An All-Party Conference was convened in Lahore in February 1966 where the central issue was the Tashkent agreement and its ramifications. The participants also included delegates from the then East Pakistan, led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He used this forum to present his Six Point Programme that related not only to greater autonomy for East Pakistan but a better and more rational distribution of the Federal State presence and responsibilities.
The salient features of the Six Point Programme were: a federal parliamentary system of government elected by direct universal adult suffrage with legislative representation on the basis of population; the federal government to be responsible only for foreign affairs and defense; freely convertible separate currencies for each wing; power of taxation and revenue collection to be vested in the provinces with guarantees of adequate funding for the federal government; separate foreign exchange accounts for each wing and that each wing would be able to raise and maintain a militia. The Awami League’s Six Points subsequently became the rallying cry for the Opposition and transformed into a movement that was enthusiastically adopted by the urban proletariat and the student-literati alliance. The momentum evolved and focused through a successful strike on in the-then East Pakistan on 7 June 1966.
This emerging dynamic led to direct harassment against Sheikh Mujib. He was arrested time and again, released and then rearrested again.
This unjust odyssey continued for Bangabandhu for the subsequent two years till it concluded in the Cantonment where in 1968 he was accused of the Agartala Conspiracy Case. This scenario led the students in Dhaka to form a Student Action Committee and formulate an Eleven Point Programme, which incorporated the Six Point Programme. The additional points included withdrawal of the Agartala Conspiracy Case and release of Mujib and other political prisoners.
These student protests eventually led Ayub Khan to unconditionally release Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib and some other opposition leaders on February 22, 1969. The Agartala Conspiracy Case was also withdrawn. There were also hints that Ayub Khan was ready to concede a return to a parliamentary system and direct elections through universal adult suffrage.
The connotations of such a scenario were however not appreciated within the then Pakistani armed forces. On 25 March 1969 Ayub Khan relinquished his Office and General Yahya Khan took over full control of the country. A blanket martial law was also imposed. Initially, Yahya acted as the Chief Martial Law Administrator, but on 31 March 1969, he proclaimed himself as the President of Pakistan.
Yahya promised early elections to the Parliament and suggested that it would draft a new Constitution. He also entered into discussions with the leaders of the political parties. However, as analysts pointed out later, Yahya lacked vision and was incapable of assuming the stewardship of a vessel, which had already run aground.
On 28 November 1969 Yahya dissolved the One Unit in West Pakistan which in effect altered the principle of parity between East and West Pakistan as embodied in the Constitutions of 1956 and 1962. He also simultaneously decreed for direct election based on the principle of universal adult franchise to all seats in the National and the Provincial Assemblies. This decision ensured for the first time a standing majority for East Pakistan in the National Assembly. Based on numerical strength, East Pakistan was awarded 162 seats of a 300 member unicameral National Assembly, which was to act as the Constituent Assembly. On 30 March 1969 Yahya also unilaterally promulgated a Legal Framework Order outlining the transitional arrangements for the election Rules of Procedure for the National Assembly and certain provisions to be incorporated in the Constitution. The Order however did not mention anything about ‘autonomy’ or the Six Points
Sheikh Mujib tactfully ignored the Order since the Awami League was confident of a landslide victory in the coming General Election. It was felt that such a victory could then be interpreted as a referendum on the principles enunciated within the Six Points. It was this understanding and assumption that persuaded the Awami League to initiate an intense pre-election electoral campaign from January 1970.
A devastating cyclone that lashed the coastal lowlands in the Bay of Bengal on 12 November 1970 and took more than 350,000 lives also created its own shadow. Yahya at the time was visiting China. He decided to stop over in Dhaka on his way back but his brief visit was characterized by insensitivity. Despite the seriousness of the situation, no step was taken to set up any national emergency relief and reconstruction effort. This seeming inaction and indifference widened the wedge between the people of East Pakistan and the feudal and arbitrary central Government.
The anger with Yahya was further exacerbated when in utter disregard of the prevailing situation in East Pakistan, the central Government, less than four weeks after the cyclone, held the general election on 7 December 1970. The voting however clearly demonstrated Bengali dissatisfaction with West Pakistani domination. Awami League, in an expression of solidarity won all but two of the 162 seats allocated to the Province in the National Assembly. This accorded them the majority. It also vanquished the opposition in the provincial legislature capturing 288 seats out of a total of 300 declared seats. Elections to the remaining 10 seats reserved for women were not completed.
The People’s Party of Pakistan (PPP) led by Bhutto on the other hand came out a poor second with 81 of the 138 West Pakistani seats to the National Assembly.
The evolving scenario was however affected by Bhutto publicly announcing that unless he was allowed to share power in the center; his party would not attend the inaugural session of the Assembly. This was despite the fact that Bhutto’s decision to boycott the Assembly was not subscribed to by the minority parties in West Pakistan with the exception of the Qayyum faction of the Muslim League. Through this threat, Bhutto made it clear that he planned to make the Assembly unworkable.
Yahya and his advisers analyzed the scenario and the post-electoral reality and then flew into Dhaka on 11 January 1971 to hold discussions with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. They were forced to take such a step because Mujib had refused to go to West Pakistan for this purpose. In a manner of speaking Mujib through such an approach was indirectly informing the West Pakistani establishment that the center of power had shifted to Dhaka.
Yahya’s next move was to visit Bhutto, accompanied by more than ten generals. The meeting took place in the home of Bhutto in Larkana, West Pakistan. The Larkana meeting authenticated Bhutto’s claim to be the sole spokesman of West Pakistan vis-à-vis the Six Points formula as espoused by the Awami League.
This emerging scenario assumed special significance because Yahya, meanwhile, had announced that the newly elected National Assembly would be convened in Dhaka on 3 March 1971. Subsequently, on 1 March 1971, on the advice of a coterie of generals led by Hamid, Mitha, Pirzada and Tikka Khan- all aligned with Bhutto, Yahya postponed indefinitely the convening of the National Assembly.
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Yahya’s arbitrary decision resulted in an unprecedented mass upsurge in East Pakistan and a growing belief that Bengalis could never realize their just rights within the framework of united Pakistan. Radical elements among the students openly started demanding an immediate declaration of independence.
Sheikh Mujib called a protest strike on 2 March and then announced his historic action programme on 7 March, 1971. In his spectacular speech, Bangabandhu noted with a heavy heart that the streets of “Dhaka, Chattogram, Khulna, Rajshahi and Rangpur are dyed red with the blood of our brethren. Today the people of Bengal want freedom, the people of Bengal want to survive, the people of Bengal want to have their rights. What wrong did we do?" He also gave several directives for a civil disobedience movement, instructing that: (a) People should not pay taxes; (b) Government servants should take orders only from him; (c) The secretariat, government and semi-government offices, and courts in East Pakistan should observe strikes, with necessary exemptions announced from time to time; (d) Only local and inter-district telephone lines should function and (e) Railways and ports could continue to function, but their workers should not co-operate if they were used to repress the people of East Pakistan. The speech lasted about 19 minutes and concluded with, "Our struggle, this time, is a struggle for our freedom. Our struggle, this time, is a struggle for our independence. Joy Bangla!. It was a de facto declaration of Bangladesh's independence.
Through this, a province-wide non-violent civil disobedience and non-cooperation movement was launched. The Awami League became the de jure as well as de facto authority.
Matters came to a head on 23 March. Frustrated by the inflexibility of the Yahya military machine, the Kendriyo Chatra Sangram Parishad decided to observe 23 March (the National Day of Pakistan) as a day of resistance. In a tumultuous mass gathering in Dhaka the students ceremoniously hoisted the newly designed Bangladesh flag instead of the Pakistan flag. This was a symbolic and concrete parting of ways.
Tikka Khan’s emergency plan of a military solution termed ‘Operation Searchlight’ was put into operation immediately afterwards- in the night of 25 March and in the early hours of 26 March 1971.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested near about midnight of 25-26 March on charges of high treason; the Awami League was declared unlawful and complete press censorship imposed. Genocide was unleashed within Bangladesh. Bhutto reacted to the carnage with the sarcastic comment- ‘thank God. Pakistan is saved’.
The last nail in the coffin of unified Pakistan had been hammered in and this led to our heroic war of liberation and independence being initiated.
One needs to conclude by pointing out that in 2021 we have again celebrated 16 December, our Victory Day -on a Thursday- the same day, such Victory was delivered to us in 1971.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance