Have we learnt anything from the secession of East Pakistan in 1971?
here is an anonymous but popular saying: History repeats itself. This, actually, could be a misquoted or distorted version of George Santayana’s warning: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
History repeats itself only for those who turn a blind eye to it and do not learn from it. This draws our attention to The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman, an American historian. In this book, she examines how rulers throughout history persist with decisions that prove their undoing even when they are offered viable alternatives.
Quoting several examples in her book, Tuchman explains how folly triumphed over reason in various times, situations and settings. She demonstrates that Chiang Kai-shek, China’s nationalist leader, did not learn from King George III’s folly of refusing to introduce reforms that resulted in the independence of the United States. Had he not turned a blind eye to this historical precedent he could have avoided the rise of Mao Tse-tung and the communists and his ultimate defeat at their hands by introducing reforms. Similarly, had its rulers heeded the scepticism about bringing a suspicious-looking wooden horse inside city walls the fall of Troy could have been evaded.
Like many other unfortunate countries, Pakistan’s history is replete with such acts of folly. Amongst those, the 1971 secession of Bangladesh stands atop, considering the extent and scope of devising policies and making decisions that served no reasonable national interest.
What were the follies that led to the secession of the country’s eastern wing and creation of Bangladesh? To begin with, the Urdu-Hindi controversy, which erupted in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, is deemed as one of the major causes of schism between the Hindus and the Muslims and the partition of Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. Turning a blind eye to language controversy as one of the major factors in Pakistan Movement, the ruling elite, predominantly from West Pakistan, did not think twice about declaring Urdu the only state language, completely ignoring the fact that Bengali-speaking people outnumbered all other language groups as they made more than fifty percent of the total population.
Bengalis responded to this declaration, by demanding that their language, Bengali, be given the same status as Urdu. The demand was rejected. It was argued that Bengali was written in Devanagari script rather than Urdu’s Persian script. As an alternative, Bengali written in Arabic script was proposed. Rejecting this proposal, the Bengalis asserted that Bengali was as much a language of the Muslims as was Urdu.
Students from the University of Dacca and some other political activists organised a protest on February 21, 1952. The protest led to an encounter between the protesters and the police that resulted in the death of 29 people. This was followed by widespread civil unrest.
The lack of respect for their language led to a sense of alienation among the Bengali citizens against the ruling elite of West Pakistan. A campaign for making Bengali the national language was launched. Within a short span of four years it had gained huge momentum. Students from the University of Dacca and some other political activists organised a protest demonstration on February 21, 1952. The protest led to an encounter between the protesters and the police that resulted in the death of 29 people, as reported by the government. This was followed by widespread civil unrest. As a result of these protests, in May 1954, Bengali was granted the status of an official language along with Urdu. This controversy and the subsequent chasm between the two wings of the country had a deep imprint on the events and developments in the years to follow, till the secession of the eastern wing in 1971.
The dispute over languages did not stop there. A conflict over the Urdu-Sindhi controversy surfaced in the 1970s. It has yet to be resolved in a satisfactory manner. Disputes have also arisen around Punjabi-Seraiki and Urdu-English controversies. Had the Urdu-Bengali dispute been dealt with rationally and judiciously the subsequent language controversies could have been avoided. Turning a blind eye to its history is thus costing Pakistan dearly.
A refusal to accept the mandate of the people has been another recurrent folly. This too had a vital role in the separation of the eastern wing. In the 1970 election, Shaikh Mujib’s Awami League won 160 of the 162 seats in East Pakistan, giving it a majority in Pakistan’s parliament. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party won 81 seats out of 138 in West Pakistan, becoming the majority party in West Pakistan. Instead of conceding the right of the majority to draft the constitution and to form the government, the West Pakistani elite chose to ignore the will of the people of East Pakistan. As a result, the military’s Operation Searchlight in East Pakistan was started in March 1971.
The short period following the elections until the military operation, clearly showed how the egos and incompetence of a handful of West Pakistani politicians played out.
Carrying the legacy of rejecting and disrespecting the mandate of the people, the blunder has been repeated several times in Pakistan. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), which was the second largest party in the provincial assembly of the Punjab in 2018, for instance, refused to let the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz form the government.
The success of the vote of no-confidence against Imran Khan in the National Assembly was a similar incident. This shows that the power elite in Pakistan refuse to learn from its history.
The ruling elite have been in denial about their follies. Instead of acknowledging their mistakes and responsibility they have been trying to hide behind conspiracy theories. India is said to have been conspiring to break up the country since Partition. Of course, India did intervene in the East Pakistan crisis but that was in May 1971, about two months after the start of the military operation. Thus, the power elite never accepted responsibility for its decisions and actions or tried to correct any of the wrongs. Calls for an apology to Bangladesh and its people have been resisted. Calls for making the Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission Report were similarly resisted until it was published from India. As a result, the same mistakes continue to be repeated just as the echoes of same flawed assumptions can be heard. Instead of accepting our mistakes and giving all citizens of Pakistan their rights, we continue to blame foreign conspiracies for our problems.
The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at the GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets at @MazharGondal87