1971: Destiny or missed opportunity?

Tariq Mahmud reviews Ahned Kamal’s State Against the Nation

1971: Destiny or missed opportunity?
Break up of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 poses an enigmatic study for the current generation of historians. This is because Bengali Muslims were in the vanguard of Pakistan Movement and yet, a time came when they were up in arms against the Pakistani state. In this regard, we tend to take an overly simplistic view of the national catastrophe and do not look into events which are deeply layered in our post-independence history.

Dr Ahmed Kamal, a renowned political historian from Bangladesh, in his scholarly work State Against the Nation has deftly explored the history of the failure of the nation and state building in erstwhile East Pakistan. His seminal work covers events spanning between 1947 and 1954. This seven-year period provides an explanation and a prelude to the emergence of Bangladesh. How did people in Muslim Bengal rationalise their shared struggle with Muslims from other places during the movement for independence. The elections in 1946 saw a landslide victory for the Muslim League on reserved seats in Bengal. This phenomenal event catalysed the struggle for Pakistan in other parts of the sub-continent. According to Kamal, the Muslim League symbolised the Muslim desire for freedom and change in the post-independence East Bengal.

Ahmed Kamal is of the view that the territorial arrangement in the scheme of Pakistan defied all prevalent definitions of nationhood with a politically hostile neighbour separating the two parts. Other than religion, there was no other common thread. To him, it was hurriedly contrived scheme in which truncation of Bengal and the Punjab left deep seated problems and scars. East Bengal without Calcutta looked like an over populated slum. Punjab was soaked in the blood of violence which triggered one of the largest migrations on both the sides of the divide.
Efforts for political inclusion were thwarted by authoritarian state structures, where the bureaucracy reacted in a manner reminding one of the British Raj. The chief secretary, hailing from the Punjab and representing the centre, once proclaimed publicly: “I am the government!”

The Muslim League as a political force, he says, neither had the organised mass base nor a tradition of an anti-imperialist struggle behind it. Like the Congress, its claim to allegiance was in no way based on any long term struggle. It was a broad coalition of diverse political elements, at times antagonistic. After independence and seven years in the government, it lost its appeal and popularity and was completely routed out in 1954 in the provincial elections. Towering figures like Husyen Shaheed Suharwardy, Maulvi Fazalul Haque, Maulan Bhashani were all arrayed against the Muslim League.

The state in East Bengal had lost its representative character. It became alienated from the people resulting in steep decline in the fortunes of the party as well. The author highlights three key issues contributing to the process of alienation; the foremost being the language movement, secondly, it was the question of provincial autonomy and lastly, track record of poor governance where state institutions were perceived as an extension of central government.

Ahmed Kamal is of the view that shared existence since independence to the breakup of the country in 1971 is to be taken as a staging ground for the emergence of Bangladesh and Bengali nationalism. In this post-colonial phase, the theme of internal colonialism indeed deepened its roots both in its economic and political manifests. Some genuine efforts to reverse its perverse influence appeared to be far too inadequate. Bengali nationalism and language movement galvanised into social mobilization with a sense of permanence. Economic and political lags between the two parts of Pakistan kept widening at a worrisome pace. Efforts for political inclusion were thwarted by authoritarian state structures, where the bureaucracy reacted in a manner reminding one of the British Raj. The chief secretary, hailing from the Punjab and representing the centre, once proclaimed publicly: “I am the government!”

Civil servants took control of not only the executive matters but also closely piloted and monitored legislative proposals as well. Excessive use of force by law enforcement agencies - even on benign protests - further strengthened the anti-establishment resolve. These were the times when there was paucity of food, shortage of water and rampant smuggling. Faltering and failed provincial administrative machinery was considered as a natural extension of the central government.

Delving further, Ahmed Kamal is of the view that the question as to what Pakistan stood for was largely evaded with a view to scramble for a semblance of unity. Lack of time, and above all, lack in intellectual rigor amongst the leadership avoided any serious discussion concerning definitive programs and a political road map.

Events in 1970-71 were a wakeup call for the right opportunity. Dr Ahmed Kamal, however, sums it up on a sombre note. He is of the view that what was considered destiny in 1971 looks like a missed opportunity now.

It is interesting to see how Ahmed Kamal’s template of internal colonialism fits into our present-day mosaic, with Pakistan being a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nation state. It has a history of lagging and leading regions. Manifests of internal colonialism continue to lurk us in one form or the other. It is, however, with a difference. The state in Pakistan has made distinct headway since the parting of ways with erstwhile East Pakistan. It has assiduously worked out and implemented enviable benchmarks of provincial autonomy and of fiscal transfers to the federating units. Why could we not this level of maturity in the 1960s and 1970s? The answer could be found in the writer’s work which underlined how irreversible had been the spectre of internal colonialism in pre-1971 Pakistan. The leadership at the helm neither had the will, capacity nor the ability to grapple with this challenge. It perhaps required a complete redrawing of the political framework which at that point in time didn’t fit in with the authoritarian mode of leadership in Pakistan.

The writer is adjunct faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences and a former interior secretary