Between 1967 and 1969, General Ayub Khan’s regime tried to destroy the political leadership of East Pakistan. It failed, but created further unrest.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 3 of 8. Read article 1 and article 2.
In previous articles, we saw how the West Pakistan establishment faced an intractable dilemma about East Pakistan. If promises that free elections would be held would not be kept, there would be unrest in West Pakistan as well. On the other hand, because of demographic developments and the fact that there were more voters in East Pakistan, free elections might have led to Easterners gaining the majority and governing the nation as a whole, putting an end to the power monopoly of the Westerners.
Complicating the matter was the fact that, while in the West there were several competing well-organized parties, in the East one party, the Awami League, dominated local politics. The Awami League, with the name Awami Muslim League, had been founded on June 23, 1949, when Bengali nationalists separated from the Muslim League, the largest Pakistani party, which was dominated by Western Pakistanis.
The party had three joint secretaries, but Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920–1975), known to Bengalis as Mujib, emerged as its main leader. Mujib will later go on to become the father of modern Bangladesh, and will be assassinated in 1975, a casualty of the turbulent post-independence Bangladeshi politics. His daughter, Sheikh Hasina, is the current Prime Minister of Bangladesh.
Mujib was one of the leaders of the movement for the Bengali language discussed in our precedent article, and was arrested three times for this reason in 1948. He spent another two years in prison between 1950 and 1952, accused of separatism. In the short-lived effort at reconciliation that followed the 1952 language riots, Mujib was allowed to become a member of the East Bengal government and of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan.
After the coup of General Ayub Khan, Mujib was arrested again in 1962 and 1964. He was released in 1965, and as leader of the Awami League launched in 1966 the Six Point Plan, the proposal for an autonomous East Pakistan within a federal Pakistan that we mentioned in the previous article.
The plan was widely popular among Bengalis, but perceived as separatism in disguise by Western Pakistanis. As demands for national elections increased, the Ayub Khan regimes considered that, to prevent an Awami majority, Mujib and his party should be wiped out before elections could be held.
The tools used by Ayub Khan were the intelligence service, the police, and the judiciary. In December 1967, Ayub Khan visited East Pakistan. Although according to the media, and to Eastern Pakistanis, the visit went up smoothly, when he returned back home the intelligence claimed that a plan by Bengali “separatists” to assassinate him has been fooled at the last minute. Some sixty Bengali political and military leaders were arrested, although evidence of an assassination attempt was scarce. A U.S. investigation, now declassified, concluded that no assassination attempt had taken place.
Nonetheless, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the intelligence service of Pakistan, continued to claim that killing Ayub Khan was part of a plot to launch an armed separatist insurrection with the help of India. It was called the Agartala Conspiracy as the conspirators were accused to have met Indian military officials in Agartala, in India’s Tripura state. 1,500 Bengalis were arrested, including Mujib, although only 35 were eventually brought to trial. It was an obvious attempt to destroy the Awami League and its leader, at a time when the emergence in West Pakistan of the new Pakistan Peoples Party, founded by former Ayub Khan’s minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1928–1979), was making elections unavoidable.
The plan, however, ultimately collapsed. Although it was not impossible that members of the Awami League might have met Indian officers, evidence that crimes had been committed was scarce.
While the Agartala Conspiracy trial, which had started on June 19, 1968, was continuing in Dhaka, on February 15, 1969, one of the defendants, Pakistan Air Force Sergeant Zahurul Haq (1935–1969), was shot by a guard in the prison. As it had happened before, students at the University of Dhaka were the first to descend on to the streets, soon followed by tens of thousands of Bengalis in the whole East Pakistan. In Rajsahi, in the northern part of East Pakistan, a professor who had joined the protest, Mohammad Shamsuzzoha (1934–1969), was killed by the police.
Protests were spiraling out of control when, on February 22, the government announced that it was withdrawing the Agartala Conspiracy case. All the defendants were released, and a huge crowd welcomed home Mujib, who was publicly decorated with the title of “Bangabandhu,” “The Friend of Bengal.”
Actually, the plot to destroy the Awami League ended up in disaster for the regime. Not only the party was not destroyed, it emerged from the 1967–69 events reinforced.
Ayub Khan, however, was not told the truth by his intelligence service. It was reported to him that the Awami League had been discredited and would not win the elections, which Ayub Khan called for 1970 as the first democratic general elections in Pakistan’s history. Ayub Khan was more easily misled because he had suffered a heart attack and a paralysis that had put him in a wheelchair. On March 25, 1969, he transferred his powers to General Yahya Khan (1917–1980), the commander-in-chief of the Pakistani Army, who was probably preparing a coup.
The electoral clock Ayub Khan had set in motion was, however, ticking. There was no longer a way of stopping it.