HONG KONG — Tonight marks the 30th anniversary of the beginning of one of the most traumatic Asian events in recent times: the blood-soaked birth of Bangladesh. Bangladeshi voices will be raised to remind the world of what was an enormous crime against humanity. But they may not tell the full story. Bengalis were not the only victims.
This grim episode was the consequence of another great Asian trauma, the partition of India in 1947.
The Pakistan that came into being on Aug. 14, 1947, consisted of two wings, separated by nearly 1,600 km of Indian territory. In West Pakistan there were four provinces: Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province. In East Pakistan, there was basically one province, the eastern part of Bengal.
The former undivided Pakistan was an example of the dictum that a “house divided against itself cannot stand.”
There were simply too many contradictions. In Pakistan’s initial quasi-democratic period, a satisfactory constitutional balance of power between the two wings was never found. After Field Marshal Ayub Khan mounted Pakistan’s first military coup, the imbalance became even more marked. All the top military officers were either Punjabis or Pathans. The majority of the population was in the East, but the all-Pakistan government was very much of, by and for West Pakistanis, to the ever mounting frustration of Bengalis.
East Pakistan was poor with very inadequate infrastructure. West Pakistan had more economic potential and its relationship with the East tended to be exploitive.
Above all, the Punjabis in the West and the Bengalis in the East were very different people, apart from Islam.
Given all the contradictions, dissimilarities, and antipathies, plus the looming antagonistic presence of India in between the two wings, the breakup of Pakistan was bound to happen. What made the separation bound to happen and a terrible tragedy was the concatenation of various factors late in 1970.
First, there was the cast of characters responsible for Pakistan’s fate. Ayub Khan, who retired in 1969, became a fairly astute politician, but that is more than can be said for his successor, general, later president, Yahya Khan. He was simply no match for the wiles of East Pakistan leader Sheik Mujibur Rahman and leading West Pakistan civilian politician Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Crucially, neither Mujibur nor Bhutto was capable of the compromises that might have saved Pakistan, for a while at least. Both were power hungry and lacking in moral scruples. The same could be said of several key West Pakistan generals. Yahya Khan did not fully control the generals either.
Second, there was the tremendous tidal wave that a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal sent rolling across the Ganges delta in East Pakistan early in November 1970, just as the two wings of Pakistan were preparing for an already delayed general election. Probably up to a million Bengalis died.
Pakistan itself began to die, too, as the West Pakistanis paid scant attention to the catastrophe. Britain, the United States, West Germany and a host of other nations quickly supplied aid by air and sea, but Islamabad was very slow off the mark. Yahya Khan, preoccupied with a trip to China, plus helping Nixon and Kissinger to open ties with China, didn’t even bother to visit the Delta when he passed through Dacca. Had the army made a great effort to provide help, the nation might have been saved.
Instead the cyclone let loose a tidal wave of anti-West Pakistan feeling among the Bengalis. Mujib had a fertile field for his secessionist demagoguery. Bhutto stayed home in West Pakistan.
The third factor making the breakup inevitable was democracy, which produced a political cyclone when the general election took place in December.
Numerous small Bengali opposition parties abstained from the poll. This left the field to Mujibur and his Awami League which won 167 out of 169 seats in the east. Bhutto’s People’s Progressive Party was similarly dominant in Punjab and in Sindh, winning 81 out of 134 seats in the four western provinces.
The election was not just for a national assembly but also for a constitutional assembly. Mujibur thus had the power to write the pan-Pakistan constitution by virtue of his majority in the East. Crucially, Mujibur won no seats in the West, Bhutto won no seats in the East.
The result brought the West Pakistanis face to face with the democratic fact that if the Bengalis stayed united behind the Awami League, they would always be in the majority. At the very least, Mujibur would insist on a federation in which the West’s power to dominate and exploit the East would be greatly reduced.
So, in a nutshell, Pakistan’s first and last democratic election brought home to all how incompatible the two wings of the nation actually were. Mujibur only wanted to remain in one nation if he was running the whole show. Bhutto wanted to be prime minister in the West rather than permanent leader of the opposition in a Bengali-dominated One Pakistan.
Instead of moving quickly to try and lessen differences, Yahya Khan strung out the negotiations before the National Assembly ever met. A more politically adept leader might have quickly promoted a federal system which satisfied both Mujibur’s and Bhutto’s hunger for power. Instead, as Khan procrastinated, the irreconcilable East-West, Mujibur-Bhutto differences increased.
As Khan failed to control the situation, he also failed to hold back his generals. They now moved to do what they wanted to do anyway: to crack down on East Pakistan, to try and sustain One Pakistan by force of arms. And as Mujibur moved from advocating autonomy to pressing for secession, aroused Bengalis began to take their frustrations out on West Pakistanis and particularly on the Biharis, the Muslims who came to East Pakistan from other parts of India after partition, but who remained foreigners in Bengali eyes.
On March 14 Bhutto suggested two prime ministers — himself in the West, Mujibur in the East. Mujib was already calling East Pakistan Bangladesh. On March 15, Yahya Khan made one last effort to keep Pakistan together.
On March 22, Mujibur asked Khan to transfer power to the two Pakistans as Bhutto had suggested. A last round of Bhutto-Mujibur-Khan talks got nowhere.
On March 23 Bengalis celebrated Resistance Day. The future Bangladeshi flag was flown at Mujibur’s house.
Then on the night of March 25-26, the newly appointed military commander of East Pakistan, Gen. Tikka Khan, unleashed his greatly outnumbered forces in a savage effort to use terror as the means for holding Pakistan together.
One embittered Pakistan general, in his memoirs, described the terror that was unleashed: “Peaceful night was turned into a time of wailing, crying and burning. Gen. Tikka let loose everything at his disposal as if raiding an enemy. Instead of disarming Bengal units and imprisoning Bengali leaders, as he was ordered, he resorted to the killing of civilians and a scorched-earth policy.’ “
Thereafter Tikka Khan was always known as the Butcher of Bengal. This was the beginning of the genocide against the Bengali people.
Bhutto, returning to West Pakistan on March 26 after quietly encouraging the generals to pursue their crackdown, made a famous declaration: “By the Grace of God, Pakistan has at last been saved.”
What he meant was that a West Pakistan in which he could aspire to be prime minister would endure. But Bhutto must have known that the savage terror in the East marked the death knell for a Pakistan that straddled the subcontinent, though the protracted death throes were to last another nine months, and to encompass the third Indo-Pakistani War.
Yet there was much more to the tragedy than that. What was unleashed in March 1971 was not simply a brutal military repression but also a ferocious communal blood bath.
I was among a group of six journalists allowed back into East Pakistan a month after the crackdown began. It was obvious that the West Pakistanis had enlisted the Biharis to wreak their vengeance on the Bengalis, that the Bengalis had sought to kill Biharis, that Muslims had been killing Hindus, and that Punjabis and Pathans were spurred on by racial as well as military motives as they indiscriminately slaughtered Bengalis.
Over 300,000 Biharis are today a mute epitaph for One Pakistan. They do not want to stay in Bangladesh. The West Pakistanis don’t want them.
So those 300,000 Biharis, who wish only to be Pakistanis, have been stranded in refugee camps in the former East Pakistan ever since 1971. They languish there still.
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