Partition of Pakistan 1971

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By Yasser Latif Hamdani[1]



(The author touches upon the various reasons behind the partition of 1971 and the strengthening of Bengali national identity – Editor)

 “After how many meetings shall we be close again” – Faiz Ahmad Faiz

The separation of East Pakistan was a tragedy that still haunts our collective national memory after 44 years.  Yet, after so many years Pakistanis have been unable to come to terms with the reasons for that separation. When we did try and address those questions, we were unable to do so in any substantial manner. The Hamoodur Rahman Commission report was a beginning but even that was kept under wraps for quite a while.  This has created a national amnesia with regards to the painful memory of the dishonour brought to Pakistan.

The strengthening of Bengali national identity did not come overnight though.  Throughout the Pakistan Movement, the Bengali members of the Muslim League by and large saw the Lahore Resolution as being synonymous with the creation of not one but multiple states in Muslim India, either in a confederation or completely independent of each other and the rest of India. S A Latif, a Muslim League propagandist from Bengal, wrote about two Pakistans in his pamphlet, “Why Pakistan?” – one Pakistan to the West of India and the other towards the East.

Two States or One?

The Lahore Resolution read:

“That geographically contiguous units are demarcated into regions which should be constituted, with such territorial readjustments as may be necessary that the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority as in the North Western and Eastern Zones of (British) India should be grouped to constitute independent states in which the constituent units should be autonomous and sovereign.” (Emphasis added).

This provided not just for two “independent states”, but within the states the constituent units would be autonomous and sovereign.  In so far as the East was concerned it kept the possibility of Assam joining this Eastern independent state.

Predictably and significantly these proposals did not have the idea of the division of Punjab and Bengal in them.  At the heart of the Lahore Resolution was a cry for autonomy and it was this element of the Lahore Resolution, the departure from which, set off the Bengali Muslim Leaguers on a separate destiny.  There was another element to it.  Unlike the Muslim majority provinces in the west, the Pakistan Movement in the east was very much about a class struggle between Muslim peasants and Hindu Bhadralok, i.e. professional and economic elites of the province.  This process, no doubt, had some official British backing which wanted to counteract the largely Hindu intelligentsia with Muslim and peasant grievances as Taj Hashmi’s provocative book “Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia” shows, but by and large it created a consciousness which linked the fortunes of peasantry to the idealism of Pakistan.  It is this essential bit of history that is often left out when analyzing the formation of a Bengali political consciousness on separate footing from the rest of the Indo-Muslim Nationalists of South Asia.  Even as late as May 1947 the idea of a United Bengal was floated by Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy and Sarat Chanderbose. Evidently, this idea was endorsed by Muhammad Ali Jinnah but was shot down by Nehru and the Congress Party.

Centralizing Errors:

Much of this – the different natures of the same movement in the two wings – was not taken into account by the makers of Pakistan when devising state policy post 1947. The first grave error in this regard was undertaken by the father of the nation himself who mistakenly assumed that Urdu could play a role in giving the country a linguistic unity, even if as a lingua franca.  Speaking in East Pakistan, when the adoring masses had thronged to listen to Pakistan’s tallest leader,  Jinnah deeply disappointed his listeners when he declared that Urdu and Urdu alone could be the state language of Pakistan though Bengali could be the provincial language.  He overestimated the narrative that had come out of the United Provinces which had conflated the Muslim grievances to cultural and linguistic grievances around the Urdu language and the script in which it was written.  The Bengali case for Pakistan had been substantially and qualitatively different from the concerns of Muslim salariat of UP and the elites of Punjab.  In Bengal, as shown above, it was the class struggle that had taken a communal colour instead of it being a purely Muslim issue ab initio.   Time was to prove Jinnah wrong on the issue and ultimately Bengali would have to be accepted on the same footing as Urdu by the state but not before a considerable gulf between the two wings. Dr. Ayesha Jalal writes:

‘Bengali outrage at the center’s Urdu-only language policy was just the tip of the iceberg, concealing a deep seated resentment at the marginalization of their culture in the emerging narratives of the Pakistani nation. The wounded pride of the Bengalis had met with a rude shock on February 21, 1952, when the center’s crackdown on the student led language movement in Dhaka led to the killing of four students and injured several more. Commemorated as Martyrs’ Day by Bengalis ever since, the incident is thought to have marked the beginning of the politics of dissent that culminated in Bangladeshi nationalism and independence.[i]  

Yet, language controversy alone could never have led to a full-fledged Bengali nationalist movement within Pakistan had it not been for a corresponding discrimination and alienation that the Bengali Pakistanis felt during the interlude of United Pakistan in their history.  Far from being the peasant utopia which they had imagined and to some extent attempted to realize for Bengalis, it merely meant a change of masters from the British and Hindu elites to Muslim elites of West Pakistan.  This was to be the basis of the Bengali dissatisfaction that led to the popular movement that was to tear asunder the new nation state into further fission. As early as 1949, the center’s decision not to devalue the rupee had a major negative fallout in Bengal where the jute earnings suffered as a result. Additionally, excessive export duties meant that the central government was now augmenting its foreign exchange reserves.  The Bengalis were aggrieved.

There were attempts, primarily by the left wing within the erstwhile Muslim League and other left elements, to formulate a genuine people’s opposition to the state’s growing centralizing initiative.  The first shock to the system came in the form of the United Front’s victory in East Pakistan which shook the Muslim League to the core. It must have been ironic for a party i.e. Muslim League which had spoken so often and regularly of provincial autonomy in the pre-partition period to now mould itself into a proponent of centralization.  An early political party that attempted to be socialist, leftist and secular in Pakistan was the Ganatantri Dal.  Not surprisingly, this emerged from within the Muslim League circles of East Pakistan, with energetic Mahmud Ali of East Pakistan taking the lead.  The Awami League itself had gone through several iterations which saw it first becoming Jinnah Muslim League and then Jinnah Awami Muslim League.  In its final iteration Jinnah and Muslim were dropped.  Its leadership included Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, ex-Muslim League boss in Bengal, the notorious Premier of Bengal during the direct action day and a future Prime Minister of Pakistan.  Meanwhile, in West Pakistan, Mian Iftikharuddin who had represented the Muslim League’s left wing joined hands with Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan of the Red Shirts and Congress fame to form the National Awami Party, West Pakistan’s first left secular party. The common purpose before all these parties was a progressive, democratic polity in Pakistan. Perhaps the one event that sent shockwaves in the Pakistani political circles came in April 1954, when the United Front which included Awami League and Krishak Sramik Party trounced the Muslim League in East Pakistan. The government formed by the United Front was soon dismissed and sent packing by Governor General Ghulam Muhammad. Major General Iskandar Mirza, the direct descendant of Mir Jaffar of Bengal, was appointed the governor of East Bengal.

In 1954 Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly (CA) came very close to formulating a federal democratic constitution for Pakistan, before it was unceremoniously dispatched by Governor General Ghulam Muhammad on the flimsy excuse that the CA lost the confidence of the people.  The reason why Ghulam Muhammad felt the need to dismiss the CA was because the CA had made some definitive moves towards clipping the wings of the office of Governor General.  Yet what is often not mentioned is that a final sketch of the constitution was ready to be brought forth before the CA was sent packing. Most significantly there had been a massive breakthrough on the constitutional deadlock vis a vis West Pakistani provinces and East Pakistan. This was the Muhammad Ali Bogra formula which envisaged a bicameral legislature for a Pakistani federation. In the joint session of the upper house (with equal representatives for each of the five provinces) and the lower house (elected according to population), the combined numbers of senators and representatives of both wings was to be equal.  Pakistan’s first constitution in 1956 however, departed from the Bogra formula in a substantial way.  It not only abolished the bicameral legislature but gave 50:50 seats in unicameral legislature. The parity the Bogra formula had adopted was thus shunned in favour of a formula that amounted to negation of the democratic principle.  Thus in 1956 Pakistan was a federation of two provinces both with equal representation in the parliament and without any upper house.  Still there was hope for the federation had the elections been allowed on time under the 1956 constitution. Unfortunately Iskandar Mirza, the last Governor General and first President of Pakistan, had other ideas.  The West Pakistani elite, long in the US-UK camp in International Geo-politics, feared that a strong left wing would dominate the politics in the East and leftist parties would also perform well in West Pakistan. The hurriedly cobbled together Republican Party out of the hangers- on of the Muslim League and erstwhile Unionist Party in Punjab was not seen as a credible centrist alternative to the left onslaught.  Hence the elections were postponed and martial law declared.

This was the first mammoth opportunity that Pakistan lost out on in terms of integration. A left wing coalition of NAP and Awami League may well have lent Pakistan the elusive integration it had been searching for.  Of course, Awami League’s main boss at the time, Hussain Suhrawardy, was himself doggedly pro-west and that could have lent some balance to the enterprise.  The pro-West rulers of Pakistan deemed their alliance with the West too important an endeavour to be left to the calculus of popular politics.  It was this calculus – the idea that Pakistan needed a pro-west regime and a unity reinforced by vague appeals to Islamic brotherhood – that was to delay Pakistan’s much needed integration as one nation under one constitution. The central refrain of the policy makers of the Pakistani state that only Islam can unify the multitudes of a diverse nation has continued to haunt Pakistan’s nation-building exercise. Unless and until Pakistanis realize that there are other factors, like economic realities and participatory democracy, which play an equal role in the process, the concept of Pakistani nationhood will remain a fragile one.

The Ayub regime which replaced the constitutional set up ran the country as a quasi-authoritarian centralized state.  Even the 1962 Constitution that the regime brought to clothe itself in some legality did nothing to – at least on paper- rectify the growing discontent amongst the Bengalis. In terms of economic development, the share given to East Pakistan was far lower than West Pakistan.  It was estimated that the average per capita income was 10 percent lower in East Pakistan in 1947. By the 1960s, the disparity between the two wings grew by 40 percent.  East Pakistan with 55 percent population received only 35 percent of the development expenditure under the regime’s flawed and misplaced prioritization in the name of economic growth. Despite Jinnah’s early attempts to encourage Bengali recruitment in the army, till the Ayub era, the total Bengali representation in terms of officers remained less than 5 percent. The flashy new capital city designed and called Islamabad was one example of the policy to use East Pakistan’s export surplus for development in West Pakistan.  West Pakistani deficits were also serviced by East Pakistani jute money. While West Pakistan was urbanizing and modernizing, East Pakistan was left out in the cold. Even the few large scale industries in East Pakistan were dominated by West Pakistani families. The cries of colonization had a lot of merit and substance. Islamic idealism of unity had its limits. Throughout Ayub’s government, East Pakistan remained disaffected from the regime. Ayub in turn accused the Bengalis of “Hinduizing their language and culture” and of making Tagore into a God.  He was unwilling to concede anything to the Bengalis unless and until they consciously attempted to bring themselves more in line with the culture of the rest of Pakistan.  It did not occur to him that Bengalis constituted the majority and not the other way around. In 1968 he went a step ahead by arresting Shaikh Mujib ur Rahman and accusing him of colluding with India to break up Pakistan.

Another opportunity to keep Pakistan united and avert the tragedy that ultimately befell Pakistan was when Fatima Jinnah emerged as the consensus candidate for the combined opposition in Pakistan united on a single point agenda – universal adult franchise.  It is important to note that Fatima Jinnah’s biggest support came from East Pakistan where the East Pakistanis came out in great numbers to support the founding father’s sister. Spearheading the campaign was Shaikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, would be founder of Bangladesh.  Unfortunately the powers that be in Pakistan took another wrong turn and by fudging the election results ensured that the moment was lost.

The disastrous 1965 War was another eye opener for the population of East Pakistan.  Pakistan’s strategists had left the defense of East Pakistan in the war to China and God. That India did not attack the East seemed to vindicate this decision but to the Bengali mind it meant that even in defence, they were discriminated against. Pakistan’s failure to fortify East Pakistan was to have disastrous effects six years later.  During the 1965 war, Pakistan also sealed East Pakistan’s borders with India on the excuse that India was pushing Assam Muslims into Pakistan. The livelihood of a number of Bengalis was dependent on informal trade across that border. This too added to the alienation.

In 1970 the deadliest of tropical cyclones hit East Pakistan, but the military regime was caught napping.  The New York Times described it as the worst catastrophe of the century.[ii] As many as 300,000 East Pakistanis lost their lives and millions were rendered homeless. East Pakistan received no immediate aid from the center. This further convinced the Bengalis that they were being ruled by fiat of West Pakistan which did not care much for them.

Mujib’s Six Points- Federation or Confederation?

Continuous inequities and deliberate discrimination were backdrops against which the Awami League and its leader Shaikh Mujib-ur-Rahman presented their famous six points.  These were:

“1. The constitution should provide for a Federation of Pakistan in its true sense based on the Lahore Resolution and the parliamentary form of government with supremacy of a Legislature directly elected on the basis of universal adult franchise.

  1. The federal government should deal with only two subjects: Defence and Foreign Affairs, and all other residual subjects should be vested in the federating states.
  2. Two separate, but freely convertible currencies for two wings should be introduced; or if this is not feasible, there should be one currency for the whole country, but effective constitutional provisions should be introduced to stop the flight of capital from East to West Pakistan. Furthermore, a separate Banking Reserve should be established and separate fiscal and monetary policy be adopted for East Pakistan.
  3. The power of taxation and revenue collection should be vested in the federating units and the federal centre would have no such power. The federation would be entitled to a share in the state taxes to meet its expenditures.
  4. There should be two separate accounts for the foreign exchange earnings of the two wings; the foreign exchange requirements of the federal government should be met by the two wings equally or in a ratio to be fixed; indigenous products should move free of duty between the two wings, and the constitution should empower the units to establish trade links with foreign countries.
  5. East Pakistan should have a separate militia or paramilitary force.”


Four decades later, it seems astonishing that these demands were considered by the Pakistani establishment as secessionist or anti-national in nature.  The Lahore Resolution has been discussed above, and it is clear that Mujib was not pressing for even the independent “states” interpretation but rather of a single state with constituent units which were autonomous.  To be sure there were other interpretations of the Lahore Resolution. Maulana Bhashani, famously called the Red Maulana, had in 1970 called for an independent and sovereign East Bengal state as “envisaged in the Muslim League’s Lahore Resolution”. Compared to Bhashani, Mujib was a moderate. In private conversations Mujib was a staunch supporter of a united and a prosperous Pakistan. He wanted East Pakistan to stay within such a Pakistan.

To be fair to him, Mujib won the elections largely on the Six Point Agenda.  It would therefore, be unfair to ask him to forget all about them. There were however, many instances where he showed that his ideas were not incompatible with the idea of Pakistan and its unity.  The 1970 election results showed three things:  1. East Pakistan wanted autonomy in line with the Six Points.  2. The regime’s ill-fated attempts to prop up parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and other right wing religious groups had badly failed and 3. Punjab and Sindh had voted solidly for the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) whose leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto now wanted a seat at the table as a representative of West Pakistan. Yahya regime’s calculations had been badly overturned.  The regime had predicted no more than 70 seats for Awami League but Awami League went on to win 160 seats in East Pakistan. The regime had predicted 30 seats for PPP but PPP went on to win 81 seats in West Pakistan.  The people of Pakistan had chosen over all to vote for autonomy, socialism and democratic governance.  Even more extraordinary was how clearly the people of Pakistan had by and large rejected the religious parties.

In a crucial meeting with General Yahya Khan in the second week of January 1971, Mujib had stated in clear terms that he was the “majority leader of all of Pakistan” and that he “could not ignore the interests of West Pakistan”. Despite his many protestations, the military regime refused to allow the National Assembly to meet. Mujib even offered to show Yahya the draft constitution before presenting it to the National Assembly (See Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report as published by Vanguard pages 77-78 for details on this). By rejecting Mujib’s interpretation of the Lahore Resolution, the West Pakistani ruling elite opened the floodgates for alternative interpretations of the Lahore Resolution. After all today there are two independent states in East and West of the subcontinent as envisaged by that document. The second point was also in keeping with the history of the subcontinent; after all the Muslim League had accepted the Cabinet Mission Plan which would have kept India united on the same terms. Defence and Foreign Affairs would be broad heads.  At best even the most closely knit federation in the world has about four or five broad heads.  Demand for residuary powers for federating states was also not a novel idea.  Indeed this point by Mujib was directly out of Jinnah’s famous 14 points and was a constant demand of Muslim provinces in United India.  Point three held out the prospect of one currency but with safeguards against capital flight.  This provision was added, no doubt, given the situation in the Ayub regime whereby capital investments were directed to the more profitable West Pakistani areas instead of East Pakistan.  By making taxation a subject for constituent units and making the center only eligible for a part thereof, Mujib was not asking anything that Jinnah had not asked in United India. Point 5 meant that the center would have to behave itself vis a vis the two wings as it would know who the paymaster was.  Finally, point 6 addressed the long standing issue of the defense of East Pakistan which as mentioned above had been a gripe of East Pakistanis against West Pakistanis. As such there was nothing in the six point demands that was irreconcilable to one united Pakistan but because there was a trust deficit and because the Ayub regime had in particular created mistrust against Bengalis in Pakistan, the establishment read whatever it wanted to in the demands.

Shaikh Mujib was at no point thinking of an out and out separation from Pakistan- that much is now clear from evidence available to historians.  In the aftermath of the elections of 1970, Mujib made several overtures to Pakistan People’s Party’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to put up a joint front against the military dictatorship and repeatedly he was spurned by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.  On March 14 1971, Wali Khan flew to Dhaka with Ghaus Bux Bizenjo and met Mujib. Bizenjo asked Mujib whether he wanted to declare independence to which Mujib commented of the irony that those who had sided with the Congress in partition of India were asking a staunch Muslim Leaguer like him about breaking Pakistan.  This shows that Mujib was ready to the very end to come to a settlement. In any event, we know that the military pulled the switch on negotiations at a time when there was considerable headway.  President General Yahya Khan saw his personal survival in there being no compromise between Mujib and Bhutto.  For his part Bhutto objected to the six points on grounds that they provided for confederation and not a federation. Dr Ayesha Jalal writes:

“Raising the PPP’s objections to the conception of the federation in the Six Points, he noted that there was no federation in the world without a second house of parliament, a proposition Mujib had rejected. Equally objectionable was the fact that although some of the points upheld the principles of federalism, others implied a confederal arrangement between the two wings.”[iii] 

Bhutto declared that “we accept the essay written in East Pakistan – but we want to write some concluding paragraphs which are of vital national importance”[iv].

Then on March 21, 1971 Bhutto rejected the proposal to divide the assembly into two parts on the grounds that it pointed to a confederation and paved the way for secession. Awami League responded to this criticism by giving its revised proposals on March 25, 1971. This called for a “Confederation of Pakistan” and envisaged two constitutional conventions, each for each wing.  These would draft a constitution for each wing and then draft a constitution for the federation. This was apparently very close to what Bhutto himself had said a week earlier in Nishtar Park; that unfortunate speech is remembered as the idhar hum udhar tum speech.  Though neither was willing to admit it but Bhutto and Mujib had come very close to agreeing on a two-majority thesis.

Even as early as 1968 Bhutto, in Dhaka, had endorsed the demand for Bengali autonomy and ironically after the defeat in December 1971, newly installed President Bhutto was ready to bend over backwards to entertain even a confederation between East Pakistan and West Pakistan. An account of the meeting between Bhutto and Mujib after the former took over as the President and Civil Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan was published in Dawn:

“On December 27, 1971, exactly one week after his takeover, Bhutto drove, properly escorted of course, to a bungalow near Chaklala airport, where Mujib had been shifted from jail a day earlier. When Mujib saw Bhutto in front of him, he asked why he was there. Bhutto replied that he was now the president of Pakistan. To this Mujib teased him that it was his position, and questioned how Bhutto attained that (refering to Awami League’s victory in the 1970 elections). To this Bhutto replied that he was also the martial law administrator. This was followed by a long meeting in which Bhutto told Mujib everything that had happened after his arrest on March 25, 1971. Mujib was unaware of what had happened as he had not read any newspaper or listened to any broadcast since then. Bhutto told him that East Pakistan had become Bangladesh and that the Indian army and Mukti Bahini had occupied it. In their hour-long meeting Mujib asked Bhutto about the condition of Bangladesh and discussed the ways to reduce Indian and Russian influence, for which Mujib sought Bhutto’s assistance. During their talk Bhutto asked Mujib if there was any chance of East and West Pakistan remaining together in the form of a loose federation. For this Mujib told Bhutto to wait. Mujib was more interested in knowing about Bangladesh and its people. His meeting with Bhutto was surprising and reassuring. Bhutto had spoken to Mujib about his release but it did not occur immediately. On January 7, Bhutto again met Mujib for further talks. Once again, discussions regarding a confederation and living together surfaced prominently. During this meeting Mujib reminded Bhutto that in the last meeting he had promised to release him, but Bhutto parried this query. The meeting ended without Mujib making any commitment on a federal or confederal system.”[v]

Tragically the proposal of a confederation came too late in the day. The death knell to the unity had been tolled already. According to Kuldip Nayyar’s narration of events the very idea was an anathema to Shaikh Mujib.  According to Nayyar:

Bhutto said: “On December 23 when we (he and Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman) met for the first time, Mujib took out the Quran and said: ‘I am a good Muslim. I still want defence, foreign affairs, and communication to be central subjects between the two regions.’ On December 27, when we met for the second time, he was very vague.”

“He said: ‘I cannot say how many subjects can be given to the centre, and what kind of subjects, but I want to retain links’. I (Bhutto) was skeptical. I told Mujib: ‘As you know, you are saying this here and I take you at your word, but when you go there, see the atmosphere and see all the young men with rifles around you, and having come back from the grave you won’t be able to do it. But even if you maintain some fictional links, I would be satisfied.’ ”

“He (the Sheikh) was positive. ‘No, No,’ he said, ‘I am the leader — main leader hoon, main theek kar donga’ (I am the leader, I shall set things right)’ and that sort of thing. You know, I like him. The point is that there are so many problems, and I don’t think he bargained for half of those.”

“The Sheikh, whom I recorded after Bhutto, had a different version: ‘I had come to know from my jailor, a God-fearing man, that Bangladesh had been liberated. Therefore, when I was removed from my jail, I suspected that it must be for the purpose of holding talks. I thought I would not indicate any prior knowledge of the liberation of Bangladesh.’ ”

“Within a couple of days of my arrival at the dak-bungalow, Bhutto appeared there one afternoon. I asked him: ‘Bhutto, how are you here?’ He said: ‘I am the president of Pakistan.’ I began laughing and said: ‘You, Bhutto, Pakistan’s president! That place belongs to me; you know I won the majority of seats in the Pakistan National Assembly.’ “

“As if he wanted to frighten me, he said that he was also the chief martial law administrator. Bhutto said: ‘I have come to talk to you.’ To this my reply was that I would not talk unless he (Bhutto) were to say that I was free. He said: ‘Yes.’ Then we talked.”

“He blamed Yahya for all that had happened, although I knew that he (Bhutto) had been at the back of everything. He really wanted the eastern wing to go its own way so that he could become the president of what was left of Pakistan. Bhutto came straight to the point.

He wanted me to agree that the three subjects — foreign affairs, defence, and communication — would be managed jointly by Pakistan and Bangladesh. I told him it was not possible, but when he went on pressing I said that it was difficult for me to decide anything without consulting my people. There was yet another meeting, the last one between us. That time also he pressed for the same thing and asked me to try my best. I replied: ‘Let me see’.

When I told Mujib what Bhutto had said, particularly his assertion that Mujib had sworn by the Quran to allow joint control of some subjects, Mujib said: “Bhutto is a liar. I am grateful to him for saving my life, but that gives him no right to spread lies.’ “[vi]

Ultimately the responsibility cannot be placed on Bhutto or Mujib but the military rulers of Pakistan. It was found napping when it came to gauging the popular sentiment in East Pakistan.  The Bengali troops were actively supporting the Awami League.  Dr. Ayesha Jalal writes:

“Strategic blundering and political ineptitude combined to create a horrific nightmare for a military high command that was ill equipped to handle the situation. Once orders had been given to put boots on the ground and enforce law and order, pent up frustrations shredded the last remnants of humanity still adorning the hearts of the West Pakistani troops.  The ethical dilemma of killing fellow Muslims was quickly overcome. Bengalis were not just black men; they were Muslims in name only and had to be purged of their infidelity. Whatever the reasoning of perpetrators, nothing can justify horrendous crimes committed in the name of a false sense of nationalism.”[vii]

The Arithmetic of Genocide:

The operation that began in March 1971 only served to blacken the name of both Pakistan and the Pakistan Army.  Was there perhaps an exaggeration about the extent of the brutality of military operation? Sarmila Bose’s excellent study “Dead Reckoning” has served to set the record straight but the Pakistan Army cannot escape the blame for widespread violence against a civilian population behind the excuse of fighting Mukti Bahini.

Anthony Mascarenhas wrote in a fateful essay, “Genocide” (Sunday Times, UK, June 13, 1971) the following lines that were to fully expose the horror that was unfolded in Bangladesh:

“I WAS GETTING my first glimpse of the stain of blood which has spread over the otherwise verdant land of East Bengal. First it was the massacre of the non-Bengalis in a savage outburst of Bengali hatred. Now it was massacre, deliberately carried out by the West Pakistan army.

The pogrom’s victims are not only the Hindus of East Bengal-who constitute about 10 per cent of the 75 million population-but also many thousands of Bengali Muslims. These include university and college students, teachers, Awami League and Left-Wing political cadres and every one the army can catch of the 176,000 Bengali military men and police who mutinied on March 26 in a spectacular, though untimely and ill-starred bid, to create an independent Republic of Bangla Desh. What I saw and heard with unbelieving eyes and ears during my 10 days in East Bengal in late April made it terribly clear that the killings are not the isolated acts of military commanders in the field. The West Pakistani soldiers are not the only ones who have been killing in East Bengal, of course. On the night of March 25-and this I was allowed to report by the Pakistani  censor-the Bengali troops and paramilitary units stationed in East Pakistan mutinied and attacked non-Bengalis with atrocious savagery.

Thousands of families of unfortunate Muslims, many of them refugees from Bihar who chose Pakistan at the time of the partition riots in 1947 were mercilessly wiped out. Women were raped, or had their breasts torn out with specially fashioned knives. Children did not escape the horror: the lucky ones were killed with their parents; but many thousands of others must go through what life remains for them with eyes gouged out and limbs roughly amputated. More than 20,000 bodies of non-Bengalis have been found in the main towns, such as Chittagong, Khulna and Jessore. The real toll, I was told everywhere in East Bengal, may have been as high as 100,000; for thousands of non- Bengalis have vanished without a trace.

The Government of Pakistan has let the world know about that first horror. What it has suppressed is the second and worse horror which followed when its own army took over the killing. West Pakistani officials privately calculate that; altogether both sides have killed 250,000 people-not counting those who have died of famine and disease.

Reacting to the almost successful breakaway of the province, which has more than half the country’s population, General Yahya Khan’s military Government is pushing through its own ‘final solution’ of the East Bengal problem.

‘We are determined to cleanse East Pakistan once and for all of the threat of secession, even if it means killing of two million people and ruling the provinces a colony for 30 years,’ I was repeatedly told by senior military and civil officers in Dhaka and Comilla. The West Pakistan army in East Bengal is doing exactly that with a terrifying thoroughness.

…. ABDUL BARI the tailor who was lucky to survive is 24 years old. That is the same age as Pakistan. The army can of course hold the country together by force. But the meaning of what it has done in East Bengal is that the dream of the men who hoped in 1947 that they were founding a Muslim nation in two equal parts has now faded. There is now little chance for a long time to come that Punjabis in the West and Bengalis in the East will fell themselves equal fellow-citizens of one nation. For the Bengalis, the future is now bleak: the unhappy submission of a colony to its conquerors.”

Ultimately therefore, the very operation that the military launched to keep the country united became a justification for India to intervene leading to the inevitable- i.e. the creation of Bangladesh.

It may be stated here for the sake of objectivity that Anthony Mascarenhas’s report has not gone unchallenged.  Ian Jack, writing in the Guardian, says:

“Bose’s book, however, raises troubling questions about the report’s complete veracity – a massacre said to have killed 8,000 Hindus probably killed only 16 at most – as well as its effect. Soon after the war ended, a prediction (or threat) of 2 million dead had been elevated to the widely publicised fact of 3 million dead, which is still commonly accepted in India and Bangladesh. A truth about the Bangladesh war is that remarkably few scholars and historians have given it thorough, independent scrutiny. Bose’s research has taken her from the archives to interviews with elderly peasants in Bangladesh and retired army officers in Pakistan. Her findings are significant.

She estimates that during the conflict of 1971 a total of somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 combatants and non-combatants perished on all sides.

Much beyond 100,000 and ‘one enters a world of meaningless speculation’. As to genocide, it would be more accurate to accuse the Pakistan army of political killing. Many Bengalis remained loyal to the old regime and went unharmed. The army and its paramilitaries (who were mainly Biharis) were at their most genocidal in their persecution of Hindu Bengali men, whom they believed as a group to be disloyal. By contrast, many Bengali Muslim civilians attacked non-Bengalis and Bengali Hindus purely on the grounds of their ethnic or religious identity and/or for material gain. In terms of genocide, their guilt is much clearer.”[viii]

Regardless of the arithmetic of genocide, the fact is that the Pakistan Army was tasked with the preservation of the Union and had no mandate for reprisals and revenge killings that it engaged in. Whether this killing was more or less than Bengalis attacking Non-Bengalis is merely an academic question. What is important and needs reckoning with is that were its actions befitting the army of a civilized nation?  There is always a difference between organized state action and the violence of unorganized dissident groups.

Ideological Fallout of Bangladesh’s Separation

The first and foremost casualty of Bangladesh’s separation was the self-identification of Pakistan as the Muslim Homeland in South Asia.  There were, after 1971, more South Asian Muslims outside the borders of Pakistan (i.e. in Bangladesh and India) than within it.  It meant a tectonic shift in Pakistan’s attitude towards religion.  Shorn of the basic foundational idea, remaining Pakistan, instead of reinterpreting the Lahore Resolution, chose to emphasize an ideological commitment to Islam as the raison d’etre of Pakistan.  From being merely a homeland for the South Asian Muslim community (or nation) – which despite the idea of common religious belief was a secular idea rooted in cultural distinctions and demarcations caused by religious identity as opposed to any theocratic pretensions- it became a state which was founded for the express purpose of ushering in an Islamic order in Pakistan. No doubt such concerns and references to Islam were present in constitutions of 1956 and 1962 but in their operation these were largely or relatively secular legal systems.  The Constitution of 1973, coming as it did after the separation of East Pakistan, was more vociferous in its commitment to an Islamic order and this time – the inspiration for the Islamic order was not to be balanced by the syncretic traditions of Punjab and Bengal but it meant a more straitjacket alignment with West Asia and logically Arabia.  Bangladesh’s separation also separated the remaining Pakistan from South East Asia.  A country that once straddled or bordered both West and East Asia was now limited to the Middle Eastern and Central Asian spheres of influence.  Of these influences the most important was to be Saudi Arabia which was behind all the major Islamization endeavors in Pakistan, starting with the declaration of Ahmadis as Non-Muslims.  Such a move would have been unthinkable in a United Pakistan.  Bangladesh was the turning point which threw Pakistan off the edge and into a theocratic abyss from which it still struggles to get out.



[1] The author is a practicing lawyer based in Lahore.  He is also author of the book: “Jinnah; Myth and Reality.” His email address is



[i] Page 153, Struggle for Pakistan Muslim Homeland and Global Politics, by A Jalal, Harvard Belknap Press 2014.


[iii] Page 166, Struggle for Pakistan, Muslim Homeland and Global Politics, A Jalal, Harvard Belknap Press 2014.

[iv] Pakistan Times, February 20, 1971.




[vii] Page 175, Struggle for Pakistan, Muslim Homeland and Global Politics, Harvard Belknap Press, 2014.