1954 provincial elections were a watershed in the history of Pakistan. The United Front (consisting of Fazlul Haq’s Krishak Sramik Party and Suharwardy’s Awami League) swept the elections. United Front won 223 of the 237 Muslim seats and had many allies among the 72 non-Muslim elected members. Muslim League was wiped out of the East Bengal during this election.
West Pakistani ruling elite’s apprehensions about the new Bengali leadership were re-enforced by the international politics and Pakistan’s attempts to join US sponsored military pacts against the Communism. When the defence treaty with United States was announced in February 1954, there was a general protest in East Bengal. Several demonstrations were held and newly elected assembly members signed a protest statement. This signature proved to be the death sentence of the provincial assembly. The ruling group in Karachi (Governor General Ghulam Muhammad, C-in-C General Ayub Khan and Defence Secretary Sikander Mirza) saw this situation as a grave threat to their vision for the country and future relationship with US, which would be a foundation stone of this policy. They concluded that to show to Washington that Pakistan was a serious ally and in full control of its house, East Pakistan’s political process has to be checked.
On May 19, 1954, the mutual defence agreement was signed in Karachi between US and Pakistan and eleven days later, Governor General dismissed East Bengal Provincial Assembly (In fact it was not the Assembly but the cabinet was dismissed: editor) on the flimsy charge that Fazlul Haq had uttered separatist words to Indian media. The central government sent two of its most notorious bureaucrats as Governor (Iskandar Mirza) and Chief Secretary (N.M. Khan) to East Pakistan to bring Bengalis in line. The plan was not for a short- term scuttling of the political process but a long-term as Ayub Khan confided with US ambassador. Ayub very candidly told the US ambassador that, ‘it would be necessary to keep military rule in effect in East Pakistan for a considerable length of time’.
Ayub�s rule from 1958 to 1969 with banning of political activity and running of government through a strong central authority pushed Bengalis further in the background. The protests continue to simmer throughout this period, which finally exploded in Ayub’s face in 1969. By that time, Awami League under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the dominant force (in former East Pakistan) . The central government co-opted few Bengalis to give a facade of Bengali participation. They had no popular base. Out of 16 East Pakistanis who served as ministers in Ayub government, 4 were from civil services and one journalist(Dawan editor Altaf Hossain) . The remaining 11 members were secondary leaders of Muslim League, 8 of whom had contested and lost the election of 1954 (the only election held in East Pakistan on the basis of adult franchise). The governor of East Pakistan,(Monaem Khan) who held the office for seven long years, had lost so heavily in 1954 elections that his deposit was forfeited.
Dance of Death : ‘The excesses committed during the unfortunate period are regrettable.’ General Pervez Musharraf writing in the visitors’ book at Savar Memorial for the Martyrs of 1971 in Dacca, July 2002 31.When Yahya Khan took control of the state in 1969, the country was effectively divided on all known fault lines. The separation between the two wings had been completed at the psychological level. The military elite failed to understand the dynamics of their own society. They embarked on an ambitious but un-realistic goal of higher level of national cohesion in the absence of genuine participation.
In March 1971, they took the fatal decision on the basis of their thoughts that the conflict is an artificial one and they will control it by attacking it directly and with brutal force. In this assumption, all the civilians of West Pakistan acy and all political parties) were in agreement with the military’s point of view.
In the background of general mistrust and prejudice against Bengalis, when Bengali demands increased, so was the anger against them. The phenomenon was universal in West Pakistan affecting both civilians and army officers. By early 1971, there was a general consensus among the military leadership with probably very few exceptions (Lt. General Sahibzada Yaqub Khan was one) that the only solution left was the use of force.
Gen. Yahya Khan called a meeting of Governors and Martial Law Administrators on February 22. Lt. General Yaqub Khan recalled the thought of Yahya Khan about use of strict measures. ‘He thought that a ‘whiff of the grapeshot’ would do the trick and reimposition of the rigours of martial law would create no problems.
To be fair to Yahya, he was not alone in this assessment. Almost all civil and military leadership was of the same view. Niazi explaining the apprehensions of West Pakistanis states, ‘The government would be formed by Bengalis, the iron fist in the velvet glove would be that of Hindus. …’. After the sweeping victory of Awami League in 1970, Yahya’s intelligence Chief, Major General Akbar Khan stated that, ‘we will not hand over power to these bastards’.
In June 1971, in a divisional commander’s meeting, almost all generals disapproved negotiations with Awami League and stated, ‘we must finish this thing’. During a visit to Dacca during the March 1971 operation, a close associate of Yahya stated, ‘There can be no political settlement with the ‘Bingos’ till they are sorted out well and proper. The civilians of West Pakistan in general had the same thinking. Bhutto had claimed that the bastions of power of Pakistan were Punjab and Sindh. The civil service held the general idea that, ‘a taste of the danda – the big stick – would cow down the Bengali babu’. The civilian bureaucrats serving the regime, like Information Secretary Roedad Khan were advising the generals about ‘putting some fear of God’ in Bengalis and how to purify Bengali race and culture by Arabising the Bengali script.
When the Bengali soldiers, police officials, diplomats and airline pilots were defecting en masse, the members of the regime were re-assuring the Pakistani envoys (Major General Ghulam Omar, Information Secretary Roedad Khan and Foreign Secretary Sultan Muhammad met with Pakistani envoys in Tehran and Geneva) that everything was under control and the majority of Bengalis were with Pakistan. This was being told when they could not get a single Bengali to work at Dacca radio station and in an ironic twist, Pakistani representative (Abu Saeed Chowdhry) attending a human right conference at Geneva had defected.
This general thought process was not limited to only senior level. In soldier’s mind when conclusion was reached that Bengalis are traitors then the next line of action was quite obvious. You don’t negotiate with traitors, you finish them off to save the country from their ravages. A Pushtun ex-cavalry officer has eloquently expressed this thinking. During a conversation in early 1971, he dismissed Bengalis as cowards and predicted that they will run when first shot is fired. He confidently stated, ‘Do you know what an armoured regiment can do in Bengal? It will go through the Bengalis (he used the derogatory term ‘Bingo’) like a knife through the butter.
In March 1971, when the military action started, most officers and rank and file justified their actions on the basis of whatever seems plausible to them. At 16th Division HQ, Anthony Mascarenhas(journalist) was told, “we are determined to cleanse East Pakistan once and for all of the threat of secession, even if it means killing off two million people and ruling the province as a colony for 30 years”. At 9th Division HQ at Comilla, Major Bashir justified the military action by stating that Bengali Muslims were ‘Hindu at heart’ and this was a war between pure and impure. His superior Colonel Naim justified the killing of Hindu civilian population to prevent a Hindu take over of Bengali commerce and culture.
A senior officer in Khulna told Maurice Quintance of Reuters, “It took me five days to get control of this area. We killed everyone who came in our way. We never bothered to count bodies”. Captain Chaudhry commented after the March operation that, “Bengalis have been sorted out well and proper – at least for a generation”. Major Malik agreeing with this assessment, remarked that, “Yes, they only know the language of force. Their history says so”.
The March 1971 military operation resulted in deaths of a large number of civilian Bengali operation. Bengalis being not in a position to tackle the well-organized army, turned their rage at the non-Bengali community amidst them. …….. On Bengali side, some have given exaggerated accounts of atrocities, while on Pakistan side there has been total denial, which has resulted in much confusion. Now there is enough evidence to suggest that there was a planned and systematic killing of civilians, especially educated elite and Hindu civilians. Niazi on his assumption of command in East Pakistan, issued a secret directive to all formations which stated, “Since my arrival, I have heard numerous reports of troops indulging in loot and arson, killing at random and without reason in areas cleared of the anti-state elements. Of late, there have been reports of rape… There is talk that looted material has been sent to West Pakistan through returning families”. A former Brigadier stated that Farman Ali was the principle architect of the plan to crush the Bengalis with force and was directly involved in the Hindu Basti massacre. Niazi also admits that a ‘scorched earth policy’ was carried by Tikka Khan and his orders of “I want the land and not the people” was carried out in letter and spirit by Major General Framan and Brigadier Jehanzeb Arbab in Dhaka. He also admitted that tanks and mortars were used against university students and 7th Brigade under Arbab not only killed people in Dacca but also resorted to looting banks and other places.The figures may be disputed by different parties but the fact remains that large scale death and destruction ensued since March 25 army operation. Enough information from Pakistani side and from Bengali side has emerged to support this conclusion.
[An unusual analysis of events by Pakistan defense Journal on the Pakistani misrule on the majority Bengalis and the birth of Bangladesh in 1971]