Elections were postponed due to natural disasters. When they were finally held, they determined an unsolvable crisis in Pakistan.
by Massimo Introvigne
In previous articles, we discussed the maneuvers by the government of Pakistan, dominated by Western Pakistanis, to prevent the Awami League, which represented the interests of East Pakistan, from winning the 1970 elections, taking advantage of demography and the fact that there were more Eastern than Western voters.
Efforts to destroy the Awami League failed, but the agitation in West Pakistan in favor of the elections, led by the Socialist-oriented Pakistan Peoples Party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (1928–1979), made cancelling them impossible to the military regime, although Martial Law was still in force.
Nature, however, intervened. 1970 was a disaster year for Pakistan. First, there were floods with thousands of casualties, which led President General Yahya Khan (1917–1980) to announce on August 15 that the elections, scheduled for October 5, were being postponed to December 7.
It was widely suspected that this was just a move to buy time while Yahya was searching for a way to cancel the elections altogether. However, that natural problems were serious was confirmed by two smaller cyclones in October that killed 16,000 in East Pakistan and by the Bhola cyclone that hit Eastern Pakistan on November 12, 1970. It was the deadliest tropical cyclone in history, and might well have been the deadliest modern natural disaster (statistics on some earthquakes, which also had high casualties, are controversial). More than 500,000 Eastern Pakistanis died, entire villages were wiped out, millions lost their homes and jobs.
Because of previous controversies, elections could not be postponed again. In fact, the Bhola cyclone became a main theme of the elections. Relief was slow and insufficient, and Eastern Pakistanis believed that this was one more instance in which West Pakistan had proved it was not ready to invest resources in favor of the poorer and politically unstable East Pakistan.
On December 7, 1970, the general elections were held, except in nine districts in the coastal area of East Pakistan severely hit by the cyclone, which voted on January 19, 1971. Considering the devastations of the cyclone, the turnover was comparatively high, 63%, and as expected more Eastern Pakistanis voted than Western Pakistanis. The results of what historians have called the fairest elections in Pakistani history confirmed that the plan to discredit the Awami League had not succeeded. The League won 167 seats, or all the seats in East Pakistan except two, and the absolute majority of the 313-members Assembly. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party was a distant second with 86 seats. Parties representing fundamentalist Islam also won seats, including Jamaat-e-Islami.
Illusions were shattered, and the worst nightmare of the Western Pakistani establishment materialized. If the Assembly would convene, thanks to its absolute majority, the Awami League would form a government of its own, governing not only East Pakistan but also West Pakistan. As mentioned in our previous articles, in the eyes of most Western Pakistanis this was inconceivable. Bhutto and President Yahya Khan, while disagreeing on many other issues, were both determined to prevent the Awami League from forming a government, and Awami leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920–1975), called Mujib by Bengalis, from becoming Prime Minister.
On January 15, 1971, General Yahya Khan came to Dhaka to meet Mujib. He proposed that the Assembly will convene on March 3, and that the military will let Mujib be elected Prime Minister, while Yahya Khan should continue as President to guarantee the rights of Western Pakistanis. Bhutto, however, disagreed. He interpreted the Legal Framework Order (LFO) of 1970, which governed the elections and post-election processes, to the effect that a party representing only East Pakistan could not form a government and he, Bhutto, should become Prime Minister as his was the largest party present in both the West and the East.
Meetings between Mujid and Bhutto failed to solve the matter, while Yahya postponed the Assembly’s inaugural session until Bhutto and Mujid would have both agreed to a date.
Meanwhile, a new development further complicated the situation. In East Pakistan, Mujid and the Awami League enjoyed widespread support, but it was not unanimous. There were Muslim fundamentalists in East Pakistan, including members of Jamaat-e-Islami, which considered religion more important than ethnicity or language, and opposed Mujid regarding him as a “secular Muslim.” There were also linguistic and ethnic minorities, which felt closer to the Western Pakistanis than to the Bengalis.
They included a huge number, evaluated between half and one million, of Bihari Muslims, i.e., Muslims from the Indian state of Bihar who had moved to East Pakistan during the Partition. Most Bihari Muslims spoke Urdu as their mother tongue, and had opposed the movement in favor of the Bengali language. Fearing discrimination in an Awami-dominated Pakistan, they took to the streets in the first days of March, expressing their support for the theories that Awami should not be allowed to form a national government. Bengalis reacted, and some 300 Bihari Muslims were killed.
On March 7, Mujid announced that his was now a “struggle for independence,” but at the same time he kept the dialogue with Yahya and Bhutto open. On March 15 and 16, Yahya was again in Dhaka discussing with Mujid how to solve the issues. What he did not tell Mujid is that the Pakistani Army, overwhelmingly dominated by Western Pakistanis, was already preparing a military operation where troops from the West would enter East Pakistan, put it under military rule, and arrest the leaders of Awami. Although nobody in East Pakistan knew it at the time, the genocide will start only ten days after the Yahya-Mujid meetings.