‘Pakistan Changed After Simla Conference Between Z A Bhutto and Indira Gandhi’

Shared by Arjumand Hussain: In this exclusive extract from his book “Scoop! Inside Stories from the Partition to the Present”, Kuldip Nayar provides the inside scoop on the thinking of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto immediately following the liberation of Bangladesh.

The 1970s’ papers released by the US from its archives reveal that, following its liberation from Pakistan, Bangladesh wanted to establish a confederation between the two countries. The disclosure was based on the information that the American consulate at Dhaka had sent to the US State Department in its dispatches.

The consulate based its thesis on the talks Pakistan President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had with Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, founder of Bangladesh, when the latter was still Pakistan’s prisoner. The American consulate was wrong.

It postulated such a possibility based on the prevailing rumours of the day. The facts were different. After taking over the reins of Pakistan from General Yahya Khan, who was responsible for Pakistan’s debacle in the then East Pakistan, the first thing Bhutto did was to talk to the Sheikh. He was flown in a helicopter to a dak-bungalow near Rawalpindi where Bhutto occupied the Presidential House.

Bhutto wanted some links between Pakistan and Bangladesh. But the Sheikh said he could not commit to any- thing until he visited Bangladesh and talked to his colleagues. The Bangladesh war had ruptured the diplomatic ties between New Delhi and Islamabad. One had to go through the Swiss Embassy for entry into Pakistan. I sent my request to Bhutto whom I had met many a time earlier.

Prompt came the reply for my visa. I met Bhutto first. This was the conversation which I recorded on tape.

Bhutto said: “On December 23 when we (he and Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman) met for the first time, Mujib took out the Quran and said: ‘I am a good Muslim. I still want defense, foreign affairs, and communication to be central subjects between the two regions.’ On December 27, when we met for the second time, he was very vague.

“He said: ‘I cannot say how many subjects can be given to the center, and what kind of subjects, but I want to retain links’. I (Bhutto) was skeptical. I told Mujib: ‘As you know, you are saying this here and I take you at your word, but when you go there, see the atmosphere and see all the young men with rifles around you, and having come back from the grave you won’t be able to do it. But even if you maintain.

“He (the Sheikh) was positive. ‘No, No,’ he said, ‘I am the leader — main leader hoon, main theek kar donga (I am the leader, I shall set things right)’ and that sort of thing. You know, I like him. The point is that there are so many problems, and I don’t think he bargained for half of those.”

The Sheikh, whom I recorded after Bhutto, had a different version: “I had come to know from my jailor, a God-fearing man, that Bangladesh had been liberated. Therefore, when I was removed from my jail, I suspected that it must be for the purpose of holding talks. I thought I would not indicate any prior knowledge of the liberation of Bangladesh.

“Within a couple of days of my arrival at the dak-bungalow, Bhutto appeared there one afternoon. I asked him: ‘Bhutto, how are you here?’ He said: ‘I am the president of Pakistan.’ I began laughing and said: ‘You, Bhutto, Pakistan’s president! That place belongs to me; you know I won the majority of seats in the Pakistan National Assembly.”

“As if he wanted to frighten me, he said that he was also the chief martial law administrator. Bhutto said: ‘I have come to talk to you.’ To this my reply was that I would not talk unless he (Bhutto) were to say that I was free. He said: ‘Yes.’ Then we talked.

“He blamed Yahya for all that had happened, although I knew that he (Bhutto) had been at the back of everything. He really wanted the eastern wing to go its own way so that he could become the president of what was left of Pakistan. Bhutto came straight to the point.

“He wanted me to agree that the three subjects — foreign affairs, defense, and communication — would be managed jointly by Pakistan and Bangladesh. I told him it was not possible, but when he went on pressing I said that it was difficult for me to decide anything without consulting my people. There was yet another meeting, the last one between us. That time also he pressed for the same thing and asked me to try my best. I replied: ‘Let me see.'”

When I told Mujib what Bhutto had said, particularly his assertion that Mujib had sworn by the Quran to allow joint control of some subjects, Mujib said: “Bhutto is a liar. I am grateful to him for saving my life, but that gives him no right to spread lies.”

The versions were as different as the personalities of the two. Bhutto was flamboyant, dapper, and uncertain; Mujib was retiring, simple, and forthright. The former blew hot and cold in the same breath; the latter showed trust and steadfastness.

At least one thing emerged from the talks between the two. Mujib was released unconditionally on January 8, 1972. He was requested to go to any Arab country and then fly to Dhaka or Delhi or wherever he pleased. But he preferred to go to London before he returned to Dhaka via New Delhi.

After the meeting between Mujib and Bhutto, the follow-up dialogue was reported to have been carried on between Bhutto and Dr Kamal Hossain, later the Bangladesh foreign minister. He was also released from a West Pakistani jail after Mujib was set free. Kamal was supposed to have carried a message for Mujib on links between Pakistan and Bangladesh. Islamabad spread this report. But Mujib said that it was not true when I met him at Dhaka.

Bhutto’s purpose in releasing Mujib, “a nightingale which I allowed to go scot-free unnecessarily” as Bhutto put it to me, was to retrieve, in the eyes of the international community, at least something of Pakistan’s image, which had been shattered by the Islamabad army’s killing of hundreds of intellectuals before the surrender.

Bhutto told me three months later that he had released Mujib as a gesture to India, which he knew would find the going hard in Bangladesh without Mujib.

Mujib’s release did not mean any change in Pakistan policy on Bangladesh. Islamabad carried on as if there was no war or no liberation of Bangladesh. Bhutto spoke Yahya’s language. In his first broadcast as president (December 20, 1971), he said: “We will continue to fight for the honor and integrity of Pakistan. East Pakistan is an inseparable and unseverable part of Pakistan.”

Also keeping up the fiction was Radio Pakistan which continued to begin its daily transmission with the announcement of time not only in West Pakistan but also in “East Pakistan.” West Pakistani newspapers which used to have editions published from Dhaka continued to claim on their mastheads simultaneous publication in “East Pakistan.”

Whenever Rawalpindi talked of convening the Pakistan National Assembly, it took pains to mention “the representatives of East Pakistan” among the members to attend. Pakistan changed only after the Simla Conference between Prime Minister Mrs Gandhi and Bhutto.

Kuldip Nayar is an eminent Indian columnist. This piece is an exclusive extract from his book: “Scoop! Inside Stories from the Partition to the Present,” Harper Collins (2006).