Part VI: Understanding Brinksmanship

Dec 2012

This is the sixth of a multi-part series “Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971″ by Naeem Mohaiemen. Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V

The complex events leading from post-1970 election negotiations to the March 1971 military crackdown remain a historical gray area with many unanswered questions. How did Mujib struggle to balance leadership of an increasingly frustrated Bengali population with conflicting tendencies and an electoral mandate of being leader of “all Pakistan?” What were the tensions between the League’s middle class leadership and the radical students who raised the flag of Bangladesh on campus? What was the available space for those who saw war as inevitable but did not fully accept Mujib’s leadership? In fact, at what point did war become truly inevitable? All this is especially obscured because many key Bengali participants were killed in the 1970s.

The cataclysmic 1970 cyclone and the botched relief effort, which altered the League’s election results, is a key starting point for the impending collapse. In fact, the delay in giving cyclone relief, and the unacceptable time lag before Yahya visited the disaster zone, turned it into a campaigning platform for Sheikh Mujib. The image of the unfeeling West Pakistan side was already built up through the poster Shonar Bangla shoshan keno? (Why is Golden Bengal a cremation field today?), and the mishandling of cyclone relief efforts became another turning point in perceptions.

The accounting of economic gaps between the two Pakistans was not only mapping out disparity, but also precisely charting how revenue raised in East Pakistan was being transferred to West Pakistan. This was especially relevant in the case of East Pakistani export goods like jute—the fabled “golden fibre of Bengal”—which became a symbol for a larger neo-colonial, exploitative relationship. As the structures of the unitary state were centralized in West Pakistan, any export revenue was first channeled through the Western wing before getting disbursement (if any) to the East. Widely discussed in academic and political circles at that time was a chart which outlined “Transfer of Resources from East to West Pakistan.” From 1956 to 1970, economic analysis Professors Rehman Sobhan, (36) Akhlaqur Rahman, (37) A.R. Khan, (38) Nurul Islam, Anisur Rahman, and others (39) conclusively demonstrated that East Pakistan’s development was being systematically thwarted due to transfer and diversion of resources to West Pakistan.

East Pakistan started from a much poorer economic level in 1947. However, economic theory predicts that all else being equal, poorer regions grow faster than richer ones in a wellintegrated economy that is not distorted by deliberate government policies. That is, poorer East Pakistan should have been growing faster, to catch up with the Western Wing, just as poorer European countries grew faster after World War II. Even Yahya Khan admitted that East Pakistan had fair grievances in the area of economic policy. (It was the control of foreign and defence policy that became a sticking point during negotiations). Rehman Sobhan points out that, “Even Pakistanis have argued since the early 1960s that policies and resource allocations were discriminatory to East Pakistan. This indeed was quite well argued by Mahbubul Haq in his book, Strategy for Economic Planning.” (40)

The Pakistan army’s post-war protestations to the public were that they had wanted an orderly transfer of power and it was the politicians who got in the way. But the reality was far more complex. The leadership transition from General Ayub Khan to General Yahya Khan was in the wake of an extraordinary pan-Pakistan upheaval that focused simultaneously on a landed elite, a business class (at that time almost entirely West Pakistani) and the military. As with many other such conflagrations, the military jettisoned Ayub to save itself. Yahya’s task was not only to transfer power to civilians, but also to maintain the Army’s role in key decision making (an antecedent to today’s Pakistani National Security Council was considered).

We need to consider especially how the army envisioned that election results would play out. Whether misguided by faulty local intelligence (especially in East Pakistan), or lulled by the past history of squabbling in Pakistan’s political class, the military had predicted that the results would produce a “hung Parliament,” with no party gaining an absolute majority and the army being the final decisionmaker and arbiter. Yahya hoped to continue as president after the elections, becoming the ultimate kingmaker and guarding the army’s business and political interests. The military did not properly evaluate the defining role of the 1970 cyclone backlash, and the withdrawal of populist left leader Maulana Bhashani from the election. These two factors scattered and rearranged many pre-election calculations. Although Bhashani made the prophetic prediction as early as 1957 of East Pakistan saying assalamu alaikum to West Pakistan, (41) he was eventually outmaneuvered by his opponents (including Mujib and the war-time Awami League leadership, as well as post-71 Mujibists). (42) Whatever symbolic value Bhashani may have hoped to achieve by withdrawing, the result was the opposite–nonparticipation in this decisive election rendered his party and other allied ultra-left groups as nonplayers in the negotiations (as well as in the wartime Mujibnagar high command).


36. Rehman Sobhan, “How to build Pakistan into a wellknit nation,” Paper presented at a conference convened by the Pakistan Bureau of National Integration in Lahore in September 1961; Rehman Sobhan, “Economic Basis of Bengali Nationalism,” The History of Bangladesh: Economic History, vol. 2 (Dhaka: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Dhaka, 1992).

37. Akhlaqur Rahman, Partition, Integration, Economic Growth and Interregional Trade: a study of interwing trade in Pakistan, 1948-1959. Karachi: Institute of Development Economics, 1963.

38. A.R. Khan, The Economy of Bangladesh, London: Macmillan, St. Martin’s Press, 1972.

39. Report of the Special Conference of Economists of East Pakistan on the Draft Five-Year Plan and Connected Papers (Dacca: The Manager, Government of Pakistan Press, 1956); Report of the Panel of Economists on the Fourth Five Year Plan (1970-1975) (Islamabad: Government of Pakistan Planning Commission, 1970).

40. Author interview, August 14, 2011.

41. Literally “peace be upon you,” but here the connotation is possibly more sarcastic: “go in peace, but goodbye to you.”

42. Shah Ahmed Reza, Bhashanir Kagmari Shommelon O Shayotyo Shashoner Sangram [Bhashani’s Kagmari Meeting & the Struggle for Self-Rule], Dhaka: Ganoprakashani, 1986).

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