A misperception that just stuck
Since 1971, it has become quite customary in Pakistan to discuss the breakup of the country in every December. Often the debate revolves around the three leading characters: Yahya, Mujib and Bhutto. However, the one who has received the harshest criticism for various reasons has been Bhutto and that is why it is important to know his version of why and how the separation took place. There is plethora of available literature but the most valuable recent addition has been the memoirs of Mohammed Yunus, who served as the Director General of the Middle Eastern and African Affairs in Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in that capacity recorded the version of the East Pakistan tragedy given by Bhutto in the aftermath, during the course of his first round of flying visits to the ten most important Muslim heads of state in the Mideast and North Africa.
Though on assuming power, Yahya had announced that he had no “political ambitions” and after his first broadcast to the nation “sat down holding his head in dismay and woefully remarked: what should we do now”, on tasting the brew of power, he tried to hang on as the president after the general elections by playing one party against the other, asking Mujib, “Let us get together and crush Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)” because of its radical programme, while simultaneously seeking Bhutto’s cooperation by branding Mujib a “secessionist”. To manipulate the post-election formation of government, he expected 10-12 political parties to emerge with substantial representation and therefore allowed one whole year for the election campaigns during which he just sat back and did nothing to stop the ensuing acrimony and hatred. Subsequent to the launching of the military operation on 25 March, 1971, in East Pakistan, he dubbed both the PPP and the Awami League as ‘menace’ to be dealt with and even distributed money among the hardliners in the PPP to split the party.
It is wrong to assume that Bhutto was anti-Bengali because he admitted before Gaddafi of Libya that they made the greatest sacrifices for the cause of Pakistan. That is why he was quite sympathetic towards the Six Points of the Awami League because he felt that to a common Bengali these Points meant an end to exploitation and progress but for the extremists this programme became a vehicle for secession. He tried to impress this fact upon Yahya, who retorted that “he had been given to understand by the industrialists that Mujibur Rahman would compromise”. Bhutto informed King Faisal of Saudi Arabia that he had told Mujib that PPP was willing to “make compromises but the Six Points meant the end of Pakistan”; Mujib being intoxicated by victory was not willing to compromise. Moreover, throughout the election campaign, he had taken a hard line against West Pakistan and any subsequent softness meant his political hara-kiri. There was a deadlock because the West Pakistanis looked upon the acceptance of the Six Points as capitulation to the Bengali separatism.
Mujib’s plan was to insist on the early holding of the National Assembly session because with his majority, he could have the constitution of his liking framed and if Yahya resorted to veto, which he could as per the Legal Framework Order (LFO), then he planned to turn the National Assembly into the Constituent Assembly and “adopt the constitution and march on the Government House in Dhaka”. Those who blame Bhutto for the breakup of the country should remember that he was the one who came up with different proposals to break the deadlock. Had the constitution been not formed within the stipulated 120 days by the Assembly, Yahya could dissolve it and call for re-election, thus using a convenient ruse to prolong his rule and at the same time pin the blame on the politicians. To avoid this, Bhutto proposed that either the session be postponed or the period for constitution-making be extended to more than 120-day limit. He suggested this with two objectives: one, to gain more time to soften Sheikh Mujib’s stiff stance on the Six Points; and two, to level public opinion in West Pakistan as far closer to the acceptance of these Points as he could and thus break the impasse. Bhutto’s proposal was not unreasonable keeping in view the fact that the first constitution was formed in eight years and the second by Ayub had taken four years.
Yahya paid no heed to this idea and ordered a military operation in East Pakistan. Again, those who blame Bhutto for supporting it do not take full cognizance of the facts. It is important to remember that neither Yahya took the PPP into confidence before launching the operation nor Bhutto had ever suggested it to the military regime. In fact, his stance after the operation is muddled through to exonerate Yahya and portray him as a ‘power-hungry’ politician, who was not interested in keeping the unity of the country. This is because three points are totally ignored with regard to Bhutto’s standpoint on the military operation: first, after the military operation had been undertaken, he demanded that it should be restricted only to the outright secessionists to save the integrity of the state. Two, that pure and simple military operation could not succeed on its own without some kind of political action to win the hearts of the people. Three, he and his party repeatedly protested against the excesses of the operation.
As situation continued to deteriorate, Bhutto is on the record to have warned in two public meetings — one in Karachi on 11 September and the other in Multan on 8 October — that the integrity of the country was at stake, at which Yahya called him and told to be not “so pessimistic” because his regime “would not allow the dismemberment of Pakistan”. As Yahya had virtually divorced any meaningful political option and intended to pursue the military solution, Bhutto left the country in disgust.
With the advantage of hindsight, one may ask that as the Awami League had won the majority, why was power not handed over to it and that was the responsibility of President General Yahya Khan and not any politician. Moreover, were the Six Points — the bone of contention — so ‘sacred’ for Mujib and so ‘sacrilegious’ for Yahya, Bhutto and the West Pakistanis that the integrity of the country was put at stake rather than reaching a pragmatic solution? Today, the Pakistani print and electronic media is full of remorseful people, who insist that power should have been transferred to the Bengalis. Ironically, these very (West) Pakistanis were the ones, with a few exceptions, who actually built up the public pressure that didn’t leave much room for the politicians to maneuver. By a strange coincidence, both the wings had entered a dead-end street from which they could not come out.
The writer is an academic and journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]