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Was The 1971 Break-Up Of Pakistan Avoidable?

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On the 16th of December, 1971, Lt.-Gen. A. A. K. Niazi surrendered the Eastern Garrison of the Pakistani army to Lt.-Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora before a cheering crowd of hundreds of thousands of Bengalis in Dhaka. When West Pakistanis got the news, they realised that an era had ended. East Pakistan had disappeared into the history books.

Pakistan, formed less than a quarter century earlier in 1947, was the first large post-colonial state to break up. Was the break-up avoidable? That question has kept historians busy for decades. The answer depends on who you ask. Dutch historian Pieter Geyl put it best: “History is an argument without end.”

Rounaq Jahan, a Columbia University scholar and East Pakistani native, wrote one of the first books on the break-up, “Pakistan: Failure in National Integration.” It was followed by a stream of books by other academics. The most cited work remains “War and Secession” by Richard Sission and Leo Rose.

A firsthand account of the transformative event appears in “Witness to Surrender,” written by Captain Siddiq Salik who was the Press Relations Officer for General Niazi. Years later, Niazi penned his own account, “The Betrayal of East Pakistan,” in which he shifted the blame to others. A fairly balanced chronology of events can be found here.

Was the breakup inevitable? This question leads to six others. First, could it have been avoided if Pakistan had not precipitated a full-scale war by bombing Indian airfields in the west on the 3rd of December?

Second, could it have been avoided if the army had not launched Operation Searchlight in East Pakistan on the 25th of March, 1971? This was ostensibly designed to eliminate the leadership of the Awami League. After some initial successes, the operation turned into a Civil War. Soon it became clear that the opposing side was no longer a rag-tag rebel army but the entire population of the East. The answer was a foregone conclusion since 45,000 troops with limited knowledge of the culture and terrain of the East faced off a hostile population of 75 million.

Third, could the break-up have been avoided if General Yahya Khan, the president, army chief and chief martial law administrator of Pakistan, had honored the results of the 1970 national elections that most observers regarded as the fairest in Pakistani history? The Awami League, based entirely in East Pakistan, had won an absolute majority of the seats.

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In February 1971, Yahya had publically referred to Shaikh Mujib, the head of the Awami League, as the future prime minister of the country. But Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose party had secured the largest number of votes in the West, successfully persuaded key generals in the army, who were all from the West, to pressure Yahya into annulling the elections.

Fourth, going further back in time, could the break-up have been avoided if the people of East Pakistan had not felt marginalized from Day One?

Pakistan was the only country whose two “wings” were separated by 1,200 miles of hostile territory. In 1951, Pakistan had a population of 75 million of which the vast majority — 42 million — resided in East Pakistan. Bengali was spoken in the East. In the West, Urdu was widely understood, despite the presence of local languages.

Jinnah imposed Urdu as the single national language, not knowing that most Bengalis did not understand it. As early as 1948, in a speech at Dacca University, he told the Bengalis: “Make no mistake about it. There can only be one state language and that can only be Urdu.”

In early 1952, the Bengalis rose in protest. The government imposed Section 144 which limited how many people could gather in a single space. On February 21, 1952, in defiance of the law, students gathered at the University of Dhaka. Several were arrested. The enraged students attempted to storm the East Pakistani Legislative Assembly. The police opened fire, killing four.

As a result, Bengali was recognised as the second official language of Pakistan on February 29, 1956. The constitution of Pakistan was reworded, “The state language of Pakistan shall be Urdu and Bengali.” But in the eyes of the Bengalis, it was “too little, too late.”

Rounaq Jahan put it well, “The most formidable problem of nation-building in Pakistan after the state’s inception was the integration of the Bengali sub-nation…Bengalis were not merely the largest ethno-cultural subgroup of Pakistan but actually constituted a majority of the country’s total population.” They had little representation in the Pakistani military, civil service, the professions, or the entrepreneurial class.

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Fifth, could the break-up have been avoided if the power structure did not reside in the West? While three of the prime ministers in the 1950’s were from the East, all were dismissed by West Pakistani leaders before their term ended. The imbalance of power worsened during the military dictatorship of Ayub Khan who again sought to make Urdu the national language.

Sixth, could the break-up have been avoided if the country had followed economic policies that benefited both wings? Between 1950 and 1970, East Pakistan received only a quarter of federal government expenditures. The public infrastructure in the East deteriorated while it improved in the West.

In September, a new book will be released that will shed new light on these questions. Gravely entitled, “Blood on Two Shades of Green: East Pakistan, 1971,” it’s co-authored by a Pakistan defense analyst, Ikram Sehgal, and Bettina Robotka, a historian from Humboldt University in Germany. The authors spoke last September in Islamabad at a conference and provided a sneak preview.

Sehgal and Robotka argue that Jinnah was given bad advice by the leadership of the Muslim League in East Pakistan, who spoke Urdu, when he decided to impose Urdu as the national language. The harm caused was irreparable. Thus, as early as 1953, the Awami Muslim League dropped the word Muslim from its name. The decades of economic and political exploitation that followed deepened the divide. Another contributing factor was that only one infantry division and only one PAF squadron were based in East Pakistan. It’s no surprise that Bengalis began to regard themselves as second-class citizens.

The authors also indicate that Pakistanis have yet to be given all the facts about what happened in 1971 and that censorship is a fact even in present-day Pakistan. And they assert that their history, like any other history, can never be fully objective. It would be hard to disagree with that.

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1 Comment

  1. Irfan Fazal e Qadeer July 26, 2020

    Although it is a fair comment on the happenings of 1971 in East Pakistan, raising 6 relevant lessons, yet the final word is missing. The artie definitely lack a subjective analysis of the actual facts. To put it straight, it could have been avoided if all the answers to the questions is YES. However unfortunately it wasn’t. The game of power was played from the outset through higher bureaucracy, military and politicians on both sides. India played a dirty role in it by instigating east Pakistani political leaders and cutting the very roots of Pakistan. West Pakistanis did nothing to stop it and later deepened the crevis between both wings. It was mismanaged affair which resulted in a military action but too late and finally culminated on a humiliation of the largest Muslim state of that time.

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