NEW DELHI: General Yahya Khan, Pakistan’s military leader in 1971 was a boisterous person, a hard drinker with a weakness for unrestrained frolicking. A telling description in the Time magazine was that ‘between dusk and dawn, Pakistan was ruled by pimps’.
Given his penchant for enjoying nocturnal pleasures, Gen. Abdul Hameed Khan, chief of staff of the Pakistan Army had instructed military governors of the provinces to carry out the President’s verbal orders given after 10 pm only after reconfirming them personally with the president the following morning.
The most important event domestically under Yahya Khan’s watch was the 1970 elections and its aftermath. Yahya created a National Security Cell (NSC) to help him assess the evolving political situation and to get an estimate of the likely makeup of parliament and the role that the army could play in the new political set-up.
After examining all the inputs, the NSC came to the conclusion that with 33 big and small parties in the field there would be a highly divided parliament and no single party would win sufficient seats to form the government. In fact, the NSC predicted that Parliament would be hung — a worse scenario than prior to Ayub Khan’s takeover in 1958. Based on such estimates, Yahya was assured that the army would continue to retain the real power, manipulating a divided parliament. The report thus recommended that ‘free and fair’ elections be held. Yahya followed that advice.
On 28 November 1969, Yahya announced a detailed plan for the holding of elections to both the national and provincial assemblies. The elections led to a civil war and the breakup of Pakistan. It would have required a great deal of statesmanship to resolve the situation created by the elections. Neither by training nor by temperament was Yahya equipped to handle issues of such magnitude.
The results of the elections held on 7 December 1970 came as a shock for the army. Instead of the anticipated hung Parliament enabling Yahya Khan to emerge as the powerbroker, the elections resulted in the victory of two strong political opponents — one with an overwhelming majority in one province and the other with a dominant vote in the other. Both wanted to be the prime minister.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won 162 seats out of 164 in the eastern wing, (but none in the west) giving it a majority in the 313 seats in the national assembly. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto‘s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which had no candidate in the east, won 81 seats out of 138 in the western wing. The election results were an obvious outcome of strong regional sentiments that had been totally misread by the intelligence agencies.
The New York Times of 13 December 1970 headlined the result as ‘Vote Jolts Punjabis’. The article described the sentiment of the people in Punjab as being of restiveness and angry. One comment summed it up: ‘Punjab is finished…We will be ruled by Sindh and Bengal. Our country has gone to the dogs.’
In his memoir, former Pakistani ambassador Jamsheed Marker revealed that the then US national security adviser Henry Kissinger told him (with reference to the 1970 elections), ‘Everywhere else in the world elections help to solve problems; in Pakistan, they seem to create them.’ Kissinger also chided Yahya for the mess that had been created telling him that ‘for a dictator, you run a lousy election.’
The incompatibility in the positions of Mujib and Bhutto put Yahya in a dilemma. Mujib would not compromise on East Pakistani autonomy as per his six-point manifesto and now he had the majority to implement it.
For his part, Bhutto acted as ‘the catalyst of separation’ during the period between the general elections and the crackdown in Dacca on 25 March 1971. He wanted authority at the Centre to be shared between the PPP and the Awami League in a ‘grand coalition’.
His insistence blocked the summoning of the national assembly and thereby a peaceful transfer of power from the military to the elected representatives. Bhutto’s apprehension was that if the national assembly session was held prior to an agreement on power sharing, the Awami League would be able to dictate terms, given its majority, including having its own nominee as Speaker.
Addressing a meeting on 14 April 1971 in Karachi, Bhutto stated that it was ‘only fair that in East Pakistan, it [prime ministership] should go to the Awami League and in the West to the PPP.’ The Urdu newspaper Azad reported this speech under the headline: ‘Uddhar tum, Iddhar hum’ (You stay there, we stay here), words that were construed to mean that Bhutto was talking about the bifurcation of the country.
Not surprisingly, negotiations were stalemated. Before leaving Dacca on 25 March Yahya told General Tikka Khan, the commander of Eastern Command. ‘Sort them out’.On the same day, the Pakistan Army launched a brutal crackdown on all dissent in the East, killing thousands and thousands of Bengalis. Bhutto saw Dacca burning. On reaching Karachi on 26 March, Bhutto announced, ‘Thank God Pakistan has been saved.’
The Inter-Services Intelligence had assessed that Bengali resistance, if any, to the army crackdown would end quickly and the possibility of Indian involvement was remote. Yahya relied on this estimate. As a result, the campaign in East Pakistan did not seem to have any specific aim or strategy.
Yahya and his advisers just ordered the army ‘to sort out the Bengalis’, and thereafter watched events unfold. According to a senior bureaucrat, they ‘did not seem to know what to do next or indeed care what happened. The political strategy of the regime seemed to have been based on the puerile belief that a taste of danda — the big stick — would cow down the Bengali babu.’
In fact, one reason Yahya lost his way was his abysmal lack of intelligence about what was going on in East Pakistan. This was hardly surprising given that one morning, during the war, the DG, ISI told Yahya, ‘Sir, Jean Dixon the astrologer of international fame, known for the accuracy of her predictions, has said that you have a long life ahead of you as head of State — perhaps ten years or more.’ Yahya was thrilled to hear this, not knowing that he would no longer be in the presidency in less than ten days.





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