Part VI: Understanding Brinksmanship

Dec 2012

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The election’s shocking results were followed by a series of maneuvers and feints, miscalculations and intrigues. While the pre-March 25 negotiation timeline is contested, it is not opaque. Sisson & Rose’s War and Secession is a solid book on the conflict—although it has selection bias (33 Pakistani, 49 Indian, 39 American, and 12 Bangladeshi interviewees). However, leaving that aside, the book deals extensively with the minutiae of the negotiations, and gives some indication of behind-the-scenes intrigues. In fact, the negotiations leading up to March were a case study in brinkmanship. In the end, it was Bhutto who emerged with the maximum gain (post-1971 premiership of West Pakistan) compared to what was legally his right. After the election landslide, the Awami League had an unexpected supermajority, which was both their asset and liability in negotiations (the Army was unwilling to trust the League’s word, as the “brute majority” could be used to push through any legislation, including cuts to the military budget). Bhutto shrewdly parlayed his small majority in West Pakistan via the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) into an equal seat at the table with Mujib and the League. A quick study, Bhutto had foreseen the Ayub regime’s impending collapse and left the military cabinet in 1966 to form his “rebel” PPP and capture the spirit of dissent in West Pakistan (an acrobatic feat, given his feudal wealth and links to the military establishment). Yet, Bhutto realized that his position in 1971 was extremely fragile. His majority inside Pakistan was small, and without the abillity to dispense state patronage, many of his party members would defect. Sitting in opposition in a Mujib government would cause the PPP’s implosion. He also knew that the other West Pakistani parties, while temporarily acknowledging the need for a united West Pakistan front, would soon start to leave the coalition (as some did in the final days of the March negotiation, when Bhutto’s control over the military became obvious).

Especially worth mentioning is the evidence of the privileged access Bhutto had to the military during supposedly neutral negotiations. Sisson and Rose describe the private meeting that Yahya held with Bhutto at the latter’s Larkana baronial family estate. At this meeting, Bhutto called Mujib a “clever bastard” who could not “really be trusted” and wanted to “bulldoze” his constitution through the National Assembly. He also played on the army’s beliefs about the fundamental nature of East Pakistan, when he questioned whether Mujib was a “true Pakistani.” (43) All of this was reflected in Yahya’s later comments about Mujib and needing to “sort this bastard out” and “test his loyalty.” (44) Having set various fears in motion, Bhutto brilliantly stoked the Army’s paranoia about the Awami League being too close to Delhi and soft on the Kashmir issue. In his February 28 speech, Bhutto used a masterful mix of threats (“break the legs”) and insinuations (“they would be traitors”) against any West Pakistani politician who wanted to meet with Mujib to broker a solution. (45)

The Awami League had an overwhelming majority and had the legal right to take power without negotiation. Their mindframe was possibly akin to how Salman Rushdie responded to Benazir Bhutto’s version of 1971 history: “You feel like using words of one syllable to explain. Listen, dear child, the man had won, and it was your father who dug in his heels…” (46) But politics is never only about being in the right. Mujib failed to reach out and pacify the Pakistan army, doing the necessary end-run around Bhutto to isolate him. Refusing requests to come to Rawalpindi to meet with the government team, displaying a newfound assertiveness during talks, flying the Bangladesh flag on a car during a negotiation meeting, and encouraging the physical isolation of Bhutto during his Dhaka visit—all of this helped to rattle the already jittery army. The League was absolutely correct to suspect that Bhutto was a “stalking horse” for the army, and that they could not trust him in a new cabinet. But a cunning strategem could have been to invite him into the cabinet, neutralize him through red tape and then eventually fire him. Similar Machiavellian designs seemed to occur to Bhutto at every turn of the negotiations, but not to the League team, which proceeded down a linear path of demanding full implementation of the Six Points election manifesto.

Yet at the same time, the League seems to have done everything in its power to continue negotiations, all the while stymied by Bhutto’s grandstanding and the military’s continued bolstering of forces, a fact visible to all and adding to the sense of the inevitable bloodbath. Even up to March 20, The Forum, known as the English language organ of the League’s leadership, published an editorial, “Options for a Sane Man,” beseeching for a negotiated solution:

Whether people want Pakistan or not they certainly will not have it thrust on them at bayonet point… Does Yahya really intend to unleash genocide on 75 million Bengalis merely to protect the interest of this handful of buccaneers who have bled the nation for 23 years?. . . In such a situation a public renunciation of the use of force by Yahya to solve the nation’s political problems, backed by a withdrawal to West Pakistan of units pumped in since 1st March and the return of the rest to barracks, would clear the air. (47)


43. Sisson & Rose, War and Secession, 66.

44. Sisson & Rose, War and Secession, 81.

45. Sisson & Rose, War and Secession, 88.

46. Salman Rushdie, “Daughter of the East,” Imaginary Homelands (New York: Penguin, 1992), 57.

47. Hameeda Hossain ed., “Op

This is the sixth essay of a multi-part series “Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971″ by Naeem Mohaiemen. Part I | Part II  Part III | Part IV | Part V. A version of this essay appeared in the edited collection Lines of Control: Partition as Productive Space (2012). 

Naeem Mohaiemen is a visual artist ( and a PhD student in anthropology at Columbia University. He is the editor of Chittagong Hill Tracts: In the Blind Spot of Bangladesh Nationalism (2010) published by Drishtipat/Maunsher Jonno Foundation in Dhaka. 

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