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Revisiting 1971: Fear, force, fury and a thin Bengali's smile

Updated December 20, 2012
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 dawn.com on December 20, 2012.


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