Free and Fair Elections that broke Pakistan

By: | Muhammad Ali Azlan |



On 23 March 1956, Pakistan removed the status of a Dominion of the British Commonwealth and became an Islamic republic after framing its own constitution. Although the first general election were scheduled for early 1959, severe political instability led President Iskander Mirza to abrogate the constitution on 7 October 1958. Mirza imposed martial law and handed power to the Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army, General Muhammad Ayub Khan. After assuming presidency, President Ayub Khan promoted himself to the rank of Field marshal and appointed General Muhammad Musa Khan as the new Commander-in-Chief.

On 17 February 1960, President Ayub Khan appointed a commission under Muhammad Shahabuddin, the Chief Justice of Pakistan, to report a political framework for the country. The commission submitted its report on 29 April 1961, and on the basis of this report, a new constitution was framed on 1 March 1962. The new constitution, declaring the country as Republic of Pakistan, brought about a presidential system of government, as opposed to the parliamentary system of government under the 1956 Constitution. The electoral system was made indirect, and the “basic democrats” were declared electoral college for the purpose of electing members of the National and Provincial Assemblies. Under the new system, presidential election were held on 2 February 1965 which resulted in a victory for Ayub Khan.

As years went by, political opposition against President Ayub Khan mounted. In East Pakistan, leader of the Awami League, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was one of the key leaders to rally opposition to President Ayub Khan. In 1966, he began the Six point movement for East Pakistani autonomy. In 1968, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was charged with sedition after the government of President Ayub Khan accused him for conspiring with India against the stability of Pakistan. This led to an uprising in East Pakistan which consisted of a series of mass demonstrations and sporadic conflicts between the government forces and protesters. In West Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who served as foreign minister under President Ayub Khan, resigned from his office and founded the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in 1967. The left-wing, socialist political party took up opposition to President Ayub Khan as well.

Ayub Khan succumbed to political pressure on 26 March 1969 and handed power to the Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army, General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan. President Yahya Khan imposed martial law and the 1962 Constitution was abrogated. On 31 March 1970, President Yahya Khan announced a Legal Framework Order which called for direct elections for a unicameral legislature. The integrated province of West Pakistan, which was formed on 22 November 1954, was abolished and four provinces were retrieved: Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province. The principles of representation was made on the basis of population, and since East Pakistan had more population than the combined population of the four provinces of West Pakistan, the former got more than half seats in the National Assembly.

Civilian Dictators, Dictatorial Democrats and Bangladesh (Part 1)

A month before the election, the Bhola cyclone struck East Pakistan. This was the deadliest tropical cyclone in world history, killing on the order of 500,000 people. The Pakistan government was severely criticised for its response.

General elections were held in Pakistan on 7 December 1970, the first general elections held in Pakistan (East and West Pakistan) and ultimately only general elections held prior to the independence of Bangladesh. Voting took place in 300 parliamentary constituencies of Pakistan to elect members of the National Assembly of Pakistan, which was then the only chamber of a unicameral Parliament of Pakistan.

The elections saw a fierce contest between two socialist parties: Pakistan Peoples Party and Awami League. The Awami League was the sole major party in East Pakistan. Meanwhile, in the four provinces of West Pakistan, PPP faced a severe competition against the conservative factions of Muslim League, the largest of which was Muslim League (Qayyum), as well as a slight opposition from the Islamist parties like JI, JUI and JUP.

The Awami League won a landslide victory by winning an absolute majority of 160 seats in the National Assembly. The Awami League also won 298 out of 310 seats in the State Assembly of East Pakistan. The PPP only won 81 seats in the National Assembly, but won in Punjab and Sindh. JUI emerged victorious in Balochistan and the Marxist NAP in NWFP.

The Assembly session was not held as President Yahya Khan and the Pakistan Peoples Party did not want a party from East Pakistan in government. This caused great unrest in East Pakistan which soon escalated into a civil war that led to the formation of the independent state of Bangladesh. The Assembly session was eventually held when President Yahya resigned a few days later and Bhutto took over. Bhutto became the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1973, after the post was recreated by the new Constitution.

The Agartala Conspiracy Case was a sedition case in Pakistan during the Ayub Regime against Awami League, brought by the government of Pakistan in 1968 against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the then leader of the Awami League and East Pakistan, and 34 other persons.

The case was filed in early 1968 and implicated Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and others in conspiring with India against the stability of Pakistan. The case is officially called State vs. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and others, but is popularly known as Agartala Shoŗojontro Mamla (Agartala conspiracy case) as the main conspiracy was purported to have taken place in the Indian city of Agartala in Tripura state, where Sheikh Mujib’s associates met Indian Intelligence Bureau officials.

The government of Pakistan resolved to frame charges against 35 political personalities and high government officials under civil law. They were Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Ahmed Fazlur Rahman CSP, Steward Mujibur Rahman, Commander Moazzem Hossain, former LS Sultanuddin Ahmad, LSCDI Nur Mohammad, Flight Sergeant Mahfiz Ullah, Corporal Abdus Samad, former Havildar Dalil Uddin, Ruhul Quddus CSP, Flight Sergeant Md. Fazlul Haq, Bibhuti Bhushan Chowdhury alias Manik Chowdhury, Bidhan Krishna Sen, Subedar Abdur Razzaque, former clerk Mujibur Rahman, former Flight Sergeant Md. Abdur Razzaque, Sergeant Zahurul Haq, Benedict Dias, A.B. Khurshid, Khan Mohammad Shamsur Rahman CSP, AKM Shamsul Haque, Havildar Azizul Haq, Mahfuzul Bari, Sergeant Shamsul Haq, Shamsul Alam, Captain Mohammad Abdul Muttalib, 21 Baluch Regiment, Captain Shawkat Ali, Captain Khondkar Nazmul Huda, Captain A.N.M Nuruzzaman, Sergeant Abdul Jalil, Mahbub Uddin Chowdhury, Lt. M Rahman, former Subedar Tajul Islam, Ali Reza, Captain Khurshid Uddeen Ahmed, Master Warrant Officer Abdul Latif Majumdar, and Lt. Abdur Rauf.

The plot was conceived by Sheikh Mujib in an attempt to ignite an armed revolution against West Pakistan that would result in the secession. Two of the accused, navy steward Mujibur Rahman and the educationist Mohammad Ali Reza went to Agartala, Tripura, a city in Eastern India to seek Indian support for an independent Bangladesh.

The alleged conspiracy was uncovered by the Lieutenant Colonel Shamsul Alam, who commanded the East Pakistan Detachment of the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). It was during this time that an officer of the East Bengal Regiment, Rauf ur Rahman, who was in league with the conspirators made an attempt on Alam’s life. Alam displayed great bravery and chased the would-be assassins; for this Alam was awarded the Sitara-e-Basalat, the highest award for bravery in action during peacetime.

1,500 Bengalis were arrested in connection with the plot in 1967. In January 1968 the Home Department of Pakistan declared that it had detected a scheme to destabilise Pakistan and break the Eastern wing through an armed revolt, and had arrested 8 people. Later on 18 January, the Department implicated Sheikh Mujib as well. He and others were arrested on 9 May 1968, and were subsequently released, only to be arrested later.

Pakistan decided to try the accused by court-martial since a lot of the accused involved military personnel. However, this was overturned in favour of a civil trial to implicate the politicians ahead of the 1970 elections as well as to provide transparency of the trials. Hence, only 35 were finally accused. The accused were then moved from Dhaka Central Jail to the secured borders of the Dhaka Cantonment.

The penal codes were amended to benefit the prosecution of the accused, and the trial began on 19 June 1968 under a special tribunal. The hearings took place inside a secured chamber within the Dhaka Cantonment. The charge sheet of 100 paragraphs were presented before the tribunal, with 227 witnesses and 7 approvers.

The tribunal was headed by 3 judges – the chair, Justice SA Rahman was a non-Bengali; the other members MR Khan and Maksum-ul-Hakim were Bengalis. The government was represented by the Attorney General TH Khan and former Foreign Minister Manzur Quader. Thomas Williams, a British lawyer, along with local attorneys challenged the formation of the tribunal by filing a petition in favour of Sheikh Mujib. The approvers appeared in the witness box and testified that they provided false evidence under the coercion of the State.

Members of public looked at the case as a conspiracy of the Pakistan government against the political autonomy movement of East Pakistan, especially since the government was keen to prove that Sheikh Mujib was an Indian agent and a separatist. They organised mass movement and demanded immediate withdrawal of the case and release of all prisoners.[3] According to the government decision, the final date for the case was 6 February 1969. However, because of the mass upsurge of 1969, the government had to defer the date.

In the morning of 15 February 1969, a Pakistani habildar shot point blank at Sergeant Zahurul Haq at the door of his jail cell, and killed him. The news of the killing led a furious mob to set fire to the State Guest House and other government buildings,[3] where the chief lawyer for the government and the Chair of the tribunal resided. They vacated secretly. Some of the case files and evidence got burnt as a result of the arson.

In the face of mass movement, the government withdrew the Agartala Conspiracy Case on 22 February 1969.[3] The accused were released on the following day and the Race course Maidan saw a grand reception of the accused, where Sheikh Mujib was given his famous title Bangabandhu.

The case was withdrawn in the face of a massive popular uprising, which resulted in the 1969 uprising in East Pakistan and the fall of General Ayub Khan’s dictatorship in 1969. The case and the resulting uprising is seen as one of the major events leading to Bengali nationalism and the Bangladesh Liberation War.

Sergeant Zahurul Haq were honoured by the naming of a students’ residential hall of the University of Dhaka after him.

In 2010, and on the anniversary of the withdrawal on 22 February 2011, surviving conspirator and Deputy Speaker of the Parliament Shawkat Ali confessed to the parliament at a point of order that the charges read out to them were accurate, stating that they formed a Shangram Parishad (Action Committee) under Sheikh Mujib for the secession of East Pakistan.

Parliamentarian Tofael Ahmed added that had the case not been filed, the plot would have culminated in the secession of East Pakistan without bloodshed, and credit the Deputy Speaker for planning the liberation of the nation.

East Pakistan was the more heavily populated state in Pakistan. Thus after the removal of General Ayub Khan in 1968, it had a greater number of seats in the Pakistan parliament. Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman the leader of the Awami party articulated the sentiments of Bengalis and they in one voice supported him.

In the 1970 elections called by Gen Yahya Khan, the successor of Ayub Khan, the Awami league got the majority in the Pakistan Parliament.

The Awami league won 99% of the parliamentary seats in the east and emerged with a majority and logically the Sheikh should have been invited to form the government. But ZA Bhutto whose party had won in the west was loathe to hand over power to the Bengali leader. Though he won 60% of the seats in the western wing he was in a minority and this played heavily on his psyche. He started a campaign against handing over power to the Awami party.

Amidst popular outrage in East Pakistan, Sheikh Mujib declared the independence of “Bangladesh”. According to historical references and a report published by leading newspaper, “Mujib no longer believed in Pakistan and was determined to create Bangladesh”, despite Bhutto’s urging to form a coalition.

On 26 March 1971 Mujib was arrested by the Pakistan Army, which had been ordered by Yahya to suppress political separatist activities in East Pakistan after receiving constant advise from Bhutto given his popularity and past credentials and connections with Yahya’s predecessor who Yahya held in high esteem.

While supportive of the army’s actions and working to rally International support, Bhutto suddenly did an about face and distanced himself from the Yahya regime and began to criticise Khan for mishandling the situation once he saw the tide was turning against the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan and the situation was going out of hand.

He totally refused to accept Yahya’s scheme to appoint Bengali politician Nurul Amin as Prime minister, with him as deputy prime minister.

Soon after his refusal and continuous resentment toward General Yahya Khan’s mishandling of the situation, General Yahya Khan ordered the Military Police to arrest Bhutto also for treason charges, – quiet similar to Mujib.

Bhutto was situated at the Adiala Jail along with Mujib, where he was set to face the charges.

At the same time, Pakistan’s Air force attacked India whose leadership had already mobilized an immense military force on East Pakistan’s borders over a period of eight long months with an intent to invade East Pakistan from four attack points, given the first opportunity.

The Indian armed intervention in East Pakistan led to the very swift and bitter defeat of Pakistani forces, who surrendered on 16 December 1971 to the joint command of regular Indian Army soldiers and Mukti Bahini guerillas called Mitro-Bahini.

Bangladesh came into being soon after this.

By the time Bhutto had assumed control of what remained of Pakistan, the nation was completely isolated, fractured, angered and demoralized.

Bhutto and many others now soundly condemned Yahya for failing to protect Pakistan’s unity.

Isolated, Yahya resigned on 20 December and transferred power to Bhutto, who became president, commander-in-chief and the first civilian chief martial law administrator.

Bhutto reversed the verdict of Mujib’s earlier court-martial trial, in which Brigadier-General Rahimuddin Khan had sentenced Mujib to death, released him and allowed him to fly back to the new nation Bangladesh (Formerly known as East Pakistan)

(Part 2) Civilian Dictators, Dictatorial Democrats and Bangladesh

The Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution of Pakistan was passed by the National Assembly of Pakistan on April 8, 2010, removing the power of the President of Pakistan to dissolve the Parliament unilaterally, turning Pakistan from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic, and renaming North-West Frontier Province to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The package is expected to counter the sweeping powers amassed by the Presidency under former Presidents General Pervez Musharraf and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and to ease political instability in Pakistan. The bill reverses many infringements on the Constitution of Pakistan over several decades by its military rulers.[3] The amendment bill was passed by the Senate of Pakistan on April 15, 2010 and it became an act of parliament when President Asif Ali Zardari put his signature on the bill on April 19, 2010. It was the first time in Pakistan’s history that a president relinquished a significant part of his powers willingly and transferred them to parliament and the office of the prime minister.

292 of the 342 members of the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, voted in favour of the amendment. The amendment turns the President into a ceremonial head of state and transfers power to the Prime Minister.

The most important achievement of the Eighteenth Amendment is the overwhelming attachment with the
democracy and abhorrence with the dictatorial rule. The amendment paves the way for democratic rule in the
future and tries to block all the ways, which were used in the past to derail the democratic system. “It is the
beginning of the democratic era in the country,” said Senator Rabbani who piloted it.

Provinces have been awarded insurmountable power, where the faintest of cracks may become the beginning of the next demand for Independence, exploiting the age old and deep rooted fault lines of Pakistan, politicians may look to take unfair advantage by playing an ethno-linguistic card yet again spelling doom for a democratic utopia that fools daydream of.

Addressing a press conference, former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said Askari was an ardent critic of the PML-N.

“It is unfortunate that the ECP chose Askari for the position,” he added.

Former PM Abbasi said that PML-N will reject the election results if Hasan Askari is made caretaker chief minister of Punjab.

Former Law Minister of Punjab also expressed his concerns against Hasan Askari as the former termed the latter for having views against PML(N).

“We have reservations with Dr Askari as he is very vocal against PML-N,”

“He does not believe in democracy and cannot be expected to ensure work is done on merit and without bias,” the PML-N leader added.

Failing to reach a consensus over the proposed candidates,  the ECP nominated analyst and professor Hassan Askari as caretaker Punjab chief minister.

Dr Hassan Askari is a Pakistani political scientist and military analyst, noted for his work in comparative politics, nuclear weapons and the country’s domestic policy and will now be responsible for the affairs of the biggest province of Pakistan leading up to the elections.

If PML-N’s entire pre-election campaign slogans and apparent tussle with the military establishment is any indication then the upcoming general elections from every angle, spell doom.

This is just one example, the ECP and other hierarchy’s have given into a pig-headed obsession to hold the elections on time amidst piling controversies with regards to delimitation, census, nomination papers, implementation of articles 62,63 etc to name a few.

(Part 3) Civilian Dictators, Dictatorial Democrats, and Bangladesh

The events are eerily similar to that of 1970’s, the army is again diving head-first into a blame game for the next 47 years (God forbid) and one can only hope and pray that the result is not the same, who is to say that PTI and or vice versa does not take to the streets after suffering a loss at the elections or any political party for that matter after everyone has shown immense faith and trust about not only coming out victorious but “clean sweeping” them. As the old adage goes, those who do not learn from their history are doomed to repeat it.

The chances of a revolt, protest and possibly a civil war breaking out are just too damn high and Pakistan will have the toughest of times dealing with it from all aspects, be it economic, military and/or political.

We have lost East-Pakistan to stupidity, ego, incompetence, power politics and obsession before, Pakistan cannot sustain another episode of the same ilk.

May God be with us.


The Writer tweets @Reb_ali_ous




The views expressed by the Author and the reader comments do not reflect the views and policies of The NewsOne.

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