The Wastes of Time: Reflections on the Decline and Fall of East Pakistan
Written by Syed Sajjad Husain
'Deaf, dumb, blind, they do not understand
- The Quran
The political offensive against Pakistan began almost simultaneously with the cultural. It is not possible wholly to disentangle one from the other, but the main political developments can be distinguished.
First, immediately upon the establishment of Pakistan even before the new government at Dacca had started functioning properly, a campaign against the Two-Nation theory was put in train. This theory, it was said, was no longer valid in the new context, and, if persisted it could lead to further fragmentation of Bengal. Didn’t the Hindus form about eight to nine percent of the population? If they were a nation apart, couldn’t they demand the right to form a state of their own?
Notice how subtly the campaign was carried on! The larger context of India and the history of the Two-Nation theory were now played down. The theory was sought to be pushed to its logical conclusion village by village, town by town, hamlet by hamlet. Those who did not know the past or could not remember it clearly would of course be misled. It was as though you held that since the French and German were two separate nations with their national states, every French minority in Germany and vice versa had the right to secede!
The Congress had used the same argument against the whole idea of Pakistan. The Hindu leaders had said repeatedly that the Hindus and Muslims were so mixed up in the population that it was impossible to distinguish purely Muslim or exclusively Hindu zones, and it therefore followed, according to their logic, that an independent homeland for the Muslims was an absurdity! Now that Pakistan had materialised, they continued to employ the argument to weaken the ideological basis of the state in the eyes of its inhabitants.
Not daring however to suggest openly that Pakistan should be scrapped, they urged that its survival depended on the speed with which it could be consolidated. And didn’t consolidation demand that the system of Separate Electorates should go, that Hindus and Muslims should have the same political rights and learn to think of themselves as citizens with a common loyalty? Unexceptionable logic! The younger generation in particular, students in the Universities who studied political theory and text¬book definitions of nationalism were impressed by them and felt embarrassed at the contrast which political realities around them appeared to present to text-book maxims. Public memory is short, and by 1950 the whole background of the struggle for Pakistan ceased to be common knowledge. Even those who knew the facts were swept off their feet by propaganda and began making the silliest statements on the electoral issue. Mr Suhrawardy himself took it up and finally convinced the Pakistan National Assembly by an array of subtle arguments that in its own interests Pakistan ought to terminate the separate electorates system. Thus at one stroke before the foundations of Pakistan had been consolidated and a common Pakistani nationalism forged, the whole basis of the new state was placed in jeopardy.
One of the arguments used by Mr Suhrawardy was that the abolition of Separate Electorates would dispense with the necessity of reserving any seats in the provincial or National Assembly for the non-Muslims, and lead actually to an increase in the number of Muslim members. This wasn’t untrue. But in order to win the confidence of Hindu voters, the Muslims were now obliged not only to lay less stress on the fact that they were Muslims, but also to disown many of their past political beliefs. You could not possibly approach a Hindu electorate for votes with the plea that Islam heeded consolidation, or that special measures were necessary for the protection of Muslim cultural interests. The emphasis now was on ‘secularism’. Secularism as interpreted in the Indian context meant that whereas Hindus were free to talk about their religion and philosophy, references to Muslim traditions were believed to betray a narrowness of outlook unworthy of twentieth-century man!
The whole controversy over the place of religion in the subcontinent’s politics was carefully re-opened. Again, the plan employed was to isolate the issue from its context and focus attention on pure abstractions. Young students who learned from their teachers that religion was a private affair, were urged to consider the absurdity of having states and governments founded on this ephemeral basis. Yes, they saw, religion was certainly the private concern of individuals; how could their elders have made the blunder of accepting it as the basis of Partition in 1947?
One must make it clear that in the years following the establishment of Pakistan and the migration of upper class Hindus to India, the Hindu as a rival to the Muslim in Indian history came to appear something mythical. Very few Muslim children came directly into contact with them. Untouchability or the caste system, described in their text-books as curses which bedevilled political and social life in the subcontinent, were impossible for them to comprehend. Do what the Muslim League leaders might, it was not at all difficult to convince this post -1947 generation that the differences between Hindus and Muslims had been exaggerated. The sufferings of the Muslims at the hands of Caste Hindus in undivided India became a myth treated with a certain degree of skepticism.
This disbelief about the reality of Pakistan’s basis crystallised gradually into a theory. Mr Qamaruddin Ahmad's book on The Social History of East Pakistan, which I have had occasion to mention earlier, was the first book to question the two-nation theory in print. He was followed by Mr. Badruddin Umar in a series of books in Bengali in which he offered in modem “progressive” terms an analysis of the culture and politics of the Indian subcontinent with particular reference to East Pakistan and scoffed at the ideas which had gone into the making of Pakistan. In the first book called Sanskritir Sankat (Crisis in our culture) he declared that there was absolutely no difference between the patterns of Hindu and Muslim social life except in respect of the ceremonies these two communities observed at weddings. He maintained in the face of all known facts that they ate the same food and dressed alike and even hinted indirectly that they worshipped in the same way. It was, he observed, owing to the machinations and wickedness of communal leaders that the Muslim community had been persuaded that their heroes in Indian history were different, that they constituted a different nation, and so on. Strange arguments. Apart from the question whether Hindus and Muslims were different nations, to deny that they had differences in their social and religious life was so outrageous and astonishing a lie that it was difficult to conceive of an educated person making such a statement. It was like saying that since either rice or wheat or potatoes, meat or fish, milk, etc., formed the staple of people’s food all over the world, all this talk about the Russians and Americans having different dietary habits was nonsense. Stripped down to essentials, all human beings appear alike. Do we not all have to eat in order to keep ourselves alive? Do we not dress to protect ourselves from heat and cold? Do we not need shelter and build houses to dwell in? Do we not group ourselves into families and clans of one sort or another?
But why do I labour the point? What Mr Umar said represented sheer perverseness, but perverseness with a design. For the arguments he employed, dressed up in “progressive” garb appealed to the unwary and the immature.
I was asked by Mr Zillur Rahman Siddiqui, then Head of the Department of English at Rajshahi University to review Mr Umar’s book for Mr Rahman’s Purbamegh. I did so, trying to refute some of his arguments, opening my comments with the remark that Mr Umar’s book reopened political controversies which we thought had been settled by the Partition of 1947. A rejoinder from the author followed in the next issue. The tone was impolite and acrimonious; Mr Umar said that if he was taking the readers of his book back to the pre-1947 period, I, by my arguments, appeared to carry them back fourteen hundred years across history to the first Islamic century. There was no answer to the points I had made, but at the same time he sounded frightened at my forthright assertion that he was no believer in the ideology of Pakistan. He pretended dishonestly that he was no traitor, which was precisely what he was.
While men like Mr Umar at Rajshahi University and Mr Abdur Razzaq at Dacca University continued to snipe at and sometimes openly attack the basis of Pakistan, our politicians went on committing one blunder after another. The search for an ideal constitutional formula answering to the exact needs of the stage was itself a major blunder. Why couldn’t they have adopted a pragmatic approach and suitably amended the India Act of 1935 stage by stage? What exactly was the necessity of an all-perfect Constitution which would meet all points of view and appear satisfactory from every angle of vision? In spite of the example of Britain before them, pragmatism appealed to none. Seven years were wasted on drafts and discussions, and meanwhile popular frustration at their failure to produce a Constitution and their seeming determination to cling to power indefinitely mounted. Intrigues against the ruling Muslim League began. Mr Suhrawardy broke away from it and formed his Awami Muslim League. Not content with this, he asserted that the Constituent Assembly had by its incompetence forfeited the right to form a Constitution. Encouraged by his attitude those in the Punjab who had been intriguing against the Muslim League Party prevailed upon Mr Ghulam Muhammad, first, to dismiss Khwaja Nazimuddin and next to dissolve the Constituent Assembly itself and order fresh elections. The whole structure of constitutionalism, slowly built up over the years and sustained by the example and influence of British practice at home crumbled.
From this to the emergence of General Ayub Khan as dictator in 1958 was but a logical inevitable step. The astounding thing is that the whole process was accelerated and furthered by the supposed champion of democracy, Mr Shaheed Suhrawardy. Not only did he hail Mr Ghulam Muhammad’s dismissal of the Nazimuddin ministry as a legitimate exercise of his power by the Governor-General; he later swallowed his own dismissal by Iskander Mirza and considered it no humiliation to accept office under a former protégé, Muhammad Ali of Bogra. He didn’t care even to defend the Constitution of 1956 to which he himself was a party.
It was only when finally in 1958 General Ayub swept constitutional pretexts away and arrogated all power to himself that he seemed to awaken. Study of the history of his period would prove that it was not love of constitutionalism or democracy that ultimately roused Mr Suhrawardy from his torpor, but it was the conviction that there existed little chance of his being able to recapture power under the new dispensation. Having helped to wreck the foundations of both democracy and constitutionalism he started belatedly to criticise President Ayub at a time when the latter in his turn, regardless of his part in the unleashing of the forces of violence, was trying to give the country some semblance of political stability.
The parties which had done little or nothing to defend democracy when the first blow against it was struck by Mr Ghulam Muhammad, combined in 1968 to organise and launch a united campaign against President Ayub. This was a tragic exhibition of myopia for which it is difficult to find a precedent. For 1968 the issue was no longer whether Pakistan should have a presidential or a parliamentary form of government but whether it would survive at all. The writing on the wall, as they say, could no longer be misinterpreted, far less ignored. But it was actually ignored.
The Agartala Conspiracy of 1967 preceded in 1966 by the announcement of the Awami League’s Six-Point Programme which amounted virtually to be an open declaration in favour of secession was scarcely given any thought. On the contrary, most opposition parties maintained either overtly or indirectly that the conspiracy case was nothing but a political ruse designed to eliminate Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from the stage. It’s sad to reflect that even the Muslim League, now split into the Convention League, Council League and Qayyum League, behaved in a manner which clearly showed that the import of the Agartala case was little appreciated.6 Some members of the party insisted that they would attend the Round Table Conference convened in February 1969 only on condition that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was released and the conspiracy case withdrawn. And this, in spite of the upsurge in February in East Pakistan in which Awami League workers and their supporters reduced the law and order fabric of the province to a shambles. The case was actually withdrawn, and the Awami League saw, to its surprise, that it could win the day by unreasonableness and violence. Sheikh Mujib attended the Round Table Conference, and refused to agree upon any terms, and upon his return to Dacca denounced Mr Nurul Amin, Mr Hamidul Huq Chowdhury and others, who had urged his release in emphatic terms, as traitors to the Bengalis.
The stage was now set for the denouement which followed in 1970 and 1971.
Historians who will in future investigate the events of this period---at least non-partisan foreign historians---- should try to unravel a number of mysteries which would shed light on the conspiracy against Pakistan which the Awami League was slowly maturing. The whole argument that injustices were perpetrated upon the Bengalis in the Constitution of 1956 falls to the ground when one considers that one of its Chief supporters--¬and I should say architects was Mr Suhrawardy himself. This Constitution embodied the principle of parity, which was one of his pet formulae; also it did away with the system of separate electorates which had hitherto been regarded as the sheet anchor of Muslim League policy.
Besides, Mr Abdur Razzaque and Dr Muzaffar Ahmad Chowdhury from the University of Dacca were both associated with the constitution- making process as advisers. They have not to this day disclosed what precise recommendations of theirs, the Constituent Assembly rejected. Their voluble criticisms of the Constitution are seen for the futile exercise in academic cynicism that they were, when one reflects that they themselves had no positive suggestions to make. Their attitude was typical of the usual Bengali attitude to things: that is indulgence in impractical criticism combined with an incapacity for any kind of positive suggestion. Where, one would like to know, was the blue-print for the future which would have turned Pakistan into a well¬-integrated happy state?
The second question which needs investigating is why Mr Shaheed Suhrawardy and his Awami League connived at the intrigues of Mr Iskander Mirza and General Ayub Khan which set in motion the whole process culminating in the establishment of a military dictatorship in Pakistan in 1958. Was it just malice towards Khwaja Nazimuddin? How far wrong would one be in discerning in it something sinister, a deliberate move designed eventually to wreck Pakistan?
Why did the man, I mean Mr Suhrawardy, who had no qualms about joining Mohammad Ali of Bogra’s Cabinet under the auspices of Major General Iskandar Mirza refuse to cooperate with President Ayub Khan? Say what Mr Suhrawardy’s supporters might, what was the qualitative difference between Mirza and Ayub?
President Ayub Khan’s seizure of power in 1958 was certainly responsible for many of the evils of the subsequent years. But one would have thought that one of the few good things he did was to introduce the presidential system of administration. Mr Suhrawardy had expressed himself in favour of this system at an early stage in Pakistan’s history. But the moment President Ayub introduced it, he started, in a manner characteristic of the Bengali love of mischievous cynicism, discovering in it a threat to civil liberties, a danger to the whole future of the country and much else. In spite of the obvious fact that the parliamentary system had not been working satisfactorily and had brought the state to the verge of political and economic collapse, now everybody who didn’t like President Ayub Khan, joined Mr Suhrawardy in his criticisms, and the press and politicians alike, forgetful of past history, indifferent to all current problems, insistently demanded a return to the same discredited order as a panacea for all ills. Mr Nurul Amin and Mr Hamidul Huq Chowdhury in the eastern wing, Chaudhury Muhammad Ali and Mian Daultana in the Western were equally emphatic that nothing but the restoration of the parliamentary system could pull the country out of the morass into which it was fast sinking on account of the machinations of the Awami Leaguers.
A third mystery which future historians have to probe is why non-Bengali industrialists in East Pakistan, the Adamjees and Isphahanis and others, went out of their way to finance Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s campaign. Was it fear of a triumphant and revengeful Awami League that actuated them? Was it any sympathy with the Awami League’s principles? The latter explanation must be rejected out of hand as being too implausible. But if it was fear and the belief that support for the Awami League was a sort of long-term investment which accounts for the pouring of the wealth of these misguided business houses into the Awami League coffers, one can only smile in retrospect, at their lack of understanding, at their utter failure to comprehend the nature of the forces operating on the political plane. Sheikh Mujib in his speeches had been saying openly that he wanted an end to exploitation. The Adamjees and Ispahanis thought that what the Bengalis behind the Sheikh demanded was a share in the flesh¬pots. Of the grim and sinister spectre of Bengali racialism they had no idea.
The Central and provincial governments in their turn contributed no little to the Awami League’s strength. President Ayub, apparently in a move designed to conciliate the Bengalis, declared the removal of inter-wing economic disparities to be one of the administration’s constitutional responsibilities. Acting obviously under instructions for him, Mr Monem Khan, governor of East Pakistan, dilated upon these disparities in every speech he made, pointing out that their real architect was Chaudhary Muhamma Ali. The idea seems to have been to achieve two objects simultaneously, to score off Chaudhri Mohammad Ali, one of President Ayub’s political enemies, and to underline the Government’s genuine anxiety to grapple with a problem they had received as a legacy from the former premier. The effect of the governor’s speeches was, however, entirely contrary to that which he intended. The Awami League was seen to be a true champion of East Pakistan’s interest and its campaign appeared based on introvertible facts. Secondly, the Awami League was again seen to be right in its demand that East Pakistan must be granted almost the status of a self-governing dominion in order to be able adequately to counteract central neglect and exploitation.
Governor Monem Khan, usually painted as Sheikh Mujib’s arch-enemy in East Pakistan did the most to popularise him and establish his credentials in the public’s eye. It never occurred to him or to any one--- yes, I think never is the right word----to examine critically the whole question of inter-wing disparities or the political soundness of the demand that East Pakistan’s representation on the National Assembly must be proportional to its population. Both issues were made use of by persons who believed that East Pakistan was being denied her legitimate dues. I shall discuss the disparities Issue in the next section, but I have always felt that as far as the demand for proportional representation was concerned, it could have been inspired only by either naive or wholly disingenuous motives.
Those who naively supported the demand took a short-sighted view of the future. The difference in population figures between the two wings was marginal; sixty million in the east against over fifty in the west. The advantage which the difference of ten million could give the eastern wing could easily be wiped out by an increase in the west. Those who set so much store by East Pakistan’s population figures should have been prepared for a possible reversal of the positions, but I have not heard any one---¬with one exception----openly arguing against the demand on this ground. The exception was Mr Abul Mansur Ahmad, who even after the fatal elections of 1970, pleaded for a return to the parity formula. That formula alone, he said, could effectively balance one wing against another politically and make for stability. The fact is, those who insisted on proportional representation in the name of democracy were not interested in the survival of Pakistan. They wanted a state of chaos which they knew---and they were proved right by the events of 1970 and 1971--- would lead to disintegration.
There is another factor to which among well-known politicians, only Mr. A. K. Brohi drew public notice in a written statement. The claim that East Pakistan had a larger population, he said, ignored the fact the province contained a sizable Hindu minority accounting for nearly six to seven, (according to some, ten) percent of the total figure. As far as the Muslims were concerned, west Pakistan had a definite edge over the east. Now the question was---- and it was a question which demanded serious consideration----- how could you claim numerical superiority by including in the enumeration a minority opposed to the very concept of Pakistan? Left to themselves, the Hindu minority would have voted for Pakistan’s dissolution without hesitation. How could one, therefore, propose that in a matter so vitally concerning its survival they must be given a decisive say?
I am certain that the so-called ‘progressives’ would term the argument reactionary and undemocratic. Apparently, the democratic logic of numbers is on their side. But it is because the leaders of Pakistan fought shy of facing facts openly and preferred to be hypocritical rather than state the real danger of proportional representation that disaster struck.
The first blow in the campaign came from President Yahya. Neither Sheikh Mujib nor anyone else had expected that the issue of representation would be decided in the manner in which he resolved it by announcing the formula of ‘One Man, One Vote’. The matter was to be discussed and decided by the National Assembly itself. But no, rather than wait, President Yahya announced simultaneously two measures, both far-reaching, which upset the entire constitutional framework and paved the way for real chaos. The first I have already mentioned. The second, equally prejudicial to the country’s stability was the dissolution of the one-Unit structure in the Western Wing. Having in this way disposed of both fundamental issues, President Yahya still went on pretending that the new National Assembly had before it the solemn task of framing a Constitution. There was little to do really.
Why President Yahya acted in the manner he did is a mystery which again future investigators with access to secret state papers might be able to solve.
To the charge that East Pakistani politicians and intellectuals could offer no plan about the future which could have saved this wing from the neglect and exploitation of which it is supposed by the Awami Leaguers to have been the victim, the usual reply, from these circles, is to point to the Six-Point Programme itself. Now apart from partisans, no one can possibly be expected to accept the view that the Six Points were a positive contribution to stability. In the first place, the whole purpose of the Six Points was not to strengthen the state but to accelerate the process of its disintegration. For what did the points amount to? East Pakistan was to have a separate currency, a separate foreign trade policy; the Centre was to have no powers at all in relation to this area, not even the power to levy taxes for such Central purposes as still fell within its jurisdiction; even a separate militia was bargained for. Indeed, had a Constitution based on the Six Points been framed, East Pakistan would have been transformed virtually into an independent dominion with hardly any links with the Centre. Whatever the Plan’s merits in the eyes of its adherents, to call it a contribution to national stability would be a plain travesty of the truth.
Secondly, it must be borne in mind that this Plan, such as it was, came in 1966 after the India-Pakistan War of 1965. Assuming that its makers did not really want Pakistan to break¬up, an assumption impossible to accept in the light of what happened in 1970 and 1971 and also in the face of the disclosures about their motives that the Awami League leaders have made since 16th December 1971,---- how does one explain away the period from 1947 to 1966, a period of over nineteen years? A critical and minute examination of the events of the epoch, almost week by week would only bring to light the insinuations innundoes, complaints, recriminations and accusations against the Centre, which helped build up a climate of hostile opinion, and which now are seen to have been purposely broadcast and repeated to prevent Pakistan’s consolidation. Of positive thinking there is no evidence.
What, on the contrary, the Awami Leaguers, assisted by the left-wing journalists, fanned all the time was the cult of Bengali nationalism. Here again their dishonesty was transparently plain. They didn’t contend that the entire subcontinent needed reorganising on linguistic lines, or that each major language group in Pakistan and India called for recognition as a separate nationality with a right to self-determination. The theory was applied to the Bengalis of Pakistan only. The Bengalis in West Bengal in India could stay where they were; the Marathis, the Tamils, the Andhras---all belonged to the Indian nation and nothing illogical could be seen in their union into a single State of the disparate language groups which inhabited India. The Nagas ethnically, linguistically and culturally differed from the rest of India but they received no support, although they had been struggling for secession since 1947; their leader Dr Phizo lived in exile in London, while Indian tanks, armoured cars, heavy artillery and bombs helped ‘pacify’ Naga villages. The disputed area of Kashmir was also left severely alone. No, India had a right to be one, and anyone who pleaded for pluralism either politically or culturally was a reactionary. But Pakistan with precisely the same demographic composition as India had to be viewed differently. Never in political history before has the jaundiced eye been so powerfully at work as in India and Pakistan, weighing the same problems in the two countries in different scales and insisting on different conclusion.
However insincere the motive of the Awami Leaguers, the cult of Bengali nationalism grew from strength to strength, owing to a combination of fortuitous circumstances. The first of these was the geographical distance between the two wings. The second was the failure of the Central Government to comprehend the nature of the nationalism and predict its course. The third was the habit politicians in the West Wing developed of administering pin¬-pricks to East Pakistanis which served to irritate and annoy. The fourth was the government’s unwillingness to refute the lies about the economic situation sedulously spread by the enemy. The fifth was an attitude of guilty- mindedness among West-Wing politicians and administrators towards the end. The sixth, and most dangerous of all, was the complacent belief that nothing could really shake Pakistan’s foundations. The seventh and last was utter ignorance in the upper echelons of the administration of the forces gathering against Pakistan on the international front.
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