Lessons unlearned from the East Pakistan debacle
December 16 is marked as a black day in the history of Pakistan. On that date in 1971, Pakistan was divided, as East Pakistan became Bangladesh.
It was a tale of blunders and mismanagement by the authorities of Pakistan coupled with sheer opportunism by India that resulted in the fall of East Pakistan. Forty-seven years have gone by since the separation of Pakistan but the report of the Hamoodur Rahman Commission still has not been released in public.
The commission, set up in December 1971, was supposed to call to account the people who were responsible for the fall of East Pakistan. India celebrates it to this day as a great victory as not only did it manage to break Pakistan into two pieces, but it also forced the surrender of 93,000 Pakistani soldiers. The manipulation of the Indian Army in this saga is not ignorable, but there were mistakes and blunders committed by West Pakistan that were disliked by the population of East Pakistan and finally resulted in the fall of Dhaka.
Wise nations always learn from past mistakes so they can avoid suffering the same pain and loss again.
The question arises: What led to the demise of East Pakistan and was it only a conspiracy of external hands? For the answer, one needs to go into the background of the chain of events that resulted in the demise of East Pakistan.
Karachi was chosen as the capital of Pakistan by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and then in 1958, the garrison city of Rawalpindi was declared the capital. In 1967 the military dictator Ayub Khan declared Islamabad as the new capital of Pakistan. However, the people of East Pakistan thought that since they formed 55% of the population of the country, Dhaka should have been given the status of capital of Pakistan.
Urdu was chosen as the national language of Pakistan. That was another reason that created the rift between East and West Pakistan, as Bengalis felt that their mother tongue was being deliberately ignored.
Bengalis were also not happy with the distribution of resources. Foreign exchange, for instance, a vast sum of which was earned from the sale of jute from East Pakistan, was used on defense expenditures to counter India in Kashmir. The Bengalis disagreed with the huge amount spent on defense and insisted that the foreign reserves should be spent on development projects like dams, and on eradicating poverty and promoting literacy.
The Bengalis were also of the view that most white-collar jobs were taken by West Pakistan.
In 1951 the Awami Muslim League was formed, which demanded rights for the Bengalis. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of the AML, was a Bengali nationalist, and he presented a six-point agenda to the authorities. That agenda included autonomy for all the provinces.
Ayub Khan after imposing the first martial law in the country announced a presidential election. Fatima Jinnah, the sister of the founding father of the nation, contested against Ayub, and Sheikh Mujib supported her. Ayub won the 1964 election with the might of the state machinery.
In 1968 when an agitation movement was launched against Ayub Khan’s dictatorship, Mujib participated in that movement and was arrested as a result. The movement resulted in the demise of Ayub Khan’s regime and General Yahya Khan took charge as the new martial-law administrator in 1969. Yahya was aware of the political instability in Pakistan and announced general elections for 1970 to transfer power to elected representatives.
On December 7, 1970, for first time in the history of Pakistan, general elections were held on the adult franchise. Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League swept the elections from East Pakistan by winning 160 National Assembly seats out of total of 162. The Pakistan Peoples Party won 84 seats from West Pakistan. The mandate was clear: Mujib had a majority, and it was General Yahya’s prerogative to call him to form the government.
However, it never happened. Mujib was accused of giving a statement that now no one could stop the creation of independent Bangladesh. Though Mujib denied the accusation and said his statement had been twisted by the media, no one believed him in West Pakistan. Yahya summoned the first session of the National Assembly but Zulfikar Ali Bhutto stopped his members from participating, and as a result, Yahya canceled the session.
Yahya Khan and Bhutto went to Dhaka for negotiations with Mujib but failed to yield any result. The delay in calling the session of the National Assembly resulted in mass agitations in East Pakistan, and soon it turned into a civil war – a war in which the Pakistan Army was pitted against its own people, and the Bengali militant organization Mukti Bahini, which was backed by India.
The clash between the Pakistan Army and Mukti Bahini resulted in the deaths of thousands of Bengalis. On November 23, 1971, the Indian Army penetrated the eastern front and crossed East Pakistan’s borders to join the Bengali nationalists. War was declared on December 3 between Pakistan and India, and on December 16, Pakistani troops in East Pakistan surrendered to the Indian Army. East Pakistan thus became Bangladesh and as a result, Yahya Khan was asked to resign, and power was transferred to Bhutto in what was left of Pakistan.
The lessons still not learned
The fall of Dhaka is a reminder that people can never be forced to live with a particular state with the might of the gun, but have we Pakistanis learned the lesson? To this day, we have chosen to remain in self-denial by not rectifying the mistakes of that time.
The history taught to children in Pakistan is deprived of the actual facts and events that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujib has been presented as a traitor in the textbooks while there is no mention of the factors and policies that created a sense of deprivation among the Bengalis and eventually paved the way for the separation of East Pakistan.
As well, the same military establishment that in that era thought it was capable of running the state still controls state affairs in Pakistan. None of the elected governments of Pakistan have tried to ask questions about this blunder of the establishment, nor have they made any effort to call the culprits of the 1971 debacle to account.
The role of Zulfikar Bhutto, who instead of accepting the victory of Sheikh Mujib in East Pakistan, is still not discussed. The military establishment continues to enjoy hegemony in state affairs and resources, and it creates and eliminates political parties and political leaders at its will.
The lesson from the East Pakistan debacle was loud and clear, and it was that states are run on the mandate given by the masses to the politicians and political parties and not by the might of guns. One hopes that one day a truth and reconciliation commission will be formed that eventually will lay the blame for this debacle on the responsible persons and authorities.
After all, hiding facts and not learning from mistakes in the name of patriotism is not going to help Pakistan move in the right direction. Samuel Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Instead of burying facts in the name of patriotism, Pakistan needs to find remedies for the errors it has made – and is repeating.