Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Rehman Sobhan: Untranquil Recollections (SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd, 2016)
Muhammad Anisur Rehman: My Story of 1971 (Liberation War Museum, 2001*)
I. The Unravelling of Pakistan in 1971
More than five decades have passed since the South Asian subcontinent suffered its second geopolitical upheaval as it gave birth to another independent nation-state, Bangladesh, close on the heels of the partition of colonial India and the birth of the twin states of India and Pakistan only a quarter-century earlier. It is difficult to compare the two momentous events in any detail, even less so to draw any moral equivalence between them. In any event, the historical jury is likely to remain out for a long time on whether either of the two partitions were in the long-term best interests of the people of the Subcontinent. Although most of their benefits began to manifest themselves soon, their discontents took longer to gestate. However, what is relevant in the present context is how the different actors played their part in the evolution of the societies affected by these historical landmarks, especially the birth of Bangladesh.
*(Anisur Rehman’s book was published in 2001 and has had a rather limited circulation outside Bangladesh. Although he was the founder-Chairman of the Economics Department at Islamabad University (now QAU) and lived in Islamabad for three years (1967-70), his name is not as well-recognised in Pakistan, except among economists, as Rehman Sobhan’s, who studied for his Cambridge HSC at Aitchison College, Lahore, before going to Cambridge for his Tripos in Economics and has many Pakistani connections and continues to be a popular figure at social and academic gatherings in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. His first wife for 43 years, Salma, was the daughter of Pakistan’s first Foreign Secretary, M Ikramullah and Mrs Shaista Ikramullah, a first cousin of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister (PM) Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, a PhD, a parliamentarian, an author and a diplomat in her own right.
The two books, though published 15 years apart, relate to a landmark event in undivided Pakistan’s history – the brutal suppression, through a massive military crackdown in March 1971 of Bengali nationalists, led by academics and intellectuals, for their espousal of autonomy. Unfortunately, the Pakistani state and intelligentsia have never made amends for these abhorrent acts committed by the Pakistan Army, or sought ablution from them through cathartic appraisal of what went wrong with our relationship. Faiz’s poetic lament about the broken and unrepaired relationship (Hum ke thahre ajnabi or Strangers we have become) – although touchingly eloquent – is not enough to assuage that pain. Although these events are over 50 years old, it is difficult to banish them from our collective consciousness and consciences. The time has come to raise the curtain of mystery, lift the shroud of secrecy and take off the cloak of faux patriotism that have prevented an honest debate on the subject in Pakistan. The two books reviewed here provide an excellent opportunity to revisit the subject and dig deep into a forlorn relationship that was never allowed to flourish to its bloom.)
Ironically, while predictions of an early demise of the Pakistani state made by its opponents failed to materialise, its break-up just 24 years after its birth was more fortuitous than fated. It could well have been deferred, if not totally avoided, had the political leadership of both parts of the country paid greater attention to the justness, equity and viability of the terms of their union. The failure to engage in any meaningful or substantive dialogue between the two on the terms of such a relationship – except in times when they were on the verge of a breaking point – lies at the heart of the tragedy of March 1971, as it likewise does in the case of the looming possibility of further disintegration of the present day Pakistan. Had they engaged in serious and sustained efforts to cement their relationship, rather than waste the ‘honeymoon’ period in a name-calling brawl among the in-laws, the 1971 crisis could possibly have been averted and may even have led to the creation of a cohesive, just and rights-based society. Alas, their marriage does not seem to have been made in heaven in the first place.
The logic of the de ja vu in 1971, though apparently similar, was not what had been behind that of the 1947 partition. As is well known, Pakistan was conceived as a confederation in the 1940 Lahore Resolution, but during the quarter century of its unified existence, it was reincarnated as a centralised unitary state. East Pakistan, initially with a 56 percent share in the population, received a disproportionately lower share of political and economic resources than West Pakistan and was treated de facto as a junior partner, even if calling it a colony may be an exaggeration. Both East and West Pakistan, which were relatively less developed than the rest of India at the time of Independence, aspired to develop at a faster rate than they had under the British rule.
A distance of 1,000 miles between them notwithstanding, the people living in the now estranged states must have perceived some commonality of interests to form a federation in 1947. The Muslim middle class in both wings hoped to benefit from the partition of India and liberation from the perceived Hindu hegemony. So far, so good, but the two-nation theory could go only so far before ground reality reared its head. As the Hindu hegemony started being replaced by West Pakistani hubris in various arenas, East Pakistan developed valid reasons for complaining against the continued non-existence of a level playing field. The seeds of plants that sprouted into the killing fields of 1971 had already been sown. Unfortunately, these grievances were not addressed in time and effective, sustained and credible measures taken to allay the apprehensions of the discernibly aggrieved region.
Discontent over the centralised approach of the Pakistan government began early in East Pakistan and with widespread protests as early as 1948 on the sensitive issue of the choice of national language, triggered by the speech by Mr Jinnah, the nation’s founder, almost six months after the creation of Pakistan on his first and only post-independence visit to Dacca in February 1948. Mr Jinnah and his advisers seemed to have been oblivious of the fact that for Bengali Muslims, being a Bengali mattered as much as being a Muslim, a point raised even when the Muslim League was formed in 1906. The decision to declare Urdu as the sole national language was seen by East Pakistanis not simply as a cultural onslaught, but also as an economic policy measure that reduced their access to employment and other opportunities. As a result, East Pakistan was treated like an alien land by the more powerful, though less populous province.
With the locus of political power, including military and economic power, concentrated in West Pakistan, these disparities started to increase rather than lessen over time and started to exacerbate the sense of deprivation of the more populous region in the absence of proactive policies to correct them. According to the estimates then available, during 1959-60 per capita income in West Pakistan was 32 percent higher than it was in East Pakistan. By 1969-70 this disparity rose to 61 percent. General Ayub Khan’s much trumpeted Decade of Development did little to reverse the disparities, which was one of the core demands of East Pakistani economists supporting Mujib’s six-point programme.
The ‘honeymoon’ period of the East-West Pakistan relationship (roughly spanning 1947-58) was marred by a period of turbulent political instability at the Centre. To begin with, the symbolism of independence was much weaker in East than in West Pakistan, both in terms of remoteness from the capital and the difference between the ruler and the ruled. The capital of the new country was located in West Pakistan while all the key administrative, ministerial and policy-making positions were assigned to non-Bengalis, often for the spurious reason of being more qualified, giving the West Pakistanis a more privileged and influential role in the prevalent ‘culture of entitlement’.
While Mr Jinnah undoubtedly played a pivotal role in the political struggle for Pakistan’s independence, he did not always display prescience in choosing a suitable political leadership equal to the complex challenges faced by the new state. He was demonstrably biased in favor of non-Bengalis in his choice for key positions both at the Centre and in East Pakistan. The pedigree of political cadres he drew upon was brought up and bred in the stables of the affluent political elite of feudal or aristocratic origins, rather than of struggling middle class or peasant and working class descent.
At the outset, the leadership of Pakistan Muslim League (PML) in East Pakistan was assigned to Maulana Akram Khan who, reflecting the elitist ethos of the central leadership, did not allow PML to develop into a mass political party despite the urgings of such popular leaders as Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, Ataur Rahman Khan and Salam Khan. The East Pakistan PML rapidly lost touch with the people and metastasised into a toady party. In particular, by ostracising two of East Pakistan’s most popular leaders, Suhrawardy and Maulana Bhashani – who were often branded unpatriotic and pro-Indian – in favour of old Muslim Leaguers like Khwaja Nazimuddin and Nurul Amin, Jinnah inevitably gave rise to ill-feelings among the province’s political class against the West Pakistani political elite.
Suhrawardy, who had served as the Chief Minister of Bengal before partition and had delivered the PML its only victory in a Muslim majority province in the 1946 general election, was not only denied a key role (if not the Premiership) by Mr Jinnah, he was kept out of Pakistan until the latter’s death. After its success in the 1954 elections, the Awami League (AL) formed an alliance with West Pakistan’s Republican Party led by Dr Khan Sahib to lead a coalition government in Pakistan. In September 1956, the AL came to power at the Centre and in East Pakistan – the only time in the history of Pakistan – if only for a year. If that situation had lasted longer, the break-up of Pakistan could possibly have been averted or at least deferred until such time as a civilised divorce deed had been agreed upon. With the conspicuous absence of chemistry between the political class of the two regions, the military – a much more homogeneous institution with West Pakistani predominance – started making preparations for playing the coveted role of the final arbiter, which it continues to perform until today.
During 1959-61 Suhrawardy, along with a number of political leaders, had been disqualified from participating in politics by an infamous law legislated during the Ayub martial law regime under the acronym of EBDO (Elective Bodies Disqualification Order), which was mainly targeted against East Pakistani politicians. On January 30, 1962, Suhrawardy was arrested in Karachi under the Security of Pakistan Act, which authorised his detention without trial for a year. It was an irony that a politician who was the PM of the country was accused of activities “fraught with such danger to the security and safety of Pakistan that one could fairly describe them as treasonable”. He was forced to resign on October 10, 1957 and was banned from public life by the military junta of General Ayub Khan. Suhrawardy died in 1963 of a heart attack in Beirut.
Suhrawardy’s 13 months in office did not beckon the future prospect of a Pakistani state being led by an independent PM from East Pakistan. The experience of two of his predecessors, Khwaja Nazimuddin and Mohammad Ali Bogra, who could hardly match Suhrawardy’s streak of independence and shrewdness, clearly showed that an East Pakistani PM could only hold office at the pleasure of the West Pakistani dominated establishment of bureaucrats and Generals. It is not difficult to surmise that Mujib, more than a decade later, must have had in mind these bitter experiences of his ‘Boss’ when confronted with the tantalising prospect of becoming the PM of a united Pakistan after having secured more than a comfortable majority of National Assembly seats in the 1970 general elections.
Suhrawardy’s attempts to forge an alliance with political forces in West Pakistan also came to grief. It came to an end after he took a strong position against abrogation of the existing ‘One Unit’ government for all of West Pakistan in favour of separate provincial governments for Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province. He thus lost much support from West Pakistan’s provincial politicians. He also used emergency powers to prevent the formation of a PML provincial government in West Pakistan, thereby losing much Punjabi backing. In a way, Suhrawardy started playing the same games as West Pakistani politicians had played earlier in East Pakistan. While he wanted autonomy for East Pakistan, he reneged on it when in power and denied it to West Pakistani provinces. Suhrawardy’s decision to join the US-led defence pacts CENTO and SEATO against the AL manifesto also caused a split in the AL and forced the Left to leave. Moreover, as a shrewd parliamentarian, his open advocacy of votes of confidence from the Constituent Assembly as the proper means of forming governments aroused the suspicions of President Mirza who became his nemesis.
Bhashani was the other prominent East Pakistani politician who was ill-served and denied respect by the West Pakistani establishment, arousing the resentment of his popular mass following in East Pakistan. In 1948 Bhashani along with his followers dissociated himself from the Muslim League and formed the Awami Muslim League (the ML of the people). Later, by shedding the word “Muslim”, its popular base was further strengthened in the AL. Its strength was further boosted when Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, the last chief minister of undivided Bengal, and Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, a prominent leader of the language movement who was later to become the charismatic leader of Bangladesh, joined the Awami Muslim League in 1949. In late 1949 Bhashani faced his tenth arrest, but only the first in Pakistan. He had organised a hunger march in Dhaka demonstrating against the food policies of the government, which coincided with the visit to East Bengal of Liaquat Ali Khan, the first PM of Pakistan. Bhashani was released from jail on health grounds the next year. When the language movement peaked in 1952, Bhashani was arrested once again.
Bhashani was also the Chairman of the All Party Action Committee for the Language Movement in 1952, created in the aftermath of Mr Jinnah’s inept declaration on Urdu as a national language and the suppression of student protests against it. His efforts, along with those of Suhrawardy, Fazlul Haq and others, led to the rout of the PML by the United Front in the provincial elections in East Pakistan in 1954, marking the end of the seven-year old honeymoon period. Henceforth, East Pakistani leaders were unwilling to be taken for granted and decided to take the region’s destiny in their own hands. Subsequently, the United Front government, led by Fazlul Haq, was dismissed under Section 92-A of the Constitution, and Iskander Mirza was appointed the Governor of East Pakistan.
At the AL’s annual conference the following year Bhashani developed serious disagreements with Suhrawardy, who was then the PM of Pakistan. Bhashani decided to start a new party. The new party – the National Awami Party (NAP) – included not only his anti-establishment associates in East Pakistan but also prominent progressive leaders from West Pakistan. Since then the NAP became a major political force that carried the demand for provincial autonomy forward. Again it was Maulana Bhashani who led the 1968-69 mass uprising that led to the release of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman from jail for the Agartala Conspiracy case against him, and the toppling of Ayub Khan.
The landslide win of AL in the 1970 elections was partly helped by the tailwinds of history’s worst tropical cyclone Bhola, which struck East Pakistan a month before the elections, killing about half a million people. The callous indifference towards and the delayed handling of the relief operations by the West Pakistani rulers, preoccupied as they were with the preparations for the impending military assault on East Pakistan, served to strengthen the perception that it was being treated as a colony. To highlight the colossal scale of the tragedy, Maulana Bhashani held a press conference in Dhaka on November 22, 1970 to inform the people, both at home and abroad. He condemned the callousness of the central government for not having “cared to visit the hapless citizens of the East.” The next day, on November 23, Bhashani at a public rally in Paltan Maidan carried out his warning made 13 years earlier, more than a decade before the 1970 elections at the national conference of the AL in Kagmari (Tangail), bade goodbye to West Pakistan and declared “Independent East Pakistan”, raising the slogan of “Swadhin Purbo Pakistan Zindabad” (Long live independent East Pakistan). With the lapse of time and change in ground realities after the 1965 Indo-Pak war, Bhashani’s demand escalated and merged into Sheikh Mujib’s more radical six-point programme demanding that East Pakistan have a separate currency and special defence force.
The 1965 war with India also gave a further impetus to the demand for greater autonomy for East Pakistan. It unveiled East Pakistan’s greater vulnerability to foreign attack as the country’s armed forces were overwhelmingly concentrated in West Pakistan. Bhutto, as Ayub’s Foreign Minister, was largely responsible for allowing Pakistani troops to cross the UN-designated cease-fire line in Kashmir on the fallacious presumption that India would not retaliate by crossing the international borders. He was also opposed to the cease-fire that led to the Soviet-brokered Tashkent Declaration and capitalised on Ayub’s ‘capitulation’ in the war against India.
He decided to resign from Ayub’s Cabinet and launch the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which was founded on November 30-December 1, 1967 in a Convention at Lahore. It is notable that none of the founding members, except Mr J A Rahim, a former diplomat, was from East Pakistan. Mr Rahim, who was appointed the party’s Secretary-General (although later humiliatingly removed from the post by Mr Bhutto), was no sympathiser of the East Pakistani cause and he is reported to have said while serving as Industries Minister in Bhutto’s first Cabinet that East Pakistan was an albatross around Pakistan’s neck and its secession should be considered as “good riddance”, a feeling widely shared in West Pakistani political circles at that time, which hasn’t diminished much since.
By the early 1960s, the issue of regional disparity and the observable structural differences between the two regions’ economies had begun to gain both public salience and political traction in East Pakistan. However, in West Pakistan – the main beneficiary of Ayub Khan’s elitist development strategy – people seemed largely indifferent, if not oblivious, to the problems of East Pakistan, even as the majority of its population continued to reel under feudal overlordship and increasing landlessness and rural poverty. The widening difference in these perceptions were exacerbated by the promotion of a self-serving myth that the two regions were poles apart, as if each was inhabited by a different race. In the feudal bastion of Aitchison College, where Rehman Sobhan studied for his Cambridge High School Certificate (HSC), Bengal was seen as “being inhabited by short, dark people, who spoke strange tongues”, and “who breed like rabbits”.
General Ayub Khan’s regime did little to heal their other myriad wounds. Instead, it sprinkled salt on them by reversing the attempts of Pakistani politicians, despite factional differences among them, to help alleviate some major sources of East Pakistani alienation and deprivation. General Ayub dissolved the National and provincial Assemblies, banned political parties, and abrogated the 1956 Constitution, which had taken nine years to draft, compared to India’s two.The 1956 Constitution provided for a federal system based on the principle of parity between East and West Pakistan. A unicameral legislature consisted of an equal number of members from both parts of Pakistan. Provincial autonomy was granted to the provinces. It accommodated the demand of the eastern wing for autonomy by including more subjects in the provincial list. It made both Urdu and Bengali the national languages of Pakistan. The question of joint or separate elections was left to be decided by the two provincial Assemblies. Although Ayub Khan’s downfall was triggered more by events in West Pakistan and the populist movement headed by Bhutto, his inability to rein in the seething discontent in East Pakistan became his Achilles heel, later precipitating the fall of East Pakistan in a humiliating military debacle.
By the end of 1968, the battle lines had already been drawn. The Army, which had become the final arbiter of the country with the help of the US Mutual Security Pact in 1954 that had armed it to the teeth to deal with any internal (mainly Communist insurgency for the US, but Bengali and Baloch nationalism for Pakistan) or external (which the US perceived as coming from Russia or China and Pakistan perceiving it as emanating from India) threat. With the crumbling of the Ayub regime, the military junta headed by General Yahya Khan decided to take the gamble and hold elections at the end of 1970, with a new political dispensation that would hold the country together for some time and restore the mutual confidence among the federating units, especially East and West Pakistan.
The Final Battle
Rehman Sobhan gives an interesting insight into the Army’s mindset after the 1970 election results, based on his high-level connections in Pakistan, including retired Generals whom he met in the course of his research. Yahya undertook a visit to Dhaka to size up the situation in the wake of Mujib’s impressive electoral victory around January 12, 1971. Although he gave the impression that he had come to Dacca to meet Mujib as the future PM of Pakistan and negotiate on the constitutional arrangements for a civilian takeover, the facts turned out to be quite different. The meeting proved abortive from the outset, as Mujib showed no inclination to share with Yahya the constitutional resolution he intended to present to the National Assembly, which was scheduled to be held in March. Yahya left Dhaka in a huff and flew straight to Larkana.
The press were to be told that Yahya was taking time off for a hunting vacation at Bhutto’s feudal estate (Yahya had engineered a similar clandestine escapade from Islamabad to Murree to camouflage Kissinger’s visit to Beijing the same year). This level of apparent intimacy between Bhutto and Yahya was the outcome of the junta’s post-election strategy. The junta, who had heavily invested in defeating Bhutto in the elections, now sought to use him as an ally in frustrating the emerging ascendancy of the Bengalis in the political arena, posed by the massive victory of the AL in East Pakistan. Yahya’s principal aides, General Pirzada and General Umer, had accordingly directly established contact with Bhutto to make common cause against Mujib. In the first exchanges with Bhutto, Yahya is reported to have burst out, “We must fix this bastard Mujib.”
During the next two days momentous decisions were taken about the fate of the country. At the Larkana meeting, a strategy was laid out as to how Bhutto would set up the political preconditions for a postponement of the Constituent Assembly session scheduled to be convened in Dhaka on March 3. The idea was to use this postponement to pressurise Mujib to compromise on his six points, though Yahya had not indicated to Mujib during their talks with him the specifics of such a compromise. The Larkana plan was, however, kept on hold until Bhutto, towards the end of January 1971, visited Dhaka, ostensibly for talks with Mujib, where he had the opportunity to make his own assessment of the AL’s position. Bhutto was accompanied by a large PPP entourage. Bhutto was more interested in negotiating a share of power with Mujib rather than discussing the mechanisms for implementing a Constitution based on the latter’s six points.
The specifics of the PPP-AL talks have been revealed by Kamal Hossain in his memoir, Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom and Justice. According to Rehman Sobhan, neither the PPP nor Yahya Khan had made any effort, prior to March 1, 1971, to define a serious negotiating position on the subject of six points. Both seemed to be waiting and marking time until AL and Mujib lost their nerve and yielded first. On March 25, 1971, the Pakistan Army made its pre-emptive strike in Dhaka, hoping that the rebellion will be crushed and the Mukti Bahini will surrender. Instead, the strike proved ineffective in preventing the rebellion from developing into a full-scale freedom struggle, later joined by the Indian Army to whom the Pakistani armed forces surrendered on December 16, 1971.
In the end, however, nothing can take away from ‘Bangabandhu’s’ personality and leadership style in making the final victory and the birth of Bangladesh possible. While he has been berated by many, especially in Pakistan, for his coarse and uncouth brand of politics, he outclassed any populist leader of his times, including Bhutto, in achieving his political goals and in keeping his party together by locking horns with a military behemoth, whom the mightiest opponents feared to tweak. He eschewed the elitist style of South Asian politics conducted behind closed doors that could be easily pressurised and lent itself to compromise. He firmly believed that the Bengali masses needed to be mobilised in any struggle that fundamentally challenged the hegemonic rule of the Pakistan state over the Bengali ‘natives’. He sought to reach out to mobilise this mass base in the campaign for contesting the 1970 elections. As Rehman Sobhan states, “It was the depth and breadth of his political appeal that made a massive victory in the December elections a certainty.” “As a political leader whose sensitivity to the pulse of the masses had no equal, he recognised immediately that his victory had made him captive to his own agenda and that there was little if any scope of negotiating a compromise on the six points.” That he was later undone by his own success is an irony he shared with two of his South Asian contemporaries, Bhutto and Indira Gandhi.
(To be continued)