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The March to Madness of Massacre of Mid-night March 25 - Part II The March to Madness of Massacre of Mid-night March 25 - Part II
by Dr. Habib Siddiqui
2020-04-16 09:41:02
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East Pakistan’s Governor, Admiral Syed Mohammad Ahsan resigned on March 7 and President Yahya Khan lost a sober adviser, one whom the Awami League respected. He was opposed to any military solution and was replaced as Governor by Lt. Gen. Sahibzada Yakub, the Martial Law Administrator of East Pakistan, who lasted only a few days. Reportedly, he, too, was against a military solution for a constitutional crisis.

Yahya Khan's firm stand was reinforced by the appointment of Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan as Governor of East Pakistan. Tikka Khan had earlier earned the reputation of 'Butcher of Baluchistan' and was expected to implement the hardline approach which, according to the President, Lt. Gen. Yakub had failed to carryout.

As hinted above, the non-cooperation movement led by Awami League (largely outlined in the 7 March, 1971 Ramna rally) was so successful that the authority of the Pakistan government became limited to the military cantonments and government institutions in East Pakistan. The central government virtually lost its control in East Pakistan. [I recall that the next day, Mach 8, our cadet college was closed sine die and I had to return to Chittagong city to be with my parents.]

bangla001_400By the time Sk. Mujibur Rahman addressed the public meeting on 7 March 1971, emotions were running very high and reports of a unilateral declaration of independence gained ground, especially since, at the time, there were insufficient troops in East Pakistan to prevent it. However, despite the circumstances, Sk. Mujibur Rahman was not belligerent and announced that the Awami League would 'consider' attending the session on 25 March if the Government met four demands: the immediate withdrawal of Martial Law, the transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people, an enquiry into the army killings, and the return of the troops to their barracks. Countering Yahya Khan's statement that the postponement had been 'misunderstood', he claimed it had been 'effected solely in response to the machinations of a single party—constituting a minority of the total members—against the declared wishes of the majority party and also those of numerous West Pakistani members'. The PPP had obstructed the transfer of power and, he predicted, 'military confrontation' would follow 'political confrontation', because the majority would not submit to such minority dictation. He concluded: “Our struggle this time is a struggle for independence. Joy Bangla.” (The Pakistan Times, Lahore, 8 March 1971)

The Awami League issued ten directives which effectively gave them control of the entire provincial administration in East Pakistan, cutting it off from the West Wing.

Sporadic clashes between civilians and the security forces became commonplace in many parts of East Pakistan. Despite Bangabandhu’s fervent call not to attack anyone, clashes between Bengali and the Urdu-speaking Bihari (who had migrated to Pakistan from India during the 1947 Partition) communities also erupted in some parts of East Pakistan. Reportedly, some 300 Biharis were killed in rioting by mobs in Chittagong, esp. around the days leading up to March 25.

According to Raza, much killing and brutality had occurred in this early period of March. Citing David Loshak’s book – Pakistan Crisis (pub. William Heineman, London, 1971), he writes, “But, contrary to general belief, of an estimated 3000 killed, only 300 were victims of the army.” According to him, the Awami League had exaggerated the casualty figure that was publicized by the foreign press. Raza opines, “Despite provocation and hostility, the military authorities did not reveal the numbers of those supporting Pakistan who were killed by the Awami League, for fear of exacerbating-opinion in the West Wing and within the army itself.” (Op. cit.)

There is no doubt that many Urdu-speaking Biharis who were perceived as pro-Pakistan and anti-Bangladesh were killed by Bengali nationalist zealots in this early part of March. One of the survivors – Dr Jawaid Ahsan, an ex-cadet who now lives in Atlanta – conferred to me that in places like Dinajpur (in northern Bangladesh bordering India) many Urdu-speaking Muslims were killed around March 13 when they were taken for killing under the pretext of being required for attending a peace-committee meeting.

In West Pakistan, Bhutto was blamed for the mess. He sent a telegram, drafted by his constitutional advisor Rafi Raza, to Sk. Mujib expressing readiness to visit Dhaka immediately 'to devise a common solution to end the crisis'; and ended with the words, “Let not people say, nor history record, that we have failed them.” Sk. Mujib did not respond to that telegram.

Retired Air Marshall Asghar Khan, leader of a political party Tehrik-e-Istiqlal (lit. Movement for Solidarity Party), who was then in Dhaka, warned that only a few days remained to save the situation; mentally, the two Wings had already separated and the last link, through Sk. Mujibur Rahman, was about to be broken. He urged the acceptance of Sk. Mujibur Rahman's four preconditions. However, his words went unheeded as his recent electoral defeat made him politically irrelevant.

Meanwhile, the smaller West Wing parties resented the PPP being the sole spokesman for West Pakistan and decided to meet on March 13 to form a common front. Following the meeting, the group declared that Sk. Mujibur Rahman should form the government, 'interim to the framing and promulgation of a new constitution', before the session of the National Assembly on March 25. They recognized Sk. Mujib's ‘firm commitment to the solidarity of Pakistan by putting in the present crisis four demands that were not in the least parochial or regional but exclusively based on a national approach.’ (The Pakistan Times, Lahore, 14 March 1971)

To diffuse the restive situation in East Pakistan, President Yahya Khan decided to visit Dhaka for talks with Sk. Mujibur Rahman and stopped on the way in Karachi to discuss the situation with Bhutto. No one else was present at this meeting and the precise nature of their talks remains unknown.

At a large PPP rally at Karachi on March 14, Bhutto urged that since the Awami League and the PPP were in the majority in each Wing, if power were to be transferred, it should be to both these parties. He was reported in the Urdu Press as saying, “Idhar ham, udhar tum (We here, you there).” The speech created a furor in the West Wing since it was interpreted to mean a demand for two Pakistans.

President Yahya Khan flew to Dhaka to hold talks with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in March, and was later joined by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The ten days from March 16 to 25, 1971 witnessed discussions in Dhaka which were to prove fateful. Talks were held first between Yahya Khan and Sk. Mujib, and their respective negotiating teams; for the last five days, Bhutto, too, was involved.

The PPP team arrived in Dhaka, a bitterly hostile city, on March 21. Late that evening Yahya Khan briefed Bhutto on the meetings he had already held with Sk. Mujib, and outlined the proposals discussed between their advisers. If Bhutto’s memoir is to be trusted, the main features of the arrangement, to be implemented by Presidential Proclamation, were the immediate withdrawal of Martial Law and the transfer of power to the elected representatives in the five Provinces. The President would continue to run the Central Government with the assistance of advisers who would not be elected representatives. The National Assembly would be divided ab initio into two Committees representing each Wing, which would sit respectively in Dhaka and Islamabad to prepare 'separate reports' within a specified period to be submitted to an Assembly whose function would be restricted to discussing these proposals and devising ways for the two Wings to live together. Until the constitution had been framed, East Pakistan would have provincial autonomy on the basis of Six Points. The West Wing units would have powers under the 1962 Constitution and would settle their future autonomy, subject only to the President's approval.

The President said Bhutto’s agreement was necessary for the proposal to be put into effect. Bhutto asked for time till next day before endorsing the plan. The next day, Bhutto decided against the proposal. In the morning, the three leaders met together for the first and last time. Sk. Mujib asked Yahya Khan to approve the proposal. However, knowing Bhutto’s disapproval, Yahya Khan announced that, 'In consultation with the leaders of both the Wings of Pakistan and with a view to facilitating the process of enlarging areas of agreement among' the political parties, the President has decided to postpone the meeting of the National Assembly called on March 25.' No new date was set for the session; this time the postponement sine die was what Mujibur Rahman had wanted.

Sk. Mujib was disappointed and when asked by newsmen whether the postponement meant progress, he replied, 'You can see for yourself'. When asked Bhutto told the Press after leaving the President that he had no formula to solve the present crisis. He said that his team would study the proposal.

What actually transpired during those ten days is difficult to verify. What we surely know is that the negotiations ended with military action. It is widely believed that Yahya Khan ordered Tikka Khan, the newly appointed military commander of East Pakistan, to prepare for military action. So, as the political parleys continued, arms and military personnel were brought into various ports of East Pakistan, esp. the port city of Chittagong, for that planned operation.

Nevertheless, there were moment of high expectations when Sk. Mujibur Rahman told the Press, 'Let us hope for the best and prepare for the worst.’ The prospects for a settlement brightened following Mujibur Rahman's directive that the 23rd March, Pakistan National Day, should be observed as a holiday and not as the usual day of non-violent non-cooperation.

However, the situation changed significantly on March 23, when the new flag of Bangladesh was formally hoisted on all buildings in Dhaka and the recently created Bangladesh Militia paraded. Sk. Mujibur Rahman also raised the new flag at his residence. This action by the radicals within the student movement that wanted secession of East Pakistan as the new state of Bangladesh virtually gave the license that the Pakistani military planners were looking for to justify its massacre on the midnight of March 25. The PPP visitors felt as if they were on a foreign soil.

That evening of March 23 in a meeting with Bhutto, some of the PPP members in Dhaka agreed that a military action was necessary to deal with the East Pakistan crisis. However, Mustafa Khar and Raza warned that such an action would spell the end of Pakistan. (Raza, op. cit.)

The next morning, March 24, Bhutto met the President and Lt. Gen. Peerzada and told them a decision had to be made. Many of his Party leaders had gone back to Karachi that morning. Other political leaders from West Pakistan also left Dhaka shortly but Bhutto stayed back with a few of his advisors, including Raza.

By this time the Government had conveyed to Bhutto the proposals put forward by the Awami League leaders during the meetings between them on March 23 and 24. Instead of two Committees, the Awami League now demanded two 'Constitutional Conventions' to submit two constitutions in the National Assembly. The Assembly would meet only to tie up the two constitutions for a 'Confederation of Pakistan'. At the end of these meetings, Tajuddin Ahmad, the Awami League General Secretary, informed the Press that they had given their 'complete plan', and 'from our side there is no need of any further meeting'.

On the morning of March 25, when the PPP team met with the Yahya Khan’s advisors, they were provided with the Awami League proposals, which included amongst others:

- The Centre would only have, powers over defense and foreign affairs, excluding foreign trade and aid, for the 'State of Bangladesh'. The Awami League insisted that Bangladesh would negotiate foreign loans directly, although the Government had suggested as a compromise that foreign affairs should include 'policy aspects of foreign aid and foreign trade'.

- The State Bank at Dhaka should be re-designated as the Reserve Bank of Bangladesh, and placed under the Provincial legislature, while the State Bank of Pakistan would only issue currency notes and otherwise act as required by the Reserve Bank.

- The term 'Confederation of Pakistan' was used for the first time. The two Constituent Conventions would be sworn in separately to frame Constitutions for each Wing, and then would make the Constitution for the Confederation.

- The Awami League wanted Martial Law to be lifted and the appointment of Governors of each Province within seven days from the Proclamation. The President would have no control over a Governor after appointment.

- The President had to authenticate the Constitution within seven days of its presentation, after which it would be deemed authenticated.

- The President was to have no powers of interference in emergency.

According to Raza, it was a one-sided communication from the President’s office in which no views were exchanged from the PPP side. He opined, “However, in view of the military crackdown which took place that night, the purpose of the meeting was probably to associate the PPP with the Government's planned action.” (Op. cit.)

That day, Awami League called for a strike on 27 March to protest against the heavy firing on the civilian population in Saidpur, Rangpur and Joydebpur. President left Dhaka at 7 p.m. March 25. Before leaving he gave the green signal for military action to start before the mid-night.

As can be seen, unwilling to transfer power to Sk. Mujib as demanded by Awami League - fearing a transfer of power would weaken or destroy the federation, or the fear to lose face by backing down in face of the non-cooperation movement, the Pakistani generals, most of which including Gul Hassan Khan were supportive of the PPP, finally decided on a military crackdown. Per directives of Sk. Mujib, most of the senior members of the Awami League fled while he was arrested at his Dhanmondi residence at 1:30 a.m. on March 26 and was taken to a cantonment school before flown into West Pakistan. Bhutto and his party members left Dhaka on March 26.

Before getting arrested, Sk. Mujib was able to send telegram messages about the army crackdown in Rajarbagh police barrack in Dhaka and other places asking people to fight back and declaring independence of Bangladesh. The next day, I personally saw a cyclostyle copy of the declaration that was brought to my attention by a political worker.

The questions that beg answers are: why did the three parties – Yahya, Mujib and Bhutto – fail to come to a common term? Did any or some of them have preconceived plans that did not allow the negotiations to reach any agreement? Was there any collusion between Bhutto and Yahya for the military solution? Why did Bhutto disapproved of the Sk. Mujibur Rahman' s 'two Committees' proposal while he didn’t have problem making that 'idhar hum, udhar tum' speech on March 14? Was Sk. Mujib duped by Yahya Khan? If the Awami League truly wanted an independent Bangladesh, why Bangabandhu did not declare such on the March 7 rally? While he advised his senior members to escape, why did he allow himself to be arrested and not lead the liberation war?

On his release in January 10, 1972, Sk. Mujibur Rahman declared he had been striving for a separate Bangladesh for many years, an aim which was shared by most of the top leadership of the Awami League. All this suggests that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman worked to a plan. His supporters also claim that he conducted all those negotiations with Yahya Khan and PPP hoping to realize the goal without any bloodshed in a gradual manner: through the mechanism of the national assembly. When that was not achievable, he sent the telegram urging armed struggle by his people before he was arrested. His supporters also surmise that had he tried to escape, a much bigger casualty could have occurred as a result of house-to-house search to apprehend him, which he tried to avoid.

As noted by Raza in his book, Yahya Khan had decided on the military option as early as February 22, 1971. Why did he then engage in detailed discussions on the 'two Committees' arrangement during the ten days prior to the military crackdown on the night of March 25? His critics maintain that the talks were intended for three purposes: to gain time in order to build up the strength of the troops in East Pakistan; to demonstrate that he had tried the path of negotiation; and to involve the West Wing parties, particularly the PPP, in his decision.

As to the question of collusion between Yahya and Bhutto, there is little doubt that they did collude trying to uphold the interests of the West Wing and the army. They had a common goal, which was at variance with those of Sk. Mujib.

As far as Bhutto is concerned, Raza opines that he had no preconceived plan apart from the fact that he intended to stay on the same side as the military in confronting the Awami League. On the whole, he was reactive rather than proactive in his efforts to preserve what he termed a 'united Pakistan'. Surely, he could have joined the National Assembly and make his case there objecting the Awami League constitution, and the majority party would then have been 'fully responsible for the results'. Instead, he refused to participate in an Awami League-led parliament, which he felt would make him irrelevant because of the majoritarian impulse of the winner party. Some of his senior party members felt that Sk. Mujib was a fascist and were, thus, more interested in a military solution than an honest political discourse with the Awami League towards finding a viable solution.

Bhutto was more interested in getting to the top, as he fondly assumed the role of Hamlet unto himself, even if that meant a broken Pakistan minus its east wing. He was warned by his advisors that if he failed to come to terms with Sk. Mujib such may trigger the end of Pakistan. And yet, he ignored all such advice and relied on the military to do what ultimately dismembered the country. He obviously had to wait for four more months until April 14, 1972 to reach his cherished goals of wearing the four hats that he had craved for —President of Pakistan, Chief Martial Law Administrator, Chairman of the PPP and President of the Constituent Assembly. Little did he realize that his meteoritic rise would ultimately tumble like a rock! That momentous event came some seven years later on April 4, 1979 when he was hanged to death.

In the context of political development, it is worth noting that an identity crisis occurs when a community finds that what it had once indisputably accepted as the physical and psychological definitions of its collective self are no longer acceptable or operative in the same form, under new historic conditions, and need further explication. As far back as 1952, when they had to fight for recognition of Bengali as a national language, co-equal with Urdu, the East Pakistani Muslims have felt that they have an identity crisis vis-à-vis Pakistan. Their religious affiliation was not enough to claim an equitable share in the prosperity, let alone running of the country.

It is to be noted that the great majority of Muslims of British India supported the Pakistan Movement in the hope that Pakistan would bring prosperity to them, something that was impossible to dream in a highly bigoted and racist, let alone caste-ridden and Brahmin-dominated society, led by Hindu fascists that came to be identified as India. However, the Pakistan that was handed over to them on the night of August 14, 1947 was not only moth-eaten, thanks to Cyril Radcliffe, it soon came to be dominated by the military – all from the west wing of the new state – that had hitherto dutifully served the interest of the colonial master – the British Raj. Those British-trained military officers felt that they were more entitled to govern the nascent state than the politicians who had shed their sweat and blood against the colonial administration. And, when it came to the Bengali politicians from the eastern wing without whose sacrifice Pakistan would have only remained a dream and probably never a reality they seemed to have a serious loathing or dislike for. Thus, military coup became the new norms rather than exceptions soon after the death of its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

The concept of national unity involves the unification of disparate social, economic, ethnic and geographic elements into a single nation-state. This kind of national amalgamation implies both the capacity of a government to control and penetrate the territory under its jurisdiction, as well as a set of popular attitudes towards the nation generally described as loyalty, allegiance and a willingness to place national above local concerns. That unity at the national level simply never gelled in Pakistan. The relationship between the Centre and Provinces, that is the nature of Federalism, had plagued constitution makers between 1950-56. The East Pakistanis became increasingly resentful of what they considered to be "colonialism" by the West, and the Punjab in particular. The Armed Services and the bureaucracy, two formidable power centers, continued to be dominated by West Pakistanis till 1971, and this further alienated the East Pakistanis.

The people of East Pakistan felt second class and that perception – which I must reiterate was genuine and real – was exploited by the Awami League (formed in 1949) for a regional autonomy. No wonder that the party with deep grass root support became so popular from Tekhnaf to Tetulia and from Sylhet to the Sundarbans in East Pakistan, as reflected in its sweeping victory in 1970 election!

In my opinion, Sheikh Mujib and his party, the Awami League, were not against a united Pakistan, but they preferred a loose federation over the status quo that had turned them to be politically and economically impotent. The unpleasant experience of 1954 – when the popularly elected Jukto-Front (United Front) government from East Pakistan was dissolved by an unelected civil servant, the then Governor General Ghulam Mohammed – had taught them to be suspicious of the bastions of power in the west wing that were unwilling to live permanently under an East wing majority. The Six Point Formula was in essence an East Pakistani answer to the domination by the West Pakistani-based bastions of the power.

It would not be any exaggeration to say that Pakistan's political history is the history of relative failure in achieving national integration. As I see it, Pakistan had failed to create the necessary ingredients that are required for a united nation-state since its birth. Processes of integration in a country where the two wings were separated not only by the geography of more than a thousand miles of hostile India but also culture were never institutionalized. Heavy reliance on religion by unelected, hypocritical and un-Islamic rulers to glue the two wings proved too short-sighted and suicidal!

In closing, the situation following the December 1970 elections demanded a degree of statesmanship, imagination and courage which was not present in Pakistan. And all the three major leaders seemingly failed in that historic role, which culminated in the massacre and suffering of so many, ultimately weakening both the countries – new and old. Even the staunchest supporter of the Pakistan-cause must admit that the 'Confederation' proposal, which was considered treason at the time, might ultimately well have been the best for the unity of Pakistan. As wisely noted by Raza, the confederal solution would certainly have been preferable to civil war, defeat and the dismemberment of a country for which so many people had sacrificed so much since the first decade of the 20th century.

There is a lesson in this for future leaders: Ideological claims alone cannot hold a country together. Only through concrete measures that addresses people’s concern can loyalty be earned and nationhood strengthened. Those aspiring to be in power cannot afford to have short memories or be oblivious of the lessons of history. People matter, sincerity of intention and purpose matters and accountability surely matters.


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