on February 14, Tajuddin Ahmed, party general secretary, announced that the basic postulates of Six Points admitted of no possible readjustment. However, he assured West Pakistani leaders that interests peculiar to their region could be accommodated. East Pakistan would not dictate the arrangements for the West Wing Provinces; nor should the West Wing interfere with the East.

In Peshawar, on February 15, Bhutto abruptly announced (without consulting with his party leadership) that the PPP would not attend the Assembly session in Dhaka as the Awami League had framed a Six-Point constitution on a 'take it or leave it' basis. This abrupt announcement proved to be the first definite move in the tragedy that began to unfold. (Raza, op. cit.)

Bhutto became increasingly strident and inflexible, telling a news agency on his return to Karachi that his decision was 'unshakable and irrevocable ... Anyone who goes to Dhaka from West Pakistan whether in khaki or in black and white does so at his own cost.' When warned that his Party members might lose their seats by non-attendance, he replied it would be the 'finest thing if that happens’. The next day, he told the press that if a 'viable' constitution was to be framed, 'all of us must have a hand in that'. The Assembly would be a 'slaughter-house' in the present circumstances, he threatened. (The Pakistan Times, Lahore, Feb. 18, 1971)

Bhutto was summoned by Yahya Khan to meet him in Rawalpindi on February 19. He left Karachi on 18 February. Talking to the Karachi Press, he rejected the idea of any arbitration or mediation. For the first time, he publicly acknowledged the importance of the army; there were three 'forces' in the country: the Awami League, the PPP and the Armed Forces. Stopping briefly at Lahore, he reiterated the decision not to attend the Assembly; no Party member would dare go.

The President met him for five hours on 19 February. No other member of the PPP was present and no details were disclosed. Bhutto told the Press that the President had 'spelled out the magnitude of current issues', stressing, 'of course we are now facing a crisis, rather a crisis of extreme nature, which is not of our making'. (The Pakistan Times, Lahore, Feb. 19, 1971)

“With his Party absent, the constitution-making exercise, would be 'like staging Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark'—a futile, barren, negative and counter-productive effort,” he declared.

On February 20, President Yahya Khan made a curious amendment to the LFO, permitting those elected to resign before the first meeting of the National Assembly, even prior to being sworn in as members. This was seen as accommodating Bhutto's position. The next day, he dissolved the civilian cabinet 'in view of the political situation in the country'.

Sk. Mujibur Rahman issued a lengthy statement on 24 February condemning what he described as a 'conspiracy' to prevent the transfer of power to the elected representatives’.

On February 28, Bhutto’s PPP held a public meeting in Lahore where he declared, if the Assembly session was held as scheduled, there would 'be a general strike from Peshawar to Karachi' and he would launch a movement. Members from the West Wing were sternly warned not to attend the Dhaka session. He was heard to say crudely that he would pull their legs apart, though reported as saying 'break their legs'. (Raza, op. cit.)

For the first time, Bhutto had spelt out a tough position. Speculation that the speech was made after consulting Yahya Khan increased when, on the same day, the Election Commission deferred the preliminaries for the convening of the Assembly, involving indirect elections for women members in the West Wing Provinces.

The following day, the Assembly session was postponed sine die. In explanation, Yahya Khan stated, 'A majority party, namely the PPP, as well as certain other political parties, have declared their intention not to attend the National Assembly session'. Tension created by India had further complicated the position. With so many staying away, 'if we were to go ahead with the inaugural session on 3 March, the Assembly itself would have disintegrated and the entire effort made for the smooth transfer of power that has been outlined earlier would have been wasted. It was, therefore, imperative to give more time to the political leaders to arrive at a reasonable understanding on the issues of constitution-making.’ [The Pakistan Times, Lahore, March 2, 1971]

This postponement by the President changed the position dramatically. East Pakistan, already highly tense, now exploded. In the words of Raza, “The postponement sine die was a grave error for which no satisfactory explanation can be found: it was the result of either ignorance or complete disregard for the position in East Pakistan. It confirmed in the minds of Bengalis their worst suspicions about 'conspiracy' and the intentions of the West Wing. It signaled, for all practical purposes, the beginning of the end.” (Op. cit., p. 48)

The Awami League called a general strike in Dhaka on 2 March and throughout East Pakistan the following day, both completely successful. The army under Yakub took some hesitant steps the first day but then did not intervene. Sk. Mujibur Rahman assumed de facto control of the Province and declared that the movement would continue 'till the people of Bangladesh realize their emancipation.'

On March 2, the leaders of the NAP (Bhashani) and other nationalist elements in East Pakistan joined the movement, and called for unity. It won’t be any exaggeration to say that it was probably the most successful non-cooperation movement in the 20th century. So successful was civil disobedience led by Bangabandhu Sk. Mujibur Rahman that Wali Khan, a NAP leader from the NWFP, reportedly observed, “Even [Mahatama] Gandhi would have marveled.” In the words of Raza, “Never has an opposition, let alone under Martial Law, asserted such total control within a state.” (Op. cit.)

The curfew, which had been re-imposed on March 3, was withdrawn the next day. Sk. Mujibur Rahman threatened that if the troops did not return to their barracks he would ask the Awami League volunteers to resist them.

On March 3, Yahya Khan invited the leaders of all the political parties to meet him in Dhaka a week later to discuss the situation and settle an early date for the National Assembly session. West Pakistani leaders accepted, but Sk. Mujibur Rahman described the invitation to sit in a meeting while people were being killed as 'a cruel joke'—the more so 'to sit with certain elements whose devious machinations are responsible for the deaths'. The invitation was made at 'gun point' and had to be declined, he declared.

On March 6, to somewhat diffuse the exploding situation in East Pakistan, President Yahya Khan summoned the Assembly session for March 25. In his speech, however, he laid the blame squarely on the Awami League. He concluded with these strong words: 'I will not allow a handful of people to destroy the homeland of millions of innocent Pakistanis. It is the duty of the Pakistan Armed Forces to ensure the integrity, solidarity and security of Pakistan—a duty in which they have never failed.' (The Pakistan Times, Rawalpindi, 7 March 1971)


Part IPart II

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