Spin doctors would like us to believe that the inception of the very idea of Pakistan was a theocratic land for the Muslims of India; a sort of core country which would serve as a launching pad for the renaissance of Islam. Islam in this view would be the binding force between the people of different ethnicities. What led to the dismemberment of Pakistan? It was largely the reaction of the majority of Pakistani citizens who were by then totally disenchanted with the two-nation-theory and the idea of defining national identity on the basis of religion.
There is a time gap of 92 years between the Battle of Plassey in Bengal (1757) and annexation of Western Punjab into British India (1849). Thus Bengal came into contact with the civilized democratic (hence secularized) world almost a century before the areas of the Sub-continent that now constitute Pakistan.
To draw analogy and contrast with the separatist movement of today’s Baloch nationalism; unlike the Balochs of Pakistan today, whose ultra-nationalism is to a great extent inspired by their tribal chiefs, the pre-1971 Bengali Pakistanis had a democratic and secular mindset, which was the result of the longer history of political awareness in that region.
In the early years of Pakistan, when its entire Civil-Military leadership was busy consolidating the country’s foundation on the bedrock of religion, the then most popular Muslim League leader from Bengal, Hussain Shaheed Suharwardy, was the only one to dispute the notion of an ‘ideological state’, proposing its substitution with the idea of a ‘nation state’.
He supported pro-West foreign policy, seeing little gain in pursuit of the utopian concept of Pan-Islamism. Like other Bengali leaders of Pakistan, however, Suharwardy was kicked out of the office of Prime Minister of Pakistan by West Pakistan’s Civil-Military nexus, after just one year in office (1956-1957). He was later barred from politics by Ayub Khan.
Succeeding military ruler of Pakistan Yahya Khan not only continued the emphasis on the ideological state; but also declared the Pak Army as the ultimate defender of country’s ‘ideological borders’, besides geographical boundaries - a phrase that has been echoing in Pakistan’s state affairs ever since.
Accordingly, the ‘Legal Framework Order’ (LFO), announced by Yahya Khan on March 28, 1970 - under which first general elections in Pakistan were to be held later that year - stipulated Islamic Ideology as the corner stone of the country’s future constitution.
The apparently free and fair elections of 1970 were intended to be an eyewash for the national and international observers. The political neutrality of military rulers was fallacious as it covertly backed religious parties, while Pakistan’s state media openly promoted Islamic political thought, to indirectly support the agenda of Islamic parties, whereby becoming a tool of their election campaign.
It was not by coincidence that several Islamic parties in Pakistan observed ‘Shaukat-e-Islam’ (Glory of Islam) day on May 31, 1970, which was the stock phrase of Yahya Khan, his Information commissar Sher Ali Khan and the entire military leadership. The mass rallies taken out by Jamaat-e-Islami and other religious parties that day convinced the intelligence agencies that Islamists were going to have a strong representation in the future constituent assembly, not only to uphold Islamic National Ideology; but also to enable the army to use democracy as a façade of its mastery over the country.
However, the election results proved to be very anti-climatic for West Pakistan’s establishment. Sheikh Mujeeb-ur-Rehman’s Awami League swept the polls in East Pakistan, also emerging as the major political party of Pakistan, laying its claim to rule Pakistan as the First Democratically Elected Party. It won 160 out of 162 seats in the East Pakistan taking a total share of 53% in the Constituent Assembly. This was almost twice as much as 81 seats that Z.A. Bhutto’s PPP bagged in West Pakistan.
The establishment viewed Mujeeb as an Indian-backed secessionist and opposed to Pakistan’s ideology (read the establishment), although on June 28, 1970, in a huge public rally at Nishtar Park Karachi, Mujeeb had reaffirmed that East Pakistan would never separate itself from Pakistan. He had pointedly declared that his struggle was not against Pakistan or West Pakistan; but against “exploiters”.
Mujeeb was disliked by the establishment not only on account of his being an Ultra-Nationalist; but also a Secularist and a Socialist. It was unambiguously stated in Awami League’s manifesto that the Fundamentals of Pakistan’s constitution would be Secular, besides con-federal.
Secularism or ‘Dhormo Niropekhota’ in Bengali, was the fundamental principal that drove the Bengali Nationalist Movement. That is why the term Secularity was later induced into the First Constitution of Bangladesh in 1972 as one of the Four State Principles beside Democracy, Nationalism and Socialism (following Mujeeb’s assassination, the word Secularism was condemned by subsequent military regimes and eventually replaced in the constitution with the words “Absolute ….. faith in the Almighty Allah…..” by General Zia-ur-Rehman in 1977).
Whereas the Awami League was clear in its stance on Secularism, Bhutto’s PPP’s manifesto put Islam together with Socialism and democracy as one of the foundational bases of its politics. Utterly disappointed by the performance of Islamic parties, now the establishment decided to co-operate with Bhutto to undermine Awami League’s right to form the political government in Pakistan.
Earlier, Bhutto, serving as Foreign Minister in Ayub Khan’s Cabinet had promised a “Thousand-Year-War” with India. He maintained close personal relationship with several generals, including Yahya Khan. In fact the PPP’s founding document contained a reference to Jihad against India (Feldman, From Crisis to Crisis, p. 250 cited by Hussain Haqqani in, Pakistan-Between Mosque and Military, p67).
Earlier, in his LFO, Yahya Khan had announced that the new Constituent Assembly would be bound to formulate country’s Constitution within 120 days of its election, failing to which it would dissolve automatically. In February 1971, however, he belatedly scheduled the session of elected assembly as late as on March 3, 1971.
He later on postponed it indefinitely on the pretext of the demand of Bhutto, as a leader of Majority populace of West Pakistan. Bhutto, becoming the tool of the establishment, asserted that an agreement had to be reached between him and Mujeeb, before the First Session of Assembly was called.
After the humiliation of the fall of Dacca, both the military as well as the PPP blamed each other either directly or through their apologists for that debacle. But the fact is that the denial of the rights of the Majority Party which led to this eventuality was coordinated and jointly carried out by both in the so-called interest of West Pakistan (for details see: Hasan Zaheer’s The Separation of East Pakistan, Oxford University Press 1994).
Subsequent to indefinite postponement of the Assembly’s session, Awami League announced Civil Disobedience. The Civil and Military advisers of Yahya Khan suggested a Military Action against the Awami League. According to them an iron fist would fix the Bengalis.
However, the military officials, belonging to West Pakistan, who savvied the determination of the Bengalis opposed such action. These included the Military Governor of East Pakistan, Admiral S.M. Ahsan and Commandant-in-chief of Eastern Wing Lt. General Sahibzada Yaqub Ali Khan, both of whom resigned when they were pressured by the Federal Government to carry out a crackdown.
Lt. General Tikka Khan replaced Sahibzada Yaqub Khan - to defend ‘National Ideology’ and ‘Glory of Islam’ - and ‘Operation Searchlight’ started on March 25, 1971 with Tikka Khan’s following words manifesting its objectives: “…..Kill all the traitors and, if necessary, raze Dacca to the ground. There will be no one to rule; there will be nothing to rule” (Saddique Salik, Witness to Surrender, p. 53). Pakistani soldiers attacking Awami League activists were heard hollering “Allah ho Akbar”.
The Butcher of Bengalis General Tikka Khan was later on appointed Defence Minister by Z.A. Bhutto in 1976. He was accepted in PPP with open arms and went on to become its Secretary General, further underlining the fact that the differences that later developed between PPP and the security establishment were not ideological; but a result of power tussle.
Jamaat-e-Islami youth wing Al-Bader led by Khurram Murad - who went on to become JI’s General Secretary under Qazi Hussain – served as a spearhead of the army in its genocide of Bengalis. On December 14, 1971, just two days before Pakistan Army’s Surrender to India, many Bengali intellectuals and writers including Shaheed Qaiser were kidnapped and later slaughtered by Al-Bader. Every year Bangladesh observes this day as a ‘Day of Martyred Intellectuals’.
Pakistan’s establishment has always called Sheikh Mujeeb-ur-Rehman a secessionist. Secession by definition is an act in which a group withdraws itself from a larger political body. The separation of the East Pakistan was in a way unique because in this case the majority refused to be ruled by the minority - which was denying the formers right to choose a political system – and was still called defector.
The system that majority were opting for was also inter alia secularism. It was denied by the minority which was ruled by even a smaller group that had arms (Bengalis constituted less than 10% of the army in united Pakistan). This group has been adamant to sacrifice anything and everything for its ideological bigotry.
The fall of East Pakistan not only saw the loss of the Eastern half of Pakistan; but also the lost opportunity of making Pakistan a secular country - a potential development that would have not only saved it from the disaster that it is presently going through; but also the much bigger one foreseeable ahead, when the Taliban may finally take over Pakistan.