“AFTER independence, several factors contributed to the gradual widening of gulf between the two wings. The fundamental factor was the difficulty of West Pakistani elite to accept Bengalis as equal partners. The rapid alienation of Bengalis was partly due to the fact that Bengali elite’s access to power had traditionally been through political mobilization and not bureaucracy. In the absence of a democratic culture and stark absence of Bengalis from the two most important decision making bodies, civilian bureaucracy and military, made the Bengali apprehensions acute. The establishment of a highly centralized regime in 1958 and banning of political parties effectively cut them out of the national scene with no voice at national level.
Poorly thought out decisions made by a small clique, which were either made in total ignorance of ground realities or with deep-seated prejudice against the Bengalis contributed to increasing Bengali alienation. In the absence of detailed thought out policies, which are discussed at various forums, resulted in total ignorance on part of the general population of West Pakistan what was being done to the Bengali majority in the name of national unity. The initial discontent was based on the language issue, when Pakistan government decided that there will be only one national language and that will be Urdu. Even Bengali Muslim League leaders (Tajuddin Ahmad and Abul Hashim) expressed their apprehensions about the neglect of Bengali and its consequences.
In September 1947, government of Pakistan printed currency notes, issued coins, printed money orders and post cards in English and Urdu only. In 1947, the circular of Pakistan Public Service Commission had made provision of Urdu, English, Hindi, Sanskrit, Latin and other languages but made no provision of Bengali. In an attempt to ‘purify’ Bengali culture of Hindu influences, Pakistan government decided to change the script of Bengali. In total disregard of the local sentiments and even constitution itself, central government set up centres teaching Bengali in Arabic script. The Bengali protest started on this language issue. Pakistan government was forced to acknowledge Bengali as one of the state language in 1954 due to overwhelming Bengali demands but in the process, the gulf between two wings further widened.
Every genuine demand by Bengalis was denounced as ‘a conspiracy to destroy Pakistan’. The ruling elite dubbed the Bengali advocates of their rights as ‘anti-state’ and ‘anti-Islam’ and used epithets like ‘dogs let loose on the soil of Pakistan’. Suharwardy was threatened with the loss of his citizenship. The Punjabi Governor of East Pakistan, 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 inside Pakistan’. These ill-thought policies of central government further hardened the Bengali attitude.
The debates about the future constitution of the country further revealed the different thought process prevalent among the representatives of the two wings. A very important fact, which has been overlooked, is the membership of first Constituent Assembly. It had 44 members from East Bengal, 22 from Punjab, 5 from Sindh, 3 from North West Frontier Province and one from Balochistan. In 1949, the Basic Principles Committee submitted its report and recommended a federal democracy for the new nation. The members from Punjab objected that just because of being larger in number, Bengalis should not be allowed to have a dominant position (a similar stand taken by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1971 when he stated that the bastions of power are Punjab and Sindh). They probably had a different idea about parliamentary democracy. If this view is accepted then this means that ‘certain citizens are more equal than others’. Bengalis accepted the principle of parity in the legislature on the assumption that same will apply to Bengali representation in other areas including economic, civil service and military. Fearing the prospects of Bengalis joining hands with smaller provinces of the Western wing to press for their demands, Ayub Khan (who was C-in-C and also Defence Minister) came with the idea of ‘Unification of West Pakistan’ and initiated the process of merger of four provinces.
After the 1958 coup, Ayub held the firm control and ran all affairs with the help of civilian bureaucracy. Ayub’s own hand picked cabinet members from East Pakistan (Muhammad Ibraheem, Abul Qasim Khan and Habib ur Rahman) demanded greater autonomy during discussions on Constitution and warned of grave dangers of a highly centralized government. Several 4:3 votes (there were four members from West Pakistan and three from Eastern wing) during these deliberations clearly indicated a genuine different thought process and different perspective among ministers from the two wings. Ayub’s response to the arguments of ministers from East Pakistan was that after the promulgation of the constitution, he dropped all three from the cabinet. This shows that Ayub kept these three Bengali ministers during the deliberations to show that the Bengali view was being considered while actually, he resented their views. As expected, the promulgation of 1962 Constitution resulted in massive protests in Eastern wing led by the students.
Similarly, economic issue was also a thorny one. The central government kept avoiding this on one or other pretext but was forced to address it as there was a unanimous consensus of Bengalis on the economic issue. In 1951, Sir Jeremy Reisman was invited to evaluate the existing allocation of revenues and recommend any changes. The results of this award gave credence to Bengali point of view. The highly centralized rule of Ayub Khan further alienated the Bengalis as their representation in military and civilian bureaucracy was very low. The Bengali disaffection was obvious even to a blind man but the rulers chose to ignore it. In July 1961, Intelligence Bureau (IB) report about the feelings of Bengali population clearly stated that, �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 defence services as well as equal representation of East Pakistanis in the central services’. Alas, a mid-level police official of IB was more farsighted than the rulers of the country.
Face To Face:
‘Does it not put you to shame that every bit of reasonable demand of East Pakistan has got to be secured from you at tremendous cost and after bitter struggle as if snatched from unwilling foreign rulers as reluctant concessions’. Said Awami League’s Leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, 1966, to the West Pakistani rulers.
1971 did not occur in a vacuum. It was the logical outcome of the trends, which were operational for at least few decades, and no attempt was made to address the fundamental issues. The initial Bengali attempts were to get their due share in the country’s decision-making process. It later evolved into Bengali nationalism and moved from greater autonomy to finally into struggle for complete independence. Every ill-thought step taken by the central government from banning the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore on national media to administrative and economic measures radicalized the Bengali population one step further.
Even three decades later, with all the hindsight, Pakistan is unable to comprehend the root causes of Bengali alienation. In 1998, a retired Lt. General is of the view that, ‘Bengali nationalism was only incidental, fostered by India to serve her purpose and larger interests in the region’. Major General (r) Rao Farman Ali (the political advisor of the military regime in former East Pakistan and most informed person about the crisis) with all the hindsight has this to say about the landslide victory of Awami League in 1970 elections, ‘Total 37% votes were polled. Of this 20% were polled by Hindus from India, Awami League got 15% and Jamaat-e-Islami 2%’. Another commentator views the poor relations between Pakistan and Bangladesh due to the ‘stubbornness of Indian lobby in the bureaucracy of BD (Bangladesh)’ and this according to him is due to the ‘self-assigned objectives of keeping both the brothers apart’. Complete lack of understanding about the basic facts about their own society and paucity of information is quite evident from such assumptions.