Two nations and a theory

  • The saga of East Pakistan

The 23rd day of this month is celebrated in the country as Pakistan Day, a remembrance to a day seven years earlier than the independence of Pakistan when a resolution was unanimously passed among the Muslim Leaguers, that two nations in India, Muslims and Hindus, cannot co exist because of fundamental differences in their religion. Three days and three decades later, the independence of another nation was announced, not on the ground of religion but on that of fundamental difference of opinion in nearly all walks of life. It was the day when East Pakistan ceased to exist in spirit and took a corporeal form after a torturous and bloody gestation period of nine months as Bangladesh.

At the time of independence, the existence of two geographically separate and distant wings of Pakistan did seem doubtful. As in the case of West Pakistan, the division resulting in East and West Bengal had left limited resources in the former. Finance was mostly in the hands of Hindus and when they migrated to India, East Bengal was stranded with closed down factories. Physical movement of persons and necessities from the west wing to the east at the difficult time of partition, especially when borders were closed with India, was a major task. During the course of reformation and renewed identity, while the Bengali Muslims were relieved to be able to find better opportunities for themselves in the wake of Bengali Hindus gone, they were disappointed to realise that they were now dependent for progress on fellow Pakistanis in the west, who gradually began to impose their false belief of superiority on the basis of physical appearance.

The East Pakistanis had not expected to be treated as a distant province. In fact, they felt that they were ‘colonised’ by West Pakistan. Having the privilege of hosting the first session of the All India Muslim League, they were poised to be at the centre of politics, only to be made a part with the rest. Over the years they felt marginalised. The Bengali Pakistanis were dissatisfied with their share in revenue, industrialisation, defence, civil services and other areas, based on the argument that they had more numerical strength than that of the western wing. But the main bone of contention was language. Bengalis were and still are fiercely proud of their culture. When the East Pakistanis were told that Urdu and English were their official languages, when airing of Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry on radio was banned as he was now an Indian rather than a Bengali, when they were mocked at for their timid appearance and frowned upon for continuing with ‘Hindu’ customs like wearing tilak on their foreheads and practicing dance and singing, they felt their identity was being tread on. When their devotion to faith was doubted due to centuries old customs similar to those in Hinduism, their sentiments were hurt.

There is no single reason and one person to be blamed. All the factors and maybe more and all those involved played their part in the tragedy. But the truth is that since the creation of Pakistan, there was unrest and dissatisfaction in East Bengal

To placate the situation, some efforts were made by Pakistan. In his book ‘Tragedy of Errors’, Lt Gen (r) Kamal Matinuddin while addressing the events leading to the dismemberment of East Pakistan, the Bengalis’ concerns and Pakistan’s failure to address them also gave arguments to prove that matters were not one sided. Bengali was accepted as the second language of Pakistan and included in the 1956 constitution – the first of the country. The constitution also ensured ‘that the West Pakistanis are not in a position to dominate over them.’ Bengalis were allowed to choose their representatives on the basis of joint electorates which let them get the support of Hindu Bengalis. Greater autonomy was given to the east by giving more subjects to the province. At the time of independence, East Bengal’s economy was dependent on only agricultural produce and ‘had the lowest percentage of industrialisation.’ In the period of 24 years after independence, it had moved towards a semi industrial economy, with approximately 600 factories built. Numerous other examples have been given in infrastructural development, irrigation, modernisation, reserved seats in civil services and education. General Yahya Khan, President of Pakistan is reported to have said to his economic adviser that ‘the gap (in rate of growth between the two wings) must be narrowed down.’

So what went wrong? Despite a landslide victory by Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman in the 1970s election, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto refused to accept him and his party forming the government and instead suggested two separate prime ministers for the wings. Nationalist movements surged across East Pakistan amidst an already existing environment of bitterness and dissatisfaction. To control the masses, martial law was imposed, which did little to help. ‘The decision to use force to quell the spontaneous uprising against the so called Punjabi army was widely commented upon by western and vernacular writers alike… Indiscriminate killings which pushed a very large number of refugees into the open arms of the Indians should have been strictly forbidden.’ The seeds of mistrust grew into tall trees of hatred and the outcome of the 1970 elections, its controversy and shocking genocide led the cracks to a full blown conflict, eventually ending with the break up of United Pakistan.

Who was right and who was wrong? Were the Bengalis too obsessed with their demands, or were the West Pakistanis too proud and stubborn to accommodate? Was it simply lack of understanding and miscommunication? Was it lack of empathy for the Bengalis or was it selfishness on their part that instead of strengthening the country as a whole, they wanted a distinct identity? And who is to be blamed – Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto for refusing to share power or Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman for his ‘treachery’, President Yahya Khan for ineptitude and lack of decision making to resolve the issue or the Pakistan armed forces whose surrender to India paved way for separation of the eastern wing? Or was it India all along who played mischief and, adding fuel to fire, struck a fatal blow to Pakistan when the iron was hot?

There is no single reason and one person to be blamed. All the factors and maybe more and all those involved played their part in the tragedy. But the truth is that since the creation of Pakistan, there was unrest and dissatisfaction in East Bengal and had issues been resolved consistently and amicably through dialogue, mutual understanding and patience, a better solution may have been the result.

While the saga will always be marked as a tragic event in the history of Pakistan, a severe blow to its integrity and the foundation on which it was created, namely the two nation theory, this also remains a fact that Pakistan survived, stayed intact and progressed, at least to some extent. The Pakistan armed forces, after a humiliating defeat, emerged much stronger and menacing to its enemies. India, in its effort to break Pakistan, is still haunted by demands for Khalistan and Nagaland, with Kashmir remaining at the centre of dispute.

But Pakistan should learn, continue to aim for a homogeneous, multicultural society and safeguard the interests of its ethnicities, who while accepting a uniform language and outlook, hold their distinct identities dear and wish to preserve their heritage.

Like two brothers who choose a different path for their betterment, Pakistan and Bangladesh chose to part ways. The separation was tragic, unnecessarily violent and bitter. But both started their journeys towards independence with a common cause. Both sought liberation from British and non Muslim elements. With this common link, they can join hands again and achieve mutually beneficial goals, as they still have a lot to share.


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