Could the Break Up of Pakistan Have Been Averted?

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By

A. G. NOORANI[1]

Abstarct

(“Why did Pakistan fail to achieve a national identity or produce a viable political order in which the people of both East and West Pakistan could live together as equal partners? Was Pakistan really an ‘unbridgeable division of language, climate and way of life’, and is it true that ‘the division of Pakistan into two nations (in 1971) was no more than a belated recognition of the unreality of the original state divided by a thousand miles into two parts? The growth of nationalism in Pakistan was, no doubt, complicated by diversity of language, race, culture and above all, by lack of geographical contiguity. But there are many countries in the Third World with acute regional, racial and linguistic differences and tensions. The federal solution has proved successful in many newly independent Afro-Asian countries with diverse ethnic, cultural, religious, linguistic and racial groups. Why did the federation in Pakistan fail to achieve a similar success?” – Author quoting G.W. Choudhry)

G. W. Choudhury, Constitutional Adviser to the President of Pakistan, General Yayha Khan, did not think that there was anything inevitable about the breakup of Pakistan in December 1971. He was closely associated with Yahya Khan and knew first hand about the events that year, especially the negotiations in Dhaka between Yahya Khan and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, leader of the Awami League from 16 to 23 March 1971.

Choudhury’s book, published in 1974, poses the question whether the tragedy was inevitable and proceeds to provide his answers. “Why did Pakistan fail to achieve a national identity or produce a viable political order in which the people of both East and West Pakistan could live together as equal partners? Was Pakistan really an ‘unbridgeable division of language, climate and way of life’, and is it true that ‘the division of Pakistan into two nations (in 1971) was no more than a belated recognition of the unreality of the original state divided by a thousand miles into two parts? The growth of nationalism in Pakistan was, no doubt, complicated by diversity of language, race, culture and above all, by lack of geographical contiguity. But there are many countries in the Third World with acute regional, racial and linguistic differences and tensions. The federal solution has proved successful in many newly independent Afro-Asian countries with diverse ethnic, cultural, religious, linguistic and racial groups. Why did the federation in Pakistan fail to achieve a similar success?

“Geographical separation between the two halves of the country was a great challenge to its emerging nationalism, but in the modern age with satellite communications, jet aircraft, etc., geographical distance was not an insuperable factor. It was often said that there was nothing in common between an East and West Pakistani except religion; if that was the sole argument for the break-up of Pakistan, one may inquire what common identity makes a Bengali (Indian) and a Madrasi live together in an Indian union.” (The Last Days of United Pakistan; Indiana University Press).

As anyone familiar with his writings knows, subjectivity not seldom mars his writings. His accounts deserve note; but, a fair judgment can be formed only after a careful study of all the accounts. Fortunately, the memoirs of Mujib’s Constitutional Adviser, Kamal Hossain, who was even more intimately involved in the talks have just appeared. An able lawyer and a person of integrity his account deserves respect (Bangladesh; Quest For Freedom and Justice; Oxford University Press, Karachi, 295 pages; Rs. 895). He became Minister of Law in the Government of Bangladesh, Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee and Minutes for Foreign Affairs. The book covers the span of history from the famous Six Points (1966) to constitution-making and foreign policy, especially relations with Pakistan and India.

We also have Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s version in his essay, ‘The Great Tragedy’ (Pakistan People’s Party, Karachi; 1971) and the Government of Pakistan’s White Paper on ‘The Crisis in East Pakistan’; 5 August 1971. Hasan Zaheer, a Civil Servant with a bent for scholarship wrote The Separation of East Pakistan: ‘The Rise and Realization of Bengali Muslim Nationalism;’ Oxford University Press, Karachi; 1995). He had access to official papers besides his interviews with a few leading figures, like Lt. Gen. Sahebzada Yaqub Khan. But proximity of the Bhutto family impairs objectivity.

Bhutto’s trusted associate Rafi Raza accompanied him to Dhaka in March 1971. His memoir provides useful material (‘Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan 1967-1977’; Oxford University Press, Karachi; 1997). Brigadier A. R. Siddiqi’s account, ‘East Pakistan: The Endgame: An Onlooker’s Journal 1969-1971’ (Oxford University Press, Karachi; 2004) deserves close attention as does Safdar Mahmood’s ‘Pakistan Divided’ (Ferozsons; Lahore, 1984).

Moudud Ahmed knew Mujib and became a Minister in Bangladesh. His controversial politics notwithstanding, his book merits study (‘Bangladesh: Constitutional Quest for Autonomy; 1950-1971’; Franz Weiner Verlag; Wiesbaden; 1978). Three compilations of documents are noteworthy – ‘Bangladesh : Contemporary Events and Documents’; People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 1972; ‘Bangladesh : Documents’; Vol. 1; Government of India; 1971. ‘War and Secession: Pakistan, India, and the Creation of Pakistan, (Vistaar; New Delhi; 1990 also published by the University of California Press, Berkeley) was a late comer by two American scholar, Richard Sisson and Leo Rose helps to fill the gaps since they conducted extensive interviews with the principal actors in the drama in the three countries and consulted relevant material.

For all this, a student faces an enormous impediment in his search for the truth. Negotiations preceding the partition of India are richly documented, those preceding the partition of Pakistan received scant documentation; a fact of which this writer was not aware when, for two years, he went on a will – o’ – the – wisp with friends in Pakistan and Bangladesh for documents which did not exist. Even Hasan Zaheer felt this handicap. “Thus account of the dialogue with the Awami league from 15th March to 24 March has been reconstructed from interviews and conversation, over a long period, extending from April 1971 onwards, with the participants and others who, in their official capacity, observed the events in the President’s House, and on/or published and unpublished material” (p. 488). His book has neither a bibliography nor a list of the interviewees. “No minutes of these one to one (Yahya-Mujub) meetings were kept” (p. 149). However, Choudhury claimed to have seen “the unpublished minutes of the Dacca dialogues in March 1971” (Choudhury p. 179).

Yet, there is, an astonishing degree of congruence in the rival accounts from which it is possible to reconstruct the course of the Dhaka talks and, most importantly, the causes of their collapse. This takes us back to the question whether the break up of Pakistan was inevitable and, if not, who, were the persons in the erstwhile united Pakistan who were guilty of perpetrating the tragedy. No one can approach this painful episode without a deep respect for the emotions it arouses. The wounds are still raw. One is reminded of the poignant lines of Faiz in his immortal poem Dhake se Wapasi par (On return from Dhaka):  Khoon ke dhabbe dhulenge kitni barsato ke baad (How many showers will it take to wipe out the stains of blood?).

There is a school of thought which holds that tragedy was inherent in the situation. One must treat this view also with respect. However, when the Congress, conscious of its guilt in wrecking the Cabinet Mission’s Plan, (1946) agreed that the partition of India in 1947 was “inevitable”, Sir Chimanlal Setalbad sharply reminded them that it was not inevitable in 1946. (The Times of India; 15 June 1947).

The record of discrimination against East Pakistan and the prejudices of the elite in the West have been well documented. Ayub Khan’s memoirs, ‘Friends, Not Masters,’ reflect the prejudice (Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 24-27). Raunaq Jahan’s work, ‘Pakistan: The Failure of National Integration,’ (Columbia University Press, 1972) is a sober account of the mistakes that long preceded 1971.

In history, as in ordinary life, causation is a tricky issue. There is a causa sine qua non, the ultimate cause. If there were no motorcars there would be no car accidents. But the real cause in law and morality is the causa causans, the direct, immediate proximate cause. The historical background is not irrelevant. But leaders have surmounted distrust, engendered over the years, to settle disputes.

The 1965 war was an event of baleful lasting consequences. Kamal Hossain recalls “The outbreak of war in 1965 between India and Pakistan over Kashmir illustrated how fragile the link between the two parts of Pakistan was. Loss of men and territory in the war, with no gains to show for it, had already brought down Ayub’s stock within the army. … To the Punjabis, it was presented as a ‘sell-out’, a measure of appeasement towards India conceded under soviet pressure. Bhutto, who, by many and indeed by his own accounts, had been one of the men responsible for pushing General Ayub into the war, not only managed to escape from public censure for his role but began to identify himself with the anti-Tashkent sentiment. …

“The Bengali reaction to the war had been entirely different. The eastern wing had experienced a sense of total isolation; it felt exposed and undefended. The Tashkent Declaration was, therefore, widely welcomed by the people in East Pakistan. It had been no consolation to hear Bhutto tell the National Assembly in Dhaka, immediately after the 1965 war, in response to the Bengali grievance about the inadequacy of defence arrangements in the eastern wing, that the central government had not neglected the security of the eastern wing. He asserted that Pakistan had been reassured by the knowledge that the ‘greatest power in Asia’ (meaning China) would intervene in its defence if its security was endangered. Foreign ministry sources, however, disclosed that no such assurance had been extended, and that Bhutto had made an impromptu statement followed by an urgent message to China expressing the hope that the Chinese would support this statement.” (pp. 15-16).

If East Pakistan was protected only by China’s guarantee, it was one it could well have obtained by itself. Chaudhury also called it “the final blow to the concept of a United Pakistan” (p. 133). The immediate consequence of the war was the famous Six Points. A large number of recommendations were grouped together for presentation at a meeting of the opposition leaders in Lahore on 3 February 1966. The English draft was the work of a Bengali civil servant, Rubul Quddus. No sooner had Mujib begun to present it to the Conference then he was ruled out of order by the Chairman, Choudhuri Mohammed Ali, former Prime Minister. Mujib walked out and released the text to the press. It was published under the title “Six Points Formula – Our Right to live” on Pakistan Day, 23 March 1966.

It was pre-eminently negotiable. In March 1971 Bhutto declared that he had narrowed his disagreement to foreign aid and foreign trade. In the same month Mujib asked Yahya “Sir, you know what the Six Point programme is. Please tell me what objections you have to this programme”. Yahya replied “Sheikh Saheb, I have nothing against the Six Point programme, but you will have to carry the west Pakistan leaders with you”. Mujib replied “Of Course, Sir, Kindly call the Assembly as soon as possible”. (H. Zaheer p. 134).

The Six Points read thus:

Point 1 : The constitution should provide for a federation of Pakistan, in its true sense, on the basis of the Lahore Resolution, and a parliamentary form of government with the supremacy of legislature which would be directly elected on the basis of universal adult franchise.

Point 2 :  Federal government shall deal with only two subject, viz: defence and foreign affairs, and all other subjects shall vest in the federating states.

Point 3:  Either of the two following measures (should be adopted) with regard to currency : (A) Two separate but freely convertible currencies for the two wings may be introduced, or (B) One currency for the whole country may be maintained. In this case, effective constitutional provisions are to be made to stop flight of capital from east to West Pakistan. A separate banking reserve is to be made, and separate fiscal and monetary policy to be adopted for East Pakistan.

Point 4 :  Power of taxation and revenue collection shall vest in the federating units and the federal centre shall have no such power. The federation shall have a share in the state taxes for meeting their required expenditure. The consolidated federal fund shall come out of a levy of a certain percentage of all state taxes.

Point 5 :  (1) There shall be two separate accounts for the foreign exchange earnings of the two wings; (2) The earnings of East Pakistan shall be under the control of the East Pakistan government, and that of West Pakistan under the control of the West Pakistan government; (3) The foreign exchange requirement of the federal government shall be met by the two wings either equally or in a ratio to be fixed; (4) Indigenous products shall move free of duty between the two wings; (5) The constitution shall empower the unit governments to establish trade and commercial relations and set up trade missions in, and enter into, agreements with foreign countries.

Point 6 :  A militia  or para-military force shall be set up for East Pakistan.” Rafi Raza publishes the amendments made in elaboration. The substance is not affected. “Defence” implies the presence of the army of the federation in East Pakistan. There is no stipulation for the right to secede. In 1948 the Government of India went a long way to concede to the Nizam of Hyderabad’s demand for a right to conduct foreign trade. There was no refusal to have a Supreme Court to decide disputes beteen the Centre and the units.

The next landmark was the Round Table conference in Rawalpindi in march 1969. Mujib’s speech on 12 March concentrated exclusively on “Centralised economic management”. Ayub Khan’s speech, two days later, ignored these issues. On 24 March he invited Yahya Khan to assume power. (Bangladesh; pp 37-49).

In the General Elections held on 7 December 1970 the Awami League won 160 out of the 162 directly elected seats while Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party won 81 out of 138 seats – 62 out of 82 in Punjab; 18 out of 27 in Sindh; 1 out of 25 in the NWFP and none in Balochistan. He had to face opposition by 57 elected representatives from West Pakistan and defections from the PPP itself. He knew that “in the open session of the National Assembly he might not be able to retain his West Pakistan majority” (Hasan Zaheer p. 28 Characterisation of the 58 as “partisan” reveals Hasan Zaheer’s bias).

On 21 December 1970 Bhutto proposed sharing of power between the Awami league and the PPP in “a grand coalition”. The day before he said that no government could be run without the PPP’s co-operation and the PPP was not prepared to sit in the opposition at the Centre. (The Pakistan Times; 21 and 22 December 1970).

In January 1971 there were two inconclusive visits to Dhaka. Yahya met Mujib for over three hours on 12 January and Bhutto on 27 January. Yahya made two diametrically opposite moves with grave consequences. First, prior to his departure for Karachi on 14 January he said that Mujib was going to be the future Prime Minister of the country (The Pakistan Observer; 15 January 1971).

Secondly, from Dhaka he flew straight to Larkana on 17 January with Lt. Gen. S.G.M. Peerzada, Principal Staff Officer to the Chief Martial Law Administrator Yahya, “At Larkana Yahya and other prominent members of the junta – including General Hamid, whose hatred for Mujib was well known, and Peerzada, Bhutto’s closest friend in the junta – enjoyed Bhutto’s hospitality, and in the course of a rather colourful social evenings a new and most sinister alliance seems to have developed between the military junta and Bhutto – though Yahya never believed in him. Bhutto has given his version of the discussion held in Larkana : ‘We discussed with the President the implications of the six points and expressed our serious misgivings about them. We nevertheless assured him that we were determined to make every effort for a viable compromise.’ ” (Choudhuri; pp. 152-53).

Yahya reported to Bhutto his talks with Mujib. “I held very good discussions in East Pakistan and the Six Points were explained to me. I think it is quite possible to have a Six-Point Constitution. Even in Australia, foreign trade is in the hands of the Provinces. Bhutto observed that the President had not given careful thought to the implications of the Six Points. While it might be possible to have a settlement if Mujib compromised on two points, foreign trade and foreign aid and taxation, in their totality the Six Points were bound to lead to secession.” (Hasan Zaheer, p. 137).

The Larkana trip could not have enhanced Yahya’s credibility in Dhaka especially in the light of what followed. On 13 February came a Presidential Order summoning the 313-member National Assembly to meet at 9 a.m. on 3 March in the Provincial Assembly Building. Two days later Bhutto announced his refusal to attend the meeting. Yahya now took a most unfortunate step on 1 March. He decided to postpone the Assembly’s meeting “to a later date” (Morning News, 2 March 1971).

This was, nonetheless, not a crossing of the Rubicon. Mujib and Yahya had lengthy talks on the phone when Mujib invited Yahya to come over (Choudhury p. 158). Contrary to expectations Mujib did not declare East Pakistan’s independence at his mammoth rally on 7 March. Instead he put forth some demands – lift Martial Law; take the soldiers back to the barracks; investigate into the mass killing and transfer power to the elected representatives. (Dawn; 8 March 1971).

The trust was gone. “Yahya Khan had decided on the military option as early as on 22 February” (Rafi Raza; p. 82). Larkana marked a turning point. “On the question of collusion, there can be little doubt that in the phase of confrontation with Mujibur Rahman, from mid-January to 25 March, the President acted in concert with ZAB” (ibid.; p. 83).

The 22 February decision was ordered to be implemented on the morning of 18 March even as the talks were proceeding then on promising lines. The Awami League leaders were to be treated as “rebels” and arrested along with the student leaders. East Pakistani units of the army were to be disarmed (Scisson and Rose; pp. 132). The decision to strike was made “at tea time on 23 March by the army command and was recommended to Yahya that evening” (ibid.; p. 133).

Peerzada told Hasan Zaheer that from 15 to 25 March, Yahya “was visiting army installations and meeting army officers in the cantonment” even as he held talks with politicians in Government House (p. 158).

“It is now on record that, following the meeting of 17 March, Yahya Khan asked General Tikka Khan to ‘get ready’ and, accordingly, on the morning of 18 March, Major-General Khadim Husain Raja and Rao Farman Ali prepared the blueprint for Operation Searchlight – the code name given to the plan for a military crackdown all over the province, to be effective on the night of 25 March 1971.” He cites Siddiq Salik’s, ‘Witness to Surrender’, Appendix III (Dhaka : The University Press Limited, 1997; Kamal Hossain; p. 93).

All this raises three questions concerning the integrity of the proceedings. First, the President had identified himself not only with one region of the country but also with one leader of that wing. He did not care to hold the scales even. Secondly the initial order for a military crackdown was made on 22 February shortly after 13 February when he summoned the Assembly to meet on 3 March and over a week before he ordered its postponement on 1 March. Lastly, given his outlook as a soldier, and his strong predilection for the militancy option, how patient could one expect him to be in the grave situation facing his country? Psychologically he had scant tolerance for the subtle constitutional concepts discussed. Intellectually they were far beyond his ken and that of his aides as well.

Bhutto’s reaction to Mujib’s proposal for handing over power before the National Assembly could meet or frame a constitution was indefensible. In a statement on March 14, when Yahya was on his way to Dacca to make his final bid to Mujib, Bhutto declared: “If power were to be transferred to the people before any constitutional settlement as demanded by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, it should be transferred to the majority party in East Pakistan and the majority party here”. (Chaudhuri p. 162). The Urdu press repored him as saying “Idhar ham, udhar tum” (we here, you there). (Rafi Raza; p. 71). It is against this background that Yahya arrived in Dhaka on 15 March only to leave on 24 March. Whatever happened in those ten days to seal the fate of a United Pakistan? The narrative that follows is based on the works cited earlier and Mujib’s colleague Tajuddin Ahmad’s statement on 17 April 1971.

16 March :  Yahya and Mujib met for an hour. Asked to indicate his position on Mujib’s 4 Points of 7 March, Yahya indicated that there were no serious objections to them and an interim constitution could be worked out by their advisers based on them; namely “(1) Lifting of Marital Law and transfer of power to a Civilian Government by Presidential Proclamation. (2) Transfer of power in the provinces to the majority parties. (3) Yahya to remain as President and in control of the Central Government. (4) Separate sittings of the National Assembly members from East and West Pakistan, preparatory to a joint session of the house to finalise the constitution. Contrary to the distortions now put out by both Yahya and Bhutto, the proposal for separate sittings of the Assembly was suggested by Yahya to accommodate Mr. Bhutto. He cited the practical advantage that whilst 6-points provided a viable blueprint to regulate relations between Bangla Desh and the Centre, its application would raise serious difficulties in the West Wing. For this reason, West Wing MNAs must be permitted to work out a new pattern of relationships in the context of a six-point constitution and the dissolution of One-Unit.” (Tajuddin Ahmed’s clarification on 17 April Bangladesh Documents; p. 295; Kamal Hossain; p. 927). Yahya cited legal difficulties. If Martial law was lifted, he ceased to be President or Chief Martial Law Administrator.

17 March :  Mujib and Yahya met again. The demand for lifting Martial Law was pressed. In the evening advisers on both sides met – Kamal Hossain, Tajuddin Ahmed and Syed Nazrul Islam on the one side and Justice Cornelius, Peerzada and Colonel M. A. Hassan (Judge Advocate-General) on the other. “The meeting commenced with Peerzada observing that the discussions between Bangabandhu and Yahya that morning had proceeded on the basis that Yahya would make a proclamation. According to him, Bangabandhu had proposed that the elected members from the eastern wing should draw up a Constitution for the eastern wing separately, and the elected members from the western wing draw up a Constitution for the western wing; thereafter, they should sit together to make a Constitution for Pakistan. It was also indicated that provision should be made for autonomy for the eastern wing on the basis of Six Points. In the western wing, the provinces would have autonomy to the extent provided to a province under the 1962 Constitution; the additional powers would remain with the Centre. Cornelius suggested that such an Instrument – a Provisional Constitution – should be brought into force through a resolution of the National Assembly. It was suggested that it would be best, before the drafting of the Instrument commenced, for the advisers of both sides to sit in a plenary meeting with Bangabandhu and Yahya so that basic guidelines could be obtained from both.” (Kamal Hossain; p. 93).

Despite this progress, soon after that very meeting Yahya asked Lt. General Tikka Khan, the Governor, to “get ready”. The next day the blueprint for Operation Searchlight was prepared “to be effective on the night of 25 March 1971” (Siddik Salik; Witness to Surrender; p. 197; Appendix III).

It is important to note that Mujib consistently agreed that the office of the President was to continue while the Constitution was being drafted and the National Assembly was to convene as one body to draft the federal constitution after its two regional committees had finished their work. This was precisely the sequence in the Cabinet Mission’s Plan of 16 March 1946; first the groups’ constitutions and next the union’s.

18 March :  Chaudhury recorded “In private discussions, Yahya and Mujib seemed to be nearing a ‘settlement’ – at least, that was my impression in May 1971 reading the minutes of the Dacca dialogues up to March 20. Meanwhile, the leaders of smaller groups from West Pakistan arrived in Dacca to help the success of the talks.

“On the evening of March 18, while I was in Karachi in transit to London, I received an unexpected but most pleasant signal from Yahya’s offices in Dacca that there were “good prospects” of a political settlement and that the President might need my services in finalizing the agreed constitutional formula.”

19 March :  Yahya and Mujib met as did their respective advisers. “After the meeting of 19 March Peerzada, Cornelius, and Hasan jointly recommended to the President that (i) central and provincial cabinets be set up; (ii) the National and Provincial Assemblies be invested with legislative powers as provided in the 1962 Constitution; and (iii) martial law organizations like courts, administrators, etc. be abolished in East Pakistan but the office of the CMLA be kept intact. After some hesitation and despite the strong objections of military authorities, Yahya agreed to the proposals and asked Cornelius to resolve the legal problem. Accordingly, a Martial Law Regulation on these lines was drafted.” (Hasan Zaheer; p. 159).

Maudud Ahmad recorded “On 19 March Mujib and Yahya met again and the latter agreed to the lifting of Martial Law and  to the transfer of power under a proclamation. They also agreed that East Pakistan would be allowed to retain sufficient legislative powers based on the 6-point formula. After the meeting of 19 March Mujib looked very optimistic and he told me that Yahya agreed to accept the 6 points and even more : a scheme close to a confederation, and that the problems were going to be solved through a negotiated settlement. Newspapers and other reports also indicated a sign of optimism and people’s hopes were raised once again.” (Maudud Ahmad; p. 276).

The White Paper averred that “Dr. Kamal Hossain suggested that General A. M. Yahya Khan should divest himself of the powers of the CMLA, and could assume the title and powers of President of Pakistan” (p. 17;). On this day three west Pakistani leaders arrived in Dhaka – Mumtaz Daultana, Shaukat Hayat Khan and Maulana Mufti Mehmood.

20 March :  A full dress meeting of the principals and their aides was held. “It was decided that the teams should work out an amended 1962 Constitution of parliamentary form of government in the Centre and provinces, and the terms of a Proclamation through which it might be promulgated. The idea was to ascertain the views of the Awami League on other issues involved in the transfer of power. It was also decided in this meeting, on the suggestion of Mujib, to set up two committees of the elected representatives, one at Dhaka of East Pakistani members and the other at Islamabad of west Pakistani members; each to formulate constitutional proposals in respect of its Wing. The proposals of the two committees would then be debated in the National assembly to frame a Constitution acceptable to both the Wings.” (Hasan Zaheer, p. 151).

Chaudhuri noted “By 20 March – i.e. four days after Yahya’s arrival in Dacca – the press was reporting that an agreement had been reached on a compromise constitutional formula incorporating most of the fundamentals of Mujib’s six points. A formula had reportedly been presented and agreed upon by Yahya and Mujib, providing for the immediate lifting of martial law and the transfer of power. A draft proclamation effecting an immediate transfer of power was ready; it provided for the formation of provincial and central cabinets from among the elected representatives. The National Assembly would be split into two committees to formulate special provisions and requirements of East and West Pakistan to be incorporated into the future constitution. The National Assembly would then be summoned to frame a constitution for Pakistan.

“The White Paper, published by the Government of Pakistan, gave only a summary of the draft proclamation; I saw its full text during my private visits to Islamabad and Dacca in May 1971. The full text, as I discovered from the minutes of the Dacca dialogues, revealed a rather different picture in that it allowed for much more compromises than was conveyed by the White Paper. It accepted the relationship between the central Government and the ‘State of Bangladesh’ (the nomenclature was also now accepted) on the basis of the formula which I had prepared for Yahya in January 1971, and which was virtually the six points minus the dismemberment of Pakistan. When I inquired why the White Paper did not publish the full account, the answer I received from Peerzada was that ‘a proclamation was made under duress’ – implying that the Army was no longer prepared to grant those concessions after it had “crushed” the secession movement.” (pp. 165-6).

21 March : Another summit in the presence of the aides. A. K. Brohi, then in Dhaka gave “an exhaustive written opinion” which Kamal Hassan delivered to Col. Hasan (brevity was not one of Brohi’s strong points; still less clarity).

Mujib decided against transfer of power at the Centre. A draft Presidential Proclamation was drawn up. “It is noteworthy that it had provided for elected members from the eastern wing to sit as a separate committee to frame provisions relating to that wing and similarly for elected members from the western wing to sit as a separate committee. It provided that the proclamation of Martial Law would stand revoked from the day on which ministers of the provincial governments took oath. Upon scrutiny of this draft, the Awami League team found that the draft was incomplete in many respects and imprecise in a number of formulations. First of all, it was our view that the revocation should not be a long drawn out process, becoming effective only after the taking of the oath by the provincial ministers. We thought that the proclamation should take effect more promptly. We suggested a formula whereby the proclamation would take effect on appointment of the provincial governors, or on expiry of seven days from promulgation, whichever was earlier.

“Bhutto had arrived on the afternoon of 21 March. I remember, when the revised draft was presented, Cornelius had been moved to say that this was indeed an improved and more complete draft. I replied that this should not be described as the Awami League draft, but the entire task of drafting should be regarded as a joint exercise. A clause by clause reading of the amended draft proclamation then began. Peerzada mentioned that he would be meeting Bhutto’s advisers, and had earlier indicated that a copy of the revised draft had been sent to Bhutto.” (Kamal Hossain; p. 98)

Mujib publicly declared at a press conference that progress had been achieved. Bhutto discussed the parleys with Yahya Khan who said he wished to talk to others from West Pakistan as well.

22 March :  Kamal Hossain felt : that “there seemed to be a fleeting hope of a possible settlement. In the evening, the Awami League team went through the draft proclamation in my office. Bangabandhu, and other party leaders came and the entire draft was read carefully, given that it seemed that such a draft may ultimately become a proclamation. We worked throughout the night of 22 March to finalise the draft.” Financial experts met, including M. M. Ahmed of the Planning Commission.

“The Awami League team had begun to sense that Yahya’s advisers were trying to prolong discussions on each clause; this was clearly seen as a dilatory tactic. At the evening sitting, M.M. Ahmed produced a number of written slips by way of amendments and insertions to the draft. M. M. Ahmed even showed some flexibility in respect of foreign trade and aid. He said foreign trade could be left with the eastern wing without any difficulty. About aid, he said the difficulty  could be overcome if foreign policy aspects were left with the Centre. About the reconstruction of the State Bank, he said this also could be done and that, in the interim period, the Dhaka branch of the State Bank could function as the Reserve Bank of Bangladesh. There could also be a bifurcation of the foreign exchange account – the earnings generated by exports from the eastern wing could be maintained in an account with the Dhaka branch. Bifurcation of tax collection presented a more complex problem, and it was agreed that the Awami League team would present a memorandum on how to deal with this matter in the interim phase”.

Mujib and Bhutto met in the presence of Yahya and alone later on the lawns (Vide Bhutto: ‘The Great Tragedy’,  pp. 41-6 for his version of the talks). Bhutto insisted that the National Assembly meet first. Rafi Raza who accompanied him wrote “The Awami League too felt that by 22 March substantial progress had been made in the discussion with the Government and only ‘a few loose ends needed to be tied up’. This view was supported by ZAB himself who, after his first talk with the President, on 21 March, stated that everything would be all right. Then, following the only meeting between the three leaders, on 22 March, ZAB told the Press that the PPP was examining the terms of the broad agreement between the Government and the Awami League. In fact, he accepted the proposal, with the minor amendment that the Assembly should meet initially and not be bypassed.” (Rafi Raza, p. 85).

23 March was Pakistan Day. At 11.45 a.m. Kamal Hossain presented a draft Proclamation. Discussion was postponed until 6 p.m. when the advisers met again. They disagreed on (1) notification of the proclamation by the Assembly (2) Withdrawal of Martial Law in a province on the date on which the Governor of the province (who was not removable) took the oath of office and throughout Pakistan on the expiry of 7 days from the date of commencement of the proclamation. (3) The earlier provision relating to the formation of Committees of National assembly members from the two wings was modified in the Awami League draft to set up separately “constituent conventions” for the purpose of framing constitutions of the state of Bangla Desh and for the states of West Pakistan.(4) The new oath of office of the National assembly read “I do solemnly swear/affirm that I, A-B, will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the constitution of Pakistan as by law established”, not to Pakistan as such. (White Paper; pp. 22-23).

Kamal Hossain writes: “On the evening of 23 March, when the Awami League team returned to resume discussion on the economic provisions, they learnt that Yahya had not been at the President’s House the whole day. Indeed, Peerzada mentioned something about his being in the cantonment, and subsequent evidence was to show that 23 March had been the day when the ‘Generals’ had held their meeting. Now, we know that the plan for ‘Operation Searchlight’, which had been prepared earlier by Major General Khadim Raja was read out to General Hamid and Tikka Khan on 20 March. The two generals personally undertook helicopter rides on 24 March, to pass the instructions to trusted brigade commanders outside Dhaka. The inference from these circumstances seems irresistible – that the discussions, which M. M. Ahmed held with the Awami League team regarding financial and economic provisions, were being prolonged by the government merely to consume time and to provide a cover while real preparations were afoot in the cantonment for the implementation of a ‘military solution’. By the morning of 24 March, the Awami League team had concluded discussions of the economic provisions and, indeed, a clause-by-clause reading of the entire proclamation.”

Mujib suggested that the name of the federation should be Confederation of Pakistan. The government team strongly objected to this “arguing that this represented a fundamental change in our position. We argued that a change in the name did not amount to a fundamental change; as all the substantive provisions remained intact, a limited but viable federal government had been adequately provided for. Cornelius seemed to appreciate the argument, but countered with the suggestion that perhaps the word ‘Union’ could replace ‘Confederation’. The Awami League reiterated its position and stated that this point of difference related to a single word and, if the issue was not resolved, could be resolved at a meeting between Bangabandhu and Yahya later, when the final draft was placed before them for their consideration.” That meeting was never held.

“In the evening, the reading of all the clauses and schedules of the draft was concluded. I asked Peerzada, with a note of urgency, as to when the draft could be finalized. From the Awami League side, it was proposed that I should sit with Cornelius that very night to finalise the draft, so that it could be put before Bangabandhu and Yahya the next morning. Cornelius was agreeable but Peerzada held him back saying, ‘No, we have some discussions this evening, you may meet tomorrow morning’. When I suggested that a time be fixed for the following day, Peerzada again intervened to say that this could be done over the telephone and that I would be contacted. Then Peerzada turned to me and said, ‘When do you think the proclamation should be made?’, to which I replied that it should have been made ‘the day before yesterday’, and that the way things were going (I had the situation in Chittagong and Rangpur in mind, where the army had fired on civilians and Bengali policemen) time may be running out. It was in this context that Tajuddin Ahmad said that the Awami League team thought that they had discussed everything exhaustively and that there was nothing more to discuss. All that remained to be done was for a draft to be put before Bangabandhu and Yahya for their ultimate approval. Once approved, the proclamation could be promulgated. This statement of Tajuddin Ahmad’s has been sought to be misconstrued to make it appear that it was the Awami League that broke off the negotiations. In fact, this was far from the truth. Since exhaustive discussions had taken place, what was required was to finalise a draft to be put before Bangabandhu and Yahya. I waited for a telephone call throughout the fateful day of 25 March. The telephone call never came. Indeed, when I finally left Bangabandhu at his residence at around 10.30 p.m. on 25 March, Bangabandhu asked me whether I had received such a telephone call. I confirmed to him that I had not. That night, the Pakistan military launched its attack.” (Kamal Hossain; pp. 101-3; Sisson and Rose; p. 124-6)

The main objections centred on nomenclature. First, the terms had agreed, that members of the National Assembly would meet initially in two “Constituent Committees for the purpose of formulating special provisions and requirements of each province of Pakistan after which they would convene as the National assembly to draft a national constitution.” In its draft the Awami League substituted “Constituent Conventions” for “Constituent Committees” though their purpose was unchanged. The second provision concerned the nature of the oath under which members of the National Assembly were to be sworn into office. The government’s oath emphasized sovereignty and obligation to the state, but the Awami League’s version emphasized obligation to the constitution. A body charged with drafting a Constitution is necessarily a Constituent body and not a Committee.

“A member of the Awami League team indicated that he had been instructed by Mujib to change ‘Federation of Pakistan’ to ‘Confederation of Pakistan.’ At this suggestion one distinguished member of the government team temporarily lost his usually calm demeanor. Jumping from his seat, he exclaimed that a confederation was in essence an agreement between two sovereign states, and that such an arrangement had not even been intimated, much less discussed before. He said that the word “Union” – if the Awami League was so intent upon using the Indian constitution as a model – was acceptable, but that “Confederation” was inimical to the welfare of the Pakistani state and was completely out of the question. (Sisson and Rose; p. 127).

Rafi Raza’s comments are apt. “Ironically, the ‘Confederation’ proposal, which was considered treason at the time, might ultimately well have been the best. The ‘two Committees’ arrangement on which it was based was more appropriate for a confederation than Six Points. It would have established the West Wing as an equal partner, and safeguarded its interests, especially in the event of breakdown. This would not have been the case with Six Points, under which the Awami League, or at least the East Wing representatives, would have controlled not only East Pakistan but also the Centre in the foreseeable future. The confederal solution would certainly have been preferable to civil war, defeat and the dismemberment of the country.” (p. 87).

The White Paper reproduced, as Appendix E (p. 47), the full text of the Awami League’s offending Draft Proclamation. Reading it one is appalled at the arrogance and constitutional illiteracy of those who regarded it as a charter for a confederation. It was the draft of a federation. 1. There was a Central Legislature with “exclusive power” to make laws on specified subjects as well as “the Dacca Capital Territory”. They were : “(a) Defence of Pakistan; (b) Foreign Affairs, excluding Foreign Trade and Aid; (c) Citizenship, naturalization and aliens, including admission of persons into and departure of persons from Pakistan. (d) Currency, coinage, legal tender and the State Bank of Pakistan subject to paragraph 16 of the Proclamation. (e) Public Debt of the Centre. (f) Standards and weights and measures. (g) Property of the Centre, wherever situated and the revenue from such property. (h) Coordination of international and inter-wing communication. (i) Elections to the office of President, to the National Assembly and to the Provincial Assemblies, the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners, remuneration of the Speaker, Deputy Speakers and other members of the National Assembly; power, privileges and immunities of the National Assembly. (j) The Supreme Court of Pakistan. (k) The service and execution outside a Province or a State of processes and judgment, etc. (l) Offences against laws with respect to any of the matters enumerated above.”

2. Under “defence” the Centre had the right to station its army in East Pakistan. 3. The Supreme Court was to decide disputes on federal State relations. 4. There was no provision for secession. 5. “After the Constitutions of the State of Bangladesh and States of West Pakistan have been framed under sub-paragraph (1) and when the President is notified in writing by the respective Chairman that the Constitutions have been framed under sub-paragraph (1), the President shall summon a meeting of the National Assembly, at which all the members shall sit together as a sovereign body for the purpose of framing a constitution for the Confederation of Pakistan.” 6. Executive power is co-extensive with legislative power. Federal officials would have continued to function in Bangladesh. Given statesmanship the Centre’s power would have increased.

The language was tactless and insensitive but in the substance the Awami League’s draft was clearly for a federal polity. A confederation is set up by treaty and is a league of sovereign states devoid of any binding central legislative authority; legislative, executive or judicial. Did nobody in the President’s team care to read the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” of the United States of America (1778) or, for that matter any text book on political science or international law? That document speaks of “the United States in Congress assembled”. The States sent “delegates”, subject to their recall. There was a committee of the States. There was no central legislature or a Supreme Court.

Only arrogance of power and animus against political opponents – if not, indeed, a whole region and its people – can explain why the law was not consulted and a federal scheme, erroneously and grandiloquently called confederal, was treated as such. And on the basis of those unworthy emotions a whole nation was broken up and a long planned military crackdown ordered, heedless of its intentional consequences.

The breakup of Pakistan could have been averted in the negotiations at Dhaka on 23 March. But it could not have been prevented by military means from 25 March 1971 onwards. The record reveals all too clearly, the persons who were directly responsible for the tragedy.

The consequence of the crackdown were predictable and were, indeed, predicted by the wise Edmund Burke in the House of Commons on 22 March 1775 for all such follies. “Sir, permit me to observe, that the use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment; but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again: and a nation is not governed, which is perpetually to be conquered.

“My next objection is its uncertainty. Terror is not always the effect of force; and an armament is not a victory. If you do not succeed, you are without resource; for, conciliation failing, force remains; but, force failing, no further hope of reconciliation is left. … A further objection to force is, that you impair the object by your very endeavours to preserve it. The thing you fought for is not the thing which you recover; but depreciated, sunk, wasted, and consumed in the contest.”


The author is an eminent Indian scholar and expert on constitutional issues.