East Pakistan crisis 1971: Some facts and de-facts


Pakistan had a unique geographical feature. It consisted of two distinct blocks of territory. East Pakistan was not only separated geographically from West Pakistan by one thousand miles, but the departing land was India – a hostile neighbour, who from the day one did not recognise Pakistan’s existence. Hindu leaders gave statements at the time of Pakistan’s creation that it was a temporary division and very soon Pakistan will come into Indian fold again. For them, to execute their nefarious designs, keeping both sides divided and hostile, was the cornerstone of their hostile policy. Jinnah smelled the conspiracy even in 1940s and he had demanded ‘a corridor across India to connect the separated limbs of the new state’. But Mountbatten did not agree.

This danger could be countered only with superior weapons and super human spirits of national integration. Thus Pakistan had no other option but to join West sponsored military alliances Cento and Seato. But the spirits of national integration could not be strengthened and political blunders provided somewhat easy opportunities to anti-Pakistani forces to dismember the Holy Land.

Uniformity of people in many respects also contributes to the successful integration of a country. But in United Pakistan, national life was different, besides colour and habits. Leadership of West Pakistan was landlord while the Bengalis were led by middle-class-lawyers, professors, and retired officials. In the second constituent assembly (1956-58), out of 40 members from West Pakistan 28 were landlords and Dukes, whereas East Pakistan was represented by 20 lawyers and 9 retired officials. None of Bengali MCA was landlord.

With such socio-economic differences in background, it had become very difficult for the leaders of both regions to come to an understanding of problems.

The common factors, which could keep both wings, united were Islam and the fear of India. These two elements were sufficient to keep the country strong internally and externally. But it needed farsighted leadership and brotherhood for superb state of nationalism. The rulers of the ill-fated country paid lip service to Islam and no concrete steps were taken to enforce Shariah. It was overshadowed by economic and cultural realities.

As far as the fear of India was concerned, it could have mustered the nationalism for united Pakistan. Kashmir became the issue of cold war between India and Pakistan, but as it was geographically attached to West Pakistan, it could not assume the emotional value for East Pakistanis. ‘They thought that problem had relevance with West Pakistan.’

Even during the 65 war, Sheikh Mujeeb refused to utter a single word against India. Awami League also developed close relations with India and hence fear of India as a cementing force lost its credibility. It is relevant to quote Lord Birdwood here who predicted in 1953, ‘Solve the problem of Indo-Pak relationship and I doubt if East and West Pakistan would continue for many years to present a united front’. And ‘It would not be unnatural if one day the eastern limb of Pakistan decided to cut itself adrift from control from Karachi.’

The education and economy of a country are the backbone of a country’s development and social status. Muslims of Bengal expected an improvement in their general conditions after independence. But the situation was otherwise. Education and economy was completely controlled by the Hindus. In East Bengal most of the government officers, lawyers, almost all the doctors, and school masters, nearly all the considerable landowners and most of the heads of business firms were Hindus.

At the time of partition, they owned nearly 80% of the national wealth of East Bengal. The majority of urban buildings and properties, in some cases more than 85% were owned by the Hindus. 95% of 1,290 High schools and 47 colleges in East Bengal were privately organised and financed by them. The Hindus comprised not more than 25% of the East Bengal population. These Hindus used to earn from here and sent to West Bengal and Calcutta where their relations had settled. While commodities were smuggled to Calcutta, anti-Pakistani literature was pouring from across the border. A report submitted to Chaudhry M. Ali, the PM of Pakistan by H.M. Habibullah, Treasurer of the Pakistan Muslim League, stated that ‘cheap communist literature infiltrated through China, Burma, and India could be seen everywhere in cafes, restaurants, public places, schools … backed by Marwari Hindus, the communists had a free hand to create confusion, frustration and feelings of hatred’.

One of the most important factors, which sowed permanent seeds of mistrust and bitterness between the two provinces was the language problem. The controversy started when, in February, 1948, a Hindu member from East Pakistan, Mr. Dhirendranath Dutt, moved an amendment to the Constituent Assembly pleading that Bengali may also be made official language. Till then Assembly rules allowed the members to address either in Urdu or in English. The amendment created a rift between the peoples of Pakistan. This caused great resentment and very soon it took the shape of a political movement.

Quaid-e-Azam immediately reached Dacca and emphatically declared that Urdu and Urdu alone would be the national language. Due to his advice, for the time being, the language movement became dormant. But in 1952 central government attempted to introduce Urdu script for the Bengali language. In February, 1952 Khawaja Nazimuddin, the then PM of Pakistan, addressed a public gathering in Dacca and declared that Urdu shall be the only state language. An unwise declaration led to increasing agitation. Thus confrontation seemed inevitable, law and order broke down and the army was called to restore peace. The movement came to an end in 1954 when Constituent Assembly accepted Bengali as one of the state languages. Order was restored but at a very high price – at the cost of national integration, and undermined the foundations of national unity. To make matters worse, Fazl-ul-Haq on his way to Karachi via Calcutta said at Dam Dam airport to Indian and foreign media that although India was divided in 1947, hearts of Bengalis on both sides of the border were not divided.

In a democratic setup, political parties play a significant role in keeping the units united. But political parties failed to keep the spirit of nationalism alive here in Pakistan. The Muslim League being the vanguard of freedom movement, represented the ideology of Pakistan and was a great unifying force.

It achieved resounding victory in Bengal and captured 96.7% of the Muslims seats, of the provincial legislative Assembly in the general elections of 1945-46. It could prove an effective source of integration for the nation of Pakistan but, after the emergence of Pakistan, league fell into selfish hands and became a hotbed of intriguers. Its internal struggle for party position, power politics, and intrigues led her to a deprived status. Her popularity graph thus declined gradually and, therefore, it was miserably defeated in the general elections of 1954. Muslim League was a national political party and unifying force and its disappearance left a gap that resulted in nothing less than the fragmentation of homeland. The parties, like Awami League, were playing on the passions of the peoples. They were regional oriented minds and believed in nationalism of the region. Thus vacuum created by Muslim League was filled by Awami League. Both were leagues but the difference in their nature was 180.

The Awami League assumed the character of a mass movement in a very short span of time for various reasons.

a.         The Muslim League had failed to ameliorate the conditions of the people.

b.         Awami League was in the forefront in language movement.

c.         Muslim League was considered to be a party dominated by the West Pakistan.

d.         The Awami League had a regional bias. It had an appealing programme for the Bengalis and promised to free them from the shackles of West Pakistan.

e.         It was a secular party and hence had complete support of non-Muslims. The Hindus enjoyed great political and economic ascendancy in East Pakistan. They threw their full weight on the side of the Awami League and extended all financial aid to it. For its progressive leadership, demand of full autonomy and regional bias, the Awami League became a popular party of the students and the communists who had always been active in East Pakistan politics.

On the economic front, East Pakistan lagged behind mostly due to bad planning and legacy of the past. Previously, its principal products, Jute, was processed and exported from Calcutta. Now Calcutta with its mills was in another country. East Pakistan had no means of processing its staple crop, and had only a second rate port (Chittagong). The larger amount of foreign exchange earned through exports was generally allocated to feed the needs of industries in West Pakistan, although East Pakistan’s jute exports earned 60 to 80% of Pakistan’s foreign exchange.

According to an estimate, the total government sector developmental outlay between 1947-48 and 1959-60 amounted to about Rs. 2750 m in East Pakistan and Rs. 8017 m in West Pakistan.

According to Dr. Mahbubul Haq, there did occur a net transfer of resources from East to West Pakistan, both during the pre-plan and plan periods. The extent of this transfer was about Rs. 210 m per annum in the pre-plan and Rs. 100 m in the plan period. It meant that roughly 2% of East Pakistan’s regional income in the pre-plan and 1% in the plan period was being taken away by West Pakistan. More over, balance of trade was unfavourable as far as East Pakistan was concerned. Exports from West Pakistan had exceeded imports from East Pakistan by about Rs. 909 m between 1948 and 1953.

Thus central government had to concentrate more on industrialising West Pakistan as-

a.         West Pakistan produced a lot of raw material for different types of industries. Textile industry was the most pressing need of country’s export, for which cotton was produced only in W. Pakistan.

b.         Almost all Muslims entire pressure, who migrated from India in 1947 settled in West Pakistan and were reluctant to invest in East Pakistan. These migrants comprised about 83% of the entrepreneurs in West Pakistan. On the other hand Hindu investors migrated from East Pakistan to India and thus left an economic vacuum.

c.         Millions of refugees from India came to settle in West Pakistan who needed employment.

d.         A very important factor was the decision to make Karachi the capital. As a result industries were set-up in West Pakistan and East Pakistan was left with its economic miseries, and Bengalis openly uttered that… ‘After 1947, political independence we have achieved no doubt, but economic independence is yet to be achieved. Gradually an impression developed that West Pakistan was treating East Pakistan as her colony.

Realizing their sentiments, Ayub Khan attached great importance to Bengalis’ problems. He tried to take drastic steps to develop national cohesion.

He instituted inter-wing scholarships, and inter-wing postings of the civil officers and exchange of students were made compulsory. He was so serious about the problem that he included the provision regarding the removal of inter-regional disparity in the constitution, and thus made it a constitutional responsibility of the government to remove disparity (Article 145(4) of the 1962 Constitution). With his efforts, subsequent revisions and expansion of the 2nd

5 Year Plan, the eastern province become the principal object of development expenditure. To quicken the pace of development in East Pakistan, the 3rd Five Year Plan earmarked Rs. 1600 crore to be spent in East Pakistan in public sector and Rs. 1400 crore in West Pakistan.

This was also estimated that the proposed development expenditure may lead to an increase of 40% in the regional income of East Pakistan compared with 35% in West Pakistan.

The policies of Ayub Khan fell a victim of ill-planning and nepotism. Most of inter-wing scholarships were awarded to non-deserving students. The exchange of delegates brought a misunderstanding, as they visited big cities only and went back with an idea that West Pakistan was much more developed than the East. Inter-wing posting of the civil service officers also created bad blood because most of the officers from Western Wing behaved as if they were from a different race. According to Habibullah; report ‘The attitude of some west Pakistani high officials serving in the East Wing had been the same as that of any bureaucratic British civilian of the late government in India’.

Ayub Khan’s idea of inter-wing marriages also failed because of linguistic and cultural differences. Notwithstanding, the plans were not carried out enthusiastically.

People of East Pakistan were also demanding parity in the Civil Services and Armed Forces. In 1964, there were only 2 Bengali officers who held the rank of acting secretaries. Whereas in 1965 there was only one Major General from East Pakistan out of 17 Generals in 1965.

Thus to remove the disparity, government introduced quota system, and 40% seats, apart from 20%, allotted to merit, were reserved for East Pakistan. From 1967 onwards, Ayub Khan abolished quota reserved for merit and allocated these 20% seats to East Pakistan. Thus East Pakistan virtually got 60% of the total vacancies. But, unfortunately, it did not satisfy the Bengalis.

As regards the Armed Forces, at the time of partition, East Pakistanis formed only 1% of the total strength of the Armed Forces. The result of Ayub Khan’s policies rose the number of East Pakistanis by about 100% in the army and 30% of the total strength of Navy and the Air Force. Although Bengalis were creating disturbance due to disparity, they themselves, were not serious in joining Armed Forces. The Cadet School, established in Dacca in 1952, had to be closed, because 15 students came to join it.

The war of 1965 had a deep impact on East Pakistan. During the war, the East Pakistanis felt isolated and insecure. As Indian agents were active and openly indulged in anti-state activities, they did not open front on that border. Bhutto’s statements further aggravated the sense of insecurity as Foreign Minister in the National Assembly saying that East Pakistan was saved by China during the war. It proved fuel to the fire for the secessionist movement. Sheikh Mujeeb was having very close contact with Indian agencies. Even according to Bhutto, ‘during 1965, the Governor of East Pakistan Mr. Momen Khan, summoned the leaders of East Pakistan to seek their co-operation for the war effort. After the war, in his report to President Ayub Khan, Mr. Momen Khan claimed that in this meeting Mujibur Rehman advised Momen Khan to declare himself the President of an independent Bengal and break away from West Pakistan.’

Mid-60s was the era of vacuum of Political leadership in East Pakistan. Soherawordy and Fazal Haq were dead. Due to lack of chrismatic leadership, sense of frustration was prevailing in the country. They wanted a leader, who could take their task of nationalism and defend their exploited rights.

Mujib filled this gap by bringing 6-point formula as a last nail in the coffin of united Pakistan and the only ray of hope for Bengalis. It was presented by Sheikh Mujib in 1966 at Lahore. Although one could smell the disintegration of the country from 6 points, yet it is also logical to think that they had been incorporated to pressurise the centre in getting more autonomy. Even Mujib used to say that the formula was negotiable and amenable. It was him, who assured the easterners that the programme stood for the integrity of the country and hence people and even the elite could not foresee the germs of secession in it. The 6 point formula originally announced in 1966 was amended in 1970 and incorporated in the election manifesto of the Awami League. Thus Mujib became the hero of the nation. Indian media gave full coverage to him and his programme. Bengalis extended full support to him as he was playing on the passions of the people. In anti-government campaigns, processions were taken out, government offices were attacked, shops and cars bearing other than Bengali sign boards and number plates were set on fire. All those who were not fluent in Bengali were insulted. The law and order situation was deteriorating.

Agartala Conspiracy case as disclosed in January 1968 about 35 conspirators were announced by the government. In the beginning East Pakistan fully condemned the conspirators and demanded exemplary punishment for them. But when Mujib’s name was included, about 15 days after the conspiracy was unearthed, it created doubts.

He was already behind the bar and people questioned as to how he could participate in the conspiracy being himself in prison. Thus, the way the case was conducted and presented to the people, they began sympathising with the accused. The local press portrayed him as a survivor of the nation. Had the case proved, Mujib would have been politically dead. But the back firing of Agartala case became fatal for Ayub as well as for the country. The people of East Pakistan were convinced that it was another attempt to continue the dependency of East wing over the West and, therefore, the movement for autonomy gained impetus. Under extreme political pressures, Ayub Khan had to release Mujibur Rehman.

The Round Table Conference (RTC) of opposition leaders with Ayub Khan was held on 26 February and 10 March 1969. Due to serious differences among the opposition leaders and insistence of Mujib on 6 points, the RTC failed. Had the national leaders of the ill-fated nation joined hands to combat the separatist movement, it would not have been disintegrated.

Events during and after the elections (December, 1970) proved that the idea of secession was enthralling the Awami Leagues since inception.

Although no clear cut independence was indicated in 6 points, yet it was not less than separation. 6 points worked as camouflage to the nefarious designs of the enemies of United Pakistan.

Shortly before General Election (Dec. 1970), Sheikh Mujib said that he was campaigning for ‘all regional autonomy’ but at the same time threatened that if democratic process was subverted, he would take his people into the streets to fight for independence ‘so that we can live as a free people’.

Although Mujib had been insisting, before elections, that six points, stood for the integrity of Pakistan, yet in 1974, he confessed that ‘the final issue had come before the party in 1966, when the party declared its 6 points programme… A clear path was charted out before the people; it was a path of different kind where Bengalis had to break the bondage of Pakistan’.

This fact was also confirmed by the Tajuddin, former minister of Bangladesh. According to Kuldip Nayyar ‘Tajuddin told me at Dacca that the 6 point programme was the ‘beginning’ and ‘we knew we would become independent one day’.

Mujib had also stated that he had been working for the independence of Bangladesh since 1948. Again in Dacca on January 10, 1972, Mujib said ‘I had been working for the independence for the last twenty five years. Now my dream has come true’.

Crisis seemed deepening. The man at the centre was Yahya Khan, whose incompetent rule made situation worse. On March 7, Mujib announced to run a parallel government against the centre. President Yahya Khan flew to Dacca on 15 March to hold negotiation with Mujibur Rehman. One may like to ask what Yahya Khan was doing in West Pakistan upto 15 March, when law and order situation was deteriorating at a very fast speed in East Pakistan? Why did he not arrive early to study and control the political situation in Dacca? Why did he fail to achieve detente between Mujib and Bhutto? All these questions reflect Yahya Khan lethargy and inefficient reign. Even at his arrival, Mujibur Rehman, while talking to newsmen said, ‘Pakistan as it stands today is finished. There is no longer any hope of settlement’.

With the passage of time, crisis deepened further and confrontation seemed inevitable. On March 14, Bhutto came out with a demand of transfer of power to majority party in East Pakistan and the majority party in West Pakistan, if power was to be transferred before any constitutional settlement.

The entire situation was just like a powder magazine and only a spark was needed to set ablaze the fire. The spark came in shape of civil disobedience by Bengalis accompanied by Indian military intervention in 1970-71. The crisis had reached to its culmination and it had become an extreme problem. Extreme problems need extreme solutions. Pakistan was moving close to the tragedy.

Short-sighted and power hungry leaders ruined the nation’s interests. Dismemberment of Pakistan was caused by leaders from West as well as East Pakistan. At one hand our unjust attitude compelled them to demand more than what was afforded and at the other hand they were too sensitive to share precarious situation in their part of Pakistan.

The facts mentioned earlier certainly give the impression to a casual reader that East Pakistan was discriminated against and was not given its due share in the socio-political life of the country, nor were sincere efforts made to reduce the glaring economic disparity between the two wings. It will, however, not be correct to conclude that no attempt was made to correct the imbalance between the two regions, and that there was a deliberate policy of economic strangulation of the eastern wing.

According to Mahboobul Haq, ‘underdeveloped countries do shelve all ideas of equitable distribution and welfare state’. This is so because resources are allotted to areas where maximum and quick returns are expected. Gustay Papanek maintains that ‘inequalities exist in several countries but its importance must be put in perspective’, the famous Harward group of economists Arthur Lewis and Henry Johnson infact advocate ‘tolerance of inequality’.