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 4 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. See Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
The rule of the redoubtable Muslims in India was finally concluded in 1858 with British Crown formally assuming the control. It wasn't a routine one-dynasty-replacing-another kind of change. The new rulers upset the whole applecart. They were not Muslims and neither were they Hindus. 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 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. In the latter half of the nineteenth 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. 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. The stark one for Muslims, who 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 that 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 latter turned into the demand for, and then led to the creation of, two separate countries. 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. 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 did then 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 Bengal was deadly against separate electorate while the central and Punjab Muslim Leagues were its biggest supporters. Almost a quarter of East Bengal was Hindu and or Scheduled Cast while non-Muslims in western provinces made less than five percent of population. In present day Punjab, non-Muslims (mainly, Christians) are barely two and a half percent of 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!
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.