Article by Tanweer Akram

Bangladesh and Pakistan



The creation of Pakistan contained the germs of discord between “West Pakistanis” and Bangalis. Initially, the population of East Bengal supported the creation of Pakistan, that is, the partition of the Indian subcontinent into two constituent parts following the withdrawal and departure of the British. The Bengali support for the creation of Pakistan was a result of the transformation of the Bangalis in British occupied India. During the British rule in the Indian subcontinent, the dominant section of the Muslim upper class had two components, the zamindars (landlords) and the ulema (clergy). A few words about these “landlords” is absolutely necessary. The British consolidated their rule in Bengal by instituting the zamindars. The zamindari and-holding system gave the land-owners the right to crop share and revenue collection from the cultivators in the land entitled to them by the British. In return these land-owners would provide an annual entitlement charge to the colonial authorities. The Muslim League represented these “men of property and influence.” In order to counter the Indian Congress’ support among the nationalist Muslim communities as well as serve as a counter-weight to Indian nationalism, the Muslim League advanced the notion of “two-nation theory.”

The communal separatists devised the “two-nation theory.” This “theory” claimed that the Muslims and the Hindus in the subcontinent constituted two different and irreconcilable nationalities. This “theory” did not explain how in spite of vast class, linguistic, ethnic, social, and cultural differences, Muslims in the subcontinent constituted one nation, other than that the Muslim constitute a unified nation on a basis of “divine sanction.”

The idea of a distinct state for the Indian Muslims was first proposed by Muhammed Iqbal; his scheme, which did not include Bengal, was confined to setting up a separate state for Indian Muslims in the North-West of the subcontinent. The name Pakistan was coined by Chaudhuri Rahmat Ali along with a group of students in Cambridge. Pakistan was an acronym that stood for Punjab, Afgania (Pathan), Kashmir, Sind, and istan, which is Persian for country. Hence, Rahmat Ali’s scheme too failed to include the “lesser breed” of Bangali Muslims.

The demand for Pakistan was originally dismissed as a naive scheme. It was initially viewed as nothing more than a bargaining tool for the leaders of the Indian Muslims. Despite the incorporation of the demand for Pakistan into its program, the Muslim League failed to mobilize grass-root Muslim support for itself. This fact is reflected in the Muslim League inability to attain a majority among Indian Muslims prior to the election of 1946.

In its struggle for independence from the British, the Indian National Congress had utilized the religious sentiment of Muslims towards the Turkish Sultanate under the Caliphate title. The Muslims supported Turkey which had entered the First World War on the German side against the British. The Indian nationalist leaders built up the Khalifat movement against the British. However, the Khalifat movement died its natural death when Kamal Atuatur, the reformist dictator, abolished the nominal position of Caliphate in 1924. The Indian Congress’ strength among Indian Muslims never quite reached the level that it had during the Khalifat movement. Subsequently, the Muslim League gained and exerted influence on the Muslim anti-colonialist movement.

It was Jinnah, earlier hailed as “the ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity,” who led the demand for Pakistan under the slogan of “Divide and Quit.” This demand was the political expression embodying the national aspirations of Muslim landlords, rising business men, civil servants, mullahs (priests), and religious pirs (saints). The demand for an independent state for Indian Muslims became a living force among the Muslim masses because of its appeal to Indian Muslims that they would have separate development free from what was described as Hindu domination and exploitation, with an opportunity for economic prosperity.

On March 23, 1940, the Muslim League adopted the Lahore Resolution, moved by Fazlul Huq of Bengal, which called for political independence by creating two states for Muslims. It stated:

“the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in a majority as in the North-Western and Eastern Zones of India should be grouped to constitute ‘Indian States’ in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.”

The Lahore Resolution, which later came to be widely discussed and debated, was effectively by-passed by the Delhi Resolution. Moved by H.S.Suhrawardy of Bengal and adopted in the Muslim League Legislators’ Convention on April 9, 1946, it stated:

“any formula devised by the British Government for transferring power from the British to the people of India…will not contribute to the solution of the Indian problem [unless]…the Zones comprising Bengal and Assam in the North-East, and the Punjab, the NWFP, Sind and Baluchistan in the North-West of India…be constituted into one sovereign independent state and…implement the establishment of Pakistan…two separate constitution-making bodies be set up for Pakistan and Hindustan” (emphasis added).

Pakistan, as it came into being, was the paradigm of an artificial state. This newly independent state was a geographical anomaly; it was separated into two parts by approximately 1,600 kilometers of Indian territory. The Western part consisted of the provinces of Sind, Baluchistan, North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), and a divided section of the Punjab, while the Eastern part consisted solely of East Bengal.

The socio-cultural diversity between the two wings of Pakistan was enormous. In fact, this diversity was extended even to the very basis, the ideological pretext, that is, the religion of the people, which was to serve as the unifying force in this country; Islam was understood, interpreted, and exercised in different ways in these two separate wings. The history of Islam in “West Pakistan” and East Bengal was completely dissimilar.

In spite of having established Pakistan on the basis of the “two-nation theory,” a section of the high command of the Muslim League still retained the idea of establishing a secular parliamentary state. The contradiction in the position was clearly spelt out in Jinnah’s inaugural address to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947. He declared:

“Any idea of a United India could have never worked and…would have led us to a terrific disaster…we should begin to work in that spirit and in course of time all these angularities of the majority and minority communities—the Hindu community and the Muslim community—because even as regards Muslims you have Pathans, Punjabis, Shias, Sunnis and so on and among the Hindus you have Brahmins, Vashnavas, Khatris, also Bengalees, Madrasis, and so on—will vanish…this [difference] has been the biggest hindrance on the way of India to attain her freedom and independence and but for this we would have been a free people long ago…you are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State…you will find that in course of time, Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Hindus and Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State” (emphasis added).

The theoretical confusion and the opportunistic nature of Pakistan’s ruling elite is clear in Jinnah’s inaugural speech.

The Pakistani ruling-class, having established the state of Pakistan on the basis of the “two-nation theory,” could not find the ideological justification for establishing a secular state. The mullahs and the right-wing elements in the Muslim League wanted Pakistan to be a state with “pan-Islamic ideals” since Pakistan, they claimed, was not merely a state for Indian Muslims but also a “Muslim State.” The mullahs and their allies argued that since Pakistani was established to be a state for the Muslims in India, the state structure and its laws should be based upon the precepts laid in the medieval religious laws. Yet, the liberal bourgeois component of the Pakistani ruling class wanted to establish a secular state that functioned on the basis of civic laws. If, indeed, religion had nothing to do with “the business of the State,” then why carve a separate state for Indian Muslims? The Pakistani ruling elite were confronted with the dilemma of over-riding their own claim that Pakistan was to be an Islamic state for Indian Muslims. The liberal bourgeoisie could not justify advancing secularism in Pakistan since the state was established on the basis that Muslims in India constitute not just a distinct religious community, but a separate nation. That the Indian Muslims did not constitute one homogenous nationality became apparent in the confrontation of nationalities in the state of Pakistan and the eventual secession of East Bengal from Pakistan. The secession of East Bengal demonstrated that the claims of national unity based upon religious conceptions could not prevent the disintegration of the state of Pakistan.


An Analyis of the of Position of the Bangalis Under Pakistani Rule in the 1950s

The Muslim League, the first ruling party of Pakistan, lacked a mass base. The Muslim League came into power in Pakistan after having succeeded in dividing the subcontinent into two, following the departure of British. The central government of the state of Pakistan was set up in the Western wing of the state primarily because most of the upper class of “Musalman” aristocrats migrated to the western wing. The fundamental difficulties facing the Pakistani ruling class were: one, to construct a viable polity, and two, to integrate the various nationalities into this bizarre state, separated into two wings.

Throughout the history of Pakistan, the province of East Bengal had a greater population than all the other provinces of Pakistan combined, as the following table shows:


Population in millions

1951 1961 1971
East Bengal 41.9 50.8 70
West Pakistan 33.7 42.9 60

The central state apparatus, the military and the civil service, was dominated by the Muslim immigrants from North India and by the Punjabis. The North Indian Muslims were involved in the British administration in Delhi. Hence, they dominated the civilian administration in Pakistan. The Punjab had served as the garrison of the British Indian Army. Hence, the Punjabis dominated the military in Pakistan.

The Muslim League decided to make Urdu the sole state language of Pakistan, although only 3 per cent of the population of Pakistan spoke Urdu and over 56 per cent spoke Bangla. Since Urdu was the language of the dominant class in Pakistan and hence the language of upper echelons of the Muslim League leadership, the ruling party decided that Urdu was to be the sole state language of Pakistan. The explanation provided by the Pakistani ruling elite was that, since Urdu had more similarity with Arabic and Persian, it was a more “Islamic” language and since Bangla was derived from pre-existing Indian languages, primarily Sanskrit, it was a “Hindu” language.

The Pakistani ruling elite’s language proposal did not meet any organized and serious challenge in the Western wing because the languages of West Pakistanis had an affinity in nature, structure, and vocabulary with Urdu. However, for Bangalis, Urdu was an alien and unrelated language. Thus, the Bangali intelligentsia and political leadership proposed that both Urdu and Bangla be declared as the state languages. On March 11, 1948 a province-wide strike was held to protest the central government’s chauvinist policy of rejecting the language of the majority of the people as unfit to be a state language.Student demonstrations took place all across East Bengal. In his first trip to East Bengal on March 21, 1948 at Dhaka (then Dacca) the Governor-General “Quaid-I-Azam” (literally, the Great Leader) Jinnah declared (in English!):

“Let me make it clear to you that the State Language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Anyone who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan…so far as the State Language is concerned Pakistan’s language shall be Urdu.”

The Bangalis did not accept Jinnah’s claim and continued their resistance to the imposition of Urdu language. Subsequent attempts by the Pakistani rulers to replace Bangla script, first with Arabic scripts, and later with Roman scripts, failed due to the public outcry and popular mobilization led by the students and the intellectuals, supported by the middle class and by some sections of the workers and the peasants.

Students Breaking Section 144. February 21 1952

Students Breaking Section 144. February 21 1952

The protests on the language issue culminated on February 21, 1952, when police fired on a student demonstration and killed several students and bystanders. Politically, the killings led to the formation of the United Front. The killings also led to the emergence of a new literary and cultural tradition of protests and secularism among the Bangali bourgeoisie. The cultural tradition that arose was “sigh of oppressed” against Pakistani elite’s use of religious nationalism. We cannot underestimate the importance of this event in emergence of the Bangali nationalism. The Bangalis viewed the Pakistani elite’s attempt to impose Urdu as the state language as a design to prevent them from full participation in the state rule. Hence, the death of students while protesting the language policy became an event to rally public support for the Bangali cause. This day was, and still is, celebrated by Bangalis as Eukushey February (martyr’s day on February 21). Indeed, this event has become ingrained in the Bangali national political consciousness.

Meanwhile, the economic colonization and the expropriation of wealth of East Bengal by the West Pakistani ruling elite had already begun. East Bengal was the world’s largest producer of raw jute (a fiber), which was Pakistan’s main foreign exchange earner. The foreign trade statistics in its first decade for Pakistan were as follows:

Foreign Trade Figures (millions of rupees)
5 Year Period East Bengal West Pakistan
Exports Imports Exports Imports
1947-52 4582 2129 3786 4769
1952-57 3969 2159 3440 5105

While East Bengal was earning a larger share of Pakistan’s exports, West Pakistan had the greater share in imports of consumer goods, industrial machineries, and raw materials. Thus, the embryonic nature of exploitative relation was formulated in early the days of Pakistan. The inter-wing trade policy was designed to allow the West Pakistani manufacturing sector to dispose its commodities in East Bengal at a price higher than world market. In spite of rhetoric of the “national unity,” the export earnings of East Bengal were being used to finance the development of Karachi, the major commercial city of West Pakistan, and the Punjab, the dominant province of West Pakistan.

In financial year 1948-49, the allocation for provincial development expenditure was as the following table indicates:


Amount Allocated (millions rps)

East Bengal 40
Punjab 50
Sind 25

As the above table shows, the Pakistani ruling elite was interested more in the development of provinces of West Pakistan, though the majority of the country’s population lived in East Bengal.

Up to 1951, total expenditure on development projects of Pakistan was 1,126 million Rs., out of which only 28 million was for East Bengal (1986, 20). The Pakistani ruling elite, instead of remedying inequities that existed between the development of productive forces of the two wings, chose an economic policy that benefited the interests of West Pakistan based manufacturing sector that sold its commodities in East Bengal. Later, I will examine the intensification of the economic exploitation of East Bengal during the era of the military regime.


An Analysis of the Bangali Quest for Autonomy in First Decade of Pakistani Rule

On June 23, 1949 the Awami Muslim League was established. The Awami Muslim League was the first opposition party that came into being in Pakistan. The Awami League was led by Maulana Bhashani, a peasant and religious leader and by Suhrawardy, who at one point had advocated a United Bengal but also supported the Muslim League on some occasions. The membership of Awami Muslim League consisted of two elements. The first elements were those whose political ideology was not fundamentally different from the Muslim League, but who had concluded that the increasing discrimination against the Bangalis on racial and provincial basis would hinder their access to political power. The second elements were younger and more radical, whose political ideology was different from the Muslim League. They found little worthy of admiring in political ideology of the pan-Islamism and the spirit of “two-nation theory.”

The Awami Muslim League was essentially a provincial party. The political agenda of Awami League emphasized grievances of Bangalis that had developed primarily due to failure of the Pakistani ruling elite to recognize Bangla as a state language. The Awami League called for such policies as (i) abolishing the British-instituted zamindari (landlord) system, (ii) nationalization of key industries, and (iii) utilization of the jute sector for the benefit of the people of the East Bengal. Even in its early days, the League began reflecting the interests of a considerable section of the Bangali urban bourgeoisie not only of the provincial capital Dhaka but also of the district towns. The League, in October 1955, dropped “Muslim” from its nomenclature in order to attract non-Muslims into its fold.

The Basic Principle Committee (BPC) of the National Constitutional Assembly published its report in February, 1950. It called for the reorganization of Pakistan’s provinces into two units: West Pakistan and East Pakistan. The legislature was to have two houses. In the upper house there would be equal numbers of members from the two constituting units, while the lower house would be elected on the basis of population. Initially, it did not specify the number of seats in the houses. Later, the proposed distribution of seats were as follows:

Province Upper House Lower House Total
East Bengal 10 165 175
Punjab 10 75 85
NWFP 10 24 34
Sind 10 20 30
Baluchistan 10 16 26
Total 50 300 350

The upper house was to be indirectly elected. The governmental mechanism would be a combination of presidential and parliamentary systems, with a substantial executive power and the choice of selecting the Prime Minister being retained with the President. The BPC called for declaring Urdu as the state language. The Bangali political leadership was outraged at the proposals of the BPC, particularly the language issue. The Bangalis viewed the proposals as a scheme to perpetuate West Pakistani, or rather Punjabi, political hegemony over the central government. The proposals evoked indignation among Bangalis because their numerical strength would be reduced in a joint session of legislature, which was to settle any disputes. Moreover, the scope of arbitrary use of autocratic power by the President could enable the Pakistani ruling class to secure support for itself and counter any Bangali schemes for changing the status quo. For Bangali bourgeoisie it was clear that the BPC proposals would further reduce their already limited role in the state.

The anti-BPC political maneuvers of Bangali politicians led to the Grand National Convention (GNC). Although some West Pakistani opposition leaders participated, the GNC was primarily an initiative of Bangali bourgeois leadership. According to the GNC proposals, the power of the central government would be limited to foreign policy and defense. The proposals at the GNC called for a unicameral legislature, with seats being distributed among the provinces on the basis of population. The GNC also proposed that the federal capital be established in Islamabad (West Pakistan) and every other session of the federal parliament be held in Dhaka (East Bengal).

These proposals reflected the popular Bangali demand that both Bangla and Urdu should be the state languages of Pakistan. In essence, the GNC proposals were an attempts to ensure the political participation of the Bangalis in the state’s decision making process. The counter-proposals assume that the national interests of the Bangalis could be safeguarded if the Bangalis were able to exercise their due political rights within the framework of a bourgeois democratic polity.

Another response to West Pakistani dominance of the national political scene was the formation of the Youth League in February 1951. Its formation was inspired by the “Rajshahi jail thesis.” It acted as a counter to state-sponsored ideology of pan-Islamism. They felt that if the central government were to grant East Bengal autonomy, the province would be better off. Since the Youth League had a substantial number of young radicals, the thrust of its propaganda was to show that the Pakistani elite was exploiting East Bengal. For example, in its manifesto, the League pointed out, quoting Pakistani government statistics, that the Consumer Product Index (CPI) had gone up from 100 in 1939 (base year) to 174 in 1948 and 214 in 1949. Also, the Youth League stressed the secular aspects of Bangali culture, such as the Phaila Baishak (Bangali New Year), and Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday. In addition,it called for an end to all forms of regionalism and communal discrimination.

Another reaction to the domination of political power by the West Pakistani ruling elite was the establishment of the United Front, an alliance of political parties. It was composed of the Awami League, Krishak Sramik Party, Ganatantric Dal and other small parties. Its political platform for the election was based on a 21-point agenda, which emphasized declaring Bangla as one of the state languages of Pakistan. The 21-point demands also included plans for abolishing the land-holding system, ending high interest on agricultural credit extended to farmers by the rural moneyed class, nationalizing the jute industry, providing fair prices to jute cultivators, and implementing cooperative farming. The United Front’s program also demanded that the relation between East Bengal and West Pakistan be restructured on the basis of full regional autonomy; the program identified three subjects for the central government, namely, defense, foreign affairs, and currency. As confidence building measures, the United Front’s program suggested that Pakistan’s Naval Head Quarters be relocated to East Bengal and that an arms manufacturing factory be built in East Bengal.

The provincial election of East Bengal in March 1954 was a big shock for the Pakistani ruling elite. Basing its campaign on these demands, the United Front won 227 out of 236 of Muslim seats. Even the Communists won 5 seats. The Muslim League, which was the ruling party, won only 10 seats out of 309. This landslide victory revealed how estranged the Bangali masses were because of the failure of the Muslim League to deliver on the promises made during the campaign for Pakistan. The Muslim League, the party of the elite that came to power in Pakistan, promised that once the state of Pakistan came into being, Bangalis would be liberated from foreign exploitation and that national policy would be geared towards their benefit. The United Front’s campaign had succeeded because it raised the slogan of the Bangalis’ grievances against the central government’s discrimination. On May 30, 1954 the United Front government was dismissed by the central government. The Prime Minister Mohammed Ali explained:

“Our sole aim in taking over the administration of the province is to save East Bengal and preserve the integrity of Pakistan.”

In order to “save” East Bengal, Major-General Iskander Mirza was appointed the Governor by the central government. After a year of political intrigue and bargaining, the provincial assembly was restored and the Governor’s rule ended. By then, a section of the United Front had broken with the Awami League in order to form a ministry in the provincial government.


An Analysis of the Constitutional Crisis and Political Instability

In October 1954, the conflicts between the Governor-General and the Constituent Assembly led the Governor-General to dismiss the Constituent Assembly and proclaim a state of Emergency. The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly led to a further increase of the bureaucratic power over the state of Pakistan. Earlier, the Governor-General Ghulam Mohammed dismissed Khwaja Nazimuddin and appointed Mohammed Ali Bogra as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Despite the directive of the Awami League, Suhrawardy joined Bogra’s cabinet as the law minister. Though he himself had been an ardent exponent of provincial autonomy, Suhrawardy supported the One Unit scheme. The One Unit scheme was forced upon the Provincial Assemblies, which elected the Second Constituent Assembly.

On March 23, 1956 Pakistan become a republic with Iskander Mirza as its first President. The creation of the republic did not, however, enable the Pakistani ruling-class either to resolve the “national question” vis-a-vis the Bangalis (as well other nationalities) or to establish political stability by the formation of a secure ruling-class political party.

The first republic lasted only till October 1958. Within this brief period, there were four Prime Minister of Pakistan. During that period, the provincial politics in East Bengal was reduced to a farce, with provincial governments changing off and on. The political formation was made of rapidly changing allegiance at the center of the Muslim League and the Republican Party, and at East Bengal provincial level of the Awami League and the Krishak Sramik Party. In East Bengal, the AL and the KSP battled for governmental positions. The regular shifts of the allegiance of the members of the legislature were promoted because the country’s bourgeois leadership was corrupt and its political leaders desired to promote personal gains.

On September 11, 1956 Suhrawardy formed a coalition government that included the Awami League. On becoming the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Suhrawardy declared that East Bengal has been granted 98 per cent autonomy. However, nothing substantial was done to alter the actual condition of East Bengal. The lack of initiative of their politicians to change the socioeconomic conditions of East Bengal was regarded by the Bangali bourgeoisie as a betrayal of the Bangali cause.

Within the Awami League, the central government’s failure to guarantee East Bengal’s regional interests led to the formation of factions, one led by Suhrawardy and the other led by Bhashani. Suhrawardy supported the design of Pakistan’s elite in joining the US-sponsored military pacts. The differences within the Awami League surfaced at the Kagmari conference of the party because the Leftist formation within the Awami League refused to accept Suhrawardy’s compromises with the Pakistani ruling elite. Bhashani’s rhetoric led him to declare that, unless complete autonomy were granted to East Bengal, then Assalumu Alakikum (Farewell) to Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the politics of intrigue at the central government continued; Suhrawardy was forced to resign. A general election was scheduled for 1959. This election was never to be held. With the proclamation of Martial Law on October 7, 1958, President Mirza abrogated the constitution, dismissed the central and the provincial governments, and banned all political parties. The imposition of martial law abolished what little prospect there was to the establishment a viable bourgeois democratic process in Pakistan. The military stepped into the power because the civilian faction of the ruling-class had been unable to set a political structure that would contain the “national question.” The junta used the disparity between East Bengal and West Pakistan, and the instability of the political process to justify its taking over the power.

In its first decade of rule, the Pakistani ruling elite would dismiss the grievances of the Bangali national bourgeoisie as a plot to undermine the unity of the “Muslim” state. The ruling elite would charge and accuse that the Bangalis’ call for the decentralization of state power and even their call for the secularization of the state, as being inspired by secessionist elements, foreign agents, or India, the “natural” enemy of Pakistan. Ethnic and racial discriminations against the Bangalis went along with the limitation of the political rights of the Bangalis.

The imposition of martial law served to reduce the numerical strength of the Bangalis that they could use even if an underdeveloped bourgeois democracy were to emerge in Pakistan. For the Bangali bourgeoisie, the failure of civilian rule and subsequent military takeover further limited its role and scope in the political arena because the military was predominantly West Pakistani.

From the perspective of the Bangali bourgeoisie, the military intervention was an attempt to ensure the West Pakistani dominated military’s role in the state structure, particularly because the scheduled general elections would have allowed the Bangalis to exercise their numerical strength to gain political power. Due to the establishment of barricades that prevented their participation, the Bangali bourgeoisie become disillusioned with the concept of the Islamic state of Pakistan. Their struggle for autonomy intensified as a result of the failure of the newly emergent state of Pakistan to deliver the Bangali bourgeoisie a fair share of power and privileges.


An Analysis of Pakistani Military Dictatorship and the Bangalis

The proclamation of martial law led to the dismissal of President Iskander Mirza, when General Ayub Khan took over power and proclaimed himself President of the Republic on October 27, 1958. The military regime justified its actions by claiming that the country was headed towards “national disintegration.” The imposition of martial law brought the military faction, which had already a power-base within the West Pakistani dominated system, into the forefront of state rule.

The Ayub regime promised a “growth-oriented economy” and political stability. An important aspect of the ideology of the Pakistani state during this period was the slogan of “national unity.” Following the political agitation and reaction of the Bangalis in the 1950’s, the Pakistani ruling elite had become attentive to the regional disparity and the Bangalis’ dissatisfaction with the status quo.

In spite of the Pakistani elite’s acknowledgment of the existence of disparity, the growth of imbalance and disparity between the wings continued. In effect, although the ruling elite acknowledged the existence of disparity between the two wings, it did nothing substantial to remedy the situation. As the state was the major promoter of economic growth and initiative, the bias in economic development and growth remained in favor of West Pakistan. Due to the relative weakness of Bangali bourgeoisie, the position of the Bangalis deteriorated not only within the Pakistani ruling elite but in comparison with the West Pakistanis too. After the partition of the subcontinent, the emergence of state-sponsored capitalism in East Bengal was hampered mainly because its jute-producing areas became de-linked from the jute-processing mills of Calcutta in West Bengal. This allowed the penetration of West Pakistani industrial and merchant capital into East Bengal.

The change in government did nothing to alter the bias and the racist attitude towards the Bangalis. President of the republic Ayub Khan himself expressed his opinion as follows:

“they [the Bangalis] have all the inhibitions of down-trodden races and have not yet found it possible to adjust psychologically to the requirements of the new born freedom. Their popular complexes, exclusiveness, suspicion and a sort of defensive aggressiveness probably emerge from…historical background.”

The dictator’s musing on the Bangalis reflected the popular stereotype of the Bangalis held by the West Pakistani ruling elite. Such racist conceptualization was a prerequisite for the ruling elite to culturally oppress the Bangalis.

With the promulgation of the “Basic Democratic” system, the military regime believed it could legitimize its rule. Under the “Basic Democracy” system, the National Assembly was elected by an equal number of 40,000 “Basic Democrats” both in East Bengal and in West Pakistan. The “Basic Democrats” were linked in a series of tiered-system that also elected the President. (Needless to say, there was not anything remotely democratic in the “Basic Democrats” scheme.) The regime claimed that the British model of bourgeois democracy was unsuitable for an underdeveloped state like Pakistan. However, the “Basic Democracy” formula was unable to obstruct the development of Bangali nationalism.

On June 8, 1962 the military regime lifted martial law after the election of the National Assembly. In effect, the country came under the rule of the “Basic Democrat” system, which served the Ayub Khan dictatorship. This Constitution was opposed not only by the Bangali bourgeoisie but also by the West Pakistani political opposition. The opposition at the national level formed the Combined Opposition Party (COP). In September 1964, the COP nominated Fatima Jinnah, the sister of M.A.Jinnah, as its candidate for Presidential elections. In the Presidential election, although Fatima Jinnah lost, she did much better in East Bengal, where she received 46.6 per cent of the votes cast compared to 36.36 per cent in her favor nation-wide. Her widespread support in East Bengal revealed the Bangali dissatisfaction with the Ayub Khan’s administration.

During Ayub Khan’s rule, the Bangali intellectuals and the bourgeoisie became more and more vocal against the economic exploitation. The Bangali intellectuals made 3 arguments: one, East Bengal had been turned into a market to dump West Pakistani products; two, the foreign trade policy was biased in favor of West Pakistani interests; and three, the ruling elite allocated and distributed resources in favor of West Pakistan. The examination of the political economy of Pakistan reveals the exploitation of East Bengal by West Pakistan.

The Awami League, which was championing the quest for autonomy, formulated a 6-point agenda that was accepted as its program. The program called for (i) a Federation based on the Lahore Resolution, (ii) central government dealt only with defense and foreign affairs, (iii) either two separate currencies for the two wings or same currency for both wings with provision that flight of capital is prevented and each wing maintain separate revenue accounts, (iv) the units be given the authority to levy taxes and to collect revenue, (v) separate foreign exchange accounts for both the wings, and (vi) setting up a para-military force for East Bengal. Mujibur Rahman presented this program as the magna carta of ending economic and socio-political exploitation. Mujibur Rahman was elected the President of the Awami League and launched a mass campaign in East Bengal to achieve the demands. The military regime took a attitude of confrontation and placed Mujib under detention.

The Ayub Khan regime tried to ruin the credibility of Mujibur Rahman and his program by charging that he was involved in a conspiracy along with some junior Bangali military officials to secede from Pakistan and create an independent state in East Bengal with Indian aid. This case came to be known as the “Agartala Conspiracy Case.” The Bangalis protested against the fabrication of this case and demanded the unconditional release of Mujib. Mujib used his defense arguments in this case as an instrument to put forward his political program. Since the Bangalis did not believe in the claims of the government, the case cemented the cause of Bangali nationalism with Mujib’s 6-point program. Mujib’s popularity rose due to the charges levied against him; he became a national hero. The charges against Mujib led to a mass uprising in Bengal.

President Ayub was forced to drop the case against Mujib. In order to resolve the crisis, the regime invited the Awami League to participate in the Round Table Conference (RTC) to discuss the political structure of the state and to set the ground work for resolving the national problems. The negotiations with the political parties did not succeed. The masses continued the demonstrations in the streets for a democratic political order and economic justice. The government was unable to end the thrust of popular politics and mass action. Ayub Khan was forced to resign. On March 25, 1969 he handed over power to the military chief Yayha Khan, allegedly on the grounds that only the military could preserve the state structure.

During Ayub Khan’s rule, a centralized political system was established. This system could not channel the aspirations of the Bangali bourgeoisie. It did not provide a mechanism for the Bangali bourgeoisie to enhance its role in the the state’s decision making process. The centralized political system aggravated the call for provincial autonomy. Due to the failure of the Pakistani military-bureacratic elite to accommodate the demands for provincial autonomy for East Bengal, Bangali nationalist politics became more militant. Although there was an increase in national output and industrial production, the economic disparity between the regions did not diminish but rather increased. With the military in power the prospect of resolving the “national question” in Pakistan was effectively blocked because the state lacked a democratic mechanism that could execute changes in national institutions and policy.

The Marginalization of the Bangalis under Pakistani Rule

From 1947 to 1971, when East Bengal was a part of Pakistan, the Bangali bourgeoisie was the smaller shareholder of the Pakistani ruling structure. Its role was much weaker than the West Pakistani sections of the industrial, mercantile, military, and civilian bourgeoisie. As a result, East Bengal was exploited and colonized by the dominant elite of Pakistan. >From the birth of the state, the Bangalis were subject to economic injustice and marginalization. The people’s frustration was expressed in their political struggle for ending military rule and for establishing a democratic order in the state. The Bangali bourgeois political leadership believed that a representative political structure would allow their economic, social, and political rights to be established. However, because of the structure of power in Pakistan, the plight of the Bangalis worsened. An examination of the economic situation of Pakistan during the period reveals this economic marginalization.

The Bangalis as a nationality were not adequately represented in the civilian administration and military high command of the state. These posts were predominantly held by West Pakistanis. The following tables reveal the distribution of civilian and military posts on the basis of nationalities.

Central Government Civil Service (1955)
Position East Bengal West Pakistan
Secretary 0 19
Joint Secretary 3 38
Deputy Secretary 10 123
Asistant Secretary 38 510

Source: Dawn, Karachi (1955)

The lack of Bangali bourgeoisie representation in the central government allowed the center to direct its policy in favor of West Pakistan. The central government’s outlay for national development clearly demonstrates the bias inherent towards West Pakistan. The following table provides a breakdown of the development expenditure of the two wings.

Development Outlay for Pakistan from 1947-48 to 1960-61


East Bengal West Pakistan

In millions of Rupees

Government Investment 1720 4300
Government Loans 184 2240
Aid 76 1010

The center’s development expenditure was concentrated on the further advancing of economic infrastructure of West Pakistan. For example, although water resource management for East Bengal was no less important than for West Pakistan, the central government attached more importance to the Indus Basin Accord with India rather than the question of Farraka dam barrage. The funding of Indus Basin water project came from the center’s allocation, not West Pakistan’s allocation. Thus, the Bangalis saw that while West Pakistani’s water resources were considered to be the center’s priorities, their water problems were being ignored.

The disparity between the per capita income of the people of the two wings continued to increase. The table below demonstrates the increase in the disparity of Per Capita Income between the two wings:

The Per Capita Income Distribution in Pakistan (In M Rupees)


East Bengal West Pakistan Difference
1959-60 269 355 32%
1964-65 285.5 419 46.7%
1968-69 291 473.4 62.6%

In terms of per capita income while the condition of the masses in West Pakistan was improving, the Bangalis found that the per capita income difference with their Western counterparts was actually increasing.

The foreign trade statistics reveal that in the years 1947-67 of unified Pakistan, East Bengal was the major foreign exchange earner while West Pakistan was in foreign trade debt. The table below shows:

Foreign Trade Figures 1947-67 (In M Rupees)
Position East Bengal West Pakistan
Exports 20,982,391 15,704,714
Imports 15,183,796 34,388,211
Balance 5,798,595 -18,683,497

Source: Central Statistical Office (1967).

As the table shows, East Bengal exported 57 per cent of Pakistan’s total exports but had only 30 per cent share of the total imports, while West Pakistan exported only 42 per cent of the total exports but its share of total imports was 70 per cent. Whereas East Bengal was a net exporter, West Pakistan was a net importer. The Western wing of the state had a greater share of Pakistan’s imports and used the foreign exchange earned by East Pakistan for its own benefit.

Defense outlay for Pakistan was extremely high. From 1950-51 to 1968-69 the defense outlay was Rs. 21,178.1 million. This constituted approximately 56 per cent of the total government outlay of that period. The anti-Indian rhetoric was used to boost defense expenditure. By levying taxes in East Bengal and spending it on West Pakistan the West Pakistani bourgeoisie benefited from the high defense outlay. The defense expenditure, which was in the forms of wages, contracts, and investments, was primarily in West Pakistan. The apparent rationale for the concentration of military build-up was based upon the claim of the West Pakistani dominated military that “the security of East Bengal lay in the Western wing.” The Pakistani military claimed that it would preserve the security of East Bengal with a pre-emptive strike from the Western Wing. During the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War over the Kashmir issue, East Bengal was left defenseless and vulnerable to Indian aggression. The view that that East Bengal security lay in West Pakistann no longer appealed to the Bangalis because the war cut-off East Bengal from West Pakistan and the rest of the world. Thus, the Bangalis learnt that in spite of their contribution to the expensive defense outlay, the central government did not attach much importance to East Bengal’s security. Their tax contribution towards defense has been diverted solely for the benefit of West Pakistan, not for their security.

In essence, as the above arguments show, the fundamental nature of relation between East Bengal and West Pakistan from 1947 to 1971 was one of economic disparity. Because the Bangalis and the West Pakistani ruling elite could not reach a political settlement, this economic question became the main issue of their conflict. The nature of the economic development of Pakistan in 1950’s and 1960’s show that the disparity between the two wings became greater due to the economic policies adopted by the state. The Awami League used the regional economic disparity of East Bengal to show the need for its political program. The 6-point program of the Awami League was designed to address the Bangali nationalist consciousness regarding the increase of disparity. The Awami League presented its 6-point program as an instrument to end the economic exploitation of East Bengal.

Bangali nationalism grew because the Pakistani ruling elite refused to recognize the demands of the Bangalis for political participation in the state and for the economic self-rule of East Bengal. The crisis climaxed following the 1970 elections, when the Awami League won a truimphant electoral victory because the party reflected the nationalist inspiration of the Bangalis. The failure of the Pakistani ruling elite to meet the demands of the Awami League program led to a political deadlock. The military refused to accept the 6-point program because it would reduce the military budget and dismantle the West Pakistani business interests in East Bengal. In order to prevent the Bangali political leadership from acquiring power, the military junta colluded with the West Pakistani bourgeoisie to crush Bangali nationalism. The military’s massacre of the Bangalis opened the road to the liberation of East Bengal.


The Yayha Khan regime did not have a strong base because it came to power following the mass agitation against the Ayub Khan regime. The crisis of Ayub Khan’s dictatorial rule led to the resumption of power by the military. The new regime tried to dispel any notion that it had a long-term objective of remaining in power by positing itself as an intermediary and transitional authority. The regime announced that it wanted to transfer power to the people’s representative and admitted that East Bengal had been denied a full share in the decision-making process. The regime dissolved the One Unit Scheme, and it promised that elections would be held on the basis of poular franchaise. In order to provide a legal facade, the regime promulgated a “Legal Framework Order” (LFO) for the purpose of Pakistan’s first general elections.

According to the Legal Framework Order, the seats of the National Assembly, which was to frame the Constitution, would be distributed in conformity with the population of the provinces. The distribution of the seats was as follows:

East Bengal 169
The Punjab 85
Sind 28
Baluchistan 5
Tribal Areas 7
Total 313

In spite of some objections to the structure and the mechanism of the proposed transition to democratic rule, the Awami League decided to participate in the elections. The leaders of the Awami League described the forthcoming elections as a “a referendum on the autonomy issue.” The Awami League argued that, if elected, they would implement the 6-point agenda and, thus, establish the due rights of the Bangalis. The nationalistic Awami League campaign reflected the mood of the Bangalis who had been long neglected in the political rule of Pakistan. The long campaign period allowed the Awami League to explain the pauperization of East Bengal in terms of the exploitative relation that existed between the two wings.

The Bangali bourgeoisie saw this election as an opportunity to exercise the Bangali electoral strength to gain power and reverse their conditions. A Bangali journal captured the tone of the bourgeois intellectuals:

“In East Pakistan, for the first time the grip of the power elite stands to be broken. Their first defeat will demoralize them as much as it will inspire the people of West Pakistan.”

Such analysis assumed that the Bangalis’ struggle for autonomy would spontaneously transform to a common and united struggle of all the nationalities against the Pakistani ruling elite. However, Pakistan did not have a single transnational political organization that could unite the marginalized sections of Pakistani society. Hence, the other nationalities did not join the Bangali struggle.

In November 1970, a devastating cyclone struck the coastal areas of East Bengal, killing thousands of people. However, the central government failed to aid the cyclone-strieken people. The government was severely criticized for treating the Bangalis in a callous manner. Mujib and other Awami League leaders toured the ravaged areas, including the off-shore islands. The political leadership urged the people to use the ballot-box to express their indignation at the treatment they received from the central government.

In the election that followed, the Awami League won a triumphant victory. At the East Bengal Assembly elections, the results were as follows:

Parties Seats
Awami League 298
Other Parties 5
Independents 7

At the National Assembly elections, the Awami emerged as the majority party, as the table shows:

Parties Seats
Awami League 167
Pakistan People’s Party 88
Other Parties 44
Independents 14

The military, bureaucracy, and business, all West Pakistani-dominated, were shocked at the results because they faced the prospect that the central government’s power would be passed away to the Bangalis, if the Awami League were allowed to shape the constitution and form a government. The results of the election gave the Awami League the possibility of framing the constitution according to its 6-point program. The election put the Pakistani ruling elite in such a position that, if it allowed the democratic process to continue, then it would be unable to stop the Awami League from framing a constitution that would protect the Bangali interests.

In West Pakistan, the Pakistan People’s Party, led by Z.A.Bhutto, emerged as the dominant party. Representing the interests of the West Pakistani bourgeoisie, Bhutto announced that the PPP would not allow any constitution to be framed without its consent and participation. The PPP declared that it would refuse to participate in any National Assembly session, as it was not “prepared to occupy Opposition benches.” Clearly, Bhutto was not only bargaining for personal position but also preserving West Pakistani hegemony.

In this situation, tri-party negotiations and talks began among the Yayha regime, Mujib’s Awami League, and Bhutto’s PPP. The Yayha regime declared that the National Assembly session would be held on March 3, 1971. During the negotiations, the West Pakistani forces refused to accept the 6-point program. Bhutto colluded with the West Pakistani bourgeoisie and denounced the 6-point program as a secession plan. Although the West Pakistani military regime announced that the National Assembly would hold its session on March 3, 1971, the PPP decided to boycott the session. Bhutto threatened that the Assembly would be turned into a “slaughter house” if its memebrs endorsed a constitution based on the Awami League’s program.

While the negotiations with the Awami League were proceeding, the military had decided to attack the Bangalis in order to crush their demands. The central government transferred army divisions from West Pakistan to East Bengal as part of its preparations. Yayha Khan dissolved the civilian cabinet and appointed a military cabinet. The military designed a plan titled “Operation Searchlight” with the objectives: one, treating the Awami League activities as rebellious; two, arresting the maximum number of political and student leaders and intellectuals; and three, demilitarizing the Bangali troops.

The military regime continued the dialogue with Mujib in order to have the time to dispatch more troops into East Bengal. Although the Awami League was aware of the troop build-up, it continued the dialogue with the military. Its leadership did not predict that the military will strike the populace. The Awami League demanded the withdrawal of the troops and transfer of power to the elected representatives. During this period, there were clashes between the Bangalis and the military stationed in East Bengal, resulting in deaths of many civilians.

The radicals within the Awami League and the student organizations called upon the Awami League leadership to declare independence. On March 7, 1971 Sheik Mujib, in an articulate and carefully phrased speech, asked the Bangalis to prepare for a resistance to the regime but stopped just short of declaring independence. The Awami League set up a non-violent and non-cooperation movement, which proved quite successful. The program adopted measures such as (i) refusal to pay tax, (ii) stoppage of the flight of capital from East wing to the West wing, (iii) observation of hartals (strikes), (iv) hoisting of black flags, (v) access to state-controlled media for the opposition, and (vi) setting up council of action under Awami League leadership. The directives of the Awami League were extremely successful, and the administrative control of East Bengal effectively passed from the Pakistani authorities to the Awami League.

While the military prepared to strike the Bangalis, Yayha Khan flew to Dhaka on March 15, 1971 and gave the impression of renewing the negotiations with the Awami League. Bhutto also participated in the negotiations. The National Assembly session was put off again until March 25. During the talks the Awami League refused to compromise because its electoral victory was based on the support for the autonomy of East Bengal. The Awami League leaders still thought that negotiations with the military junta could be fruitful. It believed that it could obtain concessions from the military regime and from Bhutto’s Pakistan’s Peoples Party. The Awami League was not prepared for an armed showdown with the Pakistani military.

The military dictator and the central government officials left Dhaka without prior notice. Immediately, at 11:00 p.m. on March 25, 1971, troop movements started. In Dhaka and elsewhere in East Bengal, the Pakistan army began an orgy of killings, rape, violence, and looting.

Mujib declared Independence before he was arrested by the military. Other political leaders of the Awami League managed to escape to India, where they set up a provisonal government and organized the armed resistance to the Pakistani army. The Bangali troops, although Pakistani authorities ordered to disarm, resisted the Pakistan army and fought back. Thus, the Bangali National Liberation began its phase of armed struggle.


After winning the 1970 elections, the Awami League was not in a position to compromise its political program without being regarded as a traitor to the Bangali cause. Since the Awami League did not compromise, the negotiations with the regime broke down although the talks produced a semblance of agreement. As planned, the Pakistani army launched an attack on the Bangalis without warning, with a view to weaken and demolish Bangali nationalism.

The military arrested Sheik Mujib, the leader of the Awami League. He had earlier sent a message declaring independence. The military launched a systematic attack on the Bangali people. The military shelled the Dhaka University, killing the university teachers and students; the soldiers broke into women’s dormitories and raped the women. They buried the dead in mass graves that were bull-dozed over by the tanks. The military used artillery and heavy machine gun fire to crush the Bangali civilians, the local police, and the Bangali troops. The military set up strongholds in Dhaka and in other parts of East Bengal. The Pakistani soldiers set ablaze working class parts of the shanty towns, markets, houses of political workers, and newspaper offices; and they shot civilians indiscriminantly. The military specially targeted the Hindu minority in East Bengal because they blamed “Hindu” India and the Hindu community in East Bengal as the master-mind behind Bangali secession plans.

The Bangalis tried their best to escape the wrath of the Pakistan army. The crackdown was intended to demolish Bangali nationalism by inflicting cruelty and to prevent the Bangalis from exercising their right to self-determination. A Pakistani officer rationalized the military action thus:

“We will kill them [Bangalis]—they have spoken enough—they are traitors, and we are not. We are fighting in the name of God and a united Pakistan.”

After the first morning of military attack on the Bangalis, the leader of West Pakistan’s dominant party, Bhutto, was flown to West Pakistan, where he declared: “Pakistan has been saved by the grace of the Almighty.”

The military attack on the Bangalis transformed the movement for attaining political self-rule into a national struggle of the Bangalis, irrespective of their political affiliation, religious preference, or class background. For the Bangalis, the military attack on the unarmed civilians proved that the West Pakistani ruling elite and the Pakistani army would not seek a negotiated settlement with the Bangali political leadership. The military attack upon the Bangalis was a campaign to destroy what the Bangalis were poised to achieve if the constitutional process were allowed to function.

The Bangalis resisted the military action spontaneously with primitive arms, by building barricades, and by creating obstacles. In some places, particularly in the rural areas, where the military could not reach immediately, the public under the action committees set up by the Awami League proclaimed the formation of liberated zones. Bangali troops rebelled against the Pakistani army. Widely supported by the populace, the Bangali troops resisted, fought the Pakistan army, and initiated the liberation struggle.

Some of the Awami League leaders had gone underground and escaped to India. Some Bangali employees of the state Radio escaped and set up a clandestine radio station, which urged the Bangalis to resist Pakistani rule and repression. Meanwhile, the elected Bangali members of the National Assembly and the Provincial Assembly gathered in a liberated zone of East Bengal and proclaimed independence of the state of Bangladesh from Pakistan.

The Awami League was able to retain control of the main thrust of the movement for the national liberation of Bangladesh. The Awami League established a interim government led by Tajuddin. Tajuddin was extremely efficient and successful in the management of the government in exile. The Bangladesh government in exile established contact with the Indian authorities. The Awami League established guerrilla training camps and retained control over the guerrilla movement. The Bangladesh government-in-exile launched an international campaign using non-resident Bangalis abroad as the spokespersons for the Bangali cause. Several Bangalis in the Pakistani civil and diplomatic services defected in favor of the government of Bangladesh. The government-in-exile was able to build a reliable bureaucratic machinery in Calcutta, which functioned well for a government outside the parameters of the state.

The Awami League was able to convince the Indian authorities of the need to support the struggle for the national liberation of Bangladesh. The profound international sympathy for the Bangalis was a result of the massacre of the Bangalis and the influx into India of 10 million refugees who escaped from the Pakistani army brutality. In West Bengal, the Indian Bangalis were extremely generous although they themselves possessed few resources. The Bangalis received substantial support from the Indian authorities in the form of guerrilla training, facilities, arms and ammunition to fight the military regime.

The dynamics of the international situation altered with the signing of the Indo-Soviet treaty, which guaranteed the security of India. The government of India recognized Bangladesh on December 6, 1971. With Indians allying with Bangalis in the National Liberation of Bangladesh, the joint forces of Bangladesh and India was able to overcome the Pakistani army easily. The Bangali guerrillas had penetrated into East Bengal and had expert knowledge of the terrain and the activities of the Pakistan army. The Indian forces possessed superior fire-power and better troops. The Indians cutoff the air links between East Bengal and West Pakistan. The Pakistan army could not receive new supplies or further troop support. With the introduction of Indian forces, the Pakistan army was being defeated in all the battles. Realizing the possibility of total annihilation, the Pakistan army surrendered to the joint command of Bangladesh and Indian forces on December 16, 1971. With the unconditional surrender of the Pakistani army, Bangladesh was finally liberated.

The National Liberation of Bangladesh was the result of the transformation of the political struggle of the Bangali bourgeoisie to attain power into the national struggle of the Bangalis to resist the genocidal actions of the Pakistani army. The economic exploitation of East Bengal stimulated the radicalization of Bangali politics. As a result, the Awami League thrived on the Bangali bourgeois demand for political autonomy. Even after the tremendous victory of the Awami League in 1970 elections, the Pakistani ruling elite failed to recognize the Bangali demands. The Pakistani ruling elite could not visualize that the conditions in East Bengal had reached the point where the masses would not accept West Pakistani hegemony and, in the event of military crackdown, the masses would risk their lives to challenge West Pakistani hegemony. The indiscriminate attacks, killings, and rapes and the very attempt to retain East Bengal by military means, further escalated the Bangalis’ bid to independence. The qualitative change of the autonomy movement into a liberation struggle led to the independence of Bangladesh.