reconciliation in the future has already set in. The truth is that it has not set in yet.
Here, then, is what we know. After a quarter century of pained togetherness, the sense of alienation and disconnect in what was then East Pakistan had become so deep that the first ever national elections (held on December 7, 1970) threw up a result so stark that it was confounding in its clarity. Unadulterated by analysis, the unvarnished numbers speak for themselves.
In a National Assembly of 300, the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, won 160 seats and 39.2 percent of the votes cast (12,937,162 out of 33,004,065 votes). The Pakistan People’s Party, led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, won 81 seats with 18.6 percent of the votes (6,148,923). In East Pakistan, the Awami League won all but two of the province’s 162 seats (the remaining two were won by independents). In West Pakistan, the PPP won 81 seats out of the 138 allotted to the western half of the country (with no other party getting into two digits). The Awami League won no seat at all in West Pakistan and the PPP none in the East.
Scarcely ever in electoral politics do you get results as clear as this. Yet, what followed was chaos and confusion, a civil war, and ultimately the unnecessarily bloody dismemberment of what had always been an uneasy and untenable union.
However, it would be a historical folly to seek an explanation for December 16, 1971, in the election results of December 7, 1970. Rather, the election results were a reflection of the neglect and negligence of the two decades that preceded them. If a single date is to be found to personify the disaffection that had set in East Pakistan, that date may be November 12, 1970. The day Bhola landed in East Pakistan.
Bhola, of course, was Cyclone Bhola.
It wiped out villages. Destroyed crops. The lives of over 3.6 million people were devastated. Nearly 85 percent of the area it hit was decimated. It brought winds of an unbelievable 185 km/hr and a 10 meter (33 ft) high storm surge in the Ganges Delta. It left in its wake half a million Pakistanis dead. A New York Times headline described it as possibly ‘The Worst Catastrophe of the Century,’ meteorologists remember it as one of the most deadly natural disasters in history. Most Pakistanis today remember it not at all.
The one reference to this calamity that a few contemporary Pakistanis may be familiar with is in that heart warming national song (written by Asad Mohammad Khan and sung by Shahnaz Begum) Mauj barhey ya aandhi aa’ye, diya jala’ey rakhna hai/ghar ki khatir sau dukh jhaleiN, ghar tou aakhir apna hai. Bhola was the mauj (storm surge). Bhola was the aandhi (storm). East Pakistan was the ghar (home) that we were all implored to hold dear. How high were our ideals; how unmet our hopes!
The fact that we in today’s Pakistan have forgotten an event so cataclysmic in our own history is trivia. The real tragedy is that those who lived in the then West Pakistan also did not comprehend just what had hit them.
The military government of Gen Yahya Khan claimed that it would “spare no efforts” in relief but would never delay the forthcoming elections, but was severely criticised for a shoddy response and for never fully understanding the scale of the catastrophe. Military helicopters could not move from West to East Pakistan in time as the government in India refused to give them clearance. Operations were delayed. The citizen response in the West tepid.
By the time Gen Yahya arrived in Dhaka to take charge of the relief operations on November 24 (he had earlier aerially inspected the area on November 16) it was already too late. Ultimately, he himself conceded that his government had made “slips” and “mistakes”. By then, Bhola had become, in the East Pakistani sensibility, a metaphor and a validation of all that was and had been wrong in West Pakistan’s relationship with East Pakistan.
Bhola became an election rally for the Awami League. More proof of West Pakistani callousness. The result of the election would probably have been the same without Bhola. But the cyclone served to frame just how much had gone how terribly wrong in the relations between the two. Not just in terms of the government response, but in the essence of citizen connectedness.
Time has at least healed some of the physical hurt caused by Bhola, as those affected had no options but for life to move on. But the real lesson – unlearnt still – that Bhola has left us with is that the pain of neglect does not lessen with time. It compounds. It seethes. It festers. It reeks. That is a lesson that the Pakistan of 1970 had never understood. It is not clear that the Pakistani of 2013 has learnt it any better.
Even without global climate change, there are too many Bholas that lurk on our horizon. With climate change there are likely to be even more. The lesson here is to respect nature and its awesome forces, but also to recognise that, terrible as it can be, the wrath of nature is so much less terrible – and, ultimately, so much more manageable – than the wrath of history and a messed up polity.
Yes, natural calamities tear apart the very fabric of life. But, handled right, they can also bring together societies in common cause. We have seen some of that happening in recent floods and earthquakes. But the politics of disenfranchisement, of distress, of derision, of disparagement, of disdain can only divide society. And the hurt of division knows few cures. It feeds on its own agony. It compounds over time. And ultimately it blows back in ways more gruesome and ghastly than any that even nature can conjure up in all its fury.
As we remember Bhola and think about the shadows of 1971 on 2013, let us also remember that the worst calamities are nearly never natural, they are creatures of our own disconnect. All too often, they are political. If so, then the response must also be so.
Which is better – the spoken word of law or the written word of law? In the modern world this may not be a relevant...
Pakistan’s ‘rooftop solar community’ is up in arms against the government. The reason behind the outrage is a...
The National Transmission and Despatch Company has released a new version of the Indicative Generation Capacity...
Over a period of two days just outside Beirut in September 1982, Israeli-backed Lebanese militiamen slaughtered up to...
If wealthy countries think the Covid-19 pandemic is over, as U.S. President Joe Biden claimed earlier this week, they...
On 2 December 1943, 105 German bombers made a surprise air raid on Bari in southern Italy, where they sank 27 Allied...