Pakistanis refuse to see Bangladesh eye-to-eye. They hide themselves behind a very shoddy narrative of the happenings of 1971 that only describes it as a conspiracy. It might well have been one. But who plotted against whom and when? What were the Bengalis up to? How did they reach the breaking point?

This article is Part 1 of a four-part series that attempts to see the happenings of 1971 in Pakistan from the point of view of the development of democracy in this country.


Exaggerations are permitted in poetry, and distortions can be tolerated in business but then there are limits. You can't call a crow white. But come statecraft, everything becomes possible. Even the word 'justice' can stand in for 'injustice' or at least the word 'parity' can be deployed to hide 'disparity'. If you think I am exaggerating, you need to revisit one important event of the early history of our country.

The areas that constituted Pakistan in 1947 were ruled by the British under different arrangements. Bengal, Punjab, Sindh and Pakhtunkhwa (then NWFP) were provinces with working elected assemblies. Balochistan was governed by an appointed Commissioner, tribal areas by Political Agents and then there were a number of, what were called Princely States, nominally ruled by Rajas under the paramountcy of the British Crown. And they came in all sizes. The princely state of Amb was so tiny that it drowned in the Tarbela Dam Lake in the 1970s. The Bahawalpur state was one of the largest princely states of India and its area now forms three large districts of Punjab. The Baloch states were very thinly populated, while Punjab was quite crowded. Each of these entities had a standing as a 'state', however rudimentary its stage might be.

The people who were handed over the reign of the new country on 14 August 1947 were supposed to work out a system for all of these entities to peacefully coexist and grow together. They did sit down and ponder over this but whatever the route they considered and howsoever they divided the state power, it came down to one dreadful point – the Bengalis were more in number than all the rest put together and under a democracy nothing could bar them from getting a major share in the new state. Now that was totally against the scheme of things for the country that was supposed to herald Islam's renaissance and hoist its flag on every other building in South Asia. The dark skinned Bengalis, sharing culture and language with their Hindu compatriots did not cut a figure to fit the coveted slot. This glorious feat could only be performed by the blue-blooded Muslim elite that had migrated from India, with a few others playing second fiddle and the rest serving as foot soldiers.

So, that was the first crossroad that our country found itself at – if we take the simple democratic path, we miss the golden opportunity to revive all of our lost glories (by losing the government to Bengali majority). And if we stick to this cherished goal, we needed to get around democracy and find some non-democratic solution to 'the Bengal problem'.  At the end, it didn't turn out to be very difficult. The ruling elite unearthed a trove of edicts, historical references and quotable quotes that allowed them to bend the rules the way that serves 'the larger national interest' and avoid rigidly following democracy that was anyways a 'Western concept quite unsuitable to our kind of polity'. One of our visionaries had forewarned us about the pitfalls of democracy that counts everyone as one without distinguishing them on the basis of their piety.

When the first draft of the Constitution (Interim Report of the Basic Principles Committee) was presented to the Constituent Assembly in September 1950, it provided for two elected houses – the House of Units where all provinces will have equal representation (as provinces have in the Senate these days) and the House of People. The Committee did not forward any suggestion about how the provinces will be represented in this house whose members were supposed to be directly elected by the people, it lacked agreement. Bengalis were being offered half the seats, while their share proportionate to their population was more than that. They were not ready to surrender their right and thus the impasse.

Prime Minister Nazimuddin was, however, able to make clear suggestions. When he presented the second draft in the Assembly, it provided for 120 seats in the House of Units and 400 in House of People. Half of both of these were given to East Bengal and the other halves were divided among nine units of western Pakistan (the provinces of Punjab, Sindh, NWFP, what is now Fata, Bahawalpur, Balochistan, Balochistan States, Khairpur State, Federal Capital) roughly according to their share in population. The same principle, share proportionate to population, was not resorted to while allotting seats to Bengal. This obvious disparity and injustice was named the 'Principle of Parity'. That's how the narrative went: Pakistan comprises of two wings, East Pakistan, consisting of East Bengal and West Pakistan, constituted by nine units and the two wings must get equal representation. Bengalis did not accept to be less equal and the draft was rejected.

The next Prime Minister, Mohammad Ali Bogra, was over confident about his arithmetical skills. The third draft that he presented in October 1954 clubbed the nine units of western Pakistan into four groups and gave them, and the fifth unit, Bengal, equal seats (10 each) in the House of Units, while dividing the 300 seats of the House of People roughly according to each unit's share in population. East Bengal, with 165 of the 300 seats got majority in the House of People but not in the House of Units where it had just 10 of the 50 seats. All laws had to be approved by both the Houses and in a joint sitting (of 350 members), East Bengal (with 165+10=175) was in parity with the West. In a way, it offered a win-win solution to both the Bengali nationalists and the Pakistani establishment. But, a solution was not what the ruling elite was looking for. The draft was approved by the Constituent Assembly and a team was tasked to write the constitution, Governor General Ghulam Muhammad, however, dismissed the government and dissolved the Assembly the same month.

The undemocratic step was sanctioned by the judiciary that innovated and employed the 'Law of Necessity' for the first time. It took Governor General a year to put in place the second Constituent Assembly. Unlike the first one, it followed the 'Principle of Parity'; that is, only half of the members of the second Constituent Assembly (40 out of 80) were taken from East Bengal, while in the first one they had 44 of 69 seats. The first important thing that the new Constituent Assembly did was to 'unify' the nine units of the western wing into one province – the amalgam was called West Pakistan, and the initiative the One-Unit scheme. That gave the parity narrative some legal and moral grounds as the country now comprised of two provinces being treated equally, instead of 10 units with one being less equal than the other nine. The ruling elite, or the establishment as we know it now, made it known, loud and clear, that it would not accept anything more than 'parity' for East Bengal. There is no surprise then that the Constitution that this Assembly finally passed in March 1956 provided for one elected house – National Assembly – comprising of 300 members elected directly by the people with half coming from East Pakistan and half from the West.

Bengalis held faith in democracy and lost in Pakistan.

The first Assembly could not dare hold general elections. Everybody knew that given the vast disagreements, elections under the prescribed system would be disruptive. General Ayub thought that the blatant use of force was a viable alternative and jumped in. He was wrong. He held the country together at gun point. A decade later, when he finally had to withdraw the gun, General Yahya agreed to hold direct elections under adult franchise to a National Assembly that would formulate the country's constitution. His Legal Framework Order (since there was no constitution in place at that time) conceived a 300 member National Assembly with 162 elected from East Bengal, accepting the old Bengali demand. But perhaps, it was already too late.

The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Tahir Mehdi works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy. He tweets @TahirMehdiZ.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (59)

December 11, 2012 12:16 pm
Specially, in karachi the same situation is observed everytime
December 12, 2012 8:46 pm
December 11, 2012 9:37 am
Mr.Jinnah was not a democrat. He grabbed the power at the earliest. His descendants are doing the same till today.
December 11, 2012 7:30 am
The article has not pointed out the existing cultural tension between the two erstwhile wings of Pakistan in terms of language and the riots that it led to in Dhaka. The imposition of the culture and language associated with West Pakistan had a direct role in convincing the Bengali population that their rights would not be protected in Pakistan. Added to this was the economic disparity between the two wings as the majority of forex earned and revenue generated in Bangladesh was disbursed in a discriminatory manner with West Pakistan being the principal beneficiary.
December 11, 2012 3:08 pm
AA You are 100% right. Democracy today, comes in only 1 flavour - British. We are a Republic, not a Democracy. To understand this technical point one must learn the difference between Republic and Democracy, ideas that are 2,500 year old (Google Republic vs Democracy). Democracy is the rule of the few, the Demos, the 5% moneyed males. Republic is the rule of the public through learned men. Socrates pushed for Republic and was murdered by Democracy. Democracy is for stratified societies (India, UK, Canada), Republic for egalitarian ones (France, USA, China, Muslim world). USA was founded as a Republic in revolt against the Democracy of British PM Frederick Lord North, and Pakistan was founded in revolt against the Democracy of Nehru/Gandhi. We should not trying to go back to becoming a Democracy like India unless we believe that the 2-nation theory is bunk.
December 11, 2012 5:33 am
West Pakistani elite and the powerful army never appreciate that the Pakistan movement was started in Dhaka in 1905 by Sir, Salimullah, the nwab of Dhaka.The real discontent between the two wings of Pakistan was the language. In his maidan visit in 1948, Jinnah's decleration of Isngle National language of Urdu was the flash point. Though Bengalis were majority and sole foreign exchange erner, they never treated well. Like British, West Pakistan amass wealth looting from East Pakistan.
December 11, 2012 5:05 am
"His Legal Framework Order (since there was no constitution in place at that time) conceived a 300 member National Assembly with 162 elected from East Bengal, accepting the old Bengali demand. But perhaps, it was already too late." Can't help but wonder, were the Bengalis Nationalists every serious about not breaking up with Pakistan? Why, when they were given parity (and even majority) did they not stay with Pakistan? There were no so called atrocities against them at that period in time. I hope Parts II, III and IV touch on this subject and not just plain old Pakistan bashing.
December 11, 2012 5:00 am
nice and informative article based on facts. Eagerly waiting for the next in series.
December 13, 2012 4:26 am
Mustafa Kemal bin Ali Reza Effendi was not a Muslim of the type of his times, he was an Alevi, and he was a Believer. He carried Quran in his pocket all the times. The Islam of his times had become thoroughly corrupted, with debasement of both god and prophet. So his criticism is justified.
December 13, 2012 4:33 am
Moreover, Jinnah was an admirer of Ataturk. Dina Jinnah nicknamed her father "Grey Wolf" after the 1932 biography of Ataturk.
December 11, 2012 4:37 am
Incoherent and confused. Don't try to get smart. You are only showing the world what a great fool you are. You can't affect them at all
December 11, 2012 3:17 pm
Nat: No. The Kaliphate was not secular. It was theocratic.The non-Muslims lost all rights they had under the Covenant of Medina. The loss of secular character of the Medinan Republic after our Prophet died is the beginning of the Islamic tragedy that continued until Mustafa Kemal bin Ali Reza Effendi (Ataturk) and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, both staunchly anti-Kaliphate and secular founded the Turkish Republic and Pakistani Republic copying the Medinan Republic of our Prophet. Today, forces both in Turkey and Pakistan are trying to turn them into theocratic Kaliphates, a coup that must be resisted with all our might.
December 11, 2012 4:04 am
The main point which is missing ... none of the states which came to become Pakistan could have got independence on their own. Bengalis realized that in 1905 and formed Muslim League. Thus, muslims from all over India were mobilized for independence. When independence was achieved, each ethnic group strived for its own interest. For Bengalis, all non-Bengalis were West Pakistanis and thus outsiders. They just wanted to be rich overnight by plundering whatever wealth was generated on their own perceived land. They had no regard for 'foreign' investment that came from Muslim migrants from all over India. Such is the mentality of Sindh and Baloch separatists. Punjabis and Mohajirs have their own caste and creed issues. Pushtuns have been overwhelmed by Afghan refugees. The main culprit is not undemocratic process. But it is lack of insight, conscience, and respect for fellow human beings. This is not merely lack of literacy. But this is 'jahalat'. Bengalis held powerful posts in Pakistan but failed to deliver. During 1971, Bengalis destroyed their own country. After gaining independence, they killed their own people... corruption prevailed. So is that what Bengalis longed for? Alas, other separatists in Pakistan do not learn from Bengal. In the US, all skilled immigrants are welcomed and absorbed. All citizen work hard. No body says I am born in America so this is my land only and I should get dollars for free.
December 11, 2012 3:29 am
This is a brilliant article, sadly our politicians will still not listen and I blame the people for still not rising up and removing current incompetent leadership.
December 11, 2012 3:31 am
US model of Congress and Senate makes complete 100% sense. The British style democracy is total failure for a country like Pakistan.
December 13, 2012 11:20 am
No he is not just talking about the corrupted or debased Islam of those days as you say. He is challenging the authenticity of god's revelation itself. Read the quote again.
December 11, 2012 1:40 am
I am already looking forward to the next three parts . This appears to be an unbiased objective research. Hope it will bring home some lessons for all stake holders.
December 10, 2012 9:14 pm
I also feel that quality of articles as well as pakistani comments are improving with each passing day or may Dawn sensor board is allowing only sensible comments and articles. I am not sure.
December 11, 2012 12:34 am
Mr. Abbas: There is an interesting twist to your correct observation that East pakistan had considerable Hindu population (about 20% upto 1971). After Mujibur Rahman was killed Bangladesh adopted a state religion and today the Hindus in independent Bangladesh constitute 7% or less of the population.
December 11, 2012 11:04 am
Have we learned any thing from that episode? Aren’t we still doing the same. This time around it is Baluchistan , Sindh and Pakhtoon. We need to revamp the system. Distribution wealth should be as per the earning of the provinces. Have to remove the safety net based on population. Let the competition prevails
Do Good
December 10, 2012 11:28 pm
There are lot of dark skinned people in Punjab and Sindh. What is the point? The point is Bhutto didn't want to give up and used Yahiya. Again due to the act of tribal lords Pakistan has been suffering since its creation.
December 10, 2012 11:06 pm
State of Medina founded by our Prophet (AS) was a secular Republc. That's why we see a lots of non Muslim caliphs in the state after him, as they were in majority.
December 11, 2012 1:45 pm
Bravo, Tahir. Meticulous mathematical analysis of history. But I am at a loss to comprehend the title of the article and making crow white with Bengal as Pakistan?
December 10, 2012 10:51 pm
I find it interesting that the author says "The dark skinned Bengalis, sharing culture and language with their Hindu compatriots did not cut a figure to fit the coveted slot.". Did the light skinned Muslims from north India not share culture and language with Hindus (and Sikhs) in the Punjab??? Another hugs factor not discussed is that some north Indian communities came to believe that they were part of the "martial races" of India. [The British used the martial races theory to great effect during their rule.]
December 11, 2012 10:39 am
Pakistan itself was founded on a fear of democracy and the one man-one vote principle. The disregard for democratic norms was again apparent after the 1970 election results, where the majority party was not allowed to rule. To make democracy successful, a democratic temperament is needed, which has never existed in Pakistan since its formation.Maybe it is best that Pakistan adopts a system, that suits it, rather then hankering after democracy.
December 11, 2012 1:40 pm
I only hope you knew the opinion that Ataturk held about all these Islamik laws and culture which he ridiculed as being primitive.
Abdul j Sheikh
December 10, 2012 7:42 pm
Anything can be proved by history.
Soul of Manto
December 17, 2012 6:46 pm
What is 'Bogra'?
Nabarun Dey
December 12, 2012 3:41 pm
The greatest thing about Jinnah's legacy is that, he could snatch away a country from the imperialists without ever being beaten by them or served prison terms.He just required a typewriter and Sohrawordy.
December 13, 2012 1:50 pm
We have still not learnt the lesson from history now we are pursing an other bizarre goal to make Afghanistan our fifth Province in the name of strategic depth
December 11, 2012 5:43 pm
You can blame the Pakistani rulers (civilian and military) from 1947 onwards for failing to provide a coherent, positive vision for Pakistanis and for lusting after power like bees after honey. But the people of Pakistan have always demonstrated sound common sense whenever they were permitted to vote by voting in those most likely to deal with economic issues and not being misled by religious or nationalistic or anti-western rhetoric. So, the solution to Pakistan's problems is the one-man one-vote. Not legalizing the criminal disregard of the electoral process by past rulers, whether it was Bhutto or any military dictator.
December 10, 2012 6:39 pm
Thank you for explaining the situation and history so clearly. At least there is something to think about in here. I think the quality of journalism and writing is very high in here and some other authors on Dawn, and a pleasure to read.
Dr. Manmohan Zardari
December 11, 2012 6:01 pm
brother don't take this in a wrong way. this is not Pakistan bashing rather this is introspection. this article never said that the general people of Pakistan were biased or something. it just said the decisions taken by the leaders was was some what biased and why do you think some one is bashing Pakistan when none of the leaders were directly elected. When we say Kim jong is jar head we certainly don't mean all north Koreans are jar head. so keep things in perspective 1 + 2 is not equal 5
December 11, 2012 2:19 pm
@abbastoronto Here I quote Ataturk. "For nearly five hundred years, these rules and theories of an Arab Shaikh and the interpretations of generations of lazy and good-for-nothing priests have decided the civil and criminal law of Turkey. They have decided the form of the Constitution, the details of the lives of each Turk, his food, his hours of rising and sleeping the shape of his clothes, the routine of the midwife who produced his children, what he learned in his schools, his customs, his thoughts-even his most intimate habits. Islam – this theology of an immoral Arab – is a dead thing. Possibly it might have suited tribes in the desert. It is no good for modern, progressive state. God’s revelation! There is no God! These are only the chains by which the priests and bad rulers bound the people down. A ruler who needs religion is a weakling. No weaklings should rule!” And you put him in the same bracket with Jinnah. For what? To make Ataturk appear more religious, or to make Jinnah look more progressive? Turkey was lucky to have Ataturk. The difference between Pakistan and Turkey is the difference between Jinnah and Ataturk.
Maarij Syed
December 10, 2012 5:48 pm
Realizing the extent of the horror and injustics of the "Fall of Dhaka" may be a useful step in getting rid of the scales that cover our collective eyes that only see conspiracy theories as explanations for any and all ills.
December 10, 2012 5:37 pm
Well balanced article and also thought provoking, One should understand India was also left with similar choices at the same time, even more complicated with different languages religion and culture, Pakistan should allow their next generation to study unbiased history of India and understand how India co-existed with diverisified culture. In Movie Gandhi by Richard Attenborough, there is a scene in Jinnah residence where Gandhi takes tea pot from maid servant and serves tea to everyone and makes his point that British will only be replaced by rich lawyers from Bombay if you try to achieve freedom without proper plan. It is unfortunate for Pakistan that Jinnah died shortly after its inception and no other Pakistan leader never had clear vision or plan that could work for entire Pakistani people that includes (Baloch's Mohajirs, hindus christians,bengalis,Ahamadis and Muslims). Most of the leaders where short sighted and Power mongers and did anything to rule.
Soul of Manto
December 17, 2012 6:32 pm
Don't you dare blame Mr Jinnah. He is above all else. He was always right. He was the greatest Muslim, greatest Pakistani, greatest human being ever walked on this planet.
December 12, 2012 1:05 am
Yes, the crow is definitely white.
December 13, 2012 9:15 pm
Bravo !!!!!! Aabdul sahab. I just spotted a white crow. :)
Nabarun Dey
December 12, 2012 3:46 pm
Why forget Moududi ?
December 12, 2012 1:06 am
Lots of nonmuslim caliphs. Yes the crow is white.
December 12, 2012 1:09 am
Tribal nature combined with intense obsession with religion has caused untold miseries.
December 18, 2012 3:52 am
Unfortunately, there is no way except to agree
December 10, 2012 12:28 pm
Thank you Mr.Author for a very informative article.
mir aftab
December 12, 2012 12:58 pm
it is part of an evolutionary process and the boundaries we see now will change according to aspirations of people who will become more and more conscious about their economic well being as they develop.
Basudeb Dey
December 10, 2012 1:31 pm
Thanks Mr Tahir for you unbiased and informative article. New generation of Pakistani journalist are much bolder and different then what I saw during 70s. Can't wait to read your remaining articles.
December 12, 2012 2:47 pm
I don't agree that Jinnah was not a democrat. He was all for democracy when he was among the the majority.
December 11, 2012 11:44 am
Funny.... Please wake up.
December 10, 2012 11:36 am
The idea that non-Muslims should have a lesser say in Pakistan affairs had already begun to infest Pakistan, despite clear declaration by Mr. Jinnah to the equality of all citizens irrespective of race, colour, sect, religion, or origin. Because East Pakistan had considerable Hindu population, the West had more Muslims than the East. it was therefore argued that the West should have a larger say in governance. It may be worthwhile to remind readers that the State of Medina founded by our Prophet (AS) was a secular Republic whose constitution was the Covenant of Medina, a secular document. Both Turkey of Ataturk and Pakistan of Jinnah were founded on that secular Principle of Medina.
Aftab Siddiqi
December 12, 2012 1:35 pm
Both Dawn and Indian Papers writes the TRUTH.
December 12, 2012 6:00 am
You see a lot of non Muslim caliphs in Medina. Please name one. Educate me please.
December 12, 2012 1:50 pm
Have you read The Hindu newspaper? It's equally good if not better than for your other we can't accommodate a neighbor if he keep sending terrorists..Live and let live charity must start at home..
December 12, 2012 5:10 am
Great analysis... Thats why I like the Dawn and The Hindu newspaper (from Pakistan and India respectively) Both newspaper are best in content and even readers are matured.
December 10, 2012 11:07 am
Bogra was inspired by the US model of Congress and Senate. It made sense then, and it makes now.
Dr. M A Jabbar
December 13, 2012 8:43 pm
Bengali Muslims never wanted to destroy Pakistan, we were forced to separate after years of denial of our rightful democratic rights. In 1948 our Language were being taken away, in 1954 our democracy was take away, in 1958 all our rights as citizens were take away, in 1971 we were denied to form a democratic Government and we were being killed as they wished. What could we have done?
December 12, 2012 7:01 am
Please show me any healthy and open comment column in an Indian daily. Except for foul langauge, nothing of substance is ever discussed about matters relating to Pakistan. There is no need to say we are coming of age. As a matter of fact Pakistani journalism is better the India's any day. Dawn is a world class paper.It never writes derogatory stories or comments related to India, Indian papers do that all the time. To be neighbors we have to be accommodating, let's try and do that it will go a long way to solve issue between us. Feeling complacent will not cut it.
December 18, 2012 4:21 am
I always failed to comprehend a fact that Pakistan movement was based on two nations theory - the Hindu and the Muslim. How can one expect that on August 14 the Muslim nation would overnight convert into a state nation? Could Bengali leaders not foresee what would happen due to this flawed two nations theory? Once you start playing on ambiguous religious ground, you lose the fairness. Always the one who can exploit better, wins. On the one hand, I see Muslims were (and perhaps are) marginalized in India but on the other hand we the Pakistanis are still at loss by playing religious card. Not sure about Bengali's. Perhaps their separation from Pakistan based on Bengali nationalism was a right decision. By any definition they are a nation regardless they find their destiny or not.
December 10, 2012 11:17 am
Indeed it makes a lot of sense but sense has never prevailed in Pakistan. How unfortunate but that is the fact
December 13, 2012 4:54 pm
Explore: Indian elections 2014
Explore: Indian elections 2014
How much do you know about Indian Elections?
How much do you know about Indian Elections?