AYUB KHAN OUSTED AND REPLACED BY YAYHA KHAN
Following disastrous riots in late 1968 and early 1969, Ayub resigned and handed the government over to Gen. Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, the head of the army, who then declared martial law. The first direct universal voting since independence was held in December, 1970, to elect a National Assembly that would draft a new constitution and restore federal parliamentary government.
Over time people became increasingly fed up with Ayub Khan and a lack of democracy. After an attempt was made on his life he resigned and power was handed over to Gen. Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan (1917-1980) in March 1969 in what is regarded by some as another military coup. Yahya Kahn imposed martial law, abrogated the constitution, dissolved the national and provincial assemblies and banned political activity.. His regime called for elections in 1970
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.
Yayha Khan as Leader of Pakistan
Yahya Khan was the leader of Pakistan from March 1969 to December 1971, under martial law, serving in the posts of president and martial law administrator. He had to deal with the cyclone which caused 500,000 deaths in East Pakistan. Economic and political dissent in East Pakistan led to violent political repression and tensions escalating into civil war (Bangladesh Liberation War) and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 and ultimately the secession of East Pakistan as the independent state of Bangladesh.
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.
Yayha Khan and the War in Bangladesh
Yahya’s seeming indifference to the plight of Bengali victims of the cyclone in 1970 which caused 500,000 deaths in East Pakistan caused a great deal of animosity in East Pakistan. Economic and political dissent in East Pakistan led to violent political repression and tensions, His attempt to restore popular government in the general elections of 1970 failed, when the popular verdict supported greater independence for East Pakistan. The election results were ignored, and civil unrest in East Pakistan rapidly spread to become civil war. India, with more than a million refugees pouring into its West Bengal state, joined in the conflict in support of the rebellion in November 1971, tipping the balance in favor of East Pakistan. In early 1972 the country of Bangladesh was created from the ruins of East Pakistan. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, Thomson Gale. 2007]
On March 1, 1970 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.
Yahya Khan was discredited by their dismal handling of events that lead to the establishment of Bangladesh. He initiated Operations Searchlight at midnight on March 25, 1971 that led to the creation Bangladesh the same year and was described by one Pakistan newspaper as the “the murderer of the nation.” . In December 1971 Yahya Khan handed over the presidency and government to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — the ambitious leader of Pakistan's powerful and popular (at that time) People's Party. After Yahya Khan’s resignation he sentenced to five years of house arrest.
1970 Cyclone and Flood
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the deadliest circular storm (hurricane, typhoon, cycle) ever killed 1,000,000 people in Ganges Delta Islands on November 12-13, 1970. It was also he deadliest disaster, killing more people than the deadliest earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, landslides and volcanic eruptions. The cyclone hit on a Thursday night with 150 mph (245 kph) winds and a 20-foot (six-meter) storm surge that occurred during the high tides during a full moon. Most were killed by the storm surge. American satellites tracked the storms and reports of its progresses were relayed to Pakistan. Warnings were issued but so few people had televisions or radios and the warnings were largely unheeded.
Huge waves were generated by the winds and carried inland by the storm surge, killing thousands. Coastal islands in the Bay of Bengal were particularly hard hit. Over the 26,000 residents on Mapura were killed; only 6,500 survived. Every one on Sonadia Island died. Rice fields and food storage bins were washed away. Drinking water, food and medical supplies were scarce. Within a few days the there was an outbreak of cholera. People were so desperate and hungry after the storm and war that people could be seen on their hands and knees, picking up individual grains of rice to eat. Vultures were so fat they could barely fly. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, September 1972]
A week later Maynard Parker wrote in Newsweek, "I flew over the worst hit islands in the Ganges delta and everywhere the grisly sight is much the same. The bodies, blackened and bloated from the salt water, lie strewn across the landscape like big plastic dolls struck down by a petulant child. A few were sprawled in the paddies and some washed in on the gentle tide, but most floated face down in the canals that reach like grasping fingers from the brown water of the Bay of Bengal. The decaying flesh fills the air with a sickening smell, attracting vultures which come to feast on the carcasses of man and beast."
The relief effort after the cyclone was the largest mission of its kind ever undertaken. Britain sent in the Royal marines. The United States, China and other nations brought in food and medical supplies. Planes and boats stood ready to deliver the supplies. The only problem was that many of the roads and airstrips were submerged by the flood waters and in many cases it was weeks before supplies reached the places where they were needed most.
The apparent indifference by the West Pakistanis to offers assistance to their Muslim brothers in the east was seen as one of the main reasons the Bengalis began their rebellion that led to war of independence in 1971. The 1970 cyclone also led to George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh.
Division Between East and West Pakistan
Pakistan's two provinces were separated from each other by more than 1,600 kilometers of secular but predominantly Hindu India. The bulk of the economy and the people were in the east but the capital, the supreme court and the headquarters for all the military services were in the West. Although straight line distance between Karachi and Dakka, were about a 2,000 kilometers apart the the plane journey there was almost 6,000 kilometers because India will not allow Pakistani planes to fly over Indian airspace.
At the time of independence East Pakistan was home to 42 million people crowded mainly into what had been the eastern half of India’s Bengal province. West Pakistan contained 34 million in a much larger territory that included the former Indian provinces of Baluchistan, Sind, the Northwest Frontier, and western Punjab. From the capital in Karachi, in West Pakistan, the leaders of the new state worked hard to establish a workable parliamentary government with broad acceptance in both East and West. Political stability proved hard to achieve, with frequent declarations of martial law and states of emergency in the years following 1954. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations, Thomson Gale. 2007]
In language, culture, ethnic background, population density, political experience, and economic potential, East and West Pakistan were very different. Their main bonds were Islam and a fear of potential Indian (Hindu) expansion. Pakistan’s early years as a nation were dominated by unsuccessful attempts to create a nation that would somehow bridge these differences. The differences persisted, and demands for a separate state in the east began to mount.
Though the Bengali east wing was economically more important, political power rested in the Sindhi and Punjabi factions of the west wing. The eastern areas chafed under national policies initiated in the west, and sought greater autonomy. Easterners voted the West-dominated Muslim League (ML) out of office in 1954, resulting in a period of direct rule from Karachi. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]
Friction Between East and West Pakistan
From the beginning of Pakistan's creation, the Bengali population in the east was more numerous than the Pakistani population in the western wing, yet West Pakistan became the seat of government and controlled nearly all national resources. People in the eastern wing of Pakistan felt they were exploited by the western wing. West Pakistanis for the most part ran the government and West Pakistani businessmen controlled the east’s most important industries. Money earned from exports in East Pakistan ended in West Pakistan. Even though more than half of Pakistan's export earnings came from jute and other products from the east and 60 percent of the population was in the east, the east only received 40 percent of the national budget.
People in East Pakistan felt like second class citizens compared to the people in West Pakistan, who easterners felt tried to dominate things. Starting in 1948, soon after Pakistan became independent, the western wing began imposing the Urdu language on the Bengalis in the eastern wing. The Bengali-speaking residents of the east were forced to learn Urdu, the language of the west, in schools. Periodically there were large demonstrations over the language issue.
Bengalis were severely underrepresented in the powerful bureaucracy and military. The use of Bengali revenues from the export of primary goods such as jute to finance the development of the western wing led to accusations of an "inner colonialism." Bengali literature and culture were suppressed along with the Bengali language. [Source: English Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe Since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction, Thomson Gale, 2006]
According to “Countries of the World and Their Leaders”: Almost from the advent of independent Pakistan in 1947, frictions developed between East and West Pakistan, which were separated by more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory. East Pakistanis felt exploited by the West Pakistan-dominated central government. Linguistic, cultural, and ethnic differences also contributed to the estrangement of East from West Pakistan. Bengalis strongly resisted attempts to impose Urdu as the sole official language of Pakistan.Responding to these grievances, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1948 formed a students' organization called the Chhatra League. In 1949, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani and some other Bengali leaders formed the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League (AL), a party designed mainly to promote Bengali interests. This party dropped the word Muslim from its name in 1955 and came to be known as Awami League.. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook” 2009]
West Pakistanis generally viewed Bengalis as inferior, weak, and less Islamic. From 1947 to 1970, West Pakistan reluctantly gave in to Bengali calls for power within the government, armed forces, and civil service, but increasing social unrest in the east led to a perception among government officials that the people of Bengal were unruly and untrust worthy "Hinduized" citizens. Successive Pakistani regimes, increasingly concerned with consolidating their power over the entire country, often criticized the Hindu minority in Bengal. This was evident in Prime Minister Nazimuddin's attempt in 1952 to make Urdu, the predominant language of West Pakistan, the state language. The effect in the east was to energize opposition movements, radicalize students at Dhaka University, and give new meaning to a Bengali identity that stressed the cultural unity of the east instead of a pan-Islamic brotherhood. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]
East–West Political Divisions Under Martial Law in the 1950s and 60s
In 1958, the Army chief, Gen. Muhammad Ayub Khan, seized control of Pakistan, imposing martial law and banning all political activity for several years. Ayub later dissolved provincial boundaries in the west wing, converting it to "one unit," to balance East Pakistan. Each "unit" had a single provincial government and equal strength in an indirectly elected national legislature; the effect was to deny East Pakistan its population advantage, as well as its ability, as the largest province, to play provincial politics in the west wing.
Through the 1960s, the Bengali public welcomed a message that stressed the uniqueness of Bengali culture, and this formed the basis for calls for self-determination or autonomy. Ayub's efforts failed to establish stability or satisfy the demands for restoration of parliamentary democracy. Weakened by his abortive military adventure against India in September 1965 and amid rising political strife in both wings in 1968, Ayub was eventually forced from office. General Muhammad Yayha Khan, also opposed to greater autonomy for the east wing, assumed the presidency in 1969. Again martial law was imposed and political activity suspended.
In the late 1960s, the Pakistani government attempted to fore-stall scheduled elections. Yahya's attempt to restore popular government in the general elections of December 1970 — in which Pakistanis voted directly for members of the National Assembly — failed when the popular verdict supported those calling for greater autonomy for East Pakistan. Civil unrest in the east wing flared into civil war. India, with more than a million refugees pouring into its West Bengal state, joined the conflict in November 1971, supporting East Pakistan. When the brutal war ended in early 1972, the eastern wing was formally severed from Pakistan and became the nation of Bangladesh (land of Bengalis).
Awami League and Bengali Political Parties
Awami Muslim League, better known as the Awami League, was the main Bengali party and party representing the interests of East Pakistanis in the early days of Pakistan. Initally formed as a students’ organization called the Chhatra League in 1949 by Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani and some other Bengali leaders, it was set up party designed mainly to promote Bengali interests. It was initially called the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League (AL). The word Muslim was dropped its name in 1955 and it became known as Awami League. Mujib became president of the Awami League in 1966 and emerged as leader of the Bengali autonomy movement. In 1966, he was arrested for his political activities.
The Awami League allied with other Bengali parties to from the United Front. In elections in 1954, the United Front won 223 of 237 seats in East Pakistan, while the Muslim League dominated in West Pakistan, exacerbating difference between East and West Pakistan. The United Front was a coalition of Bengali regional parties anchored by Fazlul Haq's Krishak Sramik Samajbadi Dal (Peasants and Workers Socialist Party) and the Awami League (People's League) led by Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy. Rejection of West Pakistan's dominance over East Pakistan and the desire for Bengali provincial autonomy were the main ingredients of the coalition's twenty-one-point platform. The East Pakistani election and the coalition's victory proved pyrrhic; Bengali factionalism surfaced soon after the election and the United Front fell apart.
From 1954 to Ayub's assumption of power in 1958, the Krishak Sramik and the Awami League waged a ceaseless battle for control of East Pakistan's provincial government. In 1955, Choudhry Mohammad Ali, former head of the civil service and minister of finance, became prime minister. The Awami League's Hussain Shahid Suhrawardy succeeded Choudhry as prime minister in September 1956 and formed a coalition cabinet. He, like other Bengali politicians, was chosen by the central government to serve as a symbol of unity, but he failed to secure significant support from West Pakistani power brokers. Although he had a good reputation in East Pakistan and was respected for his prepartition association with Gandhi, his strenuous efforts to gain greater provincial autonomy for East Pakistan and a larger share of development funds for it were not well received in West Pakistan. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]
Language Issue is East and West Pakistan
One of the most divisive issues confronting Pakistan in its infancy was the question of what the official language of the new state was to be. Jinnah yielded to the demands of refugees from the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, who insisted that Urdu be Pakistan's official language. Speakers of the languages of West Pakistan — Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushtu, and Baluchi — were upset that their languages were given second-class status. In East Pakistan, the dissatisfaction quickly turned to violence. The Bengalis of East Pakistan constituted a majority (an estimated 54 percent) of Pakistan's entire population. Their language, Bangla (then commonly known as Bengali), shares with Urdu a common Sanskritic-Persian ancestor, but the two languages have different scripts and literary traditions. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]
Jinnah visited East Pakistan on only one occasion after independence, shortly before his death in 1948. He announced in Dhaka that "without one state language, no nation can remain solidly together and function." Jinnah's views were not accepted by most East Pakistanis, but perhaps in tribute to the founder of Pakistan, serious resistance on this issue did not break out until after his death. On February 22, 1952, a demonstration was carried out in Dhaka in which students demanded equal status for Bangla. The police reacted by firing on the crowd and killing two students. (A memorial, the Shaheed Minar, was built later to commemorate the martyrs of the language movement.) Two years after the incident, Bengali agitation effectively forced the National Assembly to designate "Urdu and Bengali and such other languages as may be declared" to be the official languages of Pakistan. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]
The language issue stirred Bengali nationalism. A nationalist movement grew with Bengalis politicians claiming they were not given a say in national affair or an ability to govern. To counteract this development the four province of western Pakistan were united into a single unit.
The independence movement that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh began in earnest with the Language Movement of 1952, a drive to recognize Bangla as a state language along with Urdu. This was the first popular uprising against the autocratic government in West Pakistan. All movements that led to Bangladeshis independence in 1971 were based on the 1952 demonstration. Amara Ekushe, a national Day of Mourning held today, commemorates the deaths of students killed in demonstrations in 1952.
Difference Between East and West Pakistan in the 1960s
During the years between 1960 and 1965, the annual rate of growth of the gross domestic product per capita was 4.4 percent in West Pakistan versus a poor 2.6 percent in East Pakistan. Furthermore, Bengali politicians pushing for more autonomy complained that much of Pakistan's export earnings were generated in East Pakistan by the export of Bengali jute and tea. As late as 1960, approximately 70 percent of Pakistan's export earnings originated in the East Wing, although this percentage declined as international demand for jute dwindled.
By the mid-1960s, the East Wing was accounting for less than 60 percent of the nation's export earnings, and by the time of Bangladesh's independence in 1971, this percentage had dipped below 50 percent. This reality did not dissuade Mujib from demanding in 1966 that separate foreign exchange accounts be kept and that separate trade offices be opened overseas. By the mid-1960s, West Pakistan was benefiting from Ayub's "Decade of Progress," with its successful "green revolution" in wheat, and from the expansion of markets for West Pakistani textiles, while the East Pakistani standard of living remained at an abysmally low level. Bengalis were also upset that West Pakistan, because it was the seat of government, was the major beneficiary of foreign aid.
The Awami League was led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (generally known as Sheikh Mujib). The largely a Bengali party was calling for more autonomy for the east. Sheikh Mujib wanted to reconfigure Pakistan as a confederation of two equal partners.
Emerging Discontent in the Late 1960s
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. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]
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.
The new administration formed a committee of deputy and provincial martial law administrators that functioned above the civil machinery of government. The generals held power and were no longer the supporting arm of the civilians — elected or bureaucratic — as they had been throughout much of the country's history. In the past, every significant change of government had relied, in large part, on the allegiance of the military. However, Yahya Khan and his military advisers proved no more capable of overcoming the nation's problems than their predecessors. The attempt to establish a military hierarchy running parallel to and supplanting the authority of the civilian administration inevitably ruptured the bureaucratic-military alliance, on which efficiency and stability depended. Little effort was made to promote a national program. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994 *]
These weaknesses were not immediately apparent but became so as events moved quickly toward a crisis in East Pakistan. On November 28, 1969, Yahya Khan made a nationwide broadcast announcing his proposals for a return to constitutional government. General elections for the National Assembly were set for October 5, 1970, but were postponed to December as the result of a severe cyclone that hit the coast of East Pakistan. The National Assembly was obliged within 120 days to draw up a new constitution, which would permit maximum provincial autonomy. Yahya Khan, however, made it clear that the federal government would require powers of taxation well beyond those contemplated by the six points of the Awami League. He also reserved the right to "authenticate" the constitution. On July 1, 1970, the One Unit Plan was dissolved into the four original provinces. Yahya Khan also determined that the parity of representation in the National Assembly between the East Wing and the West Wing that had existed under the 1956 and 1962 constitutions would end and that representation would be based on population. This arrangement gave East Pakistan 162 seats (plus seven reserved for women) versus 138 seats (plus six for women) for the new provinces of the West Wing.
Language Debate in East Pakistan, the First Step Towards War?
Anirban Mahapatra wrote in Ozy.com: Aroma Dutta was in her early 20s when her grandfather, Dhirendranath Datta, was arrested at their home in Comilla on a fateful March night in 1971. Those were turbulent times in what was then the Pakistan-administered province of East Bengal (also called East Pakistan). An independence movement seeking sovereignty from Pakistani control had begun to gain rapid momentum among the region’s Bengali-speaking population, and the state had launched a crushing military drive to weed out prominent separatist leaders suspected of playing a part. Atop the list of wanted men — mostly eminent members of the Bengali intelligentsia — was Datta. He died in confinement soon after, succumbing to torture at the hands of his captors. [Source: Anirban Mahapatra, Ozy.com, May 4 2018]
“Far from a mere act of intellectual cleansing, Datta’s death was not without grave context. “They [the government] had decided long ago that Dhirendranath would have to pay with his life for his advocacy of the Bengali language,” contends his granddaughter, now one of Bangladesh’s foremost social and human rights activists. “He never compromised on his demand to instate Bengali as the lingua franca of Pakistan, and that never went down well with most members of the government who had no inherent regard for the language.”
“The story begins in 1948 — with Datta, of course. Attending a constituent assembly meeting in the Pakistani city of Karachi in February that year, Datta — as an elected assembly representative from East Pakistan — put forth an earnest demand to recognize Bengali as the official language of the country. The leader’s logic was simple. “Out of six crores and 90 lakhs [69 million] of people inhabiting this state [Pakistan], four crores and 40 lakhs [44 million] of people speak the Bengali language,” he reasoned before the house. “So, sir, what should be the state language?”
“The argument behind the rhetorical question was sound, but it failed to resonate with the house. Pakistan’s administrative power was in the western mainland, where the native population spoke languages such as Punjabi, Urdu or Pashto, but not Bengali. Moreover, as an overarching answer to Pakistan’s complex linguistic matrix, the government had recently ruled that Urdu would be adopted as the state language, even though that decision alienated the majority of citizens in its eastern province.
“Soon after Datta’s petition was quashed in the assembly, Muhammad Ali Jinnah — governor-general of Pakistan — visited East Pakistan and delivered a conclusive speech at the University of Dhaka. “The state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language,” he said. “Anyone who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan. In its unequivocal prioritization of Urdu over Bengali, Jinnah’s speech sparked mass outrage among East Pakistan’s Bengalis. Waves of public criticism denouncing the government’s linguistic policy swept through the region over the next few years, before coming to a head in 1952. “On the morning of February 21 that year, as political debate spearheaded by Dhirendranath raged in Dhaka’s Provincial Assembly house over the recognition of the Bengali language,” recalls Dutta, “thousands of university students, college students and common people assembled on the adjacent university grounds to stage a public protest.”
“Despite starting off as a peaceful assembly, the day’s proceedings began to reel out of control as the hours went by. Before long, organized protest had given way to frenzied chaos, forcing the police to open fire on the gathering. Four students were killed, and their deaths sparked further civic unrest, which resulted in even more death and destruction of what was widely believed to be the state’s cultural hegemony over its Bengali population.
“Looking back on the remains of the day, many of Bangladesh’s leading thinkers concur that the tidings of 1952 — as well as the people involved in the affairs — played a critical role in shaping and foreshadowing Bangladesh’s subsequent path to independence. “There were many language activists who were in the vanguard of the formative phase of the Language Movement, and among those, however, Shaheed [martyr] Dhirendranath Dutta’s role was seminal by any measure,” noted academic and political observer M. Waheeduzzaman Manik in his column in Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star in 2014. In a written statement issued in 1994 while she was opposition leader in Parliament, current Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina observed that “the groundwork of nationalism founded by the Language Movement eventually shaped Bangladesh’s struggle for independence,” and that freedom was finally obtained in exchange for “the lives of 3 million martyred men and the dignity of 2 million violated women.”
In early 1969, Ayub resigned and handed the government over to Gen. Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, the head of the army, who then declared martial law. Yahya announced plans for a national election on December 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.
The election pitted the dominant party in West Pakistan, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Bhutto against the Awami League of Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the dominant party of East Pakistan. An intense election campaign took place in 1970 as restrictions on press, speech, and assembly were removed. Bhutto campaigned in the West Wing on a strongly nationalist and leftist platform. The slogan of his party was "Islam our Faith, Democracy our Policy, Socialism our Economy." He said that the PPP would provide "roti, kapra, aur makhan" (bread, clothing, and shelter) to all. He also proclaimed a "thousand year war with India," although this pronouncement was played down later in the campaign. In the East Wing, the Awami League gained widespread support for the six-point program. Its cause was further strengthened because West Pakistani politicians were perceived as callously indifferent to the Bengali victims of the October cyclone and slow to come to their aid. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994]
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 PPP won a large majority in the West Wing, especially in Punjab and Sindh, but no seats in the East Wing. In the North- West Frontier Province and Balochistan, the National Awami Party won a plurality of the seats. The Muslim League and the Islamic parties did poorly in the west and were not represented in the east.
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.
After the Elections in 1970
Instead of accepting his loss in the 1970 election Bhutto refused to join the Bengali dominated National Assembly in Dakka and joined forces with the military that launched a brutal crackdown that lead to the civil war that created Bangladesh.
Bengalis were incensed that they were denied power. Riots broke out in East Pakistan and Sheik Mujib urged his people to "make every home a fortress." The military fell into disgrace. President Muhammad Agha Yahya Khan, hoping to avert a political confrontation between East and West Pakistan,
Any constitutional agreement clearly depended on the consent of three persons: Mujib of the East Wing, Bhutto of the West Wing, and Yahya Khan, as the ultimate authenticator representing the military government. In his role as intermediary and head of state, Yahya Khan tried to persuade Bhutto and Mujib to come to some kind of accommodation. This effort proved unsuccessful as Mujib insisted on his right as leader of the majority to form a government — a stand at variance with Bhutto, who claimed there were "two majorities" in Pakistan.
Bhutto declared that the PPP would not attend the inaugural session of the assembly, thereby making the establishment of civilian government impossible. On March 1, 1971, Yahya Khan, who earlier had referred to Mujib as the "future prime minister of Pakistan," dissolved his civilian cabinet and declared an indefinite postponement of the National Assembly. In East Pakistan, the reaction was immediate. Strikes, demonstrations, and civil disobedience increased in tempo until there was open revolt. Prodded by Mujib, Bengalis declared they would pay no taxes and would ignore martial law regulations on press and radio censorship. The writ of the central government all but ceased to exist in East Pakistan. [Source: Peter Blood, Library of Congress, 1994]
Also on March 1, 1970 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, joined by Bhutto, were held in late March in a last-ditch attempt to defuse the growing crisis but soon collapsed. At the same time General Tikka Khan, who commanded the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan, prepared a contingency plan for a military takeover and called for troop reinforcements to be flown in via Sri Lanka.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, marking the beginning of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.
Crackdown After the Elections in 1970
On March 25, 1971, the Pakistani army carried out a systematic execution of several hundred people, arrested Mujib for treason, and imprisoned him in the west. The Awami League was declared illegal, an action which drove its leaders into India where in April 1971, they formed the Constituent Assembly of Bangladesh in Exile. They also formed the Mukti Bahini, a force composed of Bengalis in Pakistan's army and volunteers, as "freedom fighters" setting the stage for a civil war between the two wings of Pakistan. A million East Pakistanis crossed the border into India as refugees.
Tikka Khan's emergency plan had gone into operation. Roadblocks and barriers appeared all over Dhaka. Mujib was taken into custody and flown to the West Wing to stand trial for treason. Universities were attacked, and the first of many deaths occurred. The tempo of violence of the military crackdown during these first days soon accelerated into a full-blown and brutal civil war.
On March 26, Yahya Khan outlawed the Awami League, banned political activity, and reimposed press censorship in both wings. Because of these strictures, people in the West Wing remained uninformed about the crackdown in the east and tended to discount reports appearing in the international press as an Indian conspiracy.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Bangladesh Tourism Board, Bangladesh National Portal (www.bangladesh.gov.bd), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022