The East Pakistan debacle

By Hussain H Zaidi

The separation of East Pakistan on December 16, 1971 was the culmination of a long process spreading over two decades. It cannot be put down to the ambition or stubbornness of a single general, politician or political party.

The federation of Pakistan, which came into being in 1947 had two remarkable features which contributed a lot to its eventual dismemberment. One was the absence of geographical contiguity between its two wings – which were separated by the territory that formed part of India. Thus from the very outset, India was in a position to undermine the territorial integrity of its smaller eastern neighbour.

Two, culturally and economically, the two wings represented a marked contrast – West Pakistan was ethnically diverse while East Pakistan was ethnically homogeneous – a fact that made it easier to make a common cause against a common ‘enemy’. While West Pakistan was essentially a feudal society, there was only a vestige of feudalism in East Pakistan. Hence, East Pakistanis were politically more conscious than West Pakistanis. West Pakistan was economically more prosperous and advanced than East Pakistan which presented policymakers with the challenge of investing more funds in the region where the return on capital was bound to be lower. Finally, population wise, the eastern wing was larger than the western wing.

In the interest of the integrity of the federation, it was imperative that the federating units were given full autonomy, adequate representation in the state apparatus and equitable share in economic development. This necessitated holding regular elections and transferring power to the elected representatives of the people.

It was also important to ensure the  various ethnic nationalities in the federation were welded together.  For this, the country needed a strong and stable political party, with an across-the-nation base. However, as history unfolded itself, both these requirements remained unfulfilled.

Most of the frontline leaders of the Muslim League hailed from Muslim minority provinces which after the partition were included in India. Therefore, they lacked a popular base in Pakistan. Apprehensive of their defeat, those leaders were averse to seeking a popular mandate and so they became dependent on bureaucracy – both civil and military. Since the bulk of bureaucracy hailed from the western wing, it was West Pakistan that had the ultimate say in the exercise of power.

Lack of adequate share in political power also hampered the economic development of the eastern wing which gave birth to an acute sense of deprivation among its people.  East Pakistan’s discontent with the ruling elite was reflected in the 1954 provincial assembly elections in which the United Front, an anti-Muslim League alliance, made a clean sweep and formed government in the province. However, within two months of its formation, the Front government was sacked and governor rule clamped on the province.

Pakistan’s first constitution provided for parliamentary form of government and provincial autonomy. But former president Iskandar Mirza continued calling the shots, dismissing or forcing prime ministers to quit one after the other. Amid all uncertainty, the government announced to hold general elections in 1959. But the elections which were to be held on the basis of adult franchise, would have transferred power from West Pakistan to East Pakistan as population wise the former was smaller than the latter. But in October 1958, the president abrogated the constitution, declared martial law and asked army chief General Ayub to take over.

During Ayub’s ten-year rule, things went from bad to worse. The made-for-Ayub 1962 constitution reduced provincial autonomy to a minimum, denied representative government and concentrated powers in the office of the president. The powers, which were effectively exercised by  West Pakistan-dominated civil service elite, further alienated East Pakistanis.

Political deprivation was accompanied by economic deprivation. When Ayub assumed power, there was a difference of 30 percent in the per capita income of the two wings. By the time the general was forced to quit, the gap had more than doubled to 61 percent.

The growing alienation of East Pakistanis was articulated in the famous six points of Mujibur Rehman, the leader of the eastern wing’s most popular political party the Awami League (AL). Enunciated in 1966, these pointscalled for separate military and currency for both regions with a very weak centre. Although those points also demanded a federal form of government, there is little doubt that if these points were fully implemented, they would have vitiated the federal character of the constitution and created a confederation.

It was on the basis of the six points that the AL contested the first ever general elections in Pakistan in 1970.  The electoral outcome, which took the then military regime by surprise, was starkly ethnic. In East Pakistan, the AL won 151 out of 153 seats for the National Assembly. However, the AL failed to win a single seat in the western wing. Conversely, in West Pakistan the PPP headed by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, emerged as the single largest party. However, the PPP could not win a single seat in the eastern wing. It was obvious that neither party had an across-the-country base – a capital condition for holding a federation together.

The total number of National Assembly seats were 300 which meant that the AL was in a position to form  government at the centre on its own. But since the party had achieved electoral success on the basis of six points, the government was reluctant to transfer power to the League. Though during his meetings with President Yahya, Mujib had assured him that once in the assembly he would try to tone down his six points so as to preserve the federation, the government was doubtful whether Mujib could be trusted.

On the other hand, Bhutto wanted the six points issue to be settled before the National Assembly was convened. Ideally, Bhutto and Mujib should have agreed to form a coalition with Mujib becoming the prime minister and the PPP getting some important ministries. However that was not to be. Even if Mujib was not willing to share power with Bhutto, democratic conventions required the president to invite Mujib – the leader of the majority party – to form government. But no such conventions existed in Pakistan.

The military government’s dilly-dallying over the transfer of power to the AL caused grave unrest in East Pakistan. There were strikes and riots all over the province and the writ of the government existed only in cantonment areas. In desperation, the central government decided to launch a military action to quell the uprisings, which according to popular belief, was miscalculated. The military action and the subsequent Indian military intervention proved to be the final nail in the coffin of the united Pakistan.

The writer is a freelance countributor.

Email: hussainhzaidi@gmail.com

Published in: Daily The News (December 16, 2016)

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