Bangladesh-March-1971: Not the theater of the absurd

Farooque Chowdhury

“Portraying the current crisis [the political development in 1971-Pakistan] as something from the theater of the absurd, he [Bhutto] observed that framing a constitution for Pakistan without the participation of the PPP [Pakistan People’s Party] would be ‘like staging Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark’.” (Richard Sisson and Leo E Rose, War and Secession, Pakistan, India and the Creation of Bangladesh, University of California Press, 1990) But the political development in 1971-Pakistan was neither a theater of the absurd nor staging Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. Political dynamics within Pakistan led to the days of 1971, especially to the torrid March-days in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and on March 25, 1971, the state began enacting its last act as an un-bifurcated state with genesis in gone-away-years.

The British high commissioner in Pakistan observed in August 1958: Pakistan “has a lack of leadership”. (Roedad Khan, The British Papers: Secret and Confidential, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh Documents 1958-1969, Oxford University Press, 2002) Next month, on September 27, Iskander Mirza, the president of Pakistan of the period, told the high commissioner that he was contemplating a coup, which would dismiss the government, postpone election; and he would govern the country with the help of “20 or 30 good men”, and re-shape the constitution. (ibid.) On October 7, 1958, Mirza annulled the constitution of 1956, declared martial law and appointed general Ayub as the chief martial law administrator. Within 10 days, Ayub compelled Mirza to resign, sent him to exile in London, and ascended to the throne of presidency of the country.

Neither Mirza nor Ayub derived their power from the constitution as Mirza abrogated the constitution while declaring martial law. However, Muhammed Munir, chief justice of Pakistan at the time, recognized the seizure of power as he stated: “If the revolution is victorious in the sense that the persons assuming power under the change can successfully require the inhabitants of the country to conform to the new regime, then the revolution itself becomes a law-creating fact …” (State v. Dosso, PLD SC (Pak) 533, ff, cited in the staff report of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), The Events in East Pakistan, 1971, Geneva, 1972) However, “the Supreme Court of Pakistan overruled this decision on April 20, 1972, in the case of Malik Ghulam Jilani and Altaf Gauhar v. Province of Sind and others, Dawn newspaper, Karachi, April 23,1972.” (ICJ, op. cit., n.1in part III)

In March 1969, Ayub Khan dissolved the legislative assembly, and called on general Yahya Khan to take over power and authority of the government although the 1962 Constitution, from which Ayub was deriving his authority, didn’t authorize him to transfer power to Yahya. On taking power, Yahya issued a proclamation purporting to abrogate the 1962 Constitution and appointed himself president with absolute powers under martial law; and a few days later he issued an order, under which he purported to bring back the 1962 constitution subject to his own absolute legislative and executive powers, which was an unconstitutional and illegal act, and was declared to be such by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Chief Justice Hamoodur Rahman pronounced: “There can be no question that the military rule sought to be imposed upon the country by General Agha Muhammed Yahya Khan was entirely illegal”. (ibid.) This sort of power-trading was an important part of the politics the dominating classes were carrying on in the pre-1971 days in neo-colony Pakistan, and the classes were going through a dynamics, a part of which is present in bourgeois states, and the rest is present in neo-colonial states with variations due to historical, etc. causes.

Dominating classes in the neo-colonial state were functioning with their characteristics and within class limitations. An assessment by the British high commission said: “West Pakistan…proved itself an equally alien and disagreeable ruler. West Pakistan has been engaged in the unimaginative exercise of remote control of the provinces’ economic and social life in its own interests; has put its own frequently arrogant and almost always contemptuous representatives to fill the best jobs on the spot; and has intimidated that it intends to impose its own language. All this has revived familiar emotional reactions in East Bengal [today’s independent Bangladesh] – fear, hatred, rebelliousness and violence.” (British high commission, 35/5323, April 10, 1954, National Archives, Kew, quoted in Iain Cochrane, The Causes of the Bangladesh War, 2009) These are actions of the dominating classes and reactions of the dominated classes. 

Years later, in February 1969, the British high commission in Rawalpindi made the following observation: “[R]aising the standard of living of the people of East Pakistan has been painfully slow. Over recent years they have been exposed to the miseries of flood and hurricane and little has been done in the way of flood control to mitigate the effects of such calamities…and there is not much optimism that their meager diet will be significantly improved in the immediate future. Industrial progress is slow and capital is scarce….Mr. Fox argued last November with some prescience that all conditions designed to produce unrest and even revolt were either present or not very far away; and that the situation was economically extremely difficult and partly because of this, politically dangerous.” (Roedad Khan, op. cit.) Contradictions in the society are evident.

Issues and information on exploitation of East Bengal’s resources for enriching the dominant classes centered in the western wing of the pre-1971-Pakistan, and disparity between two wings of the state are now much documented. Feroz Ahmed’s Ethnicity and Politics in Pakistan, (Oxford University Press (OUP), 2000), G.W. Chaudhry’s The Last Days of United Pakistan (C. Hurst & Co., London, 1974), Owen Bennett Jones’ Pakistan: Eye of the Storm (Yale University Press, 2003), S Akbar Zaidi’s Issues in Pakistan’s Economy (OUP, 2001), Shahid Javed Burki’s “Ayub’s fall: A socio-economic explanation”, (Asian Survey, vol. 12, no. 3, March 1972), Viqar Ahmed and Amjad Rashid’s The Management of Pakistan’s Economy, 1947-82, OUP, 1984) are only a few of these documents. As Bangladesh emerged independent in the departing days of 1971, which means there was no East Pakistan to provide surplus to the west wing of the state, Pakistan experienced an economic meltdown in 1972: half of its foreign exchange earnings and half of its market for manufactured goods were lost. (Zaidi, op. cit.)

Along with historical roots, the economic question manifested in politics of and concerning the state, socioeconomic status, sociopolitical framework, political leanings and distinctions, cultural and institutional characters, and mass-psychosocial conditions. “Politicians and political parties from both wings simply had widely different views of how to conduct politics, which were on a collision course immediately after independence.” (Cochrane, op. cit.) Asghar Khan observes: The Baangaalees in the eastern wing of Pakistan were politically more conscious and more aware of their rights compared to the people in the western wing who had been living in a society dominated by the feudal lords and the tribal chiefs. (We’ve Learnt Nothing from History, Pakistan: Politics and Military Power, OUP, Karachi, 2005) Culturally and psychologically, observes G W Chaudhry (op. cit.), the country was divided long before the crisis of 1971.

The state the ruling classes were operating to secure its interests was having fundamental flaw. Pakistan, writes Safdar Mahmood, had none of the usual bonds, which unite a nation. (Pakistan Divided: Study of the Factors and Forces Leading to the Breakup of Pakistan in 1971, Institute of Islamic Culture, Lahore, 1989) Indifferent to the Bengali point of view, the ruling class in Pakistan, finds Hasan Zaheer in The Separation of East Pakistan: The Rise and Realization of Bengali Muslim Nationalism (OUP, Karachi, 1990), considered every demand of East Pakistanis as a conspiracy and a threat to the Islamic ideology and integrity of the country. The gulf between the Pakistan government and the Baangaalees, finds Asghar Khan (op. cit.), had become so wide that an act of treason to Ayub was an act of patriotism to the Baangaalees. “If judged on the basis of facts and figures, the Bengali grievances of political alienation seemed credible”, writes Javed Iqbal, lecturer at the time of preparing the essay, department of history, University of Peshawar (“The Separation of East-Pakistan:  Analyzing the Causes and Fixing the Responsibility”, Pakistan Journal of History and Culture, vol. XXIX, no.2, 2008)

Imperialism is omnipresent in neo-colonies until effective resistance gets organized; but the fact is mostly ignored by mainstream analyses. Neo-colonies’ mainstream politics without imperialist intervention is beyond comprehension; and imperialism relies on its orderlies to retain the neo-colony within its grip, which, as a natural growth, germinates political alliances, power base, competition, and conspiracies. Limitations, if one looks at the phenomenon dialectically, are also there. Pakistan with its economy and geographical location was not only integrally connected to world imperialism and imperialist war plans, but was fully dependent on imperialism for self-survival also. “The US-Pakistan oligarchic alliance relied on a narrow base of political power in Pakistan. Over time[,] this increased internal alienation, polarization and instability. Pakistani oligarchies in power from 1947 to 1958…did not stabilize Pakistani politics or address internal political problems…. Ayub regime lacked stability because it lacked consensus about political ideas and there was no stability or permanence in its internal power arrangement. That is, Ayub’s political system lacked integration in both senses of the term…. [W]hen a power struggle emerged within the oligarchic power structure in Pakistan in March 1969, then factions in the divided elite structure fanned societal tensions to their own ends….[and] cracks in the power structure developed in 1966-9…. There is a story of continuous intra-state political intervention which was dominated by inter-elite power struggles involving individual and institutional forces in Pakistan as well as the US government. There is a story of elite-mass interaction in the form of street agitation, Bengali revolt, demands for democracy, and so on…. [There’s] a surreptitious and permanent patron-client link between the US government and the Pakistan army. The vitality of this link is revealed by the size of the US aid package to Pakistan. This is the barometer. This link defines a critical system of boundary of Pakistani politics”. (Ashok Kapur, Pakistan in Crisis, Routledge)

There was another politics beyond the mainstream politics: of peasants and workers, of forward-looking part of the middle class, of students, mostly related to the middle class, radicalized over time and having influence over and commanding credibility amidst the population in East Pakistan. It was an emerging power block with certain relations to the existing production system, with certain interests, with prospects of furthering class conflict, and influencing political developments in the region. Uncertainties were also there with the emerging power block. The emerging power block’s position was evident as Maulana Bhashani apprehended in a public meeting in Dhaka in early-December 1968: East Pakistan might secede and turn independent. (Pakistan Observer, December 7, 1968) In April 1969, East Bengal Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries called for establishing an independent People’s Democratic East Bengal. Similar calls were also made by other left organizations.        

The 1970- and ’71-days appeared bearing the cracks in the power structure as these came into being after passing through the upheaval-days of 1969, and after experiencing the aspiration of the Baangaalee populace articulated through the 1970-election results, which made entering into compromise difficult for all political actors. Scope for a fallback was to the minimal. The trajectory of the political dynamics was almost clear: on a war-path. To a few, the scene appeared from the theater of the absurd.

The March-1971 negotiations were enacted. But, another act was already in motion: A group of generals in Pakistan seemed to prefer a confrontation before the 1970-election, i.e. before Sheikh Mujib could consolidate his position and emerge as the sole leader of the Baangalees. However, Ahsan, governor of the eastern province, warned Yahya that a united Pakistan would not survive a confrontation with Sheikh Mujib. (Chaudhry, op. cit.) The power-block of generals either had “some other” calculation or was captive to its political limitation, an area of research. “Contingency plans had been prepared as far back as 11 December 1970.” (Srinath Raghavan, 1971, A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, 2013) On February 18, 1971, “at a meeting of several officers in the martial law administration…Yahya was presented with four plausible scenarios for taking action against Mujib and the Awami League”, which included immediate show of military force. (Sisson and Rose, op. cit.) “The first troop reinforcements began landing in Dhaka on 27 February…. On 25 February, he [Yahya] met the American ambassador and…hinted at the postponement of the National Assembly…. Ambassador Farland duly assured him of Washington’s commitment to Pakistan’s integrity – an assurance that naturally pleased Yahya. At noon on 1 March 1971, the postponement sine die of the National Assembly was announced.” (Raghavan, op. cit.) Ahsan sent a telex to Yahya, which concluded: “I beg you even at this late hour to give a new date for the summoning of the assembly and not to postpone it sine die, otherwise…we will have reached the point of no return.” (Sisson and Rose, op. cit.) The last minute Mujib-Yahya-Bhutto talks were programmed to fail because the Junta had decided that even if Mujib yielded, the army would still intervene. (Lawrence Ziring, Pakistan: The Enigma of Political Development, W. M. Dawson & Sons, UK, 1980) And, none had no space to yield. The Baangaalee people entered the political scene as a principal actor in that turning point in the history of their land. The following information is enough to gauge the people’s mood: “On 8 March, the authority issued a note stating that 172 people had been killed and 358 wounded [by government forces firing on people during protest, general strike and defiance of curfew since March 2].” (Raghavan, op. cit.) What’s the rate of killing per hour over the six days – from March 2 to March 7? Was that a prelude to a genocide, and a prelude to a people rising in revolt to assert their right to self-determination? And, the political dynamics, in full motion, was pushing a lot and pulling a lot in the political matrix. Almost all those killed and wounded were commoners on the street. Dhaka press reports of those days carry the fact. This fact – commoners’ active participation and state machine’s assault on the commoners – interjects more mass, speed and significance to the dynamics.    

“Yahya called Generals Tikka Khan and Rao Farman Ali Khan shortly after the negotiations with the Awami League began and instructed them to finalize the drafting of operational orders for military action to reinstate public order and central authority in East Pakistan. Generals Farman Ali and Khadim Raja, however, had already started drafting preliminary orders on the morning of 18 March. With slight modifications, these orders had been approved on 20 March by the army command, though no decision on implementing them was made.… Because of their physical and emotional isolation, the military feared, the forces in East Pakistan would at best become prisoners in their cantonments and ultimately be forced to leave East Pakistan without a fight…. The decision to take military action…was made at teatime on 23 March by the army command and was recommended to Yahya that evening…Preparations were to commence the following day in such a way as not to arouse suspicion.” (Sisson and Rose, op. cit.)

On the opposite end, the people were staging another act: “The turning point in the negotiations came on 23 March…The day was filled with demonstrations, parades, students demanding independence and armed resistance, marching in military formation with the Bangladesh flag ever in view, while that of Pakistan was only to be seen being trampled in the streets or flying behind armed guards at military installations.” (ibid.) These acts of defiance and active participation in politics were parts the people began inserting into the dynamics the dominating classes began long ago with power and force, and the two – opposites in nature – began interacting with each other.    

March 25, 1971 dawned on East Pakistan, yet to be christened Bangladesh, with blood and tear. “Pakistan’s first war of 1971 began on the night of 25 March.” (ibid.) It was a state’s war against a people. Pakistan state began the assault with tanks, artillery batteries and machine guns on a population generating surpluses for the ruling classes for years. Was the resorting to military force the last resort to ensure generation of surpluses? Or, was that a failure in politics of regeneration of capital? Was that a class limitation of the rulers in the neo-colony? The answer is in the reality of classes/class fractions contesting for political power. It’s a dynamics of class struggle manifested in politics; and in the March-days, it reached a certain point with certain force exposing limits of a politics: failure to accommodate a people’s aspiration in a neo-colonial state structure with a certain political dynamics. (It also generates more questions.)

“Political dynamics depend largely on interactions between political leaders and the people they represent.” (Asmeret Bier, Michael Bernard, George Backus, Richard Hills, “Political dynamics determined by interactions between political leaders and voters”, 28th International Conference of the System Dynamics Society, July 25-29, 2010, Seoul) There are other factors also; and interactions are dependent on factors and capacities. 

The people with all its components having relations with the production system, different in type, were not passive. On the contrary, the people, as a whole, were always vibrant with resistance in different forms and methods. Its one component or another, at times, more than one component, was on the path of resistance. There was force and motion, and the force and motion were impacting others, and, impacting the entire system. On the opposite camp, the alliance of classes/segments owning property and power was also on a constant move against the people. That’s the “story” of class struggle, which was the driving force in the political dynamics in Pakistan leading to the March-days in 1971. It was a reality, where people occupied center stage of politics with trains of fire, and dews of blood; it was neither the theater of the absurd nor staging The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

The article headlined “Dynamics to the days of March 1971” has appeared on March 26, 2017 in the Independence Day Special of New Age from Dhaka on the occasion of the Independence Day of Bangladesh. 

Mar 26, 2017

Farooque Chowdhury may be contacted at

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