East Pakistan’s road to separation

The reality of fear of Bengali majority ruling those who had oppressed them for around a quarter of a century triggered the brutal use of force to quell what was termed as ‘anti-state elements’

On 23 March 1940 the demand for separate Muslim states in the Northwest and Northeast was put forward by the ‘lion of Bengal’ AK Fazlul Haq in the Muslim League meeting held in Lahore. After 31 years, on March 23, 1971, flags of independent Bangladesh were raised in every nock and corner of East Pakistan on the call of Awami League which had won December 7, 1970 general elections and had launched non-cooperation movement against the decision of Islamabad to postpone the National Assembly session which was scheduled to held in Dhaka on March 3, 1971. Within 31 years of the proclamation of Lahore resolution and 24 years after the creation of Pakistan, the country got dismembered.

Why the separation of East Pakistan and its transformation as an independent state of Bangladesh couldn’t be prevented and how the seeds of Bengali nationalism were planted in the then East Pakistan? Hasan Zaheer, a former bureaucrat belonging to West Pakistan and who served in East Pakistan in the 1950s and in the turbulent period of 1971 vividly explains in his book The Separation of East Pakistan (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2001) that how sense of deprivation among the people of East Pakistan got deepened because “the West Pakistan dominated ruling class of early Pakistan never really tried to understand the Bengali point of view. From the inception of Pakistan, it developed a self-righteous state of mind which ignored the objective realities of East Pakistan. The dominant ruling class suffered from a siege mentality. Any demand of East Pakistan which deviated from the dogma was regarded as a conspiracy and a threat to Islamic ideology and the integrity of the country.” The imposition of Urdu language against the will of the majority of the people of East Pakistan; lack of proper development notwithstanding enormous earning of foreign exchange from the exports of Jute and Tea; meager representation of East Pakistan in the military and bureaucracy and the imposition of martial law in October 1958 deepened a sense of deprivation and nationalism among the Bengali population who happen to be in a majority.

The separation of East Pakistan is still a major source of debate particularly the justification to launch military action on March 25, 1971. Forty-seven years after the momentous events of March 1971 in which talks involving Yahya, Mujib and Bhutto to find a solution of standoff over Awami League’s six points failed, the decision to launch ‘operation search light’ in order to restore the writ of the state proved to be counter — productive leading to the dismemberment of Pakistan on December 16, 1971.

Excessive use of force against Sindhi and Balochi non-conformists and nationalists became a reality in post-1971 Pakistan, which deepened a sense of deprivation and the surge of centrifugal forces in the two minority provinces

Rao Farman Ali Khan, who was an adviser on civil and political affairs to the Governor of the then East Pakistan (1969-71) in his book, How Pakistan Got Divided (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2017) narrates, the circumstances leading to the launching of military operation that, “it was disappointing to note, however that both Mujib and Bhutto were more interested in acquiring power for themselves. It was a struggle for power, and the interests of the country meant nothing to them.” Since March 7, the whole of East Pakistan was taken over by Awami League and the writ of the state was seriously challenged. Attacks on non-Bengalese and the West Pakistan armed forces along with stoppage of food to the cantonments were indicative of an impending revolt to be launched by the East Pakistan Rifles and East Bengal Regiment. Yet, was the use of excessive force against the supporters of Awami League was justified? Talks involving the Troika going on since March 20 when Bhutto arrived in Dhaka failed to render positive results as Bhutto refused to accept six points which he considered against the integrity of Pakistan and Mujib was not ready to be flexible on his party’s six points. The role of President Yahya which should have been conciliatory, serious and responsible reflected his total ineptness to deal with a grave crisis threatening the break-up of Jinnah’s Pakistan.

Archer K. Blood, who was the U.S Consul General in Dhaka during 1971 in his book, The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh Memories of an American Diplomat (Dhaka: University Press Limited, 2002) gives a profound account of how March 23 was celebrated in the then East Pakistan: “March 23 was also Pakistan Day, a not very happy coincidence. Mujib declared that Pakistan Day would be celebrated as Resistance Day in East Pakistan. Hundreds of the new Bangla Desh flags were flying in Dhaka, including over Mujib’s house. The portrait of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was burned by demonstrators outside Mujib’s house, as was the Pakistan national flag. The foreign missions in Dacca were drawn into the flag issue as groups of Awami League youths went from one consular establishment to another, requesting, and sometimes demanding that the Bangla Desh flag be flown.” Such was the environment in the then East Pakistan composed of total defiance of the state of Pakistan and the shifting of loyalty from Pakistan to what was called during those days the ‘emerging state of Bangladesh.’

Three realities should be taken into account while analyzing with critical thinking the separation of East Pakistan. First, when Awami League had secured clear majority in December 7, 1970 general elections why power was not transferred to the majority party and why the inaugural session of national assembly which was scheduled to be held in Dhaka on March 3 was unilaterally postponed triggering widespread violence? If Mujib and Awami League were traitors and their six points were seditious why they were allowed to contest elections held under the Legal Framework Order? Second, the advice given by the then Governor of East Pakistan Admiral Ahsan and Martial Law Administrator Sahabzada Yaqub Khan not to seek a military option of a political crisis was turned down by the hawks in the military who happen to share their fear and mistrust about the loyalty of Awami League and Mujib. Their fear and threat perception became so obvious that President Yahya along with the top military brass on the hunting invitation of Bhutto visited Larkana in January 1971 where the conspiracy not to hand over power to Awami League and to launch military operation was hatched. Was it not unfair that President Yahya went to Bhutto’s residence who was a leader of minority party but never had the courtesy to visit Mujib’s house in Dhaka who was a leader of majority party? Discriminatory approach of the military regime which happened to represent West Pakistan further widened cleavage between East and West Pakistan.

Third, the reality of fear of Bengali majority ruling those who had oppressed them for around quarter of a century triggered brutal use of force to quell what was termed as ‘miscreants’ and ‘anti-state elements’. On record, generals from West Pakistan had made it clear that they will not hand over power to the Bengalese despite clear victory of Awami League in December 1970 general elections. The dispatch of forces from West Pakistan to East Pakistan from January 1971 onwards also vindicated the perception that the generals had decided to militarily liquidate the dissent and uprising of Bengalese going on since the postponement of national assembly session on March 1.

Unfortunately, no lessons were learned from the separation of East Pakistan. Excessive use of force against non-conformist and nationalists of Balochistan and Sindh became a reality in post-1971 Pakistan thus deepening a sense of deprivation and the surge of centrifugal forces in the two minority provinces.

The writer is Meritorious Professor International Relations at the University of Karachi. E. Mail: amoonis@hotmail.com

Published in Daily Times, March 23rd 2018.