"Indifferent" government response

The day after the storm struck the coast, three Pakistani gunboats and a hospital ship carrying medical personnel and supplies left Chotrogram for the islands of Hatia, Sandwip and Kutubdia. Teams from the Pakistani army reached many of the stricken areas in the two days following the landfall of the cyclone.

President Yahya arrives two days later and takes a week to declare cyclone a "major" crisis

Two days after the cyclone hit, President Yahya Khan arrived in Dhaka after a state visit to Beijing, China and overflew the disaster area. The president ordered "no effort to be spared" to relieve the victims. But the people of East Pakistan saw with dismay and anger that the relief operations conducted by the Central Government showed much apathy towards the gigantic needs of the victims. It took one prolonged week for President Yahya Khan to assess the severity of the flood situation and declare the affected area as a "major calamity area". He ordered that all flags should be flown at half-mast and announced a day of national mourning on 21 November 1970.

Pakistan's military dictator, General Yahya Khan stopped in Dhaka on his way back from China to West Pakistan. His first point of order was to attend a party at the residence of a Bengali businesswoman that evening.

After the party was over, he flew directly back to West Pakistan. The President of Pakistan, General Yahya Khan, did not feel it necessary to visit the people of his country who had fallen victim to the cyclone. Apparently, even the Governor of East Pakistan was too preoccupied to tend to the matter.

Bengalis were shocked and enraged by this step-motherly treatment meted out by the provincial and central governments of Pakistan. If the people didn't already feel it before, this was surely a wake up call. The autonomy of East Pakistan was essential for the survival of the Bengali people.


President Yahya left a day after his arrival. His Western Pakistani-dominated central government's seeming indifference to the plight of Bengali victims caused a great deal of animosity. The suffering of the cyclone victims, once again, showed that East Pakistanis were being treated as second-class citizens of Pakistan. The feeling now pervaded in every village and every slum that they must rule themselves. Political leaders in East Pakistan were deeply critical of the central government's initial response to the disaster.

In a move reminiscent of George W. Bush's fly-over of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina [2005], Pakistani President Yahya Khan reportedly passed over the delta in Fokker Friendship aircraft, declared that the damage to the region had been exaggerated, and then assigned a subordinate to direct relief efforts rather than tackling the issue himself. Only after the world press began publishing pictures of bodies dangling in tree tops and hollow-eyed, traumatized children did the West Pakistani government stir to action.


People of East Pakistan realised and resolved that from now on they should be able to deal with natural calamities on their own resources.


Very little resources assigned to relief work

East Pakistani rescuers led by relief commissioner Abu Mohammad Anisuzzaman, with the aid of relief supplies pouring in from all over the world, were racing desperately against time and the threat of wide-scale epidemics to save thousands of men, women and children. Communications had been destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of square miles were cut off from all aid except by helicopters. And though relief supplies were steadily piling up in Dhaka thanks largely to the tons of supplies from many nations abroad, the helicopters required to transport them to the remote locations were pitifully few - only one had been made available for relief work in East Pakistan by 18 November 1970. Some helicopters have been offered by the United States of America, but there were very little time to organise large-scale relief operations especially as many of the disaster zone were isolated.

Most of the storm-hit areas were inaccessible and larger transports were too fast for the pinpoint dropping necessary. Another problem had been getting the material from the city's warehouses to the disaster-stricken areas. Small boats and helicopters were best suited for the job and they were brought into use few days after the tragedy occurred. These helped to distribute food, material and medicine as well as personnel, which until then were stranded at Dhaka Airport.

On 19 November 1970, a week after the cyclone struck, a Pakistan Army helicopter flew over the Bhola and Kutubdia islands in the Bay of Bengal dropping the first rice supplies to reach starving villagers who survived the cyclone and tidal wave. At one place the helicopter landed, the local leaders had to beat back their people to allow the rice to be fairly distributed. As the helicopter flew over the devastated villages, people would run towards it through the ruined paddy-fields. The helicopter would drop sacks of rice to the starved villagers - their first food since the disaster took place eight days ago.

When the helicopter landed at one point, the crowd of starving islanders was so large and desperate for food, that their own village leaders had to beat them back with sticks to ensure fair distribution of the rice. When the rice was being handed out the crowd again become disorderly and threatened to overwhelm the men distributing it. Again they were beaten back by their leaders and the food grain given out. However much they get at this stage it is not enough.


The helicopter was carrying only five tons of grain and made two runs over the area. In the next few days, helicopters from the United States and Britain together with British shallow-draught boats arrived to aid operation in the area.

It has taken more than a week since the cyclone and tidal wave struck for the relief operation to get into full swing. Over the past few days fears have mounted of starvation among survivors. Tons of supplies have been mounting at Dacca airport, awaiting transportation to the disaster area. With the arrival of the British task force from Singapore and a build-up of relief equipment and manpower from other countries, the mountain of supplies will be removed to the devastated islands in the Bay of Bengal. Petrol supplies have been flown from Dhaka to the British base at Patuakhali, about 150 miles (240 km) southwest of Dhaka on the perimeter of the devastated area. They'll be used to fuel smaller helicopters carrying out large sweeps of the islands to determine where the supplies are most urgently needed. American helicopters are carrying out similar operations from their base at Noakhali.


In the ten days following the cyclone, one military transport aircraft and three crop-dusting aircraft were assigned to relief work by the Pakistani government. The Pakistani government said it was unable to transfer military helicopters from West Pakistan as the Indian government did not grant clearance to cross the intervening Indian territory, a charge the Indian government denied.

By 24 November 1970, the Pakistani government had allocated a further £80 million to finance relief operations in the disaster area. Yahya Khan arrived in Dhaka to take charge of the relief operations on 24 November 1970. The governor of East Pakistan, Vice Admiral S. M. Ahsan, denied charges that the armed forces had not acted quickly enough and said supplies were reaching all parts of the disaster area except for some small pockets. The Bhola Cyclone further alienated East Pakistanis from the West Pakistan-based central administration because the former felt that the government had been unsympathetic and sluggish 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 Mujib's anger at West Pakistani "colonisation"

On 3 December 1970, President Yahya made a formal mention to the distress of the flood victims of East Pakistan in an address to the nation.

There have been mistakes, there have been delays, but by and large I'm very satisfied that everything is being done and will be done.

President Yahya Khan conceding his government made mistakes

President Yahya said there was a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the disaster. He also said that the general election slated for 7 December 1970 would take place on time, although eight or nine of the worst affected districts might experience delays, denying rumours that the election would be postponed.

With the disregard shown by the Yahya government towards the victims of the cyclone, not only did East Pakistani politicians demand the leader's resignation, but people openly called for what had hitherto been left unsaid: the breakup of East and West Pakistan. It was now only a matter of when.


Former Awami League's founding father, Maulana Bhashani, declares "independence" of East Pakistan

On 19 November 1970, a week after the tragedy, students held a march in Dhaka, the capital of Pakistan's eastern province, protesting the slowness of the government response. A statement released by eleven political leaders in East Pakistan ten days after the cyclone hit charged the government with "gross neglect, callous and utter indifference".

Relief work neglected

The Pakistan Red Crescent began to operate independently of the government as the result of a dispute that arose after the Red Crescent took possession of 20 rafts donated by the British Red Cross. A pesticide company had to wait two days before it received permission for two of its crop dusters, which were already in the country, to carry out supply drops in the affected regions.

A reporter for the Pakistan Observer spent a week in the worst hit areas in early January and saw none of the tents supplied by relief agencies being used to house survivors and commented that the grants for building new houses were insufficient. The Pakistan Observer regularly carried front page stories with headlines like "No Relief Coordination", whilst publishing government statements saying "Relief operations are going smoothly."

In January (1971), the coldest period of the year in East Pakistan, the National Relief and Rehabilitation Committee, headed by the editor of The Daily Ittefaq (Dainik Ittefaq), said thousands of survivors from the storm were "passing their days under [the] open sky". A spokesman said families who were made homeless by the cyclone were receiving up to 250 rupees (£30 in 1971, £200 in 2007) to rebuild, but that resources were scarce and he feared the survivors would "eat the cash".

Maulana's mass rally attended by 50,000 people

The most scathing Bengali criticism of West Pakistan had in fact emanated not from Sheikh Mujib's Awami League, but from the 90-year-old veteran NAP leader Maulana Bhashani, known as the "Lal Mullah" (Red Mullah) because of his egalitarian-leftist views. The Maulana declared, as early as September 1970, that if concrete steps were not taken to correct interregional inequalities and provide greater protection for East Pakistan from natural woes, it would be forced to separate and befriend whomever it wanted. He also called for "complete financial autonomy" for East Pakistan.

The Maulana, grievously ill and under treatment at a nursing home in Dhaka, famously ignored his physicians' advice, dropped his political work and rushed to Manpura, the worst affected part of Bhola, after an arduous journey by train, motor launch, country boat, and sometimes on foot http://newagebd.com/newspaper1/archive_details.php?date=2011-11-19&nid=40574. Here he comforted the bereaved and railed against central government's hard-heartedness and indifference.

When news of the cyclone and pictures of the dead bodies were published in newspapers, it created a huge uproar in East Pakistan. At that time, Moulana Bhashani was in hospital in Dhanmondi, Dhaka. Bhashani was so sick that the doctors had almost declared him clinically dead.

On 12 November 1970, the same day the cyclone hit the country at night, I went to the hospital to see Moulana. I met Aziz Bhai, (Doctor Aziz, ex Minister) and I asked him about his health and he replied 'very critical, anything can happen any time'. I stayed there till midnight.

On the morning of 13 November 1970, I rushed to the hospital and stepped into his room to discover the Moulana awoken from deep slumber, as if through a miracle. The attending nurse called the doctor. Bhashani looked at the door and asked for the newspaper, but nobody dare to give it to him.

But when he asked for it repeatedly and looked at me askance, I ultimately gave him the newspaper I was carrying with me. The paper was full of pictures of dead bodies and included the whole story of how the then East Pakistan was neglected by the Pakistani military junta. After reading and seeing it, Moulana Bhashani was so furious that he shouted 'I will go there to see how cyclone devastated the areas and what the government did'. All the doctors attending to him said 'you can't go Huzur; your health condition does not permit that'. He did not listen to anybody and right away told somebody to pack up his personal belongings and then just set about to visit the cyclone-affected areas. We all are God’s creation but Moulana Bhashani was an extraordinarily blessed person who looked younger than his age and could travel great lengths even at old age.

Everywhere he went he delivered fiery speeches against the military junta and provided hope and inspiration to people. All of his speeches were extraordinary. He visited all the affected areas including Barisal, Patuakhali, Sirajganj, Noakhali, Chattragram and Dhaka.


Exposed to the aftermath of the country's greatest human tragedy caused by nature, the Maulana was reportedly seen 'weeping like a child' many times during the tour http://newagebd.com/newspaper1/archive_details.php?date=2011-11-19&nid=40574.

Returning to Dhaka on 22 November 1970, Maulana Bhashani held a press conference to inform the people, both at home and abroad, about the colossal scale of the tragedy. He made emotional appeals to people all around the world to help the afflicted people whilst condemning the Islamabad-based central government for not having "cared to visit the hapless citizens of the East" http://newagebd.com/newspaper1/archive_details.php?date=2011-11-19&nid=40574. The next day (23 November 1970) the no-nonsense Maulana said "Assalamu'alaikum" to West Pakistan in a mammoth public rally held in Paltan Maidan - the traditional forum for public dissent - and attended by 50,000. 'Assalamu'alaikum' is an Arabic term meaning 'Peace be upon you' and used by Muslims to greet and say goodbye to each other.

During his speech, Maulana Bhashani described graphically the extent of devastation caused by the natural calamity to the public: how 1,000,000 - 1,200,000 human beings had been killed by the cyclone, how their homesteads and livestock had been washed away, how nearly 400,000 mutilated bodies of men, women and children, along with hundreds of mutilated livestock, were still lying under the open sky and, how the survivors were struggling for their lives without food and shelter http://newagebd.com/newspaper1/archive_details.php?date=2011-11-19&nid=40574.

Maulana Bhashani argued that past events and current government indifference to cyclone victims by way of suppressing the news and distancing itself from the miseries of the Bengalis at the time of their greatest misfortune proved Pakistan had by then become 'anachronistic and pointless' and thus 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 Maulana also demanded the president's resignation, and announced that his NAP party would not participate in the upcoming general and provincial elections. He questioned the ethics of election campaigns at a time when people needed aid.

Maulana Bhashani had already boycotted the election. The tragedy of the cyclone only provided an excuse for his pre-existing stance against the election.


His famous speech was epitomized in the poem "Safed Panjabi" (White Panjabi) by notable Bengali poet Shamshur Rahman. The poet was so moved by the tragedy and Bhashani's speech that it inspired him to write the poem as a reference to the white clothing adorned by the Maulana as he delivered his speech.

Sheikh Mujib's frustration further intensifies student's sentiment

Three days after the Maulana's declaration, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman also voiced his anger in a press conference. Coming back from his trip to the cyclone-torn areas, Sheikh Mujib called a press conference at Hotel Shahbag, Dhaka, on 26 November 1970. He came in and sat on the seat reserved for him, flanked by Tajuddin Ahmad to his right and Syed Nazrul Islam to his left. Dr. Kamal Hossain and other leaders were seated in the back row. He declared that the government's failure to help cyclone victims represented a failure of Pakistan more than of Yahya Khan's regime. Asked if he was considering secession, he replied, "Not yet". His 'autonomy not independence' stance was supported by some pro-Awami League newspapers in the eastern wing, which also criticised Maulana Bhashani for his pronouncement of 'independence' three days earlier http://newagebd.com/newspaper1/archive_details.php?date=2011-11-19&nid=40574.

As Bangabandhu greeted his audience and began speaking, a storm of flash bulbs went off against the constant clicking of cameras. Bangabandhu expressed his grief for the loss of hundreds of thousands of people and their properties. He went on with great pain, as he described the miserable plight of those who were still alive.

He scathingly criticised the neglect and apathy of the human crisis by the central and provincial governments of Pakistan. He then explained how the Six-Point Charter, drawn by the Awami League, was essential and could have helped the people during such a tragedy. He stressed that if there was autonomy in East Pakistan, this kind of calamity could have been better managed. We wouldn't have to look for help from a Central Government that rests peacefully thousands of miles away.


I have demanded regional autonomy, not independence.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 26 November 1970 when asked about his stance on the independence of East Pakistan,

East Pakistan must achieve self-rule by ballot if possible, and by bullet, if necessary.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman defiant stance just like Maulana Bhashani

Maulana Bhashani's and Sheikh Mujib's public declaration gave the student protest more momentum and on 4 December 1970, few days after their rallying cry, the Chhatro League (Student League) demanded the release of political prisoners and raised two new slogans: "Peasants and workers: take up arms to make Bangladesh independent!" and "Raise a Ganabahini (People's Force) to make Bangladesh independent!"