Emerging Discontent, 1966-70

Emerging Discontent, 1966-70

At a 1966 Lahore conference of both the eastern and the western chapters of the Awami League, Mujib announced his controversial six-point political and economic program for East Pakistani provincial autonomy. He demanded that the government be federal and parliamentary in nature, its members to be elected by universal adult suffrage with legislative representation on the basis of population; that the federal government have principal responsibility for foreign affairs and defense only; that each wing have its own currency and separate fiscal accounts; that taxation would occur at the provincial level, with a federal government funded by constitutionally guaranteed grants; that each federal unit could control its own earning of foreign exchange; and that each unit could raise its own militia or paramilitary forces.

Mujib's six points ran directly counter to President Ayub's plan for greater national integration. Ayub's anxieties were shared by many West Pakistanis, who feared that Mujib's plan would divide Pakistan by encouraging ethnic and linguistic cleavages in West Pakistan, and would leave East Pakistan, with its Bengali ethnic and linguistic unity, by far the most populous and powerful of the federating units. Ayub interpreted Mujib's demands as tantamount to a call for independence. After pro-Mujib supporters rioted in a general strike in Dhaka, the government arrested Mujib in January 1968.

Ayub suffered a number of setbacks in 1968. His health was poor, and he was almost assassinated at a ceremony marking ten years of his rule. Riots followed, and Bhutto was arrested as the instigator. At Dhaka a tribunal that inquired into the activities of the already-interned Mujib was arousing strong popular resentment against Ayub. A conference of opposition leaders and the cancellation of the state of emergency (in effect since 1965) came too late to conciliate the opposition. On February 21, 1969, Ayub announced that he would not run in the next presidential election in 1970. A state of near anarchy reigned with protests and strikes throughout the country. The police appeared helpless to control the mob violence, and the military stood aloof. At length, on March 25 Ayub resigned and handed over the administration to the commander in chief, General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan. Once again the country was placed under martial law. Yahya assumed the titles of chief martial law administrator and president. He announced that he considered himself to be a transitional leader whose task would be to restore order and to conduct free elections for a new constituent assembly, which would then draft a new constitution. He appointed a largely civilian cabinet in August 1969 in preparation for the election, which was scheduled to take place in December 1970. Yahya moved with dispatch to settle two contentious issues by decree: the unpopular "One Unit" of West Pakistan, which was created as a condition for the 1956 constitution, was ended; and East Pakistan was awarded 162 seats out of the 300-member National Assembly. On November 12, 1970, a cyclone devastated an area of almost 8,000 square kilometers of East Pakistan's mid-coastal lowlands and its outlying islands in the Bay of Bengal. It was perhaps the worst natural disaster of the area in centuries. As many as 250,000 lives were lost. Two days after the cyclone hit, Yahya arrived in Dhaka after a trip to Beijing, but he left a day later. His seeming indifference to the plight of Bengali victims caused a great deal of animosity. Opposition newspapers in Dhaka accused the Pakistani government of impeding the efforts of international relief agencies and of "gross neglect, callous inattention, and bitter indifference." Mujib, who had been released from prison, lamented that "West Pakistan has a bumper wheat crop, but the first shipment of food grain to reach us is from abroad" and "that the textile merchants have not given a yard of cloth for our shrouds." "We have a large army," Mujib continued," but it is left to the British Marines to bury our dead." In an unveiled threat to the unity of Pakistan he added, "the feeling now pervades . . . every village, home, and slum that we must rule ourselves. We must make the decisions that matter. We will no longer suffer arbitrary rule by bureaucrats, capitalists, and feudal interests of West Pakistan."

Yahya announced plans for a national election on December 7, 1970, and urged voters to elect candidates who were committed to the integrity and unity of Pakistan. The elections were the first in the history of Pakistan in which voters were able to elect members of the National Assembly directly. In a convincing demonstration of Bengali dissatisfaction with the West Pakistani regime, the Awami League won all but 2 of the 162 seats allotted East Pakistan in the National Assembly. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party came in a poor second nationally, winning 81 out of the 138 West Pakistani seats in the National Assembly. The Awami League's electoral victory promised it control of the government, with Mujib as the country's prime minister, but the inaugural assembly never met.

Yahya and Bhutto vehemently opposed Mujib's idea of a confederated Pakistan. Mujib was adamant that the constitution be based on his six-point program. Bhutto, meanwhile, pleaded for unity in Pakistan under his leadership. As tensions mounted, Mujib suggested he become prime minister of East Pakistan while Bhutto be made prime minister of West Pakistan. It was this action that triggered mass civil disobedience in East Pakistan. Mujib called for a general strike until the government was given over to the "people's representatives." Tiring of the interminable game of politics he was playing with the Bengali leader, Yahya decided to ignore Mujib's demands and on March 1 postponed indefinitely the convening of the National Assembly, which had been scheduled for March 3. March 1 also was a portentous date, for on that day Yahya named General Tikka Khan, who in later years was to earn the dubious title "Butcher of Baluchistan" for his suppression of Baluch separatists, as East Pakistan's military governor. The number of West Pakistani troops entering East Pakistan had increased sharply in the preceding weeks, climbing from a precrisis level of 25,000 to about 60,000, bringing the army close to a state of readiness. As tensions rose, however, Yahya continued desperate negotiations with Mujib, flying to Dhaka in mid-March. Talks between Yahya and Muhib were joined by Bhutto but soon collapsed, and on March 23 Bengalis following Mujib's lead defiantly celebrated "Resistance Day" in East Pakistan instead of the traditional all-Pakistan "Republic Day." Yahya decided to "solve" the problem of East Pakistan by repression. On the evening of March 25 he flew back to Islamabad. The military crackdown in East Pakistan began that same night.


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