09 November 2018

Backdrop of the 1971 War - Part I

While charting out a constitutional plan for the Muslims of India, the All-India Muslim League proposed in the Lahore Resolution[1] of 23/24 March 1940 that geographically contiguous units, as in north-western and north-eastern India (which were confusingly also called regions, areas and zones in the same breath), should form independent states, in which the constituent units would be autonomous and sovereign. As is quite evident, the resolution implied two independent states, each having a loose confederal structure for its constituent units (or provinces).
In the event, did the founding fathers renege on the agreed plan of more than one independent Muslim state? It would almost be heretical for Pakistani minds to think that it was anything but a typographical error, but it seems that some expediency compelled a revision of the original resolution. Thus, while the amended resolution laid the foundations of an independent state, it also sowed the seed of secession in a constituent unit (East Pakistan) by overlooking its “distinctive culture, language, and a history of being, in effect an outsider in South Asia.”[2]
Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was aware that the Muslim League had a very narrow base of support in Punjab, mostly amongst students. It had not held power in Punjab before Partition, and had virtually ceded leadership on Muslim issues to the intercommunal Unionist Party since 1922. It had managed to win just one seat in the provincial assembly in the 1937 elections.  In the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), despite being the largest Muslim majority province (almost 92%), the Muslim League was unable to make inroads in the self-serving politics of the province.  It had lost every single election until the June 1947 referendum in favour of joining Pakistan. NWFP indisputably had the strongest ‘contrarian streak’ in the Muslim majority areas, which manifested itself in rejection of the idea of control from a remote national centre. In Sind, the landlords and the spiritual leaders only came around to supporting the independence movement with some hesitation, though its legislative assembly eventually became the first to approve the Lahore Resolution. Under such shaky and uncertain conditions, it was important to garner support of East Bengal where the League had done well on a Muslim communal platform in the 1937 elections. After all, the Muslim League began in Dacca in 1905, reflecting East Bengal’s proud history of Muslim separatism.
For Jinnah the pragmatist, a demand for two independent states would have meant that none might be achievable, given the weak electoral standing of Muslim League at the time of the Lahore Resolution. The resolution was, thus, belatedly amended by a small Legislators’ Convention in April 1946 in Delhi; it mentioned a united state of Pakistan. To assuage persisting doubts in the minds of some Bengali Muslim members who insisted on a full session approval, the Muslim League leadership adopted a ‘memorandum of minimum demands’ on 12 May 1946, stating, “After the constitutions of Pakistan Federal Government and the provinces are finally framed by the constitution making body, it will be open to any province of the group to decide to opt out of this group, provided wishes of the people of that province are ascertained in a referendum to opt out or not.”
Overruling the clause calling for independent states did indeed help create a united Pakistan, but not to be forgotten was the ‘memorandum of minimum demands’ of 1946, which had clearly sanctioned secession if a province so desired. It was thus incumbent on the centre to carefully address the aspirations of its Bengali compatriots who had been historically at odds with any central authority.  In retrospect, a semi-autonomous formulation between the two provincial units – similar to the way Peoples’ Republic of China and erstwhile Soviet Union managed their ethnically and linguistically disparate peoples – could have been workable models. How long such an arrangement could continue to ward off any fissiparous tendencies in the unit (or province) is a moot question, but would have largely depended on the degree of accommodation the centre was willing to live with.
Language Issue
Soon after gaining independence, the issue of a state language occupied the fledgling government of Pakistan. Believing that a single language was needed for a country to remain united, Urdu was officially declared as the state language of the Dominion of Pakistan on 25 February 1948. It has to be noted that this step overlooked a resolution of All-India Muslim League (Bengal) which had rejected the idea of making Urdu as the lingua franca of Muslim India, during its 1937 Lucknow session.
Omission of Bengali as one of Pakistan’s state languages predictably resulted in riots in East Bengal (as it was known until 1956). Following a complete general strike in Dacca on 11 March 1948, the Quaid decided to explain the rationale of one state language during his first and last visit to Dacca after independence. On 21 March 1948, during the civic reception, he stated, “There can be only one state language if the component parts of this state are to march forward in unison, and in my opinion, that can only be Urdu.” Three days later, the Quaid repeated his stance while addressing students at Dacca University, much to their consternation. Quaid’s declaration caused considerable resentment amongst the Bengalis who were 56% of the country’s population, as compared to 44% of the combined four provinces that formed the western wing. Of the latter, only 7% spoke Urdu, the rest communicating in their regional languages.
The government of Pakistan based in the then capital of Urdu-speaking Karachi, considered Urdu as a vital element of Islamic heritage and culture.  The language, though based on Hindi’s Prakrit precursor, had developed under Persian, Arabic and Turkic influence, and even its Perso-Arabic Nastaliq script was somehow fancied as ‘Islamic.’ In contrast, Bengali, with its Devanagari script that it shared with Hindi, was seen as linked to Hindu culture. To get around this problem, even a halal version of Bengali in Arabic script was proposed by the government’s East Bengal Language Committee, but its official report never saw the light of the day.
Because of the decision regarding Urdu as the state language, a movement demanding Bengali as another state language started in earnest, in East Bengal. The movement not only laid the foundations of Bengali nationalism, it heightened the cultural animosity between the two wings of Pakistan. Matters came to a head when language riots led to the death of five students in Dacca on 21 February 1952, a day that is considered as a watershed in the relations between the two wings. The sad event catalysed various Bengali nationalist movements in its wake, including the  Six-Point Programme discussed hereafter.
After much squabbling and needless loss of blood, the Constituent Assembly finally voted in support of Bengali as a second state language alongside Urdu, on 7 May 1954. The Constitution was accordingly amended in 1956, finally, but much had been lost by way of goodwill between the two wings of the country.
Socio-Cultural Divide
Bengal had a rich culture based on literature, poetry, music, song and dance. The Bengalis were inspired by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), a secular poet and writer. To the West Pakistanis however, East Bengalis’ adulation of Tagore was somehow inconsistent with an Islamic Pakistan.  Tagore’s works were banned from government-controlled radio and television because they ‘promoted secular Bengali nationalism.’[3] Even the East Bengali nationalist poet, writer and musician, Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976), failed to find admiration in West Pakistani literary circles. The people of West Pakistan were endeared to Allama Muhammad Iqbal, a poet with a pan-Islamic vision, and an inspiration behind the Pakistan Movement. Any possibility of syncretism of the varied philosophies and ideals was, in large part, obstructed by the language barrier. Attempts at cultural assimilation were tried out through various half-baked methods, but the schism remained wide and unbridgeable.
While the literacy rate of both wings was dismal at the time of partition (remaining so for decades thereafter), the West Pakistanis found themselves better qualified for the civil services. Postings of West Pakistani civil servants to East Pakistan were, thus, a common practice. The Bengalis saw this as a perpetuation of colonial rule in a new form. West Pakistani bureaucrats ordering the Bengalis around was the last thing that could be endured by the latter. The result was an unintended social divide that manifested itself in a ‘master-subject’ relationship of sorts, rather than as equals.
Despite the seeming social divide, the political front remained less affected as borne by the remarkable fact that in the early to mid-fifties, Pakistan’s second, third and fifth Prime Ministers were from East Pakistan.[4] It is another matter that none of them completed their tenures, either due to dissolution of their governments or due to differences with the Governor General.
Perceived Lack of Development
A sizeable share of Pakistan’s foreign exchange earnings came through the export of cotton and jute, the latter growing exclusively in East Pakistan. Bengalis complained that the development projects set up in East Pakistan were few and far between, and not at all commensurate with their contribution to the national exchequer. Awami League, the mouthpiece of the Bengalis, went to the extent of claiming that for 60% of the export earnings, East Pakistan’s share in development projects was only 25%. The contention seems far-fetched if one were to note that several major industrial projects were first initiated in East Pakistan. The world’s biggest jute mill was established in Narayanganj, East Pakistan in 1951 by the industrial conglomerate of Adamjee Brothers who contributed a 50% share capital, while the rest was sanctioned by the government through the Pakistan Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC).  Pakistan’s first paper mill was set up in Chandargona, East Pakistan by PIDC in 1953. Many years later, Pakistan’s first steel mill was also set up by PIDC in Chittagong in 1969. Clearly, industrial development in East Pakistan was not as dismal as painted out by the Awami League.
[Read Part II here.]

[1] “… resolved that it is the considered view of this session of the All-India Muslim League that no constitutional plan would be workable in this country or acceptable to the Muslims unless it is designed on the basic principle, viz that geographically contiguous units are demarcated into regions which would be so constituted, with such territorial adjustments as may be necessary, that the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in majority as in north-western and eastern zones of India, should be grouped to constitute independent states in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.”
[2] Bangladesh and Pakistan, Milam, William B; Hurst & Co, London, 2009, page 18.
[3] Witness to Surrender,  Salik, Siddiq; Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1977, page 16.
[4] Khawaja Nazimuddin was the second Prime Minister of Pakistan; he remained in the chair for 18 months. He belonged to the family of the Nawabs of Dacca, whose ancestral links to Kashmiri merchants date back to the early 18th century. Muhammad Ali Bogra, a Bengali of the Pakistan Muslim League, was the third Prime Minister of Pakistan; he remained in the chair for 28 months. Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, a Bengali of the Awami League, was the fifth Prime Minister of Pakistan; he remained in the chair for just one year.


This article was published in 'Defence Journal' May 2109 issue.


Idrees349 said...

Excellent brief on the emergent cracks in Federation already sowed in the PML manifesto as revised in April, 1946. Really, it becomes crystal clear that the fears of the founding fathers in NOT DESIGNING AND PROMULGATING A CONSTITUTION WERE BASED ON THIS ONE CONSIDERATION...An inherent FACILITY, rather INVITATION TO SEPARATION

Alikhan said...

As early as 1958, Ayub Khan was aware that the two wings would soon go their respective ways. He wanted to make East Pakistan strong enough so that India wouldn't swallow it up

Anonymous said...

Thanks for finally talking about >"Backdrop of the 1971 War - Part I" <Loved it!