Bangladesh: How the East Was Lost
Here’s a video of an independence advocate ringing the bell on Indian TV:
Long story short, there aren’t a lot of useful parallels between East Pakistan and Balochistan. But that’s not going to stop Modi from messing with Pakistan in Balochistan if he really wants to. For that matter, Pakistan has learned a few tricks since 1971 and I expect that things will not go well for Balochis, already enduring a nasty security operation cum occupation and demographic attack at the hands of Islamabad.
The important takeaway, I think, is don’t assume the PRC will stand idly by just because that’s what happened in the case of Bangladesh. This proposition is becoming something of a perennial among India’s China hawks, along the lines of “Pakistan is so f’ed up, China will just sit back and let India fix it”.
I think this is moonshine.
The PRC, I expect, is not a starry-eyed lover of Pakistan and sees problems with the terrorism-sponsoring sh*tshow at the core of Pakistan’s security policy. I also expect ISI probably also discretely brandishes the threat of unleashing the local Islamists—who are viscerally anti-PRC thanks to the Chinese role in the storming of the Lal Masjid Mosque that birthed the TTP–to engage in anti-China mischief if circumstances dictate.
But the PRC has levers to use on Pakistan as a major economic & security interlocutor. It has about zero levers to use on India.
The PRC simply does not have enough love for India—a strategic competitor edging towards a de facto alliance with the United States and nibbling away at the PRC’s position in Vietnam, Southeast Asia, and the SCS—to cede the Muslim reaches of South Asia including Afghanistan as India’s sphere of influence and trust that India’s going to do a better and more enthusiastic job of suppressing Islamist militancy that threatens Xinjiang and the path of the OBOR through the stans than Pakistan.
So, all things being equal, a dysfunctional but allied Pakistan is a safer home for China’s AfPak portfolio than an adversarial India.
I don’t think the hawks seriously believe what they’re selling themselves. But it’s a talking point to enable another turn of the escalatory crank against Pakistan by saying, Don’t worry about China. We’ll be fine!
As for Bangladesh, like many Americans I daresay, my main exposure is via the George Harrison song. Here it is!
But the loss of the East is a core issue of Pakistan identity and anxiety and now, thanks to Modi putting Balochistan into play, something that should perhaps be understood more fully as a precedent, a warning, and perhaps a good predictor of how South Asia and the world could blow up if and when the PRC and India come to blows over the issue of Pakistan’s territorial integrity and, indeed, its survival.
Perhaps the most significant takeaway is that early on in the crisis the elites of West Pakistan had perforce written off East Pakistan because of its distance and vulnerability, and because it was understood that the PRC would not intervene militarily to force Indian restraint.
The failure of Pakistan in the matter of East Pakistan a.k.a. Bangladesh in 1971 was complete and on many levels, and obscured by the desire of all actors, winners as well as losers, to dodge implication in the bloodiest aspects of the debacle. I try to sort out the strands in this lengthy piece.
In particular, I propose that Pakistan’s plans for suppression of rebellion in the East may have involved a crime against humanity: an attempt to ethnically cleanse East Pakistan of Hindus in 1971.
I go into the strategic, geostrategic, political, and economic dead ends that Pakistan wandered into during the year that it tried to prevent the separation of East Pakistan.
Unsurprisingly, a disaster this total has spawned a conspiracy theory: that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto connived at the loss of East Pakistan so he could be ascendant in the West. There’s something to it.
Bhutto had little incentive to work for Pakistani unity and stood to benefit if the East was lost. It looks he gave the tottering edifice of Pakistani rule a helpful push in a crucial meeting at his family hunting lodge in Larkana.
Once that was done, Bhutto didn’t have to do a lot except get out of the way and make sure he profited from the aftermath.
For background, in 1970, Pakistan was separated into East and West Wings. The East Wing, today’s Bangladesh, was more populous and had a burgeoning localist movement. In order to transition from military to civilian rule, the President, General Yahya Khan, set elections for December 1970.
Bhutto’s PPP did well in the West but not as well as the Awami League, under autonomy/independence minded Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the East.
If the electoral outcome was respected, the Awami League would control the national legislature, select the Prime Minister, and had the votes to impose its vision of autonomy on the nation.
After several months of negotiations, General Yahya decided Awami League demands were unacceptable and ordered a military crackdown in the East. India intervened, Pakistan was defeated, and by the end of 1971 East Pakistan was gone and Bangladesh had been born…and Bhutto had attained absolute power as President and Martial Law Administrator in the West.
The complete piece is below the fold.
It’s in four parts:
Strategy: Hindu Genocide
Geostrategy: The China Non-Factor
Politics: The Larkana Conspiracy
Economics: The Ahmed Plan…or, What’s Jute Got to Do with It?
Strategy: Hindu Genocide
In my opinion there is a hidden crime at the heart of Pakistani operations in the East in 1971: a systemic pogrom against Hindus residing in East Pakistan. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh all have their own reasons for downplaying this element, but the evidence is pretty persuasive that a key objective of the Pakistan military during its prolonged security operations in the East was “Partition 2.0”, a campaign of terror to drive Hindus out of Pakistan. I lay out my premise in my Asia Times piece, Balochistan Is Not Bangladesh, so you might want to read that first. I flesh out the story in this section.
Clearing out an ethnicity through massacre and terror is probably genocide and a crime against humanity, so it is not surprising that Pakistan official history focuses instead on the successes and excesses of the precursor operation—Operation Searchlight, “16 handwritten paragraphs over five pages” according to the extensive Wikipedia entry
—that kicked off on March 25, 1971 and seems to have been structured along the familiar, at least to the Pakistan Army, lines of a coup against the nascent rule-by-decree regime of the Awami League in the East.
However, when it came time to pacify the population, I believe there were other priorities and methods at work.
The Pakistan government’s investigation of the East Pakistan debacle—the Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report—has been through the wringer a few times, allegedly revised and suppressed by Zuftikar Ali Bhutto, then revised and classified but partially leaked in 2000.
It contains this passage:
General Niazi [Commander of the Eastern Garrison] visited my unit at Thakuragaon and Bogra. He asked us how many Hindus we had killed. In May, there was an order in writing to kill Hindus. This order was from Brigadier Abdullah Malik of 23 Brigade. [pg. 27]
In Dead Reckoning, Sarmila Bose documents a similar massacre of fleeing Hindus on May 20 at Chuknagar.
In both cases only men were killed, inviting the inference that the Pakistan Army was massacring Hindu men to prevent them from fleeing to India, joining a resistance movement, presumably under Indian command, and eventually returning home.
However, the fact that as many as 8 million Hindu refugees made it across the border nevertheless indicates to me that the purpose of these massacres were to spark and exacerbate panic and accelerate the emigration of Hindus from East Pakistan. The question of the confessional composition of the Mukti Bahini freedom fighters—how many were Hindus—would be an interesting question.
A true smoking gun to determine Pakistan’s intentions—one that I think Pakistan would seek to suppress above and beyond any of its other crimes in the East– would be any documentation of encouragement of rape of Hindu women.
Rape of Bengalis to shame and cow their communities, with some grotesque ideas of using Punjabi eugenics to dilute Bengali identity (or “improve” allegedly inferior Bengali Muslim stock in the East) apparently played a role in rape condoned if not actively promoted by the Pakistan military. But remaking the gene pool of Bangladesh, a nation of 50+ million people was manifestly beyond the capabilities of the Pakistan Army.
Rape of Hindus is another matter. Because if the intention would be to eliminate the Hindu community completely, rape would appear to be a necessary adjunct.
If the Pakistan Army and its auxiliaries confined themselves to a strategy of killing Hindu men as potential combatants, it is logical to assume the men would flee to India while leaving their families behind to protect their property. But if women were being systematically raped, then they would flee as well with their children and the Hindu presence would be extinguished.
I found one study indicating that rape of Hindu women was a tactic employed by “Bihari” Razakars (“Biharis” were the descendants of Urdu-speaking Muslims who had migrated to East Pakistan at partition from Bihar and other regions of eastern India; they were the primary ethnic supporters of unity and collaborators with Pakistan military, staffing the Razakar paramilitary auxiliaries. The Bihari community was the target of retaliatory massacres after independence in 1971.).
The paper states “the Pakistan Army’s local auxiliary forces, known as the Razakaar and Al-Bard, are alleged to have used rape to terrorise, in particular the Hindu population, and to gain access to its land and property.” [Bina D’Costa and Sara Hossain, Redress for Sexual Violence Before the International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh: Lessons from History and Hopes for the Future, Criminal Law Forum (2010) 31 pg. 339].
This would to my mind fit with a scenario in which the Pakistan Army concentrated on the borderline legally defensible task of massacring Hindu men on the suspicion/pretext that they were current/potential enemy combatants, and tasked the Razakars with complementing their efforts with a communal reign of terror, perhaps including rape, with the promise that property of the evicted Hindu communities would become theirs.
For context, I believe a strategy of “incentivized terror” was employed by the Turkish government to mobilize Kurds to displace Armenians during the great genocide. They don’t like to talk about it either.
Bose paraphrases the account of one survivor of the Chungakar massacre:
Muslims…started looting Hindu areas in 1971. The Hindus…reported that the Muslims were looting their property and trying to abduct their women. For a while the Hindus tried to set up a system of guard duty in their areas. But within a short time they decided to leave East Pakistan and go to India. 
It is not clear in this passage whether the “Muslim” persecutors were Biharis allied with, or members of, the Razakars, or if they were Bengali Muslims. Anti-Hindu hostility had already been whipped up during the 1965 war and apparently incited Bihari and Bengali Muslims alike.
However, in the subsequent massacre at Chungakar as well as Jathibhanga, Razakars allegedly played a crucial role in locating Hindus en route to India and bringing in the Pakistan Army to massacre the men.
If indeed some people in Pakistan had the idea that their problems in the East could be solved through ethnic cleansing of Hindus on top of a counterinsurgency campaign against Muslim Bengalis, and India would accept the Hindu refugees who survived the slaughter and stand aside as Pakistan’s vulnerable forces thumped the Muslim insurgents, well, that was a pretty big miscalculation.
Indira Gandhi was determined not to accept the refugees; instead she used them to justify the claim that the Pakistani operation in the East was an international matter, affecting India’s stability and security and justifying its intervention, and not just an “internal” affair of Pakistan. And she cranked up a huge effort to support the insurgency, first through indirect and covert means, and then by a formal invasion in late November 1971.
Geostrategy:The China Non-Factor
With 20/20 hindsight and after 45 years of Bangladesh nationalist propaganda, it’s difficult to understand how Pakistan believed it could reconcile Bengalis to continued citizenship after Operation Searchlight.
However, based on some dodgy intelligence assessments, General Yahya Khan had seriously expected to play kingmaker in a split parliament after the December 1970 elections with the Eastern vote split between multiple parties.
To help out, General Umer, Yahya Khan’s security guy, had invested heavily if unproductively in the QML and other West-friendly political parties in the East in an unsuccessful effort to assist them in making a decent electoral showing.
For good or not so good reasons, General Yahya did not, even after the December 1970 election, accept the Awami League as the crystallization of a universal Bengali desire for independence.
Surveying the catastrophe of the December 1970 elections and the validity of the Awami League’s mandate, Yahya perhaps also consoled himself with the conviction that the Awami League, not a collection of political pollyannas, had allegedly padded their edge with ballot-stuffing hinka-dinka-do.
General Niazi, Commander of the Eastern Garrison, wrote “I was told…that had the [Martial Law Administration] done its job with dedication and honesty of purpose and not given a free hand to the AL to rig the elections, the other parties would have won at least sixty to sixty-five seats in the cities, thus constraining Mujib’s activities.”
The nature and nuances of Bengali differences with the Centre, within the region, and between parties and polities is a very interesting question, one that the Bangladesh government has limited interest in exploring, as it has structured its national mythos by portraying 1971 as a war of liberation conducted by a monolithic Bengali polity against a foreign oppressor.
When Operation Searchlight was greenlighted, Yahya Khan might have hoped that pro-unity politicians in East Pakistan would, for mercenary or principled reasons, eventually step up as a popular alternative once the AL leadership was out of the way and the insurrectionary miscreants suppressed.
Indeed, an embarrassing reality for the glory of Bengali arms is that Pakistan’s military strategy, implemented by General Tikka Khan and General A.A.K. Niazi as Commander of the Eastern Garrison, was rather successful at first.
Pakistan forces pretty much kicked ass during the Operation Searchlight and General Niazi’s follow-on operations, apparently using a military coup template (a familiar exercise, I would expect to the Pakistan Army) to disarm pro-Bengali police and military forces, detain the leader of the Awami League, Sheik Mujibar Rahman, slaughter AL activists and Bengali intellectuals, seize media outlets, and restore the writ of the central government in the urban areas, then aggressively pushing out along the lines of communication to isolate and demoralize the opposition in the countryside.
However, Indira Gandhi responded to the poor showing of the freedom fighters by committing India completely to cracking Pakistani control of the East through indirect military support and, eventually, direct intervention, and midwifing the birth of Bangladesh. Indian support for the liberation struggle revealed the gains of Khan’s and Niazi’s forces as transitory and put paid to any hopeful strategies for political subjugation.
The only way a campaign against Bengali localists could have been regarded as a manageable risk for Pakistan would be if Yahya Khan believed he had the backing of China to deter India from knocking down Islamabad’s house of cards in the East.
East Pakistan was generally regarded as by itself indefensible against Indian attack. The official public narrative was that India would be deterred or if necessary punished for aggression in the East by operations out of the West, where the bulk of Pakistan’s infantry, armor, and air forces were located.
But Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had undercut even this position by claiming that in the 1965 war “China had saved East Pakistan” by pinning down Indian troops that might otherwise have found employment attacking East Pakistan. Indeed, India regarded fighting a three front campaign (Pakistan on the East and West and the PRC to the north) as a risk not worth taking.
In 1971, Pakistan had absolutely no assurances of Chinese intervention, as is persuasively documented in Srinath Rhagavan’s Bangladesh 1971. The PRC was rather sympathetic to Bengali aspirations and anxious about a variety of its own security concerns including hostility with Russia, rapprochement with India, and the reliability of the PLA after the fall of Lin Biao.
According to the memoir of a PRC diplomat intimately involved in the events, Yang Gongsu, China had no choice but to sit this one out (as opposed to 1965 war, when the PRC notified India it was prepared to take military action up by Sikkim to aid Pakistan).
In 1971, on top of the national chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the commander of PLA forces in Tibet—forces which served as the spearhead for military operations against India–was being “struggled.” In this environment, PLA military operations against India were apparently inconceivable.
In 1971, the PRC repeatedly urged Pakistan to push the political track for reconciliation and never pledged to go to war with India over the East Pakistan issue. In the event its support was limited to lip service and some military aid. It seems Khan knew, Gandhi knew, and the only people who didn’t get it were Kissinger and Nixon, who, according to Rhagavan, misread some Zhou Enlai mumbo-jumbo.
With no plausible strategy to neutralize India, I’m inclined to characterize Pakistan’s decision to roll out Operation Searchlight in the East as a “Hail Mary” desperation play. Indeed, Rao Farman Ali, one of the two generals who drafted the operational plan for Operation Searchlight, subsequently claimed he was opposed to its implementation because of the danger of Indian intervention.
Operation Searchlight was drawn up in March pursuant to a decisions made at Pakistan army staff meeting in February; but the decision to deploy it after the election in the face of deep and organized Bengali opposition, without Chinese support, and with the likelihood that India would exploit the crisis was a sign of desperation…or a brutal “pricetag” operation to punish Bangladesh for its independence…or a public relations gambit to show the citizens of the West that the Army had done its best…or, as some think, a conspiracy to shed the political incubus of East Pakistan once and for all.
Politics: The “Larkana Conspiracy”
Regarding the throughgoing debacle of the loss of East Pakistan, was it a simple matter of inept leadership? the racist arrogance of the Punjabi-officered military that thought it could control insurrectionary East Pakistan, with a population of 60 million, with about 55,000 military personnel and virtually no airlift or riverine mobility, and in the face of implacable Indian hostility? or fatal dysfunction between the Western military—represented by President Yahya Khan—and civilian leadership—in the hands of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto?
Or was it “Failure by Design”: a conspiracy?
Some people think so.
Which brings me to the “Larkana Plan,” Bhutto, and General A.A.K. Niazi.
General Niazi was the commander of Pakistan’s forces in the East. He lost, as we say today, bigly, surrendering to the Indian army and delivering himself and 93,000 POWs to India for detention, the largest number of POWs detained since WWII.
He was made the fall guy for Pakistan’s failures, accused of surrendering without authorization, botching the defense of Dhaka, illicitly trafficking in pan (betel leaf), and being a horndog.
Niazi furiously defended himself in his book The Betrayal of East Pakistan. Although one must take his assertion of his unquenchable awesomeness–he claimed his plan for the defense of Dhaka was perfect, he should have been unleashed to go on the offensive in India, all of Pakistan’s military mistakes were committed on the western front—with a grain of salt, one does get the feeling he was set up to fail.
General Niazi was understandably proud that, despite being number 12 on the Army list, he was selected to take the number 3 post in the Pakistan Army: Commander of the Eastern Garrison. His elevation was undoubtedly a testimony to his skills as a commander, honed in successful engagements from World War II onward; but the fact that the eight generals in front of him did not clamor for the job was perhaps an ill omen.
Clearly, the Pakistan military had no workable strategy for East Pakistan in the case of a major Indian attack. When things got truly dire in the East in November 1971, General Yahya Khan simply said: “What can I do for East Pakistan? I can only pray.”
When crunch time came in late November 1971, Niazi was outnumbered 3:1, his forces were exhausted by six months of non-stop counterinsurgency against an overwhelmingly hostile populace with minimal reinforcement, he had one squadron of fighters (quickly put out of business when the Indian airforce disabled the only airport in the East that could land them) against India’s 17 squadrons, little armor and riverine transport, and virtually no helicopter lift capability.
Promised reinforcements (of men, not equipment, since the primary transport channel was Pakistan International Airways civilian flights via Sri Lanka as Indian airspace had been closed to any Pakistani aircraft for months) didn’t show up. Maybe, as Niazi alleges, key units were held in the West for Bhutto’s upcoming coup against Yahya Khan; maybe the futility of reinforcing a hopeless cause in the East was a shared opinion of commanders in the West.
The biggest knock against him is if Niazi hadn’t surrendered when he did, Pakistan might have been able to squeeze out a ceasefire at the United Nations.
Well, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, hurriedly appointed as Pakistan’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister and tasked with trying to salvage something from the wreckage at the UN, had a chance to conclude the ceasefire on December 15 based on a resolution submitted by Poland (i.e. with the backing of the USSR) but dramatically rejected it and walked out of the chamber instead.
General Niazi, much to the relief of the Indians, surrendered the next day.
Which brings us back to General Niazi’s conspiracy theory: that Bhutto connived to break the government’s power of East Pakistan and leave Bhutto in a commanding position as ruler of a downsized Pakistan.
As General Niazi puts it in his book:
Basically Bhutto was not prepared to accept the role of opposition leader of a united Pakistan; his endeavours were therefore directed at compromising Mujib’s right to form the government, which would only be possible if East Pakistan gained independence.
The final plan for the dismemberment of Pakistan was hatched between General Yahya and Bhutto at Larkana, Bhutto’s home town. The plan, which came to be known as the M.M. Ahmed plan, aimed at abandoning East Pakistan without a successor government, which meant: by losing the war. So all the efforts of Yahya’s junta and Bhutto’s coterie were directed toward losing the war.
The conclusion that Bhutto and Yahya reached an understanding at Larkana to abandon serious efforts to extract a usable political settlement from the election debacle through negotiations, and instead crush the Awami League in East Pakistan is pretty much incontestable.
The date of the purported Larkana meeting is February 3, 1971 and February is when the Pakistan Army was purportedly tasked to develop the plan that became Operation Searchlight. Bhutto’s subsequent interactions with the Awami League settled into a pattern of obfuscation and delay.
A leading figure in the Bangladesh liberation movement, Rehman Sobhan, recently published a memoir, Untranquil Recollections: The Years of Fulfillment. In it he recounts the conversation a friend of his had with retired general Ghulen Umer, who was a member of Yahya Khan’s inner circle in 1971:
Umer confided to me friend that he had accompanied Yahya to Dhaka for his talks with Mujib. At the end of the talks, Yahya instructed Umer to immediately contact Bhutto and set up a meeting in Larkana…The junta, who had invested in defeating Bhutto in the elections, now sought to use him as an ally in frustrating the emerging ascendancy of the Bangalis…In the first exchanges with Bhutto [at Larkana], Yahya burst out “We must fix this bastard, Mujib.”
Instead, of course, it was Yahya, not Mujib, who got fixed.
The idea that Yahya and Bhutto explicitly cooked up a plan at Larkana to lose East Pakistan, rather than pre-empt the Awami League’s rise to power, is, perhaps, a little bit of a stretch, at least for General Yahya.
Bhutto is another matter. Because he probably had good reason to believe the East was unrecoverable.
According to Rehman, Bhutto told a journalist in March of 1971 that the agitation in the East was manageable, since it was, per Rehman, “a storm in a teacup led by a few urban-based politicians who knew nothing about armed struggle” who could be dispersed by “a whiff of grapeshot”. Rehman feels this attitude might have informed a cavalier stance toward a military solution by Bhutto in his discussions with Yahya Khan at the notorious Larkana meeting.
I am inclined to regard this as public relations bloviating by Bhutto for the benefit of the Western (European and American) press. When he made that statement, Bhutto was well aware that beyond the purportedly effete urban intelligentsia opposing the Centre, the main populist, rural force in East Pakistan—represented by Maulana Bhashani and his National Awami Party—was even more determined to pursue independence than the Awami League.
To editorialize for a moment, Bhashani is one of the great figures of modern Asian history, a Sufi pir with decades of activism championing the rights of the downtrodden of all creeds and ethnicities, not just Bengali Muslims, dating back to the 1930s, in today’s Assam and Bangladesh. Bhashani had an enormous following among the peasants of East Pakistan and had indeed founded the Awami League that Sheikh Mujib subsequently rode to power.
Bhashani has been largely written out of Bangladesh history. Admittedly, he was the oldest of old school activists (as a pir he was expected to possess certain mystical capabilities and would breath on a cup of water to imbue it with healing power for a sick follower). Bhashani focused on the sufferings of the rural poor and was preoccupied with issues of economic justice. He was certainly out of step with the more modern focus of Sheikh Mujib on urban intellectuals, students, and workers and the liberation of all that bourgeois economic potential that would solve Bangladesh’s problems.
But he has also been ignored because Bhashani, with his vast moral authority and rural backing, played a pivotal role in Bangladesh independence agitation that undercuts the hagiography surrounding Sheikh Mujib.
Bhashani is also a non-person because he was a less-than-critical admirer of Maoist agrarian policies—he was known as the “Red Maulana”—who served as a primary PRC interlocutor at a time when many Pakistani politicians from the East as well as West, including Mujib, paraded their pro-American connections to demonstrate their qualifications to govern. Bhashani’s pro-China stance led to accusations, apparently not completely unfounded, that he was prepared to offer assistance to Ayub Khan and perhaps other politicians in the West i.e. Bhutto who shared his enthusiasm.
Bhashani’s prestige and views threatened the Indian/Awami League program in 1971 to the extent the Indian government placed Bhashani under virtual house arrest during the independence war to make sure he did not form a competing locus of resistance to Mujib and the AL.
Here’s a good intro to Bhashani and his significance.
I’m happy to say that after decades of relative neglect, Bhashani is the subject of an English-language biography, Searching for Bahsani , by Dr. Abid Bahar, and a Ph. D thesis by Layli Uddin that, I hope and expect, will be published in the near future.
Bhutto had considerable history with Maulana Bhashani, and an understanding of Bhashani’s stature as a political leader in East Pakistan.
According to the recollections of a Baloch leader, Sherbaz Khan Mazari, Bhutto had, while serving in the Ayub Khan regime, bribed Bhashani to the tune of 500,000 rupees not to support Fatima Jinnah in her 1965 election bid against General Ayub.
When Bhutto’s focus had shifted from enabling Ayub Khan to screwing him, his political strategy was to break the political control of the elites and their vote banks with a direct, potted Nasser/populist Islamic appeal to the voters. He probably found the template for this strategy in Bhashani’s National Awami Party.
Bhutto found Bashani’s ability to mobilize voters, his advocacy for socialist policies such as nationalization of industries, and his pro-China tilt congenial to his own outlook.
Bhutto had originally considered joining the NAP before he founded the PPP in 1970 as a more suitable and malleable vehicle for his personal ambition. Bhutto also explored the possibility of an alliance between his newly minted PPP and Bhashani before deciding the PPP would go its own way and in the process gut the support of the NAP in the West (which as it happens was controlled by a pro-Soviet faction at odds with Bhashani).
Bhashani’s anti-imperialism and opposition to Pakistan’s alliance with the United States complemented Bhutto’s championship of an independent, less US-centric foreign policy, and offered the enticing prospect of a rift in the East between Bhashani and Sheik Mujib, who had endorsed the US alliance, perhaps as a tactical effort to get his ticket punched as a credible national leader and potential prime minister in united Pakistan.
The NAP might have won enough seats in the East to undercut the Awami League’s claim to exclusively embody the aspirations of Bengalis and put in play General Yahya’s dream of playing kingmaker on a fragmented political battlefield, as well as feeding Bhutto’s ambitions to form a political bloc that could credibly claim to speak for both Wings.
But that didn’t happen. Not even close.
By 1970 Bhashani’s alienation from West Pakistan was total, he was adamant that East Pakistan was headed down the road to independence, and his interest in electoral jiggery-pokery nonexistent.
The NAP boycotted the December 1970 elections, enabling the Awami League sweep of 160 out of 162 National Assembly seats in the East and control of the NA if and when it ever met.
The only significant force in the East interested in negotiating with the West was, ironically, that voice of Bangla aspirations, the Awami League.
The AL, with perhaps greater sophistication and pragmatism than Bhashani, had been positioning itself as the party that was willing to do business inside a united Pakistan. Anxious West Bengali capitalists with investments in the East had been underwriting the Awami League, and Mujib’s promotion of a pro-US alignment would have served him well a national political leader with a secure power base in a largely autonomous but not independent East Pakistan.
However, the AL’s overwhelming victory had the fatal consequence of convincing Yahya and Bhutto they had no leverage to derive much benefit from negotiations. Sheikh Mujib wouldn’t settle for less than convening the National Assembly, and if he got his nose in the tent with the Awami League’s absolute majority, there wouldn’t be much Bhutto or Yahya could do to block him from implementing his desired agenda.
With Bhutto as well as Yahya seeing no advantage in exploring political compromise, any scenarios that Sheik Mujib might have had in mind for negotiation, accommodation, modulated defiance and principled or unprincipled footsie between the Awami League and the generals and politicians in the West—or for that matter, keeping the East within Pakistan–went by the wayside.
With the obvious routes to power blocked, Bhutto was apparently seduced by the more extreme options.
I’m not a mindreader, natch, but my take on Bhutto’s attitude at Larkana would be:
I’ve staked my political strategy on leading a populist democratic movement that supersedes military rule. But I’ve got nothing in the East. I could advocate for respecting the electoral outcome and negotiating a settlement. But that makes Mujib Prime Minister. Nah. If General Yahya goes with military rule, if it works, somehow, he’ll rig any subsequent elections to make sure the West—and I!– stay on top. If he fails—by far the most likely outcome—East Pakistan’s gone and I’m the dominant political force in what’s left.
At Larkana, I expect Bhutto supported Yahya’s plan to intervene, because he regarded its most likely outcome– losing East Pakistan—preferable to the alternatives, especially the alternative of a negotiated settlement that accommodated the Awami League and would leave Bhutto playing second fiddle.
Readers are also welcome to go the full Machiavelli—not much of a stretch in Pakistani politics—and speculate that Bhutto had hoped that, after he pushed the political settlement with the Awami League off the rails in February, Bhashani might have emerged as a more congenial resistance figure with whom Bhutto could negotiate something. In which case, of course, the Indian government and the Awami League would have had another, very specific interest in sidelining Bhashani.
After Larkana, Bhutto fleshed out the plan to break Yahya Khan’s hold on power as well.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had the political chops and self-confidence to remake—and break–a nation. The signature Bhutto exchange is this, as recounted in Owen Jones’ Pakistan: Eye of the Storm:
In 1963 Zulfikar Ali Bhutto [then Pakistan’s Foreign Minister] met President J.F. Kennedy in Washington. After a day of talks Kennedy looked at Bhutto and said: “If you were American you would be in my cabinet.” “Be careful, Mr. President” Bhutto replied, “If I were American, you would be in my cabinet.”
Here’s Rhagavan on how Bhutto ran the endgame in New York at the UN in December 1971 on the Polish resolution (the one that would have enabled a ceasefire instead of a surrender by Niazi’s forces):
Yahya had spoken with Bhutto on the telephone and told him that the Polish resolution looked good: “We should accept it.” Bhutto had replied, “I can’t hear you.” When Yahya repeated himself several times, Bhutto only said, “What? What?” When the operator in New York intervened to inform them that the connection was fine, Bhutto told her to “shut up.”
Why did Bhutto not heed Yahya’s advice and accept the resolution? Had it been passed in that session, it would have prevented the surrender of the Pakistani troops. Then again, that appears to be precisely why Bhutto scuttled the resolution. He seems to have been calculating that an ignominious defeat capped off by the surrender of tens of thousands of troops would del such a blow to the Pakistan army as to shake its grip on the polity, which then would clear the ground for his own political ascendance. Singed by his dalliances with the military, both under Ayub and Yahya, Bhutto seems to have concluded that the new Pakistan must be built on the ash heap of the army’s decisive defeat. He was not wrong. [pg. 261]
“He was not wrong”…because Bhutto had been dallying with a third military darling, COAS Hassan Gul, who strongarmed the disgraced and demoralized General Yahya into formally ceding his powers as President and Martial Law Administrator to Bhutto upon Bhutto’s return from New York on December 20.
Indeed, Bhutto’s interest in displacing Yahya in a coup had been a subject of thoughtful discussion in the international press at least since September 1971. General Niazi alleges Bhutto was promising high posts to key military co-conspirators with a lavish hand even as the East Pakistan debacle unfolded.
It’s pretty clear that by the time East Pakistan was circling the drain in late 1971, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s main concern was…Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
In his impassioned speech to the Security Council, Bhutto declared:
I am not talking as a puppet. I am talking as the authentic leader of the people of West Pakistan who elected me at the polls in a more impressive victory than the victory that Mujibur Rahman received in East Pakistan…
Just to set the record straight, Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won over 12 million votes, 39.2% of the national (East and West) vote in the 1970 election. Bhutto’s PPP won about half that—19.2%. Digging down to the impressiveness of victories in the two “Wings” as they were known, the PPP won 113 out of 180 provincial seats in the West i.e. 63%; the Awami League won 288 out of 300 seats in the East: 96%. OK, then.
However, this speech galvanized its intended constituency—West Pakistan, and young officers in the army—with the vision of the charismatic, defiant champion, and can be viewed as Bhutto’s assertion of his credentials as leader of the new, truncated Pakistan.
Here’s a video of Bhutto’s legendary walkout and footage of his tumultuous and perhaps orchestrated welcome back in Pakistan.
As is evident from this brief excerpt, although Bhutto was unable to hear Yahya Khan, phone connections from Pakistan to New York were clear enough for his eleven-year old son to get through.
The paper Bhutto dramatically tore up, by the way, was not the offending Polish resolution; it was a sheet of notes and doodles.
Economics: The “Ahmad Plan”
or…What’s Jute Got to Do With It?
To illustrate the economic issues surrounding East Pakistan and the events of 1971, let’s look at a fascinating imperial artifact: jute.
Jute is largely forgotten today in the West.
Although, as its champions aver, jute has a multitude of uses, its fibers were traditionally extracted, spun, and woven primarily to produce burlap sacking.
Sacking was a big deal especially in olden times, when agricultural and mineral commodities were moved from Point A to Point B in sacks. But from the point of view of the anxious businessperson, loading and moving stuff by bags shuffled between godowns on the backs of coolies and longshoremen was a cost nightmare. For some low value commodities, the cost of bagging is more than the cost of what’s in the bag.
Nowadays, every effort is made to handle goods like these “in bulk” i.e. stored loose in hoppers and holds and bins and moved by screws and conveyer belts automatically, thereby keeping labor and packaging costs to a minimum.
And when commodities are bagged, they’re usually in a bag made of woven polyethylene fiber, like those fertilizer bags that Chinese peasants used as luggage back in the 1980s.
Jute is out.
But during the glory days of the British empire and moving stuff in sacks, jute was in.
And it was still “in” after Independence and Partition and in the 1960s when relations between East and West Pakistan lurched into crisis.
In fact, it was the core of the economy and even diplomacy of the entire nation of Pakistan.
The jute plant grows very well in what’s now the nation of Bangladesh. Extracting the fiber from the plant, drying it, and baling it was labor-intensive but, in the days of the Raj, labor was cheap.
The natural fiber is strong, very strong!—good!—but also stiff and balky and hard to feed through an automated spinning machine. Before the fiber can be spun into yarn, it has to be treated to make it more pliable.
We now turn to the city of Dundee, in Scotland. Dundee did not have jute, but it did have a flax spinning and weaving i.e. linen industry.
And it had whale oil; the town was a center for arctic whaling.
By 1833, the people up there figured out how jute could be softened by a combination of whale oil and water and reliably and profitably spun into yarn and woven into bags.
By the mid 19th century, Dundee was the world capital of jute processing and technology. They called it “Juteopolis”. The guys who ran the business were “jute barons”.
Remorseless capitalism being what it is, Dundee businessmen discovered they could use mineral oil, not whale oil, to soften the fiber and there was no need to ship bales of jute to Scotland for processing. Instead, the jute industry started migrating to the banks of the Hoogly River in Calcutta and by the 1890s, Dundee and Calcutta dominated the world jute industry. By the 1920s it was all Calcutta, with the mills controlled by British capital, and Dundee, which at its peak had tens of thousands of people working in the jute mills, was on the ropes.
At partition in 1947, the jute industry ended up on the Indian side of the line, the British jute wallahs went home and Indian businessmen took over the plants.
East Pakistan, which accounted for 75% of jute acreage, had nothing.
The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, turned his attention to the economic plight of East Bangladesh and finally, after 100 years of colonial and capitalist exploitation, the workers of Bangladesh were poised to claim their birthright…
Well, not quite.
Jinnah mobilized West Pakistan supporters of the Muslim League to set up jute factories in East Pakistan as a patriotic endeavor, which they did and with considerable success.
The Adamjee Jute Mill was founded by the same family of philanthropists that literally provided bridge financing for the establishment of the new government of Pakistan and set up Pakistan International Airlines to facilitate Muslim migration out of India.
Adamjee Jute Mill grew into the largest jute mill in the world, employing 26,000 people, and a focus of Pakistan pride that hosted foreign leaders including a young Queen Elizabeth.
By the 1960s, jute accounted for 75% of the foreign exchange earnings of united Pakistan.
However, those earnings found their way mainly to West Pakistan instead of being invested in East Pakistan.
Immediately prior to liberation in 1971, 68% of the loom capacity in East Pakistan was owned by West Pakistanis.
By the 1960s, the disparity between the two wings grew by 40 percent. East Pakistan with 55 percent population received only 35 percent of the development expenditure under the regime’s flawed and misplaced prioritization in the name of economic growth. Despite Jinnah’s early attempts to encourage Bengali recruitment in the army, till the Ayub era, the total Bengali representation in terms of officers remained less than 5 percent. The flashy new capital city designed and called Islamabad was one example of the policy to use East Pakistan’s export surplus for development in West Pakistan. West Pakistani deficits were also serviced by East Pakistani jute money.
As Bengali ethnic and political identity crystallized in the 1950s, catalyzed by a successful movement to resist the imposition of Urdu as the state language, jute became a symbol of exploitation by West Pakistanis.
I recall reading the recollections of a West Pakistani newspaper editor who was showing his colleagues around Karachi. Every time they saw a magnificent building, they sniffed “jute”. In other words, West Pakistan’s prosperity was built on the wealth abstracted from East Pakistan.
Indeed, the disparity between East Pakistan’s economic contributions and the benefits it derived are cited as a key factor in the push for independence. The idea that jute-generated profits and foreign exchange would support a viable independent nation in Bengal also contributed to the militancy of advocates for separation.
One of the interesting, ugly, and unexplored angles of Bangladesh independence is whether Awami League militants turned the jute mills and other West Pakistan capital-controlled assets in the East into battlegrounds to be won by the AL even before the Pakistan Army started its suppression campaign in late March 1971.
In March and April 1971, several jute mills, staffed by a combination of Bengalis and “Biharis” (Urdu-speaking Muslims who had migrated to East Pakistan from eastern India at the time of Partition) and often managed by Ahmadis and West Pakistanis, exploded into communal massacres, with Biharis and West Pakistanis the main victims. The mills were huge, employing thousands of people, and the massacres were reportedly also in the thousands.
It seems unacceptably Orientalist to posit that peoples of Asia spontaneously form bloodthirsty mobs and butcher their neighbors on the basis of language and ethnicity when given the excuse and opportunity.
Maybe that’s what happened, but Pakistani atrocity literature often describes the violence as orchestrated by “Awami League jingoes” even before the Pakistan Army kicked off Operation Searchlight, exploiting communal divisions in a matter that will be familiar to observers of the Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 or the prolonged campaign of government terror conducted by gangsters on behalf of the Indonesian military recorded in The Act of Killing.
Or, for that matter, lynch mobs in the American South that were, I believe, usually enabled by some determined agitators in the local Klan, law enforcement, or whatnot.
Whatever happened, after liberation the Bangladesh government nationalized the jute mills, and the political contributions/insurance/protection money paid to the Awami League by the Adamjees and other West Pakistan jute lords were for naught.
An adjunct to the “Larkana conspiracy”—a pretty plausible scenario that Bhutto and Yahya Khan formed an alliance in March 1971 to destroy the Awami League—is talk of the “Ahmad Plan”. M.M. Ahmad was known as the central government’s economic czar, intimately involved in formulating the Five Year Plans; he was in Dhaka handling the abortive negotiations for autonomy in March 1971.
The Five Year Plans had inevitably become embroiled in the conflict between East and West, with economists from the East highlighting the inequities of investment and the stripping of profits and foreign exchange from the eastern jute industry for the benefit of investment and industrialization in the West in highly politicized debates.
General Niazi avers that “Immediately after the 1971 elections, Mr. Bhutto had asked M.M. Ahmad, Adviser Economic Affairs Division, and Mr. Qamar-ul-Islam, Deputy Chairman Planning Commission, to prepare a paper for him to prove that West Pakistan could flourish without East Pakistan” and this assumption underpinned the plans hatched at Larkana for a confrontation in the East. [xxiv]
Given the tension between East and West—and the fact that reviews of the Five Year Plans were marked by institutionalized disputes between adversarial panels of West and Bengali economists concerning the proper and equitable allocation of receipts and investment—one would certainly expect that Ahmed had taken a hard look at what would happen if the precious jute and other export revenues were plowed back into the East, a likely scenario under heightened autonomy as well as independence.
Whether this translated into a rosy prediction that the West could “flourish” without the East is open to question. In addition to the jute factor, the industries of the West lost a protected market for half of their output when Bangladesh became independent.
If Bhutto and Ahmad had a genius plan for profiting from the loss of East Pakistan, it was a well-kept secret.
The Bhutto era was one of economic flailing marked by a politically motivated nationalization campaign, an unavoidable devaluation of the rupee, big increases in defense spending and indebtedness, and anemic economic growth.
Pakistan could perhaps console itself with the observation that Bangladesh, victimized by the trauma of the war, the retreat of jute, political instability, and the advice of its own less than omniscient economists, has done even worse.
Mr. Ahmad departed Pakistan soon after 1971 and became a fixture at the World Bank, perhaps with American support? He played a role in keeping the international lending spigot open for Pakistan.
In evaluating the economic consequences of separation, I would propose that Bhutto considered the East, its prosperity, and its ability to contribute to the prosperity of Pakistan an unwelcome political distraction.
Bhutto’s agenda involved breaking the power of the economic as well as military elites, and replacing it with, well, Bhutto-ism, something like Nasserism, based on Bhutto’s aggressively wielded political clout as the instrument of Pakistan’s popular democratic forces.
A largely autonomous East would have frustrated Bhutto’s plans for centralized state-socialist economic planning and nationalization of key industries, exercises in state-planned investment that were key to Bhutto’s populist stance as the people’s strongman and informed a flurry of policies instituted by his government as soon as he took over in December 1971.
In the event, the power of some of the old “22 families” like the Adamjees was broken by confiscation in the East and nationalization in the West.
But since we’re talking about Bhutto-ism, not some socialist utopia, Bhutto’s political difficulties soon vitiated his transformative initiatives, abuses multiplied, his enemies gathered, and by 1979, a military coup had removed him from power and he was executed.
The jute industry was hard-hit by the shift to plastic sacking but the Bangladesh government is now working on a comeback for the “Golden Fiber”—it’s Green!– which still provides employment to 5 million citizens. In addition to efforts to incorporate the fiber into higher-end products, the government has mandated the use of jute sacking in its traditional core markets.
This rather amusing report highlights jute’s structural cost problems in the contemporary sacking scene even in the Bangladesh heartland:
The [Bangladesh] textiles and jute ministry made jute bags and sacks compulsory for packing any quantity of paddy, rice, wheat, maize, fertiliser and sugar, cancelling its previous order that mandated the use of jute bags for packaging only 20kg of goods and above.
The move came after millers started selling rice in 19.5kg plastic bags or lower to circumvent the jute packaging law, industry stakeholders said.
Jute is still with us, and so is Bangladesh.
By Peter Lee