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Was Bhutto Responsible For The Breakup Of Pakistan?

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Dr. Akbar Zaidi is one of Pakistan’s most eminent political economists. He has formidable credentials – PhD and MPhil degrees in History and Economics from University of Cambridge, an MSc in Social Planning in Developing Countries from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a BSc in Economics from University College London.

He has over 35 years of teaching and research experience. In 2016, speaking at an event in Karachi, he said, “East Pakistan has been erased from memory. The Bengalis of East Pakistan have been reduced to they were traitors, India interfered and East Pakistan decided to separate. But what about Pakistan Army’s role in its separation?”

Ayesha Jalal is not exactly a household name in Pakistan but she is one of the few scholars of Pakistan’s history who have achieved international recognition. She did her PhD in history from Cambridge University in 1983 and has taught at Ivy League universities including Harvard and is the author of several books on South Asia and Pakistan. In 1998, she told the New York Times, ”There just aren’t many Pakistanis who are historians, they’re not interested in history, they’re interested in projecting an ideological position.”

Today, Pakistan is an ahistorical country largely because it has been under dictatorships or authoritarian regimes for most of its young history. The successive governments, through text books and doctored history, have been guilty of what was described as murder of history by another noted historian KK Aziz in his book, The Murder of History.

In my recent article for Naya Daur, I wrote about the events during the first decade after the independence of Pakistan that had far reaching repercussions. In this article, I would discuss an accusation frequently made against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

It is alleged that Bhutto’s decision (on February 15, 1971) to boycott the inaugural session of the newly elected National Assembly led to the breakup of Pakistan. Despite the passage of nearly 50 years, Bhutto’s opponents, in both mainstream and social media, still refer to “Idhar hum, udhar tum”, a slogan, they allege, Bhutto raised for the division of the country. The slogan literally meant, you on that side and us on this side. Ironically, Bhutto never ever said this.

The editor of the newspaper (daily Azad) Abbas Athar who published that headline denied later that Bhutto ever uttered those words but they still echo mainly because they were repeated so often in the newspapers during the 1980s, when Pakistan was under Zia’s martial law, that they have become part of collective memory of Pakistanis. One person who was instrumental in creating this fiction and repeated this completely false allegation was late Z.A. Suleri.

Suleri wrote in support of military governments ever since he was appointed editor of the daily Pakistan Times in 1966 by Ayub Khan’s government. It was a newspaper controlled by the infamous government-controlled National Press Trust. Suleri was also close to Lt. General Sher Ali Khan, who served as minister of information for President Yahya Khan.

During the 1970 elections, Suleri wrote several articles against Bhutto under the influence of his boss Sher Ali Khan, who openly supported Jamaat e Islami. Bhutto, after coming into power in December 1971, dismissed Suleri from his job, making him a life long enemy. Following the military coup of July 1977, Zia ul Haq appointed Zuleri as Editor-in-chief of Pakistan Times. After July 1977, Suleri wrote regularly for the largest Urdu newspaper, Jang. I can’t recall exactly how many times, but he repeated the “Idhar hum, udhar tum” allegation so many times in his columns that it came to be accepted as a fact to be repeated by ad nauseam by not only Bhutto’s foes but also by other writers and columnists.

This is one example of the “facts” that have come to be accepted as part of our “history” which is largely the military establishment’s doctored narrative.

It is extremely simplistic to analyse the dismemberment of Pakistan just in the context of 1971 events. The process of the disintegration began in the 1950s with the decision to adopt Urdu as the sole national language. The other political developments accelerated that process. By 1962, Mujib, who had actively participated in the movement for Pakistan, was so disenchanted with the domination of West Pakistan’s military and civil elites that he sought Nehru’s help for the liberation.

Sashanka Banerjee gave a first-hand account of Mujib’s attempt to contact the Indian prime minister in his book (published 2011), India, Mujibur Rehman, BanglaDesh Liberation and Pakistan. Mr. Banerjee was serving as a political officer at the Indian diplomatic mission in Dhaka in 1962. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman handed a top-secret letter to Mr. Banerjee on December 25, 1962. Mr. Banerjee writes:

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“Mujib’s top secret letter was addressed personally by name to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of India. After a short introductory paragraph, the letter went straight into a business-like narrative of a plan of action, drafted, according to Mujib’s own admission, in consultation with his trusted friend and advisor Manik Mian, to herald the start of a BanglaDesh liberation struggle.”

Mujib and Banerjee flew together from London to Dhaka, via Delhi, on January 10, 1972, shortly after the end of the 1971 Bangladesh War. They are seen sitting together during this flight in the photo below.

Sheikh Mujibur Rehman enjoyed overwhelming support of the people of former East Pakistan, who were in a majority in united Pakistan. The fact that the leader of the majority of what was then Pakistan started working for the independence of the eastern wing just 15 years after the birth of Pakistan needs to be dispassionately studied and analysed. However, we remain in denial and happy to believe in what is largely a fiction.

In 2010, then Deputy Speaker of Bangladesh Parliament Shawkat Ali admitted that the allegations made in “Agartala Conspiracy” case were true. Mr. Shawkat Ali was arrested in that case in 1967. He was then a captain in Pakistan Army. A BanglaDeshi newspaper, The Daily Star, reported Mr. Ali’s revelations on June 12, 2010. According to the report, Mr. Ali said, “as a matter of fact, several military officers and civil servants were involved in the case as we wanted to liberate the country from Pakistan through an armed revolution under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.”

Even if we leave aside the above established facts regarding Mujib’s contacts with India in the 1960s and Mr. Ali’s revelation, it must be pointed out Sheikh Mujib’s six points were in fact a charter of  confederation with separate currency and tax regimes. Here it is important to reproduce the six points:

The Six Points

  1. The constitution shall provide for a federation of Pakistan in its true sense on the Lahore Resolution, and the parliamentary form of government with supremacy of a legislature directly elected on the basis of universal adult franchise.
  2. The federal government shall deal with only two subjects: Defence and Foreign Affairs, and all other residuary subjects shall be vested in the federating states.
  3. Two separate, but freely convertible currencies for two wings should be introduced; or if this is not feasible, there should be one currency for the whole country, but effective constitutional provisions should be introduced to stop the flight of capital from East to West Pakistan. Furthermore, a separate reserve bank should be established, and a separate fiscal and monetary policy be adopted for East Pakistan.
  4. The power of taxation and revenue collection shall be vested in the federating units and the federal centre will have no such power on the issue. The federation will be entitled to a share in state taxes to meet its expenditures.
  5. There should be two separate accounts for the foreign exchange earnings of the two wings; the foreign exchange requirements of the federal government shall be met by the two wings equally or in a ratio to be fixed; indigenous products shall move free of duty between the two wings, and the constitution shall empower the units to establish trade links with foreign countries.
  6. East Pakistan shall have a separate militia or paramilitary force.

The six points were in fact a charter of virtual independence of Bangladesh. Even if one accepts, for argument’s sake, that they stipulated a true federation and not a loose confederation, Mujibur Rehman or Awami League had no right whatsoever, despite having a simple majority, to impose a constitution without the consent of the federation’s other units. Awami League’s rigid and inflexible position was in violation of the most fundamental principle of a federation; namely, the consent of units of the federation.

The argument that the power should have been transferred to Mujib, though repeated so often, is actually ridiculous, naïve, and overly simplistic given the situation that existed in 1970-1971. The 1970 elections were held under the Legal Framework Order, 1970 (LFO), which was a decree issued by then-President General Yahya Khan. The LFO laid down the political principles and laws governing the 1970 general election. The LFO stipulated that the National Assembly would have to create a new constitution within 120 days of being convened. New elections would be called if the Assembly failed to come to an agreement in 120 days.

Barrister Rafi Raza who was a constitutional expert advising Bhutto during 1970-77, summarised Bhutto’s position in his book, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan (1997). According to Rafi Raza: on 15 February, ZAB abruptly announced that the PPP would not attend the Assembly session as the Awami League had framed a Six-Point constitution on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. Bhutto said, the two-subject Centre was not acceptable. On currency, he felt something could be worked out: ‘I am not despondent on that.’ However, on taxation he was less sanguine, ‘But I am not without hope.’ He maintained, ‘We have really gone to that precipice’ beyond which there was a fall: ‘I want a transfer of power but not a transfer of Pakistan’.

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Bhutto demanded that either the assembly session be postponed to allow for consultation between the Awami League and the Pakistan Peoples Party or the LFO’s condition to prepare constitution within 120 days be dropped. Mujib reacted strongly because he wasn’t really interested in a compromise at the time.

Dr. Ayesha Jalal has provided a detailed account of the events leading up to the breakdown of negotiations between Yahya Khan and Mujibur Rehman during the few days just before the launch of the fateful military operation on March 25, 1971.

According to Ayesha Jalal,” given the historical evidence, the verdict for apportioning responsibility for 1971 debacle in East Pakistan must go against Yahya Khan and his senior military associates.” On page 170 of her book, The Struggle for Pakistan, she maintains that on 22 March 1971, Mujib told Bhutto to become the prime minister of West Pakistan and leave the eastern wing to Awami League warning that the military would destroy both of them. Bhutto replied, “I would rather be destroyed by military than by history.”

Still, as Bhutto was still searching for a compromise, he agreed to consider the Awami League proposals, but urged Mujib to place them before the National Assembly as he was not prepared to give a personal pledge on such a serious matter. Mujib rejected the idea of the National Assembly meeting to approve this. Rafi Raza’s account of the developments on March 22, 1971 confirms Ayesha Jalal’s. According to Rafi Raza, Mujib urged ZAB to agree with the Awami League and, as the West Wing’s leader, become Prime Minister of Pakistan, leaving Bangladesh to Mujibur Rahman. Otherwise, he warned, the army would first destroy him and then ZAB.

The National Assembly should be adjourned sine die, allowing the two Committees (in fact two assemblies, one of East Pakistan and the other of West Pakistan) to function. Rafi Raza writes: “ZAB pointed out that the earlier postponement, sought in good faith, had unfortunately become the pivotal issue. The new proposal would be considered carefully, but had to be placed before the Assembly. They agreed that no letter to the President was necessary, but Mujibur Rahman remained adamant that the Assembly should not meet initially.”

So ironically, it was actually Mujib who didn’t want the Assembly to meet as he wanted a de facto division of Pakistan through a presidential proclamation whereas Bhutto wanted the assembly to meet and discuss the proposal to have two prime ministers.

Yahya, in the meantime, had made up his mind to launch the military operation. After Mujib’s declaration of independence on March 25, 1971, Yahya Khan decided to go ahead. American TV network ABC News reported the news of the declaration of independence on March 26, 1971.  It reported, “Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the leader of East Pakistan, declared the region an independent republic, which he said will be called BanglaDesh.”

Meanwhile, General Yahya Khan didn’t inform Bhutto about the military operation and left him stranded in Dhaka Intercontinental Hotel after ordering the military operation and returning to the safety of West Pakistan. What followed was not just a military operation. It was a genocide. According to the BBC, ‘on 13 June 1971, an article in the UK’s Sunday Times exposed the brutality of Pakistan’s suppression of the Bangladeshi uprising. It forced the reporter’s family into hiding and changed history.” The story was written by a Pakistani journalist, Anthony Mascarenhas who actually worked for a Karachi newspaper – Morning News – but escaped to London to reveal the details of the brutal military operation to the world after a 10-day visit to East Pakistan.

What happened in the following months leading up to the India-Pakistan war in December 1971 has been widely reported. It is conceivable that if the military operation had not been so brutal and did not kill thousands, a negotiated political settlement would have been achieved between the two wings but it is hard to deny that the brutal military operation sealed the fate of Pakistan as one country.

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3 Comments

  1. Amir Rashid Malik July 8, 2020

    Do not agree. Did Mujib run Fatima Jinnah’s campaign in East Pakistan against Ayub Khan? If so how could he ask Nehru for support against Pakistan in 1962? Huge historical contradiction!!

    Reply
  2. Usman Qazi July 13, 2020

    He turned to Nehru after the electoral defeat that proclaimed that Bengali voices would not be heard in Pakistan.

    Reply
  3. Hussan Zia July 13, 2020

    Urdu was never foisted on East Pakistan as such. The first constitution adopted in 1954 declared Urdu and Bengali as the national languages.
    Mujib was a protege of Suhrawardy. The latter had joined hands with Congress leader K.S Roy and asked Mountbatten for an independent state of Bengal. This was rejected by both the Congress and the British (Transfer of Power Documents 1942-1947, Vol.X, p.452). Mujib never reconciled to a united Pakistan. His letter to Nehru, trip to Agartala and involvement with RAW were all part of it (Inside RAW: The Story of India’s Secret Service, by Asoka Raina, p.48).
    The Soviet Union was equally involved in the separation. When asked by Pakistan’s ambassador, Jamshed Marker the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister had told him, ‘The game is being played for high international stakes. It has nothing to do with you. You are the victim of an objective situation (Memories & Reflections of a Pakistani Diplomat, by Sultan M. Khan, p.380).
    Yes, Yahya Khan and his cohorts bungled it but to suggest that Pakistan might have been saved by compromising with Mujib is simplistic to say the least.

    Reply

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