I have often wondered if Pakistan would have been a better country and South Asia a more peaceful region if the crisis that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 had been handled differently. As we know that did not happen when Pakistani forces went to war to prevent the secession of East Pakistan.
By the time the Indian army and East Bengali irregulars defeated the Pakistan army, the conflict had resulted in thousands of dead and women raped (Bangladesh puts these figures in the millions), and millions of refugees. The war in East Pakistan, which resulted in the country being cut into two parts, was a seminal event in Pakistan’s history. It is a sad irony that the creation of Bangladesh negated the two-nation theory — the partition of India based on religion.
In retrospect, the creation of Pakistan in 1947 with two territories a thousand miles apart, could be viewed as a recipe for discord, if not disaster. That the flawed arrangement lasted as long as it did is a miracle in itself. But we must not forget that Bengali Muslims largely supported the creation of Pakistan in 1940. At that time, nobody could have imagined that in 30 years there would be a separate state called Bangladesh.
So what went wrong that led to the dismemberment of Pakistan in a short period? In my opinion, there were three primary causes.
First, after the initial euphoria of having a separate state that protected the political, religious, and cultural rights of Muslims had died down, the real work of building a state from scratch started. The leaders at the time felt that a strong centralized state with one unifying national language was the best formula for national integration.
This myopic approach turned out to be the first nail in the coffin of a united Pakistan. The language riots in East Pakistan in 1952 became the first building block of Bengali nationalism when students protested against the imposition of Urdu (spoken by 3% of the population) as the only national language. The violent nature of the mostly West Pakistani leadership was exposed when some students were killed when the riots were put down.
Moreover, the leadership felt that as part of the nation-building project a national ideology built around Islam as the state religion and a separate non-Indian identity was needed to bind the people into a cohesive unit. This exercise ran into problems as unlike in West Pakistan, there was strong cultural resistance among the Bengalis in East Pakistan towards viewing Muslims and Hindus in purely exclusive, oppositional, and monolithic terms.
Initially, before partition, the Bengalis had thrown in their lot with the Muslim League to end Hindu economic domination, but they resisted the religious nationalism concocted by the West Pakistan elite. Their resistance raised suspicions in the West about the loyalty of Bengalis to the state, which had far-reaching consequences. While West Pakistanis went to great lengths to tout their Islamic roots, they dismissed Bengalis as being lesser Muslims even pro-Indian.
Second, an early sign of East Pakistan’s alienation and dissatisfaction with the extractive rule of West Pakistan was that the Muslim League, the party that had brought about the creation of Pakistan was discredited and humiliated in the 1954 elections and became a spent force in East Pakistan. It was replaced by the Awami League, which later under Sheikh Mujib led East Pakistan to independence.
But state capture by the Pakistan military in 1958, permanently shifted focus away from democratic means to resolve political problems. The military’s ham-fisted and unilateral interference in the civilian domain arguably hastened the demise of a united Pakistan. General Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s first dictator, a long-time servant of the British, was impervious to democratic forces. The ruling coterie viewed the demands for provincial autonomy, emanating from East Pakistan faced with growing economic disparity with West Pakistan, as an Indian, Hindu, and communist conspiracy.
Finally, in 1970, instead of opting for a political settlement, West Pakistan leaders unleashed state violence on the Bengali population. At that late stage, a political settlement would have meant accepting Sheikh Mujibur Rahman six-point program. And handing over power to Mujib — as was his due after his Awami League had won the most seats in the national elections. The six-point program envisioned a loose confederation of two separate units with only defense and foreign affairs the responsibility of the central government — a sensible solution in hindsight.
The events of 1971, bedevils Pakistan and the region to this day. The truncated Pakistan state, smarting from its wounds, retreated into a national security shell. The military consolidated its hold on the country with a promise to avenge the defeat against India. Instead of reviewing internal mistakes, India is mainly blamed for the creation of Bangladesh as part of its historic agenda to destroy Pakistan. It is hard for Pakistanis to come to terms with the fact that Hindu and Muslim soldiers fighting side by side could defeat their West Pakistani Muslim adversaries considered interlopers in their own country.
By every measure, the Pakistani army conducted the civil war with ruthlessness and brutality. Its wartime activities involved acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide. As Bangladesh celebrates its Independence anniversary next week, it is an opportunity for Pakistan to face the past by apologizing to Bangladesh for this sordid chapter in history.