Soul searching on December 16th

In reality, Bangladesh achieved its independence on 16th December, when arms were laid by Pakistan Army before the Indian Army. Pakistan did not want to surrender to the Bangladeshi freedom fighters. But obviously, Bangladesh celebrates her Independence Day on 26th March when Awami League declared independence in 1971 after the negotiations failed and an army operation was launched to crush the people’s movement.

In Pakistan, 16 December, is marked as the day of fall of Dhaka, or as the day of East Pakistan tragedy. Indeed, it was a tragedy that within 24 years of its birth, 56 percent of Pakistanis decided to secede from the new state carved out of India on the basis of two nation theory. It was a tragedy that the forecast of people like Maulana Azad was right in 1947 that Pakistan would not last long. It was a tragedy that Pakistani establishment tried to solve the political issue militarily. It was a tragedy that thousands of the people of East Bengal were killed in the name of national interest and keeping the country together. It was a tragedy that 90,000 West Pakistanis were taken as prisoners of war. So on and so forth.

However, the lingering tragedy is the official narrative that Bangladesh separation was the result of the Indian conspiracy. For sure Indian government saw it as an opportunity to break Pakistan by supporting the freedom movement of the Bangladesh people. By putting the total blame on the Indian government, Pakistan establishment has absolved itself from the responsibility of treating East Pakistan as a colony.

It was a consequence of the wrongs done to the people of East Pakistan by the West Pakistan ruling classes and the military.

Soon after Pakistan was established, the Muslim League leaders led by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan thought it appropriate to impose Urdu as the only national language in February 1948. Mohammed Ali Jinnah jumped into this debate on 21 March 1948, stating that it can be the language of the Province, by saying, “let me make it clear to you that the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language.” This was not acceptable to the Bengalis because they would have been placed in a disadvantageous position in competition with the Punjabi and Mohajir west Pakistanis, who had a better understanding and command of Urdu.

The protests continued which took a violent turn on 21 February 1952 when the state government opened fire on the protesting students. According to different accounts, seven to nine students died, and several were injured. The attempt by the students to construct a memorial — Shaheed Minar — was also foiled. Though eventually, the government had to give in. This memorial was also a rallying point for Bengali nationalists even during the liberation war against Pakistan.

After giving the East Bengalis a ‘Shaheed Minar’, it was finally agreed in the third draft of the Constitution in 1954 that Bengali and Urdu would be the official languages of the country. ‘At the same time, it provided for the use of English as the “official language of the country for twenty years.” (Mehrunnisa Ali 1966)

But it was an expensive tradeoff for the Bengalis as they had to accept the perfidious idea of ‘One Unit’, thereby giving away their majority in the assembly. Not only that, once all of West Pakistan was declared one province, what was called East Bengal in the official documents until 1954, was renamed East Pakistan. Let us take a cursory look at a few disparities.

The total government expenditure in 20 years 1950-70 in Pakistan was US $30.95 billion, out of which West Pakistan extracted the lion’s share of US $21.49 billion meaning over 69 percent, while East Pakistan, despite having 55 per cent population, was doled out only US $9.45 billion, which was just 30.45 per cent of the total.

This distribution of resources was in sharp contrast to the income generated by East and West Pakistan. All through the 24 years, East Pakistan had enjoyed a foreign trade surplus. In a paper ‘Why Bangladesh’, a group of scholars in Vienna collected data from the government of Pakistan’s official papers showing how East Pakistan was exploited by West Pakistan. Taking stock of the foreign trade, they pointed out: ‘In foreign trade East Pakistan exports constituted 59 percent of the total but imports only 30 percent of the total imports. During the same period, West Pakistan earned 41 percent of the total foreign exchange and was allowed 70 percent of the foreign exchange earnings’.

While the surplus generated by East Pakistan was invested in the infrastructure and industry of West Pakistan, it was a secured market for the West Pakistani goods. Between 1964 and 1969 West Pakistan exported goods worth Rs5.29 billion to East Pakistan, while it imported goods of Rs3.17 billion.

Of the total foreign assistance, almost 80 percent was consumed by West Pakistan. On the whole, again according to the Vienna Group, 77 percent of the funds allocated for development went to West Pakistan in the first 20 years. Not only all the major investments in the jute and paper industry in East Pakistan were owned by the big business houses of West Pakistan, but East Pakistan was also their undisputed market of over 50 million people. It was because of the loss of this colony that Pakistan had to devalue its currency by 135 percent in 1972 and its textile and consumer industry had a great fall.

The East Bengal middle classes were also bitter because of their meagre share in government services. For example, by 1971, the share of 54 percent of East Pakistan’s Bengalis in the central civil services was 16 percent; 15 percent in foreign services; while in the army, out of total 17 generals, there was only one Bengali. And in PIA, the state-owned airline, only 280 employees were from East Pakistan as against 7,000 from West Pakistan.

I probed General (Retd) Tikka Khan when he was the Secretary General of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). To my observation that he shouldn’t be talking about democracy because his institution had killed over 250,000 Bengalis in East Pakistan, his simple answer was: ‘You people in the media always exaggerate such figures, only 35,000 Bengalis were killed during the military operations’. The generals, of course, are not trained to value human life whether it is three million as claimed by Bangladesh or 35,000 which is not a small figure either.

Pakistan and Bangladesh are going through a bad patch of relationship these days. A mistake of this government in this regard is that it officially criticised the trial and conviction of the Al-Badr and Al-Shams, leaders for war crimes in 1971, by the Bangladesh government. This is their internal matter and if the issue was that the way the trials were conducted shoddily, it was for the human rights groups to point out, which they did, and not for the Minister for Interior or our foreign office. We tend to forget that those who live in glasshouses shouldn’t cast stones on others.


The writer is the author of ‘What’s Wrong with Pakistan?’ He can be reached and at

(Courtesy- Daily Times)