Lessons from 1971
The writer has a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK, and works in Islamabad.
Bangladesh’s 50th birthday in December 2021 has generally gone unnoticed in Pakistan. There have been a few attempts to recall the events that led to the break-up of Pakistan, but most of them were a regurgitation of the official narrative in the country that has prevailed since 1971.
Educational institutions in Pakistan are not the birthplaces of new ideas, nor the machines that produce new and critical research in the social sciences, including history. Those who question the officially imposed narrative, particularly of West Pakistan’s role in the tragic events of 1971 in East Pakistan, do so at their peril. Any attempt to recount the sad days of this fateful year is met with derision. Officially, there is a renewed effort to blame it all on politicians – like Bhutto and Mujib – or on “Pakistan’s eternal enemy” that is India.
In this column, there is neither editorial freedom nor space to give details and call a spade a spade. Perhaps it is better to focus on some of the lessons that may be useful for history students. Thus, the first lesson begins with the formation of “One Unit” in 1955. All provinces and administrative units of West Pakistan were dissolved and the central government introduced the One Unit program forming a single province of West Pakistan. Even more devastating was the principle of parity – whereby East Pakistan and West Pakistan became equal in representation, but not in the allocation of resources.
East Pakistan had 55% of the total population of Pakistan, but it was given equal representation in the 1956 constitution. The One Unity and its principle of parity lasted for 15 years until 1970 and during those years, the civil and military bureaucracy of West Pakistan prevailed in all economic, political and social decisions. In the absence of any representative government, General Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship had the final say on almost all issues relating to both East and West Pakistan. For 15 years, in the name of uniformity, all cultural, democratic, ethnic and social aspirations of the Pakistani people have been crushed with an iron fist.
In the end, One Unit which was a symbol of unwarranted uniformity and undemocratic parity failed – and did it miserably. This triggered the alienation of the Pakistani people, especially the eastern wing where the Bengalis resented the domination of the western Pakistani civil-military elite. So the first lesson is: if you want to save your country, never try to impose uniformity on a diversity of people. If you concentrate too much power in the center, things start to fall apart like in 1971 in (the old) East Pakistan which fought to go its own way.
The Punjab, because of its dominant position in the bureaucracy and its representation in the military, wielded great influence in national affairs. After 1947, migrants from India to East Pakistan were mostly Urdu-speaking. This gave rise to an ethnic dimension in the tragedy which unfolded in East Pakistan in 1971. When the people of East Pakistan tried to assert their democratic right, they had to face resistance from the civil-military elite of the country. West Pakistan. It ultimately turned out to be a Bengali-Punjabi-Urdu struggle that resulted in violence claiming thousands, if not millions, of lives. So the next lesson is about ethnic domination.
If one or two ethnic groups or nationalities have a disproportionate representation in the civil and military bureaucracy, it will create active resistance from the other groups. In all federal authorities, departments, institutions and ministries there must be an equitable distribution of jobs. This was not the case with the former East Pakistan and it is not the case even in present day Pakistan. This is a serious matter and must be resolved sooner or later.
The next lesson can be learned from some successful federations around the world. In a well-functioning federation there must be a balance – which is an essential condition for its success. Administrative, economic and political powers must be equitable. The absence of such a balance results in a bitter struggle for resources, if they are controlled by the central government without consensus of the federating units. In 1971, this became very pronounced in East Pakistan whose people were wronged in the name of national security and unity.
A lack of respect for some basic principles of a federation had pushed Sheikh Mujibur Rehman to articulate the demands of East Pakistan in the Six Points of the Awami League. The central government has failed to introduce Bengali as the national language and there has been an unfair distribution of natural resources. There was a low representation of Bengalis in central services, especially in the most senior positions. And all of this provided the backbone of the six-point formula. The lesson is not to repeat the same mistakes and to avoid similar resentments in Pakistan today. Listen, when people are talking, rather than giving them a patriotic potion.
All the languages of Pakistan deserve respect, preservation and promotion. All major languages have the right to be declared national languages. At least 10 languages in today’s Pakistan: Baloutchi, Brahui, Balti, Hindko, Pashto, Punjabi, Saraiki, Sindhi, Shina and Urdu have the right to be spoken in parliament, of course with adequate translation services – which is not difficult to organize in the 21st century. If we are to learn the lessons of 1971, respect for all languages should be an important lesson. No condescending attitude towards speakers of languages other than English and Urdu.
The next lesson is not to underestimate the gravity of the situation when the facade collapses. In 1971 our leaders showed a deplorable lack of understanding of the developing scenario. And the rulers weren’t Bhutto and Mujib – as the state-sanctioned narrative now wants us to accept and believe. The approach of Generals Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan and their coteries to this problem was inadequate. It is true that the politicians played their part, but there was more myopia in the leadership positions not occupied by the politicians, because they were not the decision makers of the state apparatus.
The events of 1971 also teach us to remember the laws of holes. The first law states: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging”. Digging a hole makes it deeper and therefore more difficult to get out. Which means that when you’re in an untenable position, it’s best to stop making the situation worse. This is precisely what the rulers of Pakistan did in 1971. They continued to dig and made matters worse not only for themselves but for everyone involved. People in general and ordinary soldiers suffered the most.
The second law of holes is: “when you stop digging, you are still in a hole”. It means you cannot just sit there like General Yahya Khan did during the last days of the war which ended in ignominious defeat. No amount of milk of lime can change this historical fact. There were still sane voices suggesting a political solution through negotiation and the peaceful transfer of power to the majority party, which was the Awami League led by Mujibur Rehman. Depriving a political party of its majority in order to favor another is like digging the hole deeper. The lesson is not to speed up the process of disintegration.
Finally, the last lesson is to learn to examine and judge the situation not from a high pedestal, but among the people – among activists and journalists; intellectuals and writers; those who are not paid and fed, but those who dare to speak the truth.
The author can be contacted at: mnazir [email protected]