Revisiting 1971: The crow is white, Bengal is Pakistan

Published December 13, 2014
You can't call a crow white. But come statecraft, everything becomes possible. —Illustration by Tahir Mehdi
You can't call a crow white. But come statecraft, everything becomes possible. —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 first 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.

The political picture in 1947

The areas that constituted Pakistan in 1947 were ruled by the British under different arrangements. Bengal, Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (then 'NWFP') were provinces with elected assemblies.

Balochistan was governed by an appointed Commissioner; tribal areas by Political Agents; and a number of so-called princely states by Rajas under the paramountcy of the British Crown.

These states 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.

But every one of these entities had a standing as a 'state', however rudimentary its stage might be.

When the 'Bengali problem' arose

It had begun in 1947 already. The people who were handed over the reigns of the new country on August 14 were tasked with working out a system which allowed all the above-mentioned entities to coexist peacefully and prosper together.

But when they sat down to figure out this formula for an equal distribution of power, every option they considered led to the same concern: the Bengalis were more in number than all the rest put together, and under a democracy, nothing could bar them from getting a majority share in the new state.

Now that did not sit well at all with the infant country's larger, grander designs of spearheading a new Islamic renaissance and hoisting its flag on every other building in South Asia.

The dark-skinned Bengalis, who shared their language and culture 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 nation found itself at; that if the simple democratic path was to be taken, we would miss the golden opportunity to revive all of our lost glories (by losing the government to a Bengali majority). And if we stuck to this cherished goal, we would need to get around democracy and find some undemocratic solution to 'the Bengal problem'. At the end, it didn't turn out to be very difficult.

First draft — how an impasse was created

The ruling elite unearthed a trove of edicts, historical references and quotable quotes that allowed them to bend the rules to serve 'the larger national interest' and avoid rigidly following democracy, which was anyway a 'Western concept quite unsuitable to our kind of polity'.

One of our visionaries had forewarned us about the pitfalls of democracy, which counted 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 would 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 would be represented in the latter House, whose members were supposed to be directly elected by the people. The Bengalis, who were being offered half the seats (when population-wise, their proportionate share was more than that), were not ready to surrender their right.

Thus evolved the impasse.

Second draft — Nazimuddin's partial 'Principle of Parity'

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 Bengal in the east and the other half was divided among the nine units of western Pakistan (the provinces of Punjab, Sindh, NWFP, what is now Fata, Bahawalpur, Balochistan, Balochistan States, Khairpur State and Federal Capital), roughly according to their share in population. But this principle — share proportionate to population — was not adopted in the division of seats between east and west Pakistan.

This blatant imparity and injustice was given the name, 'Principle of Parity'.

This is 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.

The Bengalis did not accept this and the draft was rejected.

Third draft — Bogra's mathematical masterstroke

The next Prime Minister, Mohammad Ali Bogra, came up with an uber-complex equation to resolve the impasse.

In October 1954, he presented the third draft, which 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. The 300 seats of the House of People were roughly accorded to each unit according to their share in the population.

In this way, East Bengal got a majority in the House of People (with 165 out of 300 seats), but not in the House of Units where it had just 10 of the 50 seats.

All the laws had to be approved by both the Houses and in a joint sitting (of 350 members). East Pakistan (with 165+10=175 seats) 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 One-Unit Scheme

The undemocratic step was sanctioned by the judiciary that innovated and employed the 'Law of Necessity' for the first time.

It took the 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.

This article was first published on on December 10, 2012.



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