Bangladesh/East Pakistan

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Bangladesh/East Pakistan

India's independence from Great Britain in August 1947 resulted in the partition of British India into India and Pakistan. Pakistan was created out of the Muslim-majority provinces of British India, with no regard for geographical contiguity. The resulting state was formed into two physically separate wings, with the territory of India intervening between the two. The eastern wing was created by the partition of the British province of Bengal, and the principal language spoken there was Bengali. Although it was principally the language of those who fled India to Pakistan, the government of Pakistan decreed that Urdu would be the national language.

In the evening of March 25, 1971, the Pakistan army attacked East Pakistan, as the future Bangladesh was then known. The attack was an effort to put down East Pakistani protesters who demanded that the national government recognize the right of the elected majority party, the Awami (People's) League, to assume political office. The attacks by the Pakistanis, and resistance by the Bangladeshis, continued until December of that year, with the Bangladeshis seeing this as a war of independence, and the government forces viewing it as a civil war. Throughout the year, India provided support for the East Pakistani rebels, and received a large number of refugees. Early in December, Pakistan's internal conflict assumed international dimensions with the direct intervention of Indian troops. The violence ended on December 16, when the Pakistani commander at the time, General A. K. Niazi, surrendered to General Jagjeet Singh Arora, commander of the Indian forces.

The discontent of East Pakistanis in the united state of Pakistan had a long history before it finally culminated in war. The Muslim League government of Pakistan, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had long ignored East Bengal. However, during his only visit to the eastern province, in March 1948, Jinnah was confronted by Bengalis who demanded that their language be recognized along with Urdu as a co-official language of Pakistan. Jinnah stated that anyone who opposed the status of Urdu as the official language of Pakistan was a traitor to the country. This angered the Bengali faction, and in 1952 that anger gave rise to the "language movement" in East Pakistan.

After independence, the Pakistani government was constituted according to the Government of India Act (1935) as modified by the India Independence Act of 1947, both acts of the British Parliament. It was not until 1956 that a formal constitution was promulgated (India adopted its own constitution in 1950). The constitution of 1956 changed the name of the eastern wing of the country from East Bengal to East Pakistan and the four provinces of the west wing were consolidated into West Pakistan. The constitution also instituted the concept of parity between the eastern and western regions. This meant that representation in the National Assembly would be equal from each province, even though East Pakistan had about 54 percent of the total population of Pakistan. The Bengalis of East Pakistan viewed this as an affront.

This shortchanging of representation in the National Assembly was also seen in the military services. There were very few officers from East Pakistan in a military overwhelmingly dominated by West Pakistanis. There was a similar disparity in representation within the civil service. Although a quota system was later instituted, the disparity persisted at the higher levels throughout the 1960s.

In 1954 a major and violent strike occurred at the Adamjee Jute Mill in Narayanganj, a suburb of Dhaka. In addition to disputes over pay and labor practices, the East Pakistani workers felt that the company was showing favoritism to Urdu-speaking Biharis in employment. Bihari is a general term applied to those Urduspeaking Muslims, most of them from the Indian state of Bihar, who fled east at the time of partition but who never learned to speak Bengali. In addition, the East Pakistani strikers were protesting the fact that the majority of East Pakistan's manufacturing and banking firms were owned by West Pakistanis, among whom the Adamjee family was prominent.

The leading Muslim political party in Bengal prior to Pakistan's independence had been the Muslim League, which dominated the Bengal Provincial Assembly. At the time of independence, the sitting members of the Bengal Provincial Assembly chose their future membership in either the assembly of West Bengal in India or the assembly of East Bengal in Pakistan. The Muslim League maintained control. Although elections were held in each of the provinces of the west wing as early as 1951, elections in East Bengal were delayed until 1954. The election, when it was finally held, resulted in an almost total rout of the Muslim League, which was looked upon locally as a proxy of the central government.

The winning coalition in East Pakistan was comprised of the Awami League and the Krishak Sramik (Farmers and Workers) Party. The principal founder of the Awami League was Husain Shahid Suhrawardy. The Krishak Sramik Party was led by Fazlul Haq. Haq had been a prime minister of united Bengal (i.e., prior to independence) when his party was known as the Krishak Praja (Farmers and Peoples) Party. For the 1954 election, the Awami League and the Krishak Sramik Party joined forces as the United Front and ran for office on a platform called "21 Points." Among the issues addressed by the coalition were the recognition of Bengali as an official language of Pakistan; autonomy for East Bengal in all matters except defense, foreign affairs, and currency; land reform; improved irrigation; nationalization of the jute industry; and other points that, if enacted into law, would give East Bengalis greater control of their own governance.

The demand that Bengali be recognized as an official language was an outgrowth of the language movement of 1952. Since the early days of independence, East Pakistanis had demanded that Pakistan recognize two official languages: Bengali (the most widely spoken language) and Urdu. An attempt by the central government to devise a means to write Bengali in the Urdu script was met with widespread opposition and rioting, mainly from academics and university students. On February 21, 1952, in an attempt to suppress the violence, the police fired on a crowd of demonstrators, and about twenty students were killed. Today, a monument stands at the site of the killings, and February 21 is celebrated annually as Martyrs' Day.

For its championing of this and other issues important to the majority of East Pakistanis, the Krishak Sramik–Awami League coalition won the 1954 election. Eventually, however, the Krishak Sramik Party withered away, and the Awami League became the most important party in the province. It would become the leader of the independence movement and dominate emerging Bangladeshi politics.

In October 1958 General Muhammad Ayub Khan proclaimed himself president of Pakistan following a military coup, declared martial law, and dissolved the National Assembly and the provincial legislatures. He then set up what he called "Basic Democracy," which he described as a more representative government. Elections at the local level would be direct, and those elected at this level would be designated Basic Democrats. Elections for the provincial and national assemblies and for the presidency would be indirect, with the Basic Democrats serving as the electoral college. He retained the principle of parity, however. This meant that each province was allocated an equal number of Basic Democrat electors, so that East Pakistanis continued to be underrepresented at the higher levels of government. Not unexpectedly, Ayub was elected president in 1962 and reelected president in 1967. Although he won majorities in each wing in each election, his majority in the east wing in 1967 was dramatically less than in 1962.

Nonetheless, Ayub's power began to slip after his reelection to office, as did his health. Opposition to his rule spread, even in West Pakistan. Ayub grew concerned about a growing secessionist movement in East Pakistan. The Awami League, now headed by Sheik Mujibur Rahman, demanded that changes be made in regard to East Pakistan. These changes were embodied in Mujib's Six Points Plan, which he presented at a meeting of opposition parties in Lahore in 1966. In brief, these Six Points called for:

  1. a federal and parliamentary government with free and fair elections;
  2. federal government to control only foreign affairs and defense;
  3. a separate currency or separate fiscal accounts for each province, to control movement of capital from east to west;
  4. all power of taxation to reside at the provincial level, with the federal government subsisting on grants from the provinces;
  5. enabling each federating unit to enter into foreign trade agreements on its own and to retain control over the foreign exchange earned; and
  6. allowing each unit to raise its own militia.

If these points had been adopted, it would have meant almost de facto independence for East Pakistan. Many observers saw point six, a separate militia, as the point most unacceptable to the central government, but they were wrong. The 1965 Indo-Pakistan War had demonstrated the lack of local defense forces in East Pakistan, which would have left the province defenseless had India attacked there. In fact, it was point four, regarding taxation, that proved to be the problem, because the enactment of this point would make it all but impossible for a central government to operate.

In 1968, in response to the Six Points Plan, the Ayub government charged Mujib and his supporters with treason. This later became known as the Agartala Conspiracy Case, so-called as it was alleged that Mujib had met with Indian agents in Agartala, the capital of the Indian state of Tripura, which borders on Bangladesh. Mujib and the Awami League denied that any such meeting had ever taken place. In early 1969, as hostility to Ayub increased in both East and West Pakistan, he invited opposition leaders to meet with him. Mujib, having been jailed awaiting his trial for treason, was not invited to this meeting. The opposition leaders refused to come to the meeting unless the charges against Mujib were withdrawn and demanded that he, too, be invited to attend. Ayub complied with these demands. The meeting, which Ayub hoped would work to his advantage, instead strengthened the opposition's position, which called for the end of the policy of Basic Democracy and the return to direct parliamentary elections.

The opposition movement expanded beyond the political sphere to the military, and Ayub was forced to resign on March 25, 1969. He was replaced by General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, who promised to reinstate direct elections. These were held in December 1970 in most of the country, but flooding in East Pakistan forced a few constituencies to delay their elections until January 1971. In addition to reinstating free and direct elections, Yahya also acted to restore the former provinces of West Pakistan, which had been united into a single unit by the 1956 constitution. More important for East Pakistan, he ended the principle of parity. In the 1970 election for the National Assembly, East Pakistan would have 162 general seats out of a total of 300, reflecting the 54 percent majority that Bengalis enjoyed according to the 1961 population census.

Yahya also introduced legislation that, in his view, would limit the changes that could be made to the constitution by the National Assembly. This legislation, called the Legal Framework Order, touched upon seven points:

  1. that Pakistan would be a federated state;
  2. Islamic principles would be paramount;
  3. direct and regular elections would be held;
  4. fundamental rights would be guaranteed;
  5. the judiciary would be independent;
  6. maximum provincial autonomy would be allowed, "but the federal government shall also have adequate powers, including legislative, administrative, and financial powers, to discharge its responsibilities"; and
  7. economic disparities among provinces would be removed.

The result of the election in East Pakistan startled outside observers, and even took some supporters of the Awami League by surprise. The party won 160 of the 162 seats in East Pakistan, thereby gaining a majority in the National Assembly without winning a single seat in West Pakistan, which had thrown its support behind the Pakistan People's Party, led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Neither Yahya, nor his military associates, nor Bhutto looked favorably on a government comprised solely of the Awami League and headed by the author of the Six Points Plan. Yahya began a series of negotiations, perhaps in the hope of creating a coalition government, but more in an effort to sideline Mujib. As the talks became more rancorous and compromise seemed impossible, the Pakistani government began to increase the strength of its rather small contingent of military forces stationed in East Pakistan.

Yahya negotiated with Bhutto and Mujib, the former declaring that there were "two majorities" in Pakistan, and the latter insisting on the full enactment of the Six Points, even where these were at variance with Yahya's Legal Framework Order (i.e., on the issues of taxation). Demonstrations supporting the Awami League's position spread across East Pakistan. Violence began to look more attractive than political activism as a means of protecting East Pakistan's interests. By this time, the term Bangladeshi was widely adopted by the Awami League and its supporters to replace the designation East Pakistani.

The army struck back on March 25, 1971. Its first move was to attack the faculty and students at Dhaka University and to take Mujib into custody. By one estimate, up to 35,000 Bangladeshis were killed at the university and elsewhere on the first few days. Mujib was transported to jail in West Pakistan. (There were fears that he would be executed, but these later proved unfounded when he was released at the end of the conflict.) A number of Mujib's associates fled, first to a village on the border with India, then to Calcutta. Major Ziaur Rahman, who would later become president of independent Bangladesh, issued a declaration of independence.

Bangladeshi police and border patrol forces organized a resistance force to oppose the Pakistani army, and they were later joined by several civilians, many of whom had been university students. It was, however, almost nine months before India intervened, triggering the December 16, 1971, surrender of the Pakistani army. India intervened both for strategic reasons (as weakening Pakistan) and for humanitarian reasons, to alleviate the suffering of Bangladeshis.

Pakistan complained about India's invasion of its sovereign territory to the UN Security Council in early December. In an often emotional speech, Bhutto argued, with reason, that this intervention was a violation of international law. The Security Council agreed, but the question soon became moot with the surrender of the Pakistani troops in Bangladesh.

The number of Bangladeshis killed, disabled, raped, or displaced by the violence of 1971 is not fully known. Estimates by Bangladeshi sources put the number killed at up to three million, and it is estimated that as many as ten million may have fled to India. Initially, the Pakistani army targeted educators, students, political leaders, and others who were generally considered to be prominent sympathizers of the Awami League. As the Bangladeshis formed military units, however, these units also became the targets. Some of these units were formed by Bangladeshis who had formerly served in the Pakistani army; others were recruited from the police and the East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) Rifles, a border security force. These units, based in rural and outlying areas of Bangladesh, were able to take advantage of the Pakistani army's initial focus on the student-led demonstrations in the Dhaka region. Survivor accounts, such as that by Jahanara Imam, suggest that much of the killing soon devolved into little more than indiscriminate slaughter.

The Pakistani surrender and the termination of conflict left several unsettled questions. Many Bangladeshis—mostly civil servants or military troops and their families—were still detained in Pakistan. In Bangladesh, there were non-Bengalis—again, mostly civil servants or military troops, but also some business owners and professionals—who wished repatriation to Pakistan. In addition, the fate of de facto prisoners of war held by Bangladesh, and Pakistani prisoners of war held by India had yet to be decided. Bangladesh wanted to place 195 Pakistani military personnel on trial for war crimes and genocide. On August 9, 1975, a tripartite agreement between Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan was reached to create a panel that would attempt to settle these issues. Bangladesh also agreed to drop all charges against the 195 Pakistanis accused of war crimes and to permit their repatriation to Pakistan.

In the end, and at great cost, Bangladesh achieved its independence. Slowly, the two countries were able to establish diplomatic relations. Pakistan recognized Bangladesh as independent on February 22, 1974, primarily at the urging of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which was meeting in Lahore at that time. The OIC insisted that Bangladesh, a Muslim state, be permitted to attend the conference. Bangladeshis, however, remained unsatisfied. They wanted an apology from the Pakistanis for the excesses committed during the war. They received one finally from the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, when he visited Bangladesh in July 2002.

SEE ALSO Humanitarian Intervention; India, Modern; Rape; Refugees


Ahmad, Moudud (1979). Bangladesh: A Constitutional Quest for Autonomy. Dhaka, Bangladesh: University Press.

Baxter, Craig (1997). Bangladesh: From a Nation to a State. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Chaudhri, Kalyan (1972). Genocide in Bangladesh. Bombay: Orient Longmans.

Imam, Jahanara (1989). Of Blood and Fire: The Untold Story of Bangladesh's War of Independence, tran. Mustafizur Rahman. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers.

Jahan, Rounaq (1982). Pakistan: Failure in National Integration. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sisson, Richard, and Leon Rose (1990). War and Secession: Pakistan, India and the Emergence of Bangladesh. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Zaheer, Hasan (1994). The Separation of East Pakistan. New York: Oxford University Press.

Craig Baxter