Most of the narratives about the separation of East Pakistan so far are centred on the premise that it could have been prevented if the politicians and the civil and military bureaucracy, dominated as they were by individuals from West Pakistan, had acted differently. This rather naive notion has been spread for the most part by the media without giving it much investigation or deep thought. The situation was never so simple.
Regions in virtually every country in the world have economic and political disparities and differences. These are invariably resolved through negotiations. It is very rare indeed that they allow themselves to be torn apart and certainly not before exhausting all of the options that might be available to them. There was never any such discussion at the intellectual level where mutual trust could have been established, problems identified and if possible, resolved.
There was always an undercurrent of regional aspirations present in various provinces of India. This became forcefully evident when the British divided Bengal in 1906 and were obliged to reunite it after prolonged protests.
The Lahore Resolution passed by the Muslim League was an expression of the desire on the part of Muslims to have control over the areas where they formed the majority of the population. It did not specify any political shape or form and did not mention Islam or even include the name Pakistan. The Muslim League fought the 1945-46 election on this basis and won every seat to the central legislature from every corner of India, including the parts that were not expected to be included in the new state.
The British were in a hurry to leave India for reasons of their own. After the Congress Party rejected the Cabinet Mission Plan, decided to divide India into two separate, independent countries. For them it was the sooner the better, firstly because they did not want to get involved in a possible civil war and secondly because, in Mountbatten’s words, ‘a quick decision would give Pakistan a better chance to fail on its demerits’ (‘Transfer of Power Documents, 1942 – 46’) Vol. X, pp. 242 -244, 250 and Shameful Flight, by Stanley Wolpert, p. 142).
Independent Bengal was already underway even before 1947
There was always an undercurrent of regional aspirations present in various provinces of India. This became forcefully evident when the British divided Bengal in 1906 and were obliged to reunite it after prolonged protests. In this situation also the Muslim leader in Bengal, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy joined hands with the Congress leader, K. S Roy to try and arrange a united independent Bengal. Jinnah did not oppose the proposition but it was rejected out of hand by both the Congress Party and the British (Transfer of Power Documents, vol. XI, p. 3).
Suhrawardy had remained in India and only moved to Pakistan when he found his opportunities in the former severely circumscribed. Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman joined hands with him to form the Awami League in 1949 to demand autonomy for East Pakistan. The reason why Suhrawardy did not favour independence was that he feared India might take over the province in a ‘police action’ of the type she took in Hyderabad. Lacking Suhrawardy’s acumen and vision, Mujib had no such qualms.
In 1962, he wrote a letter to the Indian Prime Minister, Nehru telling him that he intended to declare independence in February 1963 and asked for help. The latter demurred, fearing Chinese intervention (http://www.tripurainfo.com/Info/ArchiveD.aspx?WhatId=86.
See also (‘India, Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh and Pakistan’ by Shashanka Banerjee) and (‘Inside RAW: The Story of India’s Secret Service, (Vikas, New Delhi, 1981, p. 48). In 1963 he himself went to Agartala along with a number of his party men and beseeched the chief minister of the state to convey the same message to Nehru in person.
Foreign interests in breaking up Pakistan
India was by no means alone in this game. Ayub Khan wrote in his diary on 21st. July 1967. ‘A very revealing document came into my hands. ——- a dispatch order written by McConnaughy, US ambassador in Pakistan, to Chester Bowles, US ambassador to India, approving of his proposal to encourage the BANGSAM movement to promote US interests. BANGSAM stands for a country that will be made by the amalgamation of the two Bengals and Assam. ——- McConnaughy had gone on to say that this proposal has the blessing of Dean Rusk (Secretary of State) and it should be pushed at all costs.
He has also gone on to say that the history of Bengal has always been defiance of Delhi and the present demand of separation of East Pakistan and for its autonomy, in fact, demand for self-determination. It is necessary to remain in touch with the leaders of this movement and give them all encouragement regardless of the susceptibilities of Pakistan and India.
The Lahore Resolution passed by the Muslim League was an expression of the desire on the part of Muslims to have control over the areas where they formed the majority of the population
Professor G.W Chaudhury has written in his book, ‘The Last Days of United Pakistan, ‘A number of Bengali economists were helping the (Mujib’s) team but they were not participating directly in the dialogues (with Yahya Khan). These economists, aided by some foreign economists financed by the Ford Foundation, were the loudest in making extreme demands, and they were, to a large extent, responsible for the failure of the Dacca dialogue (p. 168).
According to Sultan M. Khan, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary at the time, ‘the Soviet Union was determined to break up Pakistan and play a major role in the creation of Bangladesh. One only has to recall the observation of Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister, to the Pakistan Ambassador, Jamshed Marker in Moscow, sometime earlier: The game is being played for high international stakes. It has nothing to do with you. You are the victim of an objective situation.’ (Memories & Reflections of a Pakistani Diplomat, The London Centre for Pakistan Studies, London WC1X 9DH, 1997, p. 380).
Dr. Kamal Hossain, a member of the Awami League High Command and the main constitutional adviser of Sheikh Mujib, in his book, ‘Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom and Justice ‘ (pp. 89, 91.): ‘Therefore it was decided that the position to be taken should not be an explicit declaration of independence. In order to exert pressure on Yahya, specific demands should be made and the movement sustained in support of these demands, with independence as its ultimate goal.’
‘Thus although independence was clearly set as a goal and in fact it was a declaration of independence, Bangabandhu stopped short of a formal declaration as it was clear that the Army had mobilized and had conspicuously taken up positions at different vantage points in the city.’
Independence was on the agenda all along
We have no reason to doubt what Dr. Kamal Hossain has written. Mujib-ur-Rahman was working for complete separation all along. His six points were merely a ploy to delude the people of East Pakistan into believing that he was only asking for a fair share for them. It is also reasonable to assume he had doubts that the majority of the people of East Pakistan will agree to an outright rupture. He needed to create an illusion and act before the reality could set in.
Ultimately, the responsibility rested squarely with Yahya Khan who bungled it right from the start. First by thoughtlessly breaking up the one unit and then by not listening to the pro-Pakistan political parties in East Pakistan who begged him not to hold the election in the aftermath of the devastating cyclone. It would have given them time to expose and weaken Mujib-ur-Rahman. The final nail in the coffin was hammered in when Yahya, in effect, allowed the Awami League to control the process of election and gave Mujib all the power he needed.
The Muslim League fought the 1945-46 election on this basis and won every seat to the central legislature from every corner of India, including the parts that were not expected to be included in the new state.
He then tried to negotiate with a traitor and allowed himself to be duped by him. It has often been alleged that he was acting on Bhutto’s advice. This is little more than conjecture. The then Foreign Secretary, Sultan M. Khan thinks differently. According to him, particularly in the later stages, he only consulted with ‘the U.S Ambassador to Pakistan, Mr. Joseph Farland with whom Yahya conferred on a regular basis. No notes of these meetings were taken nor was the Foreign Office kept in the picture’ (Memoires and Reflections of a Pakistani Diplomat, p. 166). The rest is history.
As with any situation, there are many lessons to be learnt. Generally speaking, there is the need to remain vigilant, carefully analyse and deal with developments as these arise. This should be done as objectively and openly as possible using relevant participation. Decisions based on consensus and taken after due deliberation are more likely to succeed and not cause as many problems as those imposed unilaterally. Lines of communication must be kept open at all times and people must be taken into confidence. Any foreign involvement needs to be avoided, if possible, at all times. In addition, there may be some issues specific to the military that need not be discussed here.
The writer is the author of ‘Pakistan: Roots, Perspective and Genesis’ and ‘East Pakistan Separation’ among other books. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.