Who Was Responsible For The Secession Of East Pakistan?


The 16th of December 1971 is a date that will live in infamy in our national history. Pakistan was dismembered, we suffered the indignity and shame of surrender before the Indian army, the two-nation theory received a grievous blow and East Pakistan became the independent country of Bangladesh. Who or what was responsible for this catastrophe? One wing of the country was lost due to historical reasons that are well known but not acknowledged or even understood by a vast majority of Pakistanis. After this great tragedy the government of the day formed the high-powered Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission to investigate and pinpoint those responsible for this cataclysmic event.

The commission, after deliberations and a long investigation, did submit a report that remained hidden from public eyes for many years and came to light only after an Indian newspaper started to publish parts of the report. This report has mentioned some individuals who are guilty of many wrongdoings, but does not apportion blame to any individual or institution.

The phenomenon of Bengali nationalism and the demand for separation did not emerge suddenly, but was rooted deep in our national history. Some fundamental questions about the breakup of the country are still agitating the minds of scholars, political leaders and the common citizens. Was it due to the incompetence of the military top brass, the political elite, Indian interference or an international conspiracy? The causes or reasons for the breakup of the country can be attributed to many factors.

The geographical anomaly that was Pakistan is one reason then the yawning chasm of social and cultural differences, the language dispute, economic disparity, exploitation of the province, difference of opinion in the constitution making process, the collapse of the Muslim League and the rise of nationalist Bengali parties and the political grievances and complaints of the Bengali people. All these factors were in fact responsible for the political decay that finally resulted in the dismemberment of the country.

Since the dawn of independence, there was nothing in common between the two wings of the country except religion, which eventually proved a very weak bond to keep the country united. The main contentious issues between the two wings were language, economic disparity and economic exploitation of the Bengalis. The language issue was settled by the mid-1950s, but no consensus could ever be reached on the constitutional and economic issues and these issues continued to add fuel to the raging fires of Bengali nationalism. Pakistan’s two wings were separated by over a thousand miles of hostile Indian territory. Both air, sea routes could be blocked by India in case of hostility. This unique geographical anomaly posed a grave danger for the unity of the country. With the exception of religion and a common struggle against British colonialism, there was nothing common between the two wings of the country.

Pakistan lacked all the usual bonds or requirements that keep a nation together such as culture, history, language or social setup. East Pakistan was only 15% of the total land area, but the population in that wing was more than the entire population of West Pakistan. In fact, over 56% of the population was Bengali. In West Pakistan, many regional languages such as Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto, Balochi and Gujarati were spoken, and a somewhat reluctantly accepted Urdu was the common language. In East Pakistan, Bengali was the only common language and then became Bengal’s symbol of nationalism and pride. The level of literacy in East Pakistan was at least three times higher than the literacy rate in West Pakistan. Political leadership in West Pakistan was mainly from the landed class and feudal lords and in the Eastern wing from professionals such as lawyers, teachers, doctors, scientists and retired government officials.

Bengalis were more aware of political matters and better aware of their political and civic rights. People of West Pakistan had for centuries lived in a society mainly dominated by the big landlords and tribal chieftains. Due to a higher literacy rate in the Eastern Wing, the middle class was more assertive and strong. Hailing from different strata of society, the leaders and administrators from East and West Pakistan had conflicting ideas and aspirations and they could not understand properly each other’s problems. The Bengali administrators and leaders were more egalitarian and democratic in outlook, closer to the people in mood and attitude, and less haughty than their West Pakistani counterparts.

The ruling elite dominated by West Pakistanis was totally indifferent to the Bengali point of view and insisted very strongly on the need of a strong centre. Moreover, it it insisted on Urdu as the national language, the symbol of unity and, for some strange reason, the symbol of an Islamic ideology. The ruling class believed in strengthening the armed forces in West Pakistan, even at the cost of economic and social development. All demands of the Bengalis were considered conspiracies and against the integrity and Islamic ideology of the country.

Due to the indifferent, callous and even hostile attitude of the West Pakistani leadership, the common man and the Bengali intelligentsia looked more and more to West Bengal for cultural affinity and ethnic bonds. Culturally the country stood divided long before the tragic happenings of 1971. The Bengalis had very poor representation in the civil services and the armed forces. The civil and military officers posted in East Pakistan looked down upon the Bengali people and considered them inferior and descendants of lower caste Hindus. The works of Rabindranath Tagore were banned, and his poetry was not included in any school syllabus. In 1970, about 85% of the armed forces belonged to the Punjab. Because of such low representation in the bureaucracy and the armed forces, the Bengalis always opposed any form of military rule or the influence of the civil service in politics.

The most serious point of contention was the economic disparity between the two wings of the country. East Pakistan was ruthlessly exploited by the West. Particularly, East Pakistan was deprived of its due share in development funds and foreign aid. The bulk of the nation’s revenue was spent in West Pakistan, because the capital was there. A major part of the budget was allocated for defense, and the defense forces were all concentrated in West Pakistan.

To add to the resentment, East Pakistan earned most of the foreign exchange by the export of jute, and all this was used for the industrial development of West Pakistan.

Pakistanis are yet to come to terms with this bitter history.__Courtesy The Friday Times