POINT OF VIEW

The phone call that never came

Was there any scope for Pakistan to have remained unbroken?

On March 24, 1971, when the Awami League team delivered Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s final proposal on a settlement to the crisis to General Yahya Khan’s advisors, the offer ought to have been taken up in earnest. 

Of course, General SGMM Peerzada and the other men in the Yahya delegation hit the roof when Dr Kamal Hossain and others of Bangabandhu’s inner circle informed them that a way out of the crisis could be through redefining Pakistan as a confederation. That suggestion was a radical departure from the Awami League’s position thus far, which was that it was willing to work out the modalities regarding a framing of the constitution of Pakistan on the basis of the Six Points. 

Given that the army and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s People’s Party had precipitated the crisis, it was a wonder that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman yet believed that a political solution could be worked out. It remains part of historical objectivity that while the Awami League remained focused on constitution-making, neither Yahya Khan nor Bhutto had anything to offer on their own.

It was a bad hint of bad intentions, made manifest by the influx of increasing numbers of Pakistan army personnel in what had become a de facto Bangladesh. The regime, as one was later to understand only too well, was never serious about a transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people. But it was deadly serious about suppressing the restive province with all its might. 

And that was where Operation Searchlight was a horrific mistake. It was more. It was a clear sign of the state of Pakistan giving itself a deep self-inflicted wound in the foot through giving short shrift to the putative negotiations that had been going on. Would Pakistan have remained unbroken even if a political settlement were arrived at? Here’s the response: The negotiations should and could have worked out a formula, whereby the image of Bengalis peacefully opting out of Pakistan over a period of time would be the reality. 

The army and its allies thought otherwise. It remains a matter of deep embarrassment for the Pakistan army that it misjudged the popular mood in Bangladesh so badly. It worked on the naïve belief that a few thousand deaths, of political leaders and citizens, would quell the rebellion. 

It seriously believed that placing Sheikh Mujibur Rahman under arrest and, for the first time in his life, flying him out to West Pakistan from his native Bengal to face trial would restore the central government’s authority in Dhaka. That was sheer political folly resting on malice. And it was made worse by General Yahya Khan’s surreptitious way out of Dhaka and back to Rawalpindi. 

History remains proof that not all negotiations related to crises have succeeded. But even where no agreement or consensus could be arrived at, it was always political ethics which formally called an end to otherwise abortive talks. The blunder which Yahya Khan and his fellow generals committed was their failure to inform the Bengali leadership that the end of the road, for the time being, had been reached.

It would be interesting to imagine that the junta might have gone for the negotiations to be extended. But that was not to be, for the soldiers had already decided to put the Bengali nation to the torch. 

The regime did not have the wisdom to inform itself that repudiating the results of an election, launching military operations against those who had voted for a particular political party and then begin believing in the ability of the Pakistan army to bring Bengalis to heel would be enough to ensure the survival of the Pakistan state in its restive province.

Which takes one back to March 24. The confederation proposal, had it been deliberated on, would be a logical proposition the ruling classes could have worked upon. A gentlemanly way out of the conundrum was the need of the times, but the idea was quite lost on the military regime and its collaborators. 

General Peerzada assured Dr Kamal Hossain that a meeting to discuss the confederation proposal from Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would be held the next day and that he would call Hossain to confirm the meeting. 

The sadness, where the state of Pakistan is concerned, is one of its history running riot in 1971 once again. The death of at least two million people and the displacement of fourteen million others underpinned the creation of Pakistan in 1947. In 1971, its demise in its eastern province was foretold by the atrocities it resorted to -- as many as three million Bengalis put to death, 200,000 women raped by the soldiers and 10 million Bengalis seeking refuge in India -- in the name of restoring order.

More than a half century after the fall of Pakistan in Bangladesh, one cannot but wonder at the collective myopia which gripped the Yahya Khan junta, Bhutto and everyone else who seriously believed that setting aside the results of an election, shooting students and academics and citizens across the board and placing the leader of the majority party in the national assembly on trial would restore the frayed ethos, if there had been one, of the Pakistan state. 

One folly after another was committed, in the aftermath of the failure by the army to consider the confederation proposal. The soldiers went out on a manhunt to capture the elected representatives of Bengalis, ignoring all manner of civility and especially the fact that individuals voted to power or expected to assume power could not be treated as fugitives seeking safety from marauding soldiers. 

A telling mistake was to place Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on trial, in camera, before a special military tribunal in (West) Pakistan.

An acceptance of the confederation proposal from the Awami League would have thrown up two distinct, positive factors. In the first place, Bangladesh would have shaped a constitutional strategy to make a peaceful way out of Pakistan. In the second, the opprobrium visited on the Pakistan army through its campaign of murder and rape would not come to pass. 

The parting would have been civil, without the acrimony eventually engendered by the military action.

When on March 24, Dr Kamal Hossain conveyed to the junta Bangabandhu’s suggestion that the state of Pakistan be reconfigured as Confederation of Pakistan, Justice A R Cornelius on the Yahya Khan team made the counter proposal that Union of Pakistan would perhaps be a better proposition. 

Meanwhile, the regime adopted delaying tactics on a proclamation that would signal the end of the crisis. All day on March 25, Kamal Hossain waited for the promised telephone call from General Peerzada. The call never came. 

Yahya and his team flew out of Dhaka in clandestine fashion and once the President had safely landed in Karachi, Tikka Khan and Khadim Hussain Raja in Dhaka went into unprecedented savagery against the Bengali nation.

A peaceful, negotiated end to Pakistan in our part of the world in March 1971 was an idea shot down by gigantic folly on the part of the Pakistan army. Blood and gore flowed where open, politically substantive discussions should have been. 

Yahya Khan and the entire Pakistani military paid the price, naturally. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.