Zubeida Mustafa discusses the reasons that alienated Bengalis and led to the creation of Bangladesh

Howard Zinn, the American historian and activist, once said that when you look at history from the “point of view of people at the bottom rather than the people at the top, everything looks different”. The criteria you use to judge policies are also different. Hence to be meaningful history must be written as the people’s history.

What happened in East Pakistan in 1971 when Bangladesh was born in blood and tears has been recounted by bureaucrats, military generals, historians, economists and scholars prolifically—but mostly from their own subjective point of view. Not much has been said about the people whose story remains largely untold. Much has been written about the exploitation of the eastern wing by the centres of power in the west. What befell the people has remained buried in silence, at least in Pakistan.

It is time this aspect of the tragedy of 1971 was uncovered. Time has now distanced us from the events that were highly emotive when they occurred. Now they can be addressed with a cool and dispassionate detachment. If you set politics and economics aside and look at the human dimension what emerges clearly is a different story.

The policies of the powers that be and their repercussions unleashed forces that affected the relations between the preponderantly Bengali population of East Pakistan and the small non-Bengali community generically referred to as Biharis (though not all of them came from Bihar). For years they had lived together and the post-Partition generation born in the golden land, to borrow from Tagore’s Golden Bengal, was beginning to integrate with the natives. Mixed marriages were no longer unheard of while the youth had become fluent in Bangla.

Then how would one explain the hatred that was spewed to tear apart the two people who had lived in peace for over two decades? As has been the case all over the world, foolish and selfish policies of power hungry leaders who control the destinies of nations get translated into animosities and hatred between the people they lead. That is the story of Bangladesh as well.

The arrogance of many West Pakistani bureaucrats and army generals created resentment among the Bengalis. The 25 years that Bengal was a part of united Pakistan were marked by a continuous power struggle between the leaders on constitutional issues. Paradoxically this did not affect the harmony between the two communities.

Islamabad’s biased administrative and economic policies that discriminated against East Pakistan and ensured that it did not receive the optimum benefit of its resources hurt the residents of all ethnicities equally. According to the data given by the Central Statistics Office of Pakistan, East Pakistan had 29,633 primary schools in 1947-8 and their number fell to 28,225 in 1966-7 (West Pakistan had only 8,413 in 1947 and 20 years later their number had shot up to 33,271).

Cracks first appeared when Pakistan’s war with India in 1965 led Bengalis to believe that they had been left undefended. Then came the celebration of the ‘decade of development’ in 1968 that exacerbated the bitterness. East Pakistan had not really been a beneficiary of this ‘development’. Sporadic violence between the Bengalis and Biharis were at times reported, though these pale into insignificance before the events of 1971.

The army crackdown of March 25, 1971 that came in the wake of the breakdown of the constitutional dialogue marked the start of the violent phase. The Pakistan Army resorted to the use of brutal force and killings and rape were reported on a large scale. Sarmila Bose’s Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War (OUP) recounts it all. The Bengalis retaliated by forming the Mukti Bahini comprising regulars and civilians, trained in India, who fought a guerrilla war against the Pakistan Army while also unleashing terror on the Biharis, who were also killed in large numbers. They became innocent hostages and were indiscriminately seen as representing West Pakistan (see Aquila Ismail’s forthcoming book, Of martyrs and marigolds).

As the violence spiralled, ethnic divisions got mixed up with ideological-political loyalties. Cashing on this trend, the Pakistan Army set up three paramilitary forces—Al Shams, Al Badr and Razakars—comprising members of the Jamaat-i-Islami and other Islamist parties of Bangladesh to act as informers and to eliminate pro-independence Bengalis. They comprised predominantly Bengalis though some Biharis also joined them.

As a result the relationships between the two communities were affected not because of their own actions. The self serving policies of those in power and those aspiring for power changed the face of Bangladesh by altering the Bengali majority’s perception of their ‘Bihari’ compatriots whose loyalties became suspect. They came to be seen as agents of West Pakistan. Forgotten was the harmonious past they had shared together.

That is a common story repeated all over the world: the common man pays for the sins of his rulers. Aquila Ismail’s book (published by CreateSpace) fictionalises poignantly the events of 1971 and is based on her personal experience. The quoted passage below sums up the phenomenon of changing relationships:

“Now it is not East Pakistan,” Abbu interrupted her, “It is now not the land of the Muslims. It is Bangladesh…the land of the Bengalis.”

“But we came here right after Pakistan was made, so we belong here. Do not torture yourself. We have so many friends. They will make sure nothing happens to us.”

“None of that matters now. We are not accepted as Bengalis…we speak Urdu and anyone who helps us will be branded as well,” Abbu said.