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Civil War Erupts in Pakistan

Bangladesh Table of Contents

The 1,000 miles that separate West and East Pakistan only begin to suggest the schism that has divided that nation since its birth. The roots of the conflict between West and East Pakistan lie in the history of Islam in the Indian subcontinent.

After the breakup of the Muslim Mogul empire early in the eighteenth century, the local Indian rulers and the European expansionists—the French, Dutch, and Portuguese and the British East India Company—sought the remnants of his disintegrating empire, which at its greatest extent included most of the Indian subcontinent. The East India Company discreetly proceeded to make the local rulers so-called allies rather than subordinates; in so doing, it isolated them from potential friends, disarmed their military forces, and thus effectively limited their power.

Replacing the ruling Muslim elite with its own soldiers and administrators, the company drove the Muslims, who scorned service under the new rulers, from positions of authority. The Hindus, formerly subordinate to the Muslims even though they outnumbered them, entered into the company's service. When the revolt of Indian soldiers against British rule in 1857-1859 was unsuccessful, the Muslims lost hope of reestablishing their authority. This uprising, known as the Sepoy Mutiny, ended the power of the East India Company, and the British government assumed direct responsibility for the government of India.

The decision by Lord Curzon (then viceroy of India) in 1905 to divide the unwieldy province of Bengal into Hindu and Muslim provinces (the Hindus were concentrated in the west, the Muslims in the east) marked a political turning point for the Muslims. The Muslim minority favored the partition; the Hindus, who felt the division would decrease their influence, opposed it. Although the partition was annulled a few years later, the hostility between the Hindus and the Muslims was sorely aggravated. The embittered Muslims, who had been content to rely on the government for the protection of their interests, felt the need for an effective political organization, and in 1906 they established the All-India Muslim League. The Hindus meanwhile sought constitutional reform through the Indian National Congress.

Although mutual disappointment with the British at times brought the league and the congress closer together, the gradual clarification of the British intention to grant self-government to India along the lines of parliamentary democracy led the Muslims to fear subjugation to the Hindu majority—politically, economically, and culturally. The Government of India Act of 1935, which granted more provincial autonomy and transferred considerable power to the Indian ministers, rapidly intensified existing Hindu-Muslim tensions.

In the 1937 elections, the Indian National Congress fared well, but the league was a relative failure, winning only 108 out of 482 seats reserved for Muslims at the provincial level. This failure acted as a spur to Muslim leaders and led to the revival of the idea of a separate Muslim state, an idea which had been articulated in 1930 by the philosopher and political leader Sir Muhammad Iqbal. This idea was given the name Pakistan, a Persian and Urdu word meaning "land of the pure" and an acronym for eight territories of British India and Central Asia which might have been incorporated into a single Muslim state—Punjab, Afghania (the Northwest Frontier province), Kashmir, Iran, Sind, Tukharistan, Afghanistan, and Baluchistan. Ironically, the Cambridge University student who coined the word did not include in the area the province of Bengal.

The idea of a nation built on shared faith in Islam produced a leader with a mandate, Mohammed [also spelled Muhammad] Ali Jinnah. A longtime advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity, Jinnah reluctantly came to accept the idea of Pakistan. Once convinced, however, he pursued his goal tenaciously. The "great leader" of millions of Muslims, he was to become their sole voice and the architect of Pakistan.

When the British announced in 1940 that they intended to grant dominion status to India after World War II, both the anxious league and the congress stiffened their demands as to what form self government should take. At its annual meeting in Lahore in March 1940, the league adopted a resolution calling for the creation of independent states in the northwestern and eastern zones of India. British officials almost unanimously regarded the Pakistan demand either as a deliberate overbid by the league to obtain full consideration for the Muslim point of view or as a plan to checkmate the demands of the Indian National Congress. (Indeed, the All-India Muslim League officially adopted Pakistan as its goal only in April 1946; moreover, the wording of the Lahore resolution was vague as to whether these independent states were to be autonomous within or outside some kind of all-India union.) However, nationalism was an established political phenomenon, and it was natural for the league to express its demands for freedom in terms of a Muslim nation.

The British presented various independence plans in 1942, 1945, and 1946, but none of them was acceptable to the deadlocked Muslims and Hindus. Meanwhile communal tensions grew, and widespread violence often erupted. Finally, on February 20, 1947, British prime minister Clement R. Attlee announced that the British would withdraw no later than June 1948, whether or not the congress and the league had reached an agreement; both parties seemed shocked into the desire to negotiate a settlement. The pace of events quickened.

That June, [British viceroy] Lord [Louis] Mountbatten, who was sent to India in March to settle the disputed issues, announced plans for independence and partition. The agreement, the Indian Independence Act, which came into effect on August 15, 1947, granted dominion status to India and Pakistan and left certain areas the right to choose which nation they wished to join. Either by referendum or by vote of their provincial legislatures, five predominantly Muslim provinces—Bengal, Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan, and the Northwest Frontier—elected to join Pakistan; both Bengal and the Punjab were to be divided, for, as expected, eastern Bengal and western Punjab (predominantly Muslim areas) opted for Pakistan, while western Bengal and eastern Punjab (predominantly Hindu areas) opted for India. The details of boundaries in the divided provinces were decided by Sir Cyril Radcliffe, since the Hindu and Muslim representatives on the boundary commissions which he chaired totally failed to agree.

Ironically, instead of bringing peace, the partition exacerbated communal tension and brought violence, chaos, and one of the greatest migrations in history, involving some 13 million people. Muslims in India fled to Pakistan, and about an equal number of Hindus in Pakistan fled to India. Whole villages were wiped out, and fleeing refugees were massacred by the trainload. Fighting was especially fierce in the Punjab, where there had long been bitter hatred between the Muslims and the Sikhs, whose communities straddled the partition line.

After the death in 1948 of Jinnah, the country's first governor-general, and the assassination in 1951 of Liaquat Ali Khan, the prime minister, Pakistan entered an era during which corruption dominated the political scene and domestic conditions deteriorated. Religion alone was not to prove strong enough to unite the distant wings of Pakistan and to transcend the profound differences of language and culture that separated the 55 million West Pakistanis and the 75 million Bengalis of East Pakistan.

From the beginning, the slight, dark Bengalis found themselves discriminated against and exploited by the more prosperous and better-developed western region, dominated by the tall, light-skinned Punjabis and Pathans. Even Jinnah, the nation's founding father, declared that the East Pakistanis should give up their native Bengali, a language of Indo-Aryan origin, and adopt Urdu, a synthesis of Persian and Hindi spoken in the West. It was only after years of riots and demonstrations that they succeeded in getting Bengali adopted as a national language along with Urdu.

Torchlight procession in front of Shahid MinarEconomically, for many years East Pakistan earned most of the nation's foreign exchange and watched the proceeds being used to build up industries in the West. Most state development projects were allocated to the West, while Bengal remained poor and backward and the economic disparity between the nation's two wings increased. Few Bengalis were recruited for the military, which, like the government, was controlled by the West Pakistanis.

Such grievances led the Bengalis to demand a greater degree of autonomy and equal representation in their government. When East Pakistan's Awami League, the dominant political party led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won a majority last year in Pakistan's first nationwide direct elections, these hopes seemed within their grasp. But the National Assembly never convened. President and dictator Yahya Khan, a Pathan, postponed its meeting and in March of this year sent troops into Bengal to crush the separatist movement.


Bangladesh Table of Contents

Source: 1972 Collier’s Year Book

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