• Saturday, Feb 04, 2023
  • Last Update : 09:54 am

OP-ED: The elections that broke Pakistan

  • Published at 11:58 pm June 7th, 2021
freedom fighters Bangladesh flag liberation war 1971
File photo of freedom fighters holding the flag of an independent Bangladesh during the Liberation War in 1971 Courtesy: Anwar Hossain Foundation

The inclusive elections were the first since Pakistan was carved out in 1947

A separate state for Indian Muslims to live happily ever after in Pakistan came to a dead end after Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s brainchild -- the controversial “two-nation theory” -- collapsed after 24 years, when East Pakistan bifurcated and became Bangladesh.

Apparently, the free, fair, and credible general elections held in 1970 stirred a political hype in the eastern province of Pakistan and led to the gradual realization of their identity as a nation-state. 51 years ago, the general elections of the national and provincial assemblies were held on December 7, 1970 -- to elect members of the National Assembly. The inclusive elections were the first since Pakistan was carved out in 1947.

The top-secret intelligence message transmitted from Dhaka to the Rawalpindi GHQ of the hawks of the Pakistan Army predicted that the Awami League would get one-third of seats, while factions of the Muslim League, the Pakistan Democratic Party (PDP), and other Islamist parties would hold two-third majority. The Rawalpindi hawks were confident that a political coalition could be easily matched to corner Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s party, the Awami League.

Probably due to the physical distance of 2,000 miles between the two wings of Pakistan, with the huge India in the middle, the “mango people” (aam janata) had no clue about the rulers of Pakistan and the ruling bourgeoisie class.

A fierce contest began between two socialist democratic parties, the eastern political party Awami League, and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the western region, over who would govern Pakistan. The time for the electoral test arrived in 300 constituencies, of which 162 were in East Pakistan and 138 were in West Pakistan.

The Awami League became the single majority in the eastern wing, while the PPP managed to make a dent in the two provinces of Sindh and Punjab, but were rejected in Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) provinces. In reality, the PPP faced stiff competition from the conservative factions of the Muslim League, the largest of which was the Muslim League (Qayyum), the pro-Marxist National Awami Party (Wali), as well as Islamist parties like Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), and Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP).

The result was a victory for the Awami League, which won an absolute majority of 160 seats, all of which were in East Pakistan.

This victory was a big test for the flamboyant politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leading the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), who won only 81 seats out of 138 seats in the western region. Nevertheless, the two leading parties failed to add feathers in their caps and become a national political party in 1970.

In the five provincial elections held 10 days later, the Awami League swept in East Pakistan, while the PPP were the winning party in Punjab and Sindh. The Marxist National Awami Party emerged victorious in the then NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and restive Balochistan.

During the political impasse on March 1, 1971, the Rawalpindi hawks unilaterally cancelled the first National Assembly scheduled in Dhaka to blackmail Sheikh Mujib to come into their terms for the handover of power. Unfortunately, the military dictator Yayha Khan’s parley with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in mid-March reached a stalemate, as the latter refused to withdraw Martial Law, clamped in March 1969.

Mujib argued that Martial Law must be withdrawn before the parliament session commenced.

48 hours after the dialogue collapsed, the “Operation Searchlight” genocidal campaign was launched.

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at [email protected]; Twitter @saleemsamad.

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