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The more fear one could stir up, the greater the king he was and being fearsome meant that one has unlimited capacity and unabated resolve to inflict pain, injury and cause death to any number of people.—Illustration by Tahir Mehdi
The more fear one could stir up, the greater the king he was and being fearsome meant that one has unlimited capacity and unabated resolve to inflict pain, injury and cause death to any number of people.—Illustration by Tahir Mehdi

Most Pakistanis feel uneasy coming to terms with the reality that is Bangladesh. They hide themselves behind a shoddy narrative of 1971, and neatly categorise the whole thing as a 'conspiracy'. It might well have been one. But who conspired against whom and when? What were the Bengalis up to? And how did they reach breaking point?

This article is the Part 4 of a four-part series that looks back at the events of 1971 in Pakistan from the perspective of the development of democracy in this country. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

The rule of the redoubtable Muslims in India was finally concluded in 1858, with the British Crown formally assuming control.

It wasn't a routine one-dynasty-replacing-another kind of change. The new rulers upset the whole applecart. They were neither Muslims nor Hindus, and they introduced a different kind of government.

Within a decade of this fateful event, Muslim clergy started reorganising itself and founded Darul Uloom Deoband. Muslim civil bureaucracy led by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan formed the All India Muhammadan Educational Conference two decades later in 1886. All India Muslim League was formed at the 20th session of this Conference held in 1906 in Dacca. Indian National Congress had come into existence earlier in 1885.

Separate electorates for retaining power

In the latter half of the 19th century, Indian polity was realigning itself to the new realities, the most important of which were the prospects of people's rule.

Now democracy feeds on numbers and survives by counting and the colonial administrative machine started crunching numbers as early as 1872.

Also read: Fall of Dhaka: Memories of a bloody December

The first census conducted between 1865-72, however, was not synchronous. The one conducted in 1881 is thus counted as the first one. The numerical facts, especially the population figures for different regions, casts and religions, soon became the biggest political realities.

Muslims could now see in quantitative terms that after around a thousand year rule, they were a minority in India. They were wary of the way the electoral system worked. They feared that in a democratic political system they will be rendered powerless.

What chances did a community with just a quarter or even less voters stand?

Muslim League thus demanded separate electorate, which ensured a quota of seats for them in the legislative bodies. The Indian National Congress opposed the demand as it wanted everyone to vote jointly.

The Communal Award of 1932 (the act of the British government) accepted the minority position and separated the electorate along religious and communal lines. The division later turned into the demand for, and then led to the creation of, two separate countries.

Separate electorates for retaining purity

Muslims were now in majority in the new country, Pakistan. They could practice democracy without the fear of numerical subjugation to an adversary, perceived or otherwise.

Conversely, the non-Muslims became a minority in Pakistan. Were they afraid of the Muslim majority? Shouldn't they have demanded separate electorate now? Afraid they might be but they did not demand separation. In fact the opposite happened.

Explore: Various shades of green: An ideological history of the Muslim League

A section of Muslim League vehemently opposed the joint electorate system and advocated that the separation of electorate on the basis of religion shall remain intact. Did they still fear Hindus who were reduced to a miserable minority? Politically active and vocal Hindu leaders did bother them and there is no doubt that Muslim League rulers wanted to get rid of them.

But shouldn't the joint electorate have done the trick – the minority voice lost in the loud clamor of overwhelming majority? Why then, did Muslim League keep on insisting that the non-Muslim shall vote separately?

There was another divide on the issue as well and that might help explain this:

East Pakistan was deadly against separate electorate while the central and Punjab Muslim Leagues were its biggest supporters. Almost a quarter of East Pakistan was Hindu and/or Scheduled Caste while non-Muslims in western provinces made less than five per cent of population.

In present day Punjab, non-Muslims (mainly, Christians) are barely two and a half per cent of the population. So the province that had a miniscule population of non-Muslims advocated separate electorate while the one with a sizeable and significant one wanted Muslims and Hindus to vote jointly!

See: Jinnah`s vision of Pakistan

There was an ideological dimension to the issue as well. Those who wanted to make Pakistan an Islamic state considered it important to not let the votes of non-Muslims mix up with those of the chosen faithful so that the sacred state's mandate is not 'polluted'.

For others, the non-Muslims started symbolising all of their identity markers other than Islam – like language and culture – which they shared with them and did not want to abandon while building the new state.

But I think more important than the ideological exegeses were the hard political facts, the hardest being that there were more Bengalis than all the rest put together.

This was worsened by the fact that 'the rest' were divided into too many smaller units. So under a democracy, Bengalis would always win.

And Bengalis ruling Pakistan was somehow against the blueprint of Islamic republic as laid down by its self-appointed architects. It had to be ruled by the rent-seeking jagirdars of Punjab and khandani bureaucrats hailing from northern India.

They had no respect for the Bengali political leadership comprising mainly of middle class persons who were politically conscious, articulate and quite active.

Read on: A leaf from history: When the war began

So the ghost of democracy came back haunting nawab sahab and with vengeance. This time around they fretted at the prospects of numerically dominant Bengali Muslims ruling over them. They fumed at the tenets of democracy and geared up to fix it. They engineered a two-pronged strategy:

One, was to 'unite' all except East Bengal into one state entity, called One-Unit scheme resulting in what was named the West Pakistan province. But even that was not enough to counter-weigh Bengalis who were a whopping 54 per cent of population.

The second part of the strategy thus was to divide East Bengal into smaller units. And Muslim League had the experience of only one kind of division, that is, along religious lines. So if Bengali voters were separated on the basis of religion, the Bengali Muslim representatives will fall fewer than the elected members of West Pakistan. Bengalis understood the plan and resisted it tooth and nail.

The first draft of the constitution presented by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan in 1950 could not forward any proposal about the electorate system as there was sharp disagreement within the committee entrusted with the task.

The next prime minister Nazimuddin gave in to the pressure of religious right and his draft, presented in 1953, proposed a separate electorate system, but the draft was rejected after heated debate on this and other subjects.

The third draft, too, failed to broker an agreement and just to ensure that the contentious issue did not stall the finalisation of the already too delayed constitution, it decided not to make any suggestion on electorate system, leaving the subject for the National Assembly to legislate upon latter.

Explore: Does Pakistan need to rewrite its Constitution?

When the assembly took up the matter in October 1956, the division remained unabridged and the Electorate Act passed by the house provided for separate electorate in West Pakistan and joint in East.

It was embarrassing for many in the government to be unable to agree upon one system of elections in a country that wanted to take pride in its Muslim unity. The Act was soon amended to provide for the same joint system for both the wings.

However, no elections could be held under this law, as General Ayub took over and abrogated the nascent constitution. When the general was tailoring a constitutional dress for his brazen military rule, he too was advised to separate electors but he didn't. Nor did General Yahya dare to do that while drafting his Legal Framework Order that provided the basis for the first general elections in the country held in 1970.

This, however, did not mean that the other party had abandoned their plan to separate voters. They continued to make efforts even after Bengalis had separated, and in fact, were successful afterwards only. But Bengalis persisted too and everyone had come to realise that come what may they will not compromise on this point.

Bengalis were not afraid of their fellow Hindu citizens and the ruling elite of Pakistan could not instill this fear into them either. Or maybe the Bengalis had started fearing their fellow Muslim overlords more and the state of Pakistan failed to divert their fear towards Hindus.

Whatever the case, the Bengali refusal to reject Hindus as integral part of their polity actually made our elite dread Bengalis even more, or perhaps their fear of Hindu and Bengali dominating them got mixed with each other.

Blocked effectively on the premise of democracy, they did what people who feed on fear do. They inflicted the worst possible fury on Bengalis to stir fear in their hearts and yet, the lean, placid Bengalis smiled, refusing to be afraid of their freedom.

That's how Bangladesh was born.

This article was first published on on December 20, 2012.


Author Image

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 writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (33) Closed

Nabarun Dey Dec 20, 2012 02:26pm
Any future narration of the story of birth of Bangladesh,key part played by Sheikh Mujibar Rehman, Muktibahini and Indira Gandhi must be the integral part.Commendable job DAWN. My complements to the writer.
salman Dec 20, 2012 02:57pm
I am sure Bengalis must be laughing at us Pakistanis and appreciating their leaders .. they should celebrate harder.
pathanoo Dec 20, 2012 03:52pm
An excellent article and the truth it entails. The Doomed are the ones who do NOT learn from History. Pakistan is THE poster child (for not learning from history).
Rao Dec 20, 2012 01:42pm
No wonder Pakistan failed in democracy, with so much fear of majority.
Agha Ata Dec 20, 2012 01:51pm
During all these decades since Bangladesh was established the most feared people were the journalists in Pakistan who did not tell what you told today. But in their hearts, they knew everything!
Baighairat Kafir Dec 20, 2012 01:53pm
One of the reasons to learn history is that to not to repeat past mistakes. The reason Pakistan has failed on so many fronts is that its leaders, army and even the majority of population has failed to learn from history, including the Bangladesh debacle. The writer brilliantly points it out.
rich Dec 20, 2012 02:00pm
great article, thank you for the information
Baighairat Kafir Dec 20, 2012 01:55pm
Dear Tahir, Great series. Sad only a small number of people in Pakistan will appreciate it and learn from their own history. Kudos to you for linking it to history starting with Mughals and the British Raj, and then appreciating the right choices that Bengalis made
Pradeep Dec 20, 2012 09:15am
gaurav Dec 20, 2012 09:16am
Dahoudi Dec 20, 2012 09:59am
Nice series in all. I was waiting eagerly to read the part-4 of the series. Whole series is "A true mirror" that shows the reality of Bangladesh creation. Pakistan should learn from it.
Muhammad Ahmed Mufti Dec 20, 2012 02:21pm
Can we just move on now? Bangladesh is too far from Pakistan and we have nothing in common. Whatever common there was evoporated decades ago. Our focus should be on improving ourselves as a nation.
Cynical Dec 20, 2012 10:12am
Thanks for all four parts. DAWN has once again proved its highest standard of professionalism.
Cynical Dec 20, 2012 10:22am
Learning is the privilege of an open mind and a journey of a lifetime.
hamid Shafiq Dec 20, 2012 10:34am
close this chapter, again and agian similar writing in whole print media. i hope go forward and narrow the gap between to two countries
Mark Dec 20, 2012 10:57am
Wow!..well written and enlightenning
Khan Dec 20, 2012 04:40pm
Excellent . Although still missing some other aspects of discriminatory mentality of rulling elite.
Raja Islam Dec 20, 2012 04:55pm
Great article. It says it the way it is. A lot of the blame of the current state of affairs falls on the shoulders of the Punjabi dominated military and the Mohajir dominated bureaucracy of the early years.
vishmed Dec 20, 2012 05:17pm
Just one thing wrong in this article. Muslim rule over India ended long before 1858. Even at their peak Muslim kings never ruled over the whole of India.
Cyrus Howell Dec 20, 2012 05:44pm
"Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear
R.K.Mohindra Dec 20, 2012 06:21pm
Excellent article . One of the bloggers doesn't like knowing histotry. Please you don't have to read it. Just donot deprive others from good journalism. Those who donot learn from history, will have to repeat it.
gita Dec 20, 2012 06:28pm
This is brilliant. Bravo Dawn for such though provoking articles. There is NO alternative to secularism and democracy for Asia, where multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-liguistic and multi-religious peoples live
ram Dec 20, 2012 06:43pm
Minority divided Austria and Hungary..... Warned but no heed
Seetharam Dec 20, 2012 07:24pm
Dear Tahir, I read all the four articles and I have to say they are very well written, an eye opener for the True history behind the current problems facing Pakistan. My admiration goes out to all Bangladeshis for their steadfast identification with their language, tolerance of their Hindu brothers and sisters and according them equal rights in voting and governing. Pakistan has destroyed itself from within by the hate it practices on people of other faiths and now the hatred of Muslim minorities inside Pakistan. I can say it is no longer the Pakistan that the Quaid/Jannah wanted. Seetharam
MAHENDRA DEV Dec 20, 2012 10:49pm
Virendra Dec 20, 2012 11:51pm
One thing is for certain - The author can become a great best selling story teller. The way he presented the series was marvelous.
Yemeen ul Islam Zuberi Dec 21, 2012 12:13am
Very well written article, however, more efforts are needed to understand the happenings that led to the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan. I identify only one culprit and that was military, Ayub Khan, who jumped into the political arena and stopped all politics that was going on. It is politics, and politics only, that solve national problems of all nations. Banning politicians is just like going to war wearing iron on eyes.
Student Dec 21, 2012 02:19am
Where do we look for what happened in the 1971 war ?
Sanjiv Dec 21, 2012 02:34am
A brilliant and simply explained set of articles. Power has always been about the privileged preserving their hegemony over society, whether it is by royalty, the landed gentry, the bureaucracy or religious leaders.
R. Mahmud Dec 21, 2012 03:09am
accurate to the core
Krish Chennai Dec 21, 2012 03:46pm
The writer of this four-part series deserved to have more time and space in Dawn, as it is crucial for our future as one people, one sub-continent, by whatever name one may call it. As a school-kid on my way back home, on a cold December evening in 1971, I had wandered and stopped by the sprawling Calcutta maidan, where Sheikh Mujib gave a speech that thundered with "Amar Shonar Bangla" ( My Golden Bengal ) and to which the millions assembled there to hear him, gave a throaty roar that shook the ground on which I stood. One should also bear in mind that the British administration, for the sake of convenience of government had partitioned Bengal into East and West in 1905, had again made it one in 1911, when they found that it was not practical. Then, of course, came 1947. Although not a Bengali, I am born and educated in Calcutta. I can vouch for the fact that the Bengalis have an affinity and possessiveness of their culture, and language, that beats any other on earth. Accolades to Mr. Tahir Mehdi for this four part series !
Pankaj Patel(USA) Dec 23, 2012 09:52pm
This writer deserve salute.He is the most rational writer I have ever read.Very informative and thought provoking article,we should learn from history and not be emotional about it to repeat the mistakes.
Ganesh (India) Dec 25, 2012 05:11am
Please move on gentleman!!! By the way you might not have any thing in common with Balochis, Sindhi's, Pakhtoon's, Hazara's, Saraiki's, Lahori's etc as well.. Whatever was there evoporated decades ago... You are indeed "Unique" in this world....