18 December 2011

"The last days of United Pakistan" by G W Choudhury

Pakistan started as a homeland for the Muslims of Indian subcontinent in 1947.  That credential was lost in 1971 when Bangladesh separated from Pakistan after a genocide that took 0.4 million to 3.6 million lives (depending on whose narrative you believe).

G W Choudhury provides a unique perspective of the events surrounding the birth of Bangladesh.  His perspective is unique because:  One, GWC is a scholar (he taught political science at Dacca University and later at Duke University).   Two, he is of Bengali origin and has a better understanding of the Bengali point of view.  Three, he was a Minister in General Yahya Khan’s military dictatorship and has unquestionable allegiance to the idea of Pakistan.

Why did Pakistan fail to keep all Muslims united under one flag and face secessionist pressure from a sub set of its Muslims within 24 years?  Why did the Bengali Muslim get alienated from the Pakistan idea?

GWC cites several reasons:
  1. Though religion was a unifying factor, language and culture were divisive factors.  The Bengalis in East Pakistan had greater affinity to the Hindu Bengalis of India than fellow Muslims in Pakistan.  Pakistan failed to play the unifying card and alienated Bengalis by attempting to make Urdu spoken in West Pakistan as the national language.  The alienation was so strong that in a provincial election, Muslim League, the national party won just 9 out of 304 seats! 
  2. Bengalis did not have a role in national politics despite constituting 55% of Pakistan’s population.  People from Punjab and Sindh in the western half dominated national politics.  (Pakistan’s politics did not provide a role for people in the western half either; it was ruled by military dictatorship or by a sham democracy that did not hold one general election at national level until 1970!). 
  3. Bengalis did not have a role in provincial government either.  Most of the top jobs in civil service went to people originating from West Pakistan.
  4. Bengalis had a different view on international relations.  Bengalis depended upon trade with India and nursed no animosity against India. (When Mujib was egged by GWC to accept Chinese friendship, Mujib retorted: “Friendship against whom?  I have no dispute with India.  Why should I need China’s help and assistance?”)  National leadership, dominated by the western half, nursed an animosity against India because of its stronger affinity to Kashmir.  GWC concedes in his book that “Pakistan’s hands were not clean in Kashmir or in the Mizo unrest in Assam”. 
  5. Bengalis did not enjoy a fair share of public revenue, foreign aid or government jobs.  Most of these went to West Pakistan.  (To be fair, most of the revenue/aid went to the army; not West Pakistan; however that is a technical detail for the average Bengali).
  6. The Bengalis did not have their fair share of economic growth as a result. In 1960 West’s GDP was 32% bigger than East’s.  In 1970, West’s GDP was 61% bigger than East’s.

General Yahya Khan decided to transfer power to a government elected by people.  The Eastern half (with 55% population) was fully united behind Awami League party.  The Western half was split amongst various regional factions.  In normal circumstances, Mujib-ur-Rahman, the Bengali leader would have become the Prime Minister of Pakistan.  According to GWC, the people in the western half and the army would have accepted Mujib-ur-Rahman as PM.  

But there were stumbling blocks:
  1. Politicians from West Pakistan were not willing to let power go to Bengalis. 
  2. Mujib-ur-Rahman’s intentions were not clear.  Though he proposed a six point agenda demanding provincial autonomy, and was not talking of secession there was widespread suspicion that his real intent was secession.

Yahya Khan had to make some tough choices.  Could he trust Mujib to form a government?  Could he pressure Bhutto to accept Mujib’s leadership?  Would Mujib consider the electoral results a mandate for secession and demand secession after becoming PM?  Yahya made his choices and conducted the elections in Dec 1970. 

Results were as below:




Bhutto declined to cede power to Mujib saying “majority rule does not apply in view of geographic distance between East and West Pakistan”.  Mujib was pressing for greater provincial autonomy in a set up where the federal government was virtually powerless.  GWC tried to broker peace with a half way house arrangement.  The negotiations did not yield any result.

After this, the narrative varies based on who you ask.

GWC “concedes” that Pakistan Army (on the fateful day of 25 Mar 1971) unleashed violence on its own people in the East that can never be condoned or justified; but carefully avoids the word “genocide”.  He does say that “foreign newspapers did not exaggerate and in fact people’s agony, suffering and humiliation had not been fully exposed”.  (Neutral observers estimate the number of dead to be around 3.6 million and the number of refugees into India to be 10 million).  Pakistan army brought the peace of the graveyard to the Eastern half.

Burdened by the inflow of refugees, India started providing tacit assistance to Mukti Bahini (the freedom fighters of Bangladesh).  Pakistan started air action against India at the Western border (based on the premise that this would keep Indian army busy and deter any intrusion in the Eastern border; and China/US would prevent escalation).  GWC concedes this strategy was not fruitful.  India invaded East Pakistan and liberated Bangladesh.  The war that Bhutto vowed would last a thousand years lasted just 14 days resulting in decimation of Pakistan army in the East and capture of 93,000 prisoners of war (who were later sent to Pakistan under Simla Accord).

However, GWC’s analysis is not sufficient:

1.     GWC carefully avoids discussion of the loss of 3.6 million lives in East Pakistan under a genocide orchestrated by Pakistan army. 
2.     GWC ignores the fact that Pakistan started the war at the Western front for which India responded by invading East Pakistan.
3.     GWC says India’s victory “with little cost” was due to the full backing (ie moral support) of Russia while US/China did not provide military support (though they provided moral support) to Pakistan.  He misses the asymmetry of his analogy.  He also misses the power of a million aspirations.
4.     GWC laments for Pakistan army’s defeat without air support and “surrounded by a hostile population”.  Very funny.

Anyone interested in the story of Bangladesh should read this book for the insight; but should read at least one more book to get a better perspective of the price paid for “Amar Sona Bangla”.

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