Nothing sums up the pain and sorrow of a separation better than the inimitable verses of Faiz where his tortured soul laments, “Khoon ke dhabbay dhullain ge kitni barsatoon ke baad” (How many rains will it take to wash away the stains of blood).
There is an uncanny similarity between the biography of Huseyn Shaheed Suharwardy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’. In the case of Suharwardy too the political pundits and public intellectuals failed to sound the funereal tune for the country’s dismemberment despite the compelling evidence lying clearly along the country’s tortuous political promenade.
Could East Pakistan have remained part of Pakistan as a viable administrative and political unit? That is a question that has aroused continued public and intellectual curiosity despite the varied explanations offered by scholars and political scientists. Was secession preventable and could the two wings have remained united despite the structural violence perpetrated against the Bengalis? What was the nature of the conflict and who owes whom an apology?
The covert as well as overt Indian aggression also needs to be factored in while analysing the secession. December 16 is a day of soul searching and should force an honest introspection as to what went wrong and how not to repeat the same follies in our continuing quest for national cohesion.
Bengali nationalism and the cultural gap between the Bengalis and the West Pakistanis proved to be impossible barriers right from the beginning of Independence. Bengalis had a proud and distinct cultural and linguistic heritage that they revered – to the extent of being labelled xenophobic by outsiders. The dominant Hindu segment of the population that had a stranglehold over academic institutions had traditionally been in the vanguard of the Bengali anti-colonial struggle, a fact highlighted by the impressive list of Bengali martyrs.
The influence of Hindu intelligentsia in shaping a cultural identity was palpable in the universities, which acted as a seedbed of cultural alienation with the western wing, a reality exacerbated by the cultural insensitivity of West Pakistan’s political, bureaucratic, and military leadership. The die of the east-west antipathy was cast in 1948 when Quaid-e-Azam, during his Dhaka visit, announced in categorical terms that the state language in the province of East Bengal would be Urdu. The inscrutable designs of providence gave little time to the Quaid to assuage the linguistic sensibilities of Bengalis and his successors, instead of dousing the fires of linguistic nationalism, added fuel.
The tipping point came in 1952 when Khawaja Nazimuddin announced Urdu as the national language; this resulted in four deaths during the widespread protests. The deaths acted as the rallying point for Bengali nationalism, with ‘shaheed minars’ put up to honour the fallen and started celebrating February 21 as the Language Martyrs’ Day. Mujib observes astutely in his memoirs, published posthumously, that after Liaquat Ali Khan there was no national level leader left in the Muslim League.
The leadership vacuum was filled by the wily bureaucrats who manipulated the weak kneed political leadership into a position of subservience. Ghulam Muhammad and Chaudhry Muhammad Ali were followed by Iskander Mirza into the power matrix shorn of astute political presence. The political balm that could heal the particularistic wounds of Bengalis was replaced by bureaucratic nostrums right from the early decade of independence. It is eye opening the way the genuine Bengali leadership was treated and the masses disenfranchised through political ham-handedness and injustices.
Suharwardy, the most charismatic Bengali politician who had been a chief minister of United Bengal, was dismissed unceremoniously and a pliant Noorul Amin installed. He was also disqualified as a member of the Constituent Assembly because he was considered as a threat by the senior Muslim League leaders from the western wing. For seven years East Bengal was governed as an administrative unit without full provincial autonomy and provincial institutions. When elections were held in 1954 another charismatic Bengali leader with real roots amongst the masses – Maulvi A K Fazal ul Haq – won the elections and formed government as chief minister. He was dismissed after few months by Iskander Mirza.
There was hope, however, for national integration in 1957 when Suharwardy took over as prime minister; however, he was shown the door by Iskander Mirza after a few months in office. The sedulous efforts of Suharwardy to form a national political party called the Jinnah Awami League were actively stonewalled by West Pakistani politicians like Iftikhar Mamdot. The same party later on emerged under a hardliner – Mujib ur Rehman – as a provincial party espousing the maximalist demands of provincial autonomy under the banner of Mujib’s ‘Six Points’. It was a slow yet painful metamorphosis of Bengali nationalism from moderate demands for provincial autonomy in the 1950s to an extreme version of a loose federation bordering on a confederation in the late 1960s, a development arising out of two decades of political inequities and denial of rights.
The political alienation of the Bengalis, deliberately fostered through self-aggrandising and extractive policies, led towards social polarisation and politico-economic marginalisation. There were significant income and development inequalities between the two wings – the budget spending ratio between the two wings remained approximately 60:40 in favour of West Pakistan. The same story was repeated in case of foreign aid spending and GDP growth where the economic indices cried out for equity fuelling Bengali ire against perceived neo-colonisation by West Pakistan.
The last straw was the refusal of the West Pakistan based political and military establishment to hand over power to the Awami League as ordained by the constitution. Despite Mujib’s entreaties, the Bhutto-Yahya confabulations at Larkana ignored national unity.
There were truly two occasions when the federation could be saved, once in 1957 when Suharwardy was the prime minister and secondly when in 1970 the Awami League won the elections. The failure to convene the assembly led towards civil disobedience by the Bengalis and the military operation of March 25, 1971 ended all hopes of a political reconciliation.
Indian collusion with the Awami League, and an invasion on November 21, 1971 put the finishing touches on a chronicle of separation foretold through decades of political injustices and socio-economic inequities. The Pakistan Army, which had been tasked to fight an unequal and unwinnable fight, had to capitulate in the face of impossible odds.
The atrocities in the war were committed by both sides with the Bengali ‘Muktijodhhas’ more brutal, as per Sarmila Bose. We as a nation would do well to honour the memory of all those who died defending their respective causes by internalising the lesson that the denial of political, economic and cultural rights leads to secession.
The writer is a retired brigadier, and a PhD scholar in Peace and ConflictStudies at the National University of Science and Technology, Islamabad.
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