Cover Story

Beginning of the End?

As in 1971, the most powerful group, having successfully co-opted self-serving politicians, is adamant that people are not allowed to decide their future. There are differences between then and now, but the primary aim remains the same: people should not elect their representatives freely and fairly.

By Nikhat Sattar | May 2023

Over the over two decades after Pakistan’s independence in August 1947, the people of East Pakistan had been increasingly alienated from the western wing that they perceived to be represented by the central government. They had been systematically side-lined; economically discriminated against; deprived of opportunities; had low representation in the armed forces; considered socially backward and exploited. Their language and culture that they held so dear to their existence had been consistently looked down upon. The apathetic and cavalier fashion in which the government had responded to needs of the people affected by the devastating cyclone of November 1970 was perhaps the last nail in the coffin. Anger and resentment rose high among most Bengalis living in East Pakistan. Nationalist attitudes hardened with clear polarisation bordering on hatred for non-Bengalis who were commonly referred to as ‘Bihari.’

In this scenario, under the first military rule, with General Yahya Bakhtiar as President, national elections were held in East and West Pakistan between December 7, 1970 and January 17, 1971. In total, Mujib ur Rahman’s Awami League commanded 167 out of 313 seats in the national assembly, all from East Pakistan against 86 held by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, all from the Western wing. Mujib was in a clear majority, in a position to form the government and become the Prime Minister.

A clear but strongly divided electorate between the east and west wings, major differences in political priorities and manifestos and personal rigidity and ego of the two leaders, specifically of Bhutto meant minimal chances of compromise that became increasingly dimmer over the days that followed.

Neither Bhutto nor the military powers were willing to be led by a Bengali. Mujib’s rigidity on his six points also led to a stalemate. A sudden postponement of the first session of the national assembly was announced on March 01, 1971.This was indeed “the beginning of the end of a unified Pakistan”, to borrow from the report of an American diplomat.

It was certain that power would not be transferred to the majority. For the next three weeks riots, violent protests, strikes and attacks on non-Bengalis broke out. It seemed as if Mujib who had played a major role in inciting his people could no longer control the direction of their anger. The Establishment decided to crush the uprising at all costs and thus began the Operation Searchlight that ended the possibility of any political solution to the problem. It was a brutal action not only against armed nationalists but also against the general public. Bengalis fought back with guerrilla warfare that the Pakistan Army found difficult to handle. India moved in and after only 13 days of fighting, the Pakistan Army surrendered. Bangladesh had already declared its independence on 26 March but was now free to celebrate its “liberation.”

In the truncated Pakistan, military adventurism has been a constant since then. Governments have been deposed and even though a Constitution was prepared in 1973 through a rare consensus, it has been tampered with at great cost to the country’s development. Resources of some provinces have been milked, their people have been oppressed and opportunistic men have cashed in on untimely deaths of the popular Bhutto father and daughter. Religious extremism has been actively promoted and nationalist attitudes pitching one linguistic community against another taken advantage of. More than 60 percent of the population in Pakistan is very poor and most of the country’s resources are used by the elite group that comprises the corporate sector, the military, politicians and feudal landlords.

Armed resistance against the federation in Balochistan has been on-going. It has been put down with force, leading to a permanent presence of the military. Despite a somewhat free and proliferating media, both television and social, crackdown on dissent is frequent. A nation-wide system of picking up people and holding them at undisclosed locations, sometime for years has become a constant. Militancy is rife both in KPK and Sindh.

Read More