December is in many ways a month of landmarks in the lands that today comprise Bangladesh. To be sure, as landmarks go, none can match up to the immortal glory of December 16, that date from 1971 that marks the culmination of the Bengali will to freedom, to be “the masters of their own destiny”. The very same will that found expression in the events of December 1970, just 12 months earlier, as Pakistan held its first general election since independence - a fact that in itself spoke to the troubles that blighted its existence, at least in its original “moth-eaten” (Jinnah’s own words) form.
Yet as Bangladesh prepares for what is potentially another landmark vote on December 30, it is perhaps instructive to look back on that election, that directly led to War of Liberation three months later, and whose results leant our struggle the kind of pure legitimacy that captured the world’s imagination (many people don’t know the Concert for Bangladesh was the first event of its kind, laying the blueprint for benefit concerts such as LiveAid and Live8 that came later), even as it disturbed some of its entrenched forces.
The Associated Press Archive contains a video preview of the 1970 elections, dated December 4th of that year, and titled ‘East Pakistan Election Preview’, that intersperses images of the electioneering back then in what is now Bangladesh, with the words of Bangabandhu SHeikh Mujibur Rahman, undisputed leader of the Bengalis (reports in the New York Times from the same era take care to specify that is how the people of these lands preferred to be known, as opposed to East Pakistanis).
Entire rows of shops, along with really any bit of wall or standing structure visible, appear covered in posters with Mujib’s face on them, while paper boats are ubiquitous. It would speak to the result of course, of the polls scheduled for three days later. Bangabandhu speaks with authority of the central issue set to decide the vote.
“Between Bengal and West Pakistan, there is the Indian territory of 1500 miles. And naturally there is no labour mobility between the east and west. As the central government machineries are there in West Pakistan, as the central administration is in the hands of West Pakistanis, as the military installations are all there and the military personnel come from West Pakistan, with only 10 percent from Bengal in the armed forces and 15 percent in the central administration, naturally we have seen in these 23 years that East Pakistan - Bengal - is nothing but a colonial market.
“If you want to save this (Pakistan), and give equal rights to all Pakistanis, then you must give Bengalis their right to live. And they must be master of their own resources, because they have been exploited for a long, long 23 years. It cannot be tolerated anymore.”
It’s a stirring statement of intent, and notable for how it champions a cause on behalf of a people, rather than any person. The Awami League’s platform for the election was built around the 6 points that grew out of the work of ‘liberation economist’ Prof Rehman Sobhan (and others), that held foremost the demand for autonomy for East Pakistan.
The AP Archive also contains an interview with the then-Pakistani President Yahya Khan, in which he provides assurances that the vote would go ahead despite the devastating cyclone of November 1970 that hit Bengal, still held to be the most destructive of all time.
According to Dawn, twenty-four political parties prepared to land in the election arena of 1970, held under Gen Yahya Khan’s martial law. Every party had its programme but two parties — the Awami League and the Pakistan People’s Party — were being eyed by the electorate as the winners. The presence of established ruling families posed a formidable force to be broken but the approach of the leadership of the said parties began setting directions of the election results at an early date, the paper reported.
“In East Pakistan Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, through his emotional and livid speeches, spoke about the injustices meted out to Bengalis since the inception of Pakistan and told them that the only solution lay in his six-point programme. With a few skirmishes among various party supporters, electioneering continued. Nomination papers for the National Assembly were filed on October 14 and for provincial assemblies the following day,” the report says.
While the Awami League put up a few candidates in West Pakistan, Bhutto’s PPP completely ignored East Pakistan. In the western wing 1,070 candidates filed papers for 138 NA seats while in the eastern wing there were 870 candidates contesting 162 seats. In East Pakistan the Awami League fielded 162 candidates out of which two seats were conceded — one of Nurul Amin for whom Mujib had asked the workers to allow a few votes as the grand old man and the other of Raja Tridevrai (the Chakma king) as a minority member, according to Dawn.
However, in West Pakistan the People’s Party could not achieve a similar sweep as did the Awami League in the East; the PPP bagged 81 seats against a total of 138 seats (62 from Punjab’s 82 seats, 18 of 27 seats from Sindh). The results showed the Awami League as the largest party without a seat from West Pakistan. Similar was the case with the PPP which had no seat in East Pakistan. This created a situation whereby Yahya Khan sent congratulatory messages to both the party leaders, but addressed Mujib as the future prime minister.
An early report in the New York Times of December 8, 1970, said, “An East Pakistani party advocating autonomy for that province and a West Pakistani party promising a redistribution of national wealth along Marxist lines took leads early today in the country’s first direct nationwide election in 23 years of independence.” A preview in the paper’s December 5 edition had set the scene thus: “With almost all of East Pakistan’s votes all but conceded to the popular political leader there, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the parties that do best in the West will have the biggest voice in joining or blocking Sheik Majibur’s (sic) campaign for East Pakistani autonomy. Many believe that the drive, if frustrated, could lead to secession of the restless province…”
The preview also describes a bit of the electioneering back then. “To get out the vote, the two major slates and a dozen minor tickets have been going from house to house to give each voter a card listing his district and polling number—plus the name of the candidate to vote for and his party’s symbol. Under Islamic separation of the sexes, women canvassers approach women voters and the men keep to the men.”
A report dated December 9, 1970 in The Guardian is far more categorical: “The results of independent Pakistan’s first direct elections to a National Assembly are as expected. But they are nonetheless welcome. Foremost, they have produced a clear winner in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from East Pakistan, and a clear opposition leader in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Neither will have to manoeuvre with lesser parties to maintain his position.”
Later on in the report, it refers to “the new prime minister” while outlining the challenges facing Bangabandhu on his victory. As we know now, events subsequent to the election turned out very differently to what the results would have dictated. Or maybe not so much. The starkly different political concerns reflected in the two wings by the 1970 election may well have been the final nail in the coffin of Pakistan, that showed the nation envisioned at Partition in 1947 was in reality untenable. The stage was thus set, for the birth of Bangladesh.