Pakistan, 1971: Three Men, Two Nations

In the year 1971 the future of East Pakistan depended on a struggle between three men: a habitual drunk, General Yahya Khan; a professional agitator, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; and a political operator par excellence, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Relying respectively on military force, street power and pure guile, this volatile trio pursued their incompatible objectives. Yahya, Pakistan’s military ruler, repeatedly claimed that he had one, and only one, objective: to keep the east and west wings of Pakistan united. If unity was assured then he was prepared to offer East Pakistan substantial autonomy. In fact, Yahya did go further than any other Pakistani leader in trying to make the necessary compromises to find a solution for East Pakistan. A durable settlement, though, eluded him. Ever since the defeat of 1971, many Pakistanis had complained about Yahya’s drinking and womanising. But those were the least of his problems. Yahya was simply outclassed. Politically, intellectually and in terms of sheer drive, he was never in the same league as either Zulfikar Ali Bhutto or Mujibur Rahman.

Yahya viewed politicians with disdain and Mujibur Rahman was a politician to the core. Starting out as an angry activist addressing groups of ten to twenty students, he ended up as the founder of Bangladesh, speaking to the hearts of many millions. His creed never altered: he believed in Bengali nationalism. When Mohammed Ali Jinnah struggled for Pakistan he relied on legal arguments. Mujibur Rahman had to engage in a far rougher, dirtier fight for Bangladesh and, unlike Jinnah, he spent long periods in jail. From the moment he became interested in politics at Dhaka University he was never afraid of defying the authorities: on the contrary, he relished it. No one doubts that Mujibur Rahman deserves the title ‘founder of the nation’ but there are sharp differences of opinion as to when exactly Mujib became irrevocably committed to Bengali independence. Many believe this was his goal from the outset. Speaking after independence, Mujib himself claimed that he had been planning to divide Pakistan ever since 1947. As we shall see, however, there is good evidence that even as late as December 1970 or February or March 1971 he was still thinking in terms of a united Pakistan and did not foresee a complete rupture.

The third contestant in the struggle for East Pakistan had no particular interest in the place. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto may have preferred to keep Pakistan united but he shed few tears when Bangladesh broke away. Bhutto’s role in the 1971 crisis has been fiercely debated. He has argued that he did his best to save the country from splitting up but many believe he played a sophisticated, cynical game to fulfil his personal ambitions, even if that meant the Pakistani nation was broken in the process. Bhutto was a man in a hurry. After the 1970 elections, one senior minister told Yahya that if Bhutto did not become prime minister within a year he would literally go mad. Bhutto himself made little secret of his lust for power and, at the start of 1971, General Yahya and Mujibur Rahman were standing in the way of his becoming prime minister. By the end of 1971, having lost a war with India, Yahya was in disgrace and Mujibur Rahman was ruling Bangladesh. The path was clear for Bhutto to take over in the west.

The complicated interplay between Yahya, Mujib and Bhutto had a decisive role in the break-up of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. But Bengali nationalism was alive and well before any of them were even born. The British had always considered Bengal to be a troublesome province: the Muslims there had been the most vociferous champions of Muslim rights and a Muslim homeland on the subcontinent. In 1906 the All India Muslim League was inaugurated in Dhaka and thirty-four years later it fell to a veteran Bengali politician to propose what is now seen as one of the fundamental texts of Pakistan, the Lahore Resolution. The resolution declared: ‘the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in the majority, as in the north-western and eastern zones of India should be grouped to constitute “Independent States” in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign’. The resolution plainly indicated a desire for ‘Independent States’ and not one independent state.

SOURCE: Pakistan: Eye of the Storm, 2nd ed., by Owen Bennett Jones (Yale Nota Bene, 2002), pp. 147-149

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