A General Election That Ended In Disaster With No Lessons Learned

A General Election That Ended In Disaster With No Lessons Learned

50 years ago, Pakistan held its first general elections on December 7, 1970. These were the first direct national elections to be ever held in Pakistan since its independence. These elections were conducted under the Legal Framework Order, 1970, promulgated by General Yahya Khan.

Under LFO 1970, the National Assembly was to consist of 300 general seats and 13 reserved seats for women (300 + 13), distributed, on population basis, as follows:

East Pakistan: 162 + 7 (169)

Punjab: 82 + 3 (85)

Sindh: 27 + 1 (28)

NWFP: 18 + 1 (19)

Balochistan: 4 + 1 (5)


The Election Commission of Pakistan at that time was headed by Justice (R.) Abdus Sattar, the Chief Election Commissioner. He was a Bengali from East Pakistan and had earlier served as a judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and before that as a judge of the Dhaka High Court.

All Pakistani citizens who had attained the age of 21 years on Oct 1, 1969, were eligible to vote. In 1970 the '...total registered voters in the country were shown to be 56,941,500, out of which 31,211,220 were in the eastern wing and 25,730,280 were in the western wing,' reported DAWN. The original election date was fixed on Oct 5, 1970. However, due to flooding in East Pakistan, it was postponed to December 7. On Nov 11-12, the coastal areas of East Pakistan were again struck by calamity: a devastating Category 4 tropical cyclone which was named as 'Bhola Cyclone'.

Bhola Cyclone 'took the lives of at least 500,000 people' in the coastal areas of East Pakistan. It remains the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded (in terms of number of casualties) and is counted amongst the world's deadliest natural disasters of all times. Visual records of that era  provide a glimpse of the absolute disaster caused by Bhola Cyclone in East Pakistan in November 1970. This was hardly a month before the general elections.


Another devastating report from Thames TV archives testifies to the destruction:


By November 8, 1970, a cyclone was being tracked in the Bay of Bengal but the authorities failed to provide adequate early warnings to the coastal populations so that people could move to safer places in time. The government’s initial post disaster response was also slow and inadequate. DAWN reported that the 'East Pakistanis were appalled at the response of the predominantly Punjabi-Muhajir military-bureaucratic administration in dealing with this crisis, and ...were eager to point out how irrelevant the Bengalis had become to the ruling West Pakistani clique.'

On Nov 26, 1970, during Yahya's post cyclone tour of East Pakistan, a reporter asked him: 'Why do you think there's so much criticism in East Pakistan, sir?' Yahya: 'Well how can I tell you that.' Did he really not know? Or didn't want to acknowledge?


A few days later, Gen. Yahya addressed a post-tour press conference where he claimed: 'I do not believe that people of E. Pakistan want to separate from W. Pakistan... If you hear these rumblings, let me assure you that this is not the real voice of my people.'

We all know what happened a year later. The question is whether the power wielders in today's Pakistan have learnt a lesson from this unfortunate chapter of our history.