East Pakistan to Bangladesh, some comments

An op-ed from Brigadier Samson Sharaf published in “The Nation”, with some comments from regular contributor Dr Hamid Hussain. Well worth a read

(The comments in red italics are from Dr Hussain. Samson Sharaf’s op-ed is Pakstudies-lite/Jinnah-Institutish, so it is mostly of interest if you are curious about how a Pakistani army officer who is not totally nuts or Islamist works this out )

REVISTING 1906-1971
Samson Simon Sharaf


As West Pakistan nears the end of its 44th year of separation from the East, suffice to comment that lessons if any were ignored by the elastic conscience and political opportunism of leaders. The people absolved themselves by viewing it a fait accompli by unrepresentative ruling elites. In military terms there was no debriefing and therefore lessons not learnt are being repeated. Losing more than half the population never result in introspection. Despite this political culture and insensitivity, what remains of Pakistan holds together due to geographical contiguity that did not exist in case of East Pakistan. Pakistan’s corrupt political and socio-economic systems continue to overrule the aspirations of the people whose majority is either too lethargic or disconnected from nationhood to exercise the power of ballot. The realization and national urge for a closure and way forward thereof is missing. The style of politics adopted by politicians of the west has worsened by time. The fact that Pakistan has survived owes much to its small cadre of hardy people, geopolitics and armed forces.

Here is the debate. If from 1906 till 1947, the east and west were part of the same struggle in which the east provided the platform, intellectual inputs and direction, why they parted ways after the battle was won? In West Pakistan, this question became a taboo for far too long, while the separatist (if we call Awami Leaguers so) in Bangladesh that comprised only 24% of the electorate chose a violet route. For West, the question that this tragedy set aside the idea of a united Pakistan rots in the trash of inventive history.

As the sole self-proclaimed custodians of ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ created by a dictator, West Pakistanis cannot eclipse historical facts. After the partition of Bengal and Muslim Majority self-rule, the idea of separation came predominantly from the Muslims of East Bengal. Muhammadan Education Conference of the Aligarh modernity school changed to All India Muslim League at Dacca in 1906. The first convener was Nawab Sir Khawaja Salimullah of Dacca who mentored two stalwarts; A. K. Fazlul Haq who wrote the first Creed of the League and Choudhury Khaliquzzaman.

The thesis of separation mostly advocated by Bengali leaders with the obvious experience of history was ignored till Allama Iqbal as President of Punjab Muslim League reflected the concept in his famous Allahabad address. Though he met the Bengali leaders many times, his address referred only to India’s North West Muslim provinces and ignored East Bengal. The reason was that the league was seeking autonomy within the Indian Union and Punjabi/UP leaders resigned Bengali leaders to fight their own struggle. The fact that Pakistan’s inventive history credits Allama Iqbal more than the founders of this idea is an historical distortion. These frustrations are reflected in the many twists and turns Bengali leaders they took thereafter, and recorded in many dissenting notes and speeches of A. K. Fazlul Haq, the Sher-e-Bangla. Knowing that North West that comprised NWFP and Punjab was dominated by Unionists and Congress sympathizers (Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan), Bengalis continued to provide the impetus for a Muslim Identity. At that point of time, Old Balochistan and the State of Khairpur in Sindh were out of contention. Punjab centrism with a shadow of the UP lobby caused irreparable damage to the federation of Pakistan; yet these are the unfortunate lines on which the West Pakistani narrative was built. (There is a historical context to the discussion. In later part of nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, several important Muslim leaders advocated division of India on the basis of separate Muslim identity. The prejudice against Bengali Muslims was so prevalent and widespread, that nobody cared about them and did not consider them as part of Indian Muslim community. In fifty years, about 15 such schemes were proposed but not even a single one mentioned Bengal or Bengali Muslims. Sir Muhammad Iqbal who proposed the idea of Pakistan in his famous Allahabad address in 1930 did not include Bengali Muslims in his scheme. Chaudhry Rehmat Ali who coined the word ‘ Pakistan ‘ for his new country did not bother to fit the majority population of future Pakistan in his name. Generally speaking, Muslims of northern India considered themselves superior and more pure blood and despised Bengali Muslims, which they seem to equate more with Hindus rather than accepting them as brothers in faith. The Bengali leader, Fazlul Haq who presented the Pakistan Resolution in 1940 was forced to resign from Muslim League in September 1941. The Muslim League leadership never trusted Hussain Shaheed Suharwardy, who was the elected Chief Minister of United Bengal . He was not given a seat at Working Committee of All India Muslim League.)

A. K. Fazlul Haq, the Chief Minister of Bengal and Choudhury Khaliquzzaman with reluctant support from Sikandar Hayat Khan of Punjab (a Unionist whose buck stopped short of separation) managed to push through the Lahore Resolution on 24 March 1940. The final interpretation of the Resolution was left to a committee that ignored the question of States within a Union. Obviously, it was to keep Sikandar quiet. After the impromptu Cabinet Mission Plan that Congress rejected, the League pushed for a single Pakistan with two wings. This partition of India was pursued in haste to the chagrin of Bengali leaders, leaving many questions of autonomy under federalism unaddressed. The result was that within the first few years of independence, intransience on part of the west accounted for wiping away support of the League in East Pakistan. As early as 1954, the East was vying for greater autonomy within the federation. Once the 1956 constitution ignored the questions of federation, the separatist movement was a question of time.

By August 1947, differences between leaders of East Bengal and those from UP and Punjab widened. There was serious dissent in East Pakistani leaders over adoption of Urdu as the national language, Objective Resolution and non-federal constitution of 1956. Bengali leaders were particularly sensitive about relegation of religious minorities that comprised more than 15% population of East Pakistan. These were mostly Dalit who under the leadership of Jogendra Nath Mandal (Pakistan’s first law minister) had thrown their lot with Pakistan. Though after partition, Muslim League managed to form the first government; by 1954 it was edged to insignificance by United Front, Communist Party and the Awami League. The United Front ruled the province till imposition of Martial Law in 1958. (Things as they stood at the time of emergence of Pakistan in 1947: In 1947, when the new state of Pakistan emerged, there was a very unique and difficult dilemma facing the new nation. More than 1000 miles of hostile territory of India separated the two wings. East Pakistan contained more than half of the population but only one-sixth of the land. In Eastern wing, population was more homogenous ethnically and linguistically while Western wing had five clearly diverse groups (Punjabis, Sindhis, Baluch, Pushtuns and newly immigrated Muslims from India called Muhajirs). In eastern wing, the non-Muslim population was 23% while in western wing only 3 . Peasant proprietors dominated agriculture sector in Bengal compared to large feudal estates in West Pakistan . Bengalis were the most politically conscious group of Pakistan . In addition, there was a long tradition of strong leftist presence in Bengal . Literacy rate was 30% in East compared to 20% in West Pakistan . In 1950, East Bengal Provincial legislature passed a landmark bill called East Bengal State Land Acquisition and Tenancy Act of 1950. This law abolished the permanent settlement, which ended the Zamindari system that supported the landed elite. The land holding was limited to 100 Bighas (about 33 acres) which affected both Hindu and Muslim landlords. In my view this little known single piece of legislation was a crucial factor which would impact the future course of relationship between the two wings. This law rang the alarm bells in West Pakistani ruling elite, which was dominated by the landed aristocracy.)

Because leaders in West Pakistan looked at Hindus within the construct of India, Bengali leaders and prime ministers were viewed with suspicion. Due to this divergent stance East Pakistani leaders were perceived less patriotic. The conspiracy theory of the west that Hindu presence diluted the Ideology of Pakistan in the East was accepted without logic and reason. It also downgraded the famous speech of Qaid e Azam Muhaammad Ali Jinnah on 11 August 1947 on political inclusivism. While these fissures widened and League’s support in East Pakistan waned, the Governor-General of Pakistan dismissed A. K. Fazlul Haq from public office on charges of inciting secession. Later, Ayub Khan banned him from politics. Ever since, this suppression of the east and the progressive left has marred genuine political reforms in Pakistan. No lessons have ever been learnt. (Every dissent is viewed through a self righteous lens. The Punjabi Governor of East Pakistan, Sir Firoz Khan Noon described the Bengali voice of dissent as a conspiracy of ‘clever politicians and disruptionists from within the Muslim community and caste Hindus and communists from Calcutta as well as from outside Pakistan ‘. This was in 1950s and look at the statements about Baluchs today. Read the following sentences written in Intelligence Bureau (IB) report dated July 1961 about the feelings of Bengali population: ‘The people in this province will not be satisfied unless the Constitution ensures them in reality equal and effective participation in the management of the affairs of the country, equal share of development resources and, in particular, full control over the administration of this province. The intelligentsia would also like to see a directive principle in the Constitution to increase speedily East Pakistan’s share in the defense services as well as equal representation of East Pakistanis in the central service’. A mid-level police official of IB was more farsighted than the rulers of the country.)

While the West dominated the events after 1947, there was no effort or narrative to counter the political humiliation and alienation caused to leaders of the East. It was only a matter of time that the inevitable happened. Free and fair elections under a military dictator in 1970 exposed the hidden cracks. No single party emerged as a symbol of federation. Awami League (a breakaway faction of Muslim League) in the East led by Shiekh Mujeeb ur Rehman and Pakistan People’s Party led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the West emerged as two irreconcilable belligerents. Imprisoned Sheikh Mujeeb ur Rehman was flexible and insisted autonomy but not division. Bhutto’s politics were exclusive and inflexible. Exploiting the ignorance on part of the military regime and lack of communications amongst Pakistani politicians, India inserted its narrative into the void. Armed forces fell into the trap and became the fall guy. (The last sentence is a bit disingenuous. Army was in full control of the country from 1958 right up to the day of surrender in 1971. If there was a trap, it was weaved meticulously by army leadership. Just as a backgrounder of the saga to highlight how domestic and international factors coalesced in the context of East Pakistan. A complex set of factors including domestic, personal and class interests, regional and international interests came into play which impacted the nascent democratic process of the new nation. The Muslim League leadership in East Pakistan consisted of landed elite and cosmopolitans from Calcutta . Later, vernacular leadership (Fazlul Haq and Maulana Abdul Hameed Bhashani) based on support from rural masses came to limelight. 1954 provincial elections were a watershed in the history of Pakistan . The United Front (consisting of Fazlul Haq’s Krishak Sramik Party and Suharwardy’s Awami League) swept the elections. United Front won 223 of the 237 Muslim seats and had many allies among the 72 non-Muslim elected members. Muslim League was wiped out of the East Bengal during this election. West Pakistani ruling elite’s apprehensions about the new Bengali leadership were re-enforced by the international politics and Pakistan ‘s attempts to join U.S. sponsored military pacts against the Communism. When the defense treaty with United States was announced in February 1954, there was a general protest in East Bengal . Several demonstrations were held and newly elected assembly members signed a protest statement. This signature proved to be the death sentence of the provincial assembly. The ruling group in Karachi (Governor General Ghulam Muhammad, C-in-C General Ayub Khan and Defence Secretary Sikander Mirza) saw this situation as a grave threat to their vision for the country and future relationship with US, which would be a foundation stone of this policy. They concluded that to show to Washington that Pakistan was a serious ally and in full control of its house, East Pakistan ‘s political process had to be checked. On May 19, 1954 , the mutual defense agreement was signed in Karachi between US and Pakistan and eleven days later, Governor General dismissed East Bengal Provincial Assembly on the flimsy charge that Fazlul Haq had uttered separatist words to Indian media. One day before the dismissal of the assembly, Pakistani Prime Minister while confiding with the US Charge, told him that Governor rule was planned for East Pakistan to route the communists. He revealed that the matter was not even discussed with the cabinet or Chief Ministers as information may be leaked to Peking and Moscow via Fazlul Haq. The plan was not for a short- term scuttling of the political process but a long-term as General Ayub Khan confided with US ambassador that, ‘it would be necessary to keep military rule in effect in East Pakistan for a considerable length of time’. Remember this he was saying in 1954, four years before the 1958 coup. Pakistani decision makers always feel more at home with foreigners rather than with their fellow countrymen. Those who want a good dose should read Wiki Leaks cables of Pakistani civil and military leaders.

To my knowledge, no one has looked at the contribution of defense policy towards Bengali alienation. Pakistan adopted the most preposterous defense concept and publicly announced it stating that ‘the defense of East Pakistan lay in West Pakistan. All defense resources were concentrated in West Pakistan calling it the heartland. Bengalis surrounded on three sides by hostile India were told that in case of war, West Pakistan will try to conquer as much Indian territory on western border and India allowed to walk over East Pakistan. Then at negotiation table Pakistan would be able to extract concessions and get East Pakistani land back. I don’t know whether many Pakistani know the facts that for the first few years after independence, Pakistan allotted a grand total of two infantry battalions (8/12 FFR and 2/8 Punjab Regiment) for the defense of whole East Pakistan. It was not until 1950 that two infantry brigades were provided for East Pakistan. No armored regiment was thought worthy to be sent there. Pakistan Air Force stationed its sole permanent fighter jet squadron in East Pakistan in 1962. In military matters, it is normal to allocate resources depending on threat perception. However, citizens of a part of the country cannot be simply told that they are dispensable. One cannot call one region heart and soul of the country worth defending while another region as periphery and not worth defending. Even if military policy dictates such a course then two elements are essential; first the ‘periphery’ population’s representatives are involved in decision making process and second armed forces should have adequate representation from the ‘periphery’ population. This reassures them that they are equal citizens and following an agreed policy which may have some risks involved for their lands. In my view 1965 war convinced even otherwise patriotic Bengalis that their future was not with united Pakistan. They saw that country’s leadership had embarked on a major conflict with a larger India for few lakh Kashmiris and endangered the survival of half of the country’s Bengali population. To add insult to injury no one had the courtesy even to ask for Bengali opinion as they were not in the decision making process. Bengalis had no interest in Pakistan’s major quarrel with India over Kashmir.

“Great blunders are often made, like large ropes, of a multitude of fibers.” Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable

Brown Pundits