1970's General Election: Sheikh Mujib's premiership denied

Last updated: 5 October 2017 From the section 1971 Muktijuddho

12 November 1970: Indifferent response to Bhola Cyclone proves final straw for Bengalis

The socio-political and economic differences between the two wings of Pakistan and the lack of sufficient aid when East Pakistan was hit by natural calamities, especially during the Great Bhola Cyclone, heightened the perception among the East Pakistanis that the West Pakistani elite were insensitive to their needs and welfare.

The disaster had two effects on the developing political situation. First, it further alienated East Pakistanis from the West Pakistan-based central administration because the former felt that the government had been unsympathetic and tardy in administering relief.

The new experience had only brought into sharp focus the basic truth that every Bengali has felt in his bones, that we have been treated so long as a colony and a market.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on the "colonial" rulers in West Pakistan

Secondly, it roused the sympathy of other countries for the plight of East Pakistanis and highlighted the latter's standing grievances against the West Pakistanis.

For his part, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman criticised the "administration for their failure" and questioned why helicopters could come from different part of the globe for relief work but not from West Pakistan? Sheikh Mujib also highlighted the socio-economic differences between the two wings, claiming that East Bengal was "nothing but a colonial market" of West Pakistan and warned the government that if they wanted to "save" the situation they need to give equal rights to the Bengalis and make them "master of their own resources".

As there's no labour mobility between the East and West [Pakistan], as the central government missionaries are in West Pakistan, as the central administration is in the hands of West Pakistani, as the military and the military person come from West Pakistan, ony 10% from Bengal in the armed forces and 15% in the central administration, naturally, these 23 years that you have seen that East Pakistan, particularly Bengal, is nothing but a colonial market.

If you want to save this, and give equal right as a Pakistani, then you have to give Bengal 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 any more.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman warns central government not to treat Bengal as "a colonial market" and allow them to be "master of their own resources" if they want to "save" the situation

There is a reason why disasters require national solidarity. Without it, they can become even more disastrous. Deeply buried fissures in the social fabric can burst forth in volcanic anger. As we look around at the political, policy and citizen response to the current floods, one sees too many who wish to turn disaster into a political opportunity. Those who do would be well advised to remember Bhola. Indeed, we would all be well advised to remember Bhola.

History is not a predictive science. And I do not believe that there is a real parallel between the two situations.

But I do believe that there are important lessons to learn from our own mistakes. For the sake of our present, if not of our past, let us resolve not to make the same mistakes again. Let us not forget what is the real lesson of Bhola in 1970, as of so many other tragedies: dissatisfaction in times of crisis can be a force of agony, and political catastrophe can sometimes grow from seeds sown in natural disaster.

Pakistani journalist on the true message of the Bhola Cyclone

23 November 1970: Maulana Bhashani's NAP boycott election and threatens West Pakistan with segregation

The loudest voice protesting against the western wing's injustices came from 90-year-old Maulana Bhashani, the NAP leader.

Following his visit to the damaged region of Bhola Cyclone, Maulana Bhashani held a mammoth rally in Paltan Maidan, Dhaka, on 23 November 1970 where he gave a fiery speech and declared independence of East Pakistan. He said "Assalamu Alaikum" https://www.thedailystar.net/news-detail-11919 (the Muslim salutation) to West Pakistan and declared 'Independent East Pakistan'.

Swadhin Purbo Pakistan Zindabad [Long live independent East Pakistan].

Maulana Bhashani's concluding remark in Dhaka's Paltan Maidan on 23 November 1970

The 'Lal Mullah' (Red Maulana) announced that his NAP party would not participate in the upcoming general and provincial elections and questioned the ethics of election campaigns at a time when people needed aid. He repeated his call for sovereignity of East Pakistan again in a mammoth public rally few days later, held three days before General Election.

Many a revolutionary leader and worker of the party did not believe in elections in the first place. They believed that the objective situation for revolution was rife. Whereas, I myself thought that revolution or no revolution, the timing was perfect for earning [national] independence. If I had participated in the elections, the voters would have been divided into two camps. Differences of opinion would have reached an extreme point. Subsequently, there would not have been a war of [national] independence. Hence, I [thought] let Mujibur win. Let territorial independence come, although that would not ensure [the people’s] emancipation. We will do the rest. Mujibur has made a grave mistake by making himself available for arrest [by the Pakistanis].

Maulana Bhashani on why his NAP party boycotted the 1970's elections

The Moulana meant business. He dismantled the Pakistan National Awami Party, keeping its eastern wing active, which caused dissatisfaction among many Bengali leaders of the organization. Leaders like Haji Mohammad Danesh left the NAP. But the Moulana was uncompromising.

New Age (Bangladesh)

Election prediction

Nomination papers for the National Assembly were filed on 14 October 1970 and for provincial assemblies the following day.

In East Pakistan the Awami League fielded 162 candidates out of which two seats were conceded - one of Nurul Amin for whom Sheikh Mujib had asked the workers to allow a few votes for the grand old man and the other of Raja Tridevrai as a minority member. PPP completely ignored East Pakistan and did not put up a single candidate to contest the election there. Instead, they concentrated all their efforts in the western wing and set the pace with candidates in 119 of the 138 seats. Awami League put up a 7 candidates to contest in the western wing.

Though it was generally predicted that the Awami League was going to be the biggest single party in the new National Assembly and might even have an overall majority, their margin of victory was still not clear. Bhutto admitted that he had little chance of sweeping the polls to form a National Government. He expects to get about 55 seats. In contrast, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman confidently expected his Awami League Party to win 157 of the 162 seats for eastern Pakistan. His supporters were predicting the Awami League may win as much as 97% of the East Pakistan national assembly places. Such was the confident in the Awami League camp that they refused to form an alliance with any other party and instead invited other parties to join them under the Awami League banner.

If Sheikh Mujibur forms the next Pakistan Government, there are likely to be fundamental changes in policy. Trade with India, and particularly with West Bengal, is likely to be resumed. Defence commitments may shift away from Kashmir, and defence spending, at present 70% of the budget, may be reduced. Chinese influence would be balanced by new contacts with India.

Since President Ayub Khan's regime was overthrown last year, the balance of power in Pakistan has shifted from the Punjab to Bengal. The most likely outcome of Pakistan's first election for twelve years is an Awami League Government in Islamabad.


President Yahya was confident the bureaucracy would be able manipulate the results satisfactorily.

East Pakistan must have maximum autonomy to run her own affairs within the overall framework of one Pakistan. It should have full charge of their destiny, planning and utilisation of its resources within the concept of Pakistan... I do not believe there is any tendency of separatism in East Pakistan. They are the majority. How can a majority separate from a minority?

...Martial Law would continue if the proposed Constitution was not framed in conformity with the five basic principles contained in the Legal Framework Order.

Yahya Khan at a press conference in Dhaka on 27 November 1970

4 December 1970: President Yahya confirms election will take place

Three days before the General Election, on 4 December 1970, President Yahya answered questions in Dhaka about his own political future. He discounted rumours said to be circulating in Pakistan that he was no longer in full personal control of the country and spoke about his personal situation to reporters at Dhaka Airport after a visit to the disaster area of East Pakistan.

President Yahya confirmed that the election would be taking place on 7 December 1970, although eight or nine of the worst affected districts might experience delays, denying rumours that the election would be postponed. He also said that it was "not his fault" that people died in the Bhola Cyclones and that both he and his government were doing their "damnedest to see survivors survive".

Elections will take place. I have left this decision to the Chief Election Commissioner whose a completely independent body.

...Separatism? I do not believe that people of East Pakistan want to separate from West Pakistan. They [i.e. East Pakistanis] are the majority people of Pakistan. How should a majority separate from a minority?

If you hear these notes, if you hear these rumblings, let me assure you this is not the real voice of my people.

President Yahya in Dhaka press conference post Bhola Cyclone

4 December 1970: Maulana Bhashani calls for sovereignity in mammoth public rally in Dhaka

On the same day as President Yahya had dismissed any talks of separatism, Maulana Bhashani held a huge public rally attended by 300,000 where he announced a 'do-or-die movement' for 'sovereign East Pakistan'. He also made an appeal for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to join the movement for the independence of East Pakistan, declaring that not even an outright electoral victory, let alone the mere holding of elections, would help put an end to the neo-colonial exploitation of East Pakistan by the West Pakistan-based ruling elite.

History was to prove the Maulana was correct.

Mujib, come and join the East Pakistan independence movement.

Maulana Bhashani appeals to Sheikh Mujib on 4 December 1970 to seek independence

By the end of the campaign in early December [1970] the Maulana had declared his determination to work for the establishment of an independent state of East Pakistan organised on the basis of the Lahore Resolution.

Richard Sisson & Leo E. Rose, authors of "War and Secession: Pakistan, India, and the Creation of Bangladesh" (1990)

Eve of election: Armed forces put on alert and civilians banned from carry fire arms

On the eve of the elections Yahya Khan asked the candidate "to show humility in victory and patience and understanding in defeat". The military administration of Pakistan put the country's armed forces on the alert as polling day approached, and banned civilians from carrying fire-arms. It also mobilised the troops to ensure the elections were peacefully conducted. As result were to show, instead of bringing the eastern and western wings of Pakistan together, the 1970 national election contributed to the further polarization of the two regions of the country.

7 December 1970: Result - landslide victory for Six-Point driven Awami League

In the first democratic election since Pakistan was created in 1947 - 23 years ago - a total of 1,570 candidates, 769 in East Pakistan and 801 in West Pakistan, contested the election held on 7 December 1970. More than 56.4 million people were eligible to vote, of whom 31.2 million were in East Pakistan and 25.2 million in West Pakistan. By any criteria, the elections were free and fair. There was no interference from the government during the election campaign, which extended over the better part of a year.

However, the result of the election was simply disastrous from the standpoint of national unity and demonstrated the failure of national integration. There was not a single national party in the country which enjoyed the confidence of the people of Pakistan, both East and West Pakistan.

Only two parties achieved overwhelming success, the Awami League in East Pakistan and the Pakistan People's Party in the two most populous provinces of West Pakistan – the Punjab and Sindh.

With a 60% voter turnout (which included President Yahya as one of the voters), the Awami League won a landslide victory in the national elections. They won 167 of the 169 seats allotted to East Pakistan but in West Pakistan it could not secure a single seat from the 7 of 138 seats contested in the four provinces of West Pakistan. The percentage of votes secured by the Awami League in the four provinces were: 0.07 (Punjab), 0.07 (Sindh) 0.2 (NWFP) and 1.0 (Baluchistan). In contrast, Pakistan Peoples Party swept the West province board with 81 of the 138 seats but did not dare set up a candidate in East Pakistan.

Table: 1970's General Election result of Pakistan
(Position) PartyThe PunjabSindNWFPBaluchistanWest Pakistan (total)East Pakistan
1. Awami League 0 0 0 0 0 160
2. Pakistan People's Party 62 18 1 0 81 0
3. Pakistan Muslim League (Qayyum) 1 1 7 0 9 0
4. Convention Muslim League 7 0 0 0 7 0
5. Jamiyyat-ul Ulama (H) 0 0 6 1 7 0
6. Jamiyyat-ul Ulama-i Pakistan 4 3 0 0 7 0
7. National Awami Party (Wali) 0 0 3 3 6 0
8. Jamaat-i-Islami 1 2 1 0 4 0
9. Others 2 0 0 0 2 1
10. Independents 5 3 7 0 15 1
Reserved for women - - - - 6 7
Total 82 27 25 4 144 169

Source: A History Of Pakistan And Its Origins (updated to include women)

Awami League thus won a clear majority of the 313 seats in the Pakistan National Assembly, and gained the constitutional right to form a government.

In the normal course, the largest party had the right to form the central Government, but in this case it was not a workable proposition because of the federal character of Pakistan as a state and the exclusive provincial character of the party concerned.

Studies on the 'Far East and Australasia 2003'

The secular mood of Pakistan and ethnic divisions within it were dramatically demonstrated in the first national election in 1970. The secular Awami League, predominantly Bengali with no influence in West Pakistan, swept the board in East Pakistan, winning every seat but one; that one seat for the Chittagong Hill Tracts was uncontested to allow its tribal leader to be elected there. In West Pakistan, the Pakistan People’s Party, with its secular slogan of roti, kapra aur makan (food, clothes, and shelter), won a landslide victory in Sindh and Punjab, with the left-wing National Awami Party making a very good showing in Sarhad and Baluchistan. The Islamic parties won nowhere.

Anita M. Weiss, author of "Islamic Reassertion in Pakistan: The Application of Islamic Laws in a Modern State" (1986)

Both the leaders of the Awami League and Pakistan People’s Party were surprised by the magnitude of their win – especially PPP, which was only founded 3 years prior to the election. Both parties had proposed to other local parties not to contest the elections against one another. However, the other parties declined, partly due to their own expectations of electoral success and other inducements from advocates within the Yahya regime. Leaders of all parties underestimated the passions of a mass electorate that was participating in a national election for the first time and that in no province had voted in anything but village-level elections for a decade and a half.

The other unanticipated consequence of the elections was the profound change in the composition of political leadership. Most of the successful candidates were newcomers to public life; most of the older generation had been defeated. Except for a few political notables in the west, none of the newly elected members of the National Assembly had been active in all-Pakistan arenas previously. Although he had served as Ayub’s foreign minister, Bhutto had never been engaged in party politics; nor had he ever previously contested an election. Sheikh Mujib, who had apprenticed under the redoubtable H. S. Suhrawardy, had oriented his organisation activities toward East Pakistan; he, too, had never before been elected to public office. Transregional leadership in Pakistan, always limited and fragile, was reduced to marginal participants who had served intermittently as intermediaries between government and leaders of the major parties, but with little consequence. The elections thus continued the provincialisation of politics in Pakistan.

Richard Sisson & Leo E. Rose, authors of "War and Secession: Pakistan, India, and the Creation of Bangladesh" (1990)

However, Zulfikar Bhutto, whose Pakistan Peoples Party came second in the election, refused to transfer power and allow Sheikh Mujib to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan.

In political terms, Pakistan as a nation stood divided as a result of the very first general elections in 23 years of its existence.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali, author of "Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality" (1999)

Bhutto was also impatient. After the election, one senior minister told President Yahya that if Bhutto did not become Prime Minister within a year he would literally go mad. In the light of Sheikh Mujib's victory, however, it was clear that he had no chance to become Prime Minister of a united Pakistan.

The Election shattered the dream of Bhutto to become Prime Minister of Pakistan. The West Pakistan dominated administration could not relish the coming of an administration run by men from East Pakistan. They were not prepared to accept an end of the era of domination and exploitation of East Pakistan by the West Pakistan. They looked with suspicion and distrust Mujib's Six-Point Programme, which had been the central core of Awami League's Election Manifesto. They regarded it as a charter of sedition and tension against Pakistan. Consequently, steps designed, at first for delaying and then for denying the possibility of transfer of power to Mujib-led Awami League were initiated.

Kulwant Rai Gupta, author of "India-Pakistan Relations with Special Reference to Kashmir" (2003)

The result was more disquieting for Yahya Khan who had in a pre-poll assessment been told that no party could take a clear lead and there would be a coalition government which could be easily handled by Yahya from the top. With all pre-poll predictions gone wrong the rightists could manage only 37 seats in a house of 300.

A tormenting situation arose for Yahya. While Mujib sat in Dhaka discussing the future government’s priorities, Yahya saw himself in a quandary. He had pledged that the constitution would be prepared within 120 days or the assemblies would stand abolished; and now time was racing away.

Election result signals troubled times for President Yahya