7 December 1970: The election Pakistan's army lost


Published on December 7, 2020
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Many conversations and a load of arguments have been going on around the recent spell of elections in Pakistan which have brought the until-now fringe party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf to power in Islamabad. There is little question that behind this 'phenomenal' rise of Imran Khan in politics has been the hand of the Pakistan army, which has in the years since the creation of Pakistan in 1947 played a pivotal and certainly dark role in the making and unmaking of successive governments in the country.

And yet there is that single story of where Pakistan's army failed to prevent the rise of a political party to the top despite all its efforts, through intimidation and largesse of a financial sort, to ensure a victory of the parties it thought would be instrumental in keeping its interests intact. That story goes back fifty years, to December 1970. It is the story of the general election of December 1970, Pakistan's very first electoral exercise in its, at the time, twenty three years of independent existence as a state.

Throughout the election campaign between January and December 1970, the army and its intelligence agencies dispensed money and various other sorts of patronage among Pakistan's rightwing political parties --- the different factions of the Muslim League, the Jamaat and others --- convincing itself that no single party would come by a majority and that therefore the formation of a civilian government would rest on the consent of the soldiers.

The Pakistan army in 1970 was fundamentally focused on ensuring that the Awami League did not go beyond the sixty or so seats in the National Assembly it thought would prevent Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from playing a leading role in the country's politics. Supporters of the military --- and you can include here Moulana Maududi's Jamaat-e-Islami as well as men like Fazlul Quader Chowdhury, Khan Abdus Sabur, Moulvi Farid Ahmed of the Nizam-e-Islam party and Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan (the last a Pathan politician noted for his army leanings) went around believing that the Awami League would not and could not win. The military was happy with their assessments.

On the issue of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, if the army felt any discomfort with its programme of Islamic Socialism, it kept its silence. For the soldiers, Bhutto would be a fallback factor for them if the rightwing parties it was providing aid to fell short of expectations.

In the event, every calculation by the army, repeatedly updated in the run-up to the voting in December, came to naught. The absolute triumph of the Awami League, which in the final analysis was to come by 167 seats of an altogether 313 earmarked for the National Assembly, left President Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan and his fellow generals stunned beyond measure. Here before them was a party which had for years been accused of fomenting secessionism and whose leader had been on trial for sedition not long ago now ready to provide leadership to the entirety of Pakistan.

It was a traumatised army and a perturbed establishment in West Pakistan which was now confronted with a situation where Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was not ready to compromise on his Six Points, especially in light of his assertions throughout the election campaign that the vote would be a referendum on them. The massive acceptance of his programme clearly placed the army and its political loyalists in a bad dilemma.

At a point after the election, General Yahya Khan told newsmen at Dhaka airport before returning to Rawalpindi after talks with the leader of the majority party that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the future Prime Minister of Pakistan. To what extent it was a statement which came from his heart remains in doubt. His subsequent actions, following his parleys with Bhutto in Larkana and deliberations with a worried army top brass at GHQ Rawalpindi are pointers to the ill intentions of the civil-military complex in West Pakistan --- power could not be transferred to the chief of the Awami League. The army was absolutely uncomfortable with the prospect of a Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a regular prey of its predatory instincts and a Bengali to boot, exercising power in Rawalpindi.

That exercise of power would surely entail the army coming under Bengali political control. The situation was thus untenable for the ruling circles. Therefore, when Z.A. Bhutto --- who ought to have served as Leader of the Opposition, with the Awami League administering the state --- decided that his party could not attend the inaugural session of the National Assembly scheduled for early March 1971 in Dhaka, the army breathed a sigh of relief. The soldiers were finally able to see a way out of the woods for themselves. It was a Godsend for them.

The results of the general election of December 1970 were eventually subverted by the Pakistan army. The pages of history are replete with the darkness which descended on Pakistan once the soldiers decided to launch a vicious programme of extermination of the Bengalis on 25 March 1971. General Yahya Khan and his team left Dhaka stealthily without announcing an end to their on-going negotiations with Bangabandhu and the Awami League. Bhutto watched the offices of the vocal newspaper The People put to the torch by the army from his suite at the Intercontinental in Dhaka before he was flown out to Karachi by the army.

The rest is history.

One of the more curious facts about Pakistan's political history is the absence of any credible mention of the results of the 1970 election in the many narratives which have been proffered down the years. In the Pakistan Senate, a so-called corridor of democracy depicting Pakistan's political history since the 1940s notes the critical moments defining the country's passage through time. When it comes to the 1970 election, there is no mention of the Awami League having won the vote. The phrase that Pakistan's first general election took place in that year is noted, without further elaboration.

Come to 1971. There is a simple mention of Pakistan's first elected government taking charge of the country. No mention of the war which led to the creation of Bangladesh, the subverting of the results of the election which prevented the majority Awami League from taking power, the arrest and trial of the country's majority leader and prospective Prime Minister is there on that wall along the Senate corridor. Nothing of that is there.

Worrying too is the misrepresentation of Pakistan's 1970 electoral history by western media and commentators. They have by and large referred, in their assessments of Pakistan, to the 1970 vote as an electoral exercise that gave Pakistan its 'first elected government' under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. That Bhutto had assumed power by default, that the majority leader who had been put on trial for treason had by the end of 1971 emerged as the Father of the Bengali Nation are realities ignored. The attitude misleads people born, both in South Asia and the West, after 1970-71, into going for a prejudiced and half-baked understanding of the events which overtook Pakistan in that period of chaos caused by the army and its political allies.

The 1970 election in Pakistan remains the single instance of the Pakistan army's failure to implement its agenda on the future it meant to contrive for the country. The Awami League was able to put the army in its place through its massive electoral victory.

But then the Pakistan army struck back, with consequences that are now part of history.

Since that moment of Bengali electoral triumph in December 1970, Pakistan's army has tightened its grip on Pakistan's politics. Civilian, politician-dominated governments in the country have lived but by leave of the army. They have fallen through the fiat exercised by the army. Imran Khan should not have much to be cheerful about now that the soldiers have raised him to the illusory heights of political power.

(The article is a looking back at 7 December 1970, when the Awami League, led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won a landslide at Pakistan's general election)