A thoughtful insight into the way Bengalis look at the history of Bangladesh. Highly recommended for anyone who would want to know the reasons that resulted in Bangladesh’s independence or fall of Dhaka as Pakistanis remember it.
The people of Bangladesh have always made major decisions through democratic means. In the pre-partition days people of united Bengal were in the forefront in demanding Pakistan which was reflected in the landslide victory of the Muslim League in 1946. Sylhet, being a Muslim majority district in the province of Assam, chose to join East Pakistan also through a referendum. The people of East Pakistan thus expressed their choice through a democratic process even at the very early stage of Pakistan. In other words, people made it very clear that they would decide the fate of the country and not anybody else.
Once the new state came into being Jinnah decided to become the head of the state. He selected Liaqat Ali Khan to be the prime minister. All major portfolios were given to leaders from the western wing. In the twenty-four years’ history of united Pakistan no Bengali was ever made the finance or defence minister. Except for a very short period, the foreign ministry was always reserved for the western wing. The chairman of the Planning Commission, the heads of corporations, senior positions in the defence services were restricted to people from the western wing to ensure domination over the eastern wing.
The constitution drafting process slowed down due to internal bickering and at one stage the constituent assembly was dissolved by the governor general. The language issue, lack of tolerance to opposition parties and repressive measures of the government alienated the people. In the general election held in 1954 the Muslim League suffered a humiliating defeat in East Pakistan. It was able to secure only nine seats in the provincial assembly. Nurul Ameen, the chief minister, could not get re-elected. The people of East Pakistan again reiterated their faith in democracy and reminded the politicians that the final judgement rested with them.
After nine years of bickering the constituent assembly prepared a constitution and it was promulgated in 1956. It didn’t accept the principle of representation on the basis of population. Despite being the home to 56 per cent of the total population of the country, East Pakistan was brought at par with the western wing. The constitution was, however, short lived. In less than two years, the army under the leadership of General Ayub Khan took over power, abrogated the constitution and imposed martial law. The Ayub regime prepared another constitution which also denied East Pakistan its right of representation on the basis of population paving the way for continued domination by West Pakistan. Election to the national assembly took place in May 1962 but the candidates were debarred from identifying themselves with any political party. Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of the candidates associated with the opposition parties got elected to the national assembly from East Pakistan. They remained united in demanding the democratisation of the constitution and fulfilment of the just demands of the people. The people of East Pakistan spoke again and this time against the arbitrary rule of the general.
Ayub’s constitution was presidential in character but did not allow people to directly elect its representatives. The parliament had little control over the government. The president was neither accountable to the people nor to the national assembly. His nominee the provincial governor was only accountable to him and administered the province with a cabinet selected by him alone. The people were thus completely alienated during the Ayub regime and gradually became restive. The political domination of top army officials and senior bureaucrats from the western wing paved the way for continued economic exploitation of the people of East Pakistan. Mahbubul Haq, a prominent economist who became the finance minister of Pakistan in the 1980s, estimated that the per capita income disparity between the people of two wings had widened from 18 per cent in 1951-52 to 29 per cent in 1959-60. Adjusting for lower prices of essential commodities in the western wing, Haq put the real income disparity between the people of west and east Pakistan as high as 60 per cent in 1959-60. This disparity was due to higher rate of investment in western wing and policy of the central government. During the period 1948-60 East Pakistan exported more than it had imported and most of what it imported came from West Pakistan. Over the period East Pakistan earned a surplus but the surplus earnings were transferred to the western wing. Haq estimated this transfer of resources from East to West Pakistan at Rs 210 million per annum in the pre-First Five Year Plan and Rs 100 million during the First Five Year Plan period. Of the resources for development 62 per cent was allocated to West Pakistan, 17 per cent to East Pakistan and 21 per cent unallocated during the First Five Year Plan period. The Bengali members of the Finance Commission set up in 1961 suggested allocation of 67 per cent of development resources to East Pakistan, sharing of tax resources on the basis of population and constitutional guarantee for bringing inter wing disparity to an end. These demands were rejected by the government. In absence of political representation Bengali economists had the guts to demand an end of discrimination against the people of East Pakistan. Realising the growing discontent of the people of the eastern wing the central government decided to increase the annual development allocation to East Pakistan in the Second and Third Five Year Plans. But the 1965 war with India dealt a serious blow to government’s development efforts and many development projects in East Pakistan were put on hold. Increased defence expenditure, most of which were disbursed in West Pakistan and construction of new capital in Islamabad, continued to widen the economic disparity between the two wings. The government finally admitted that the per capita income disparity between East and West Pakistan, in its own calculation, had increased from 36.40 per cent in 1965-66 to 45.60 per cent in 1969-70. The central government also realised that too much attention had been given to ‘growth’ and too little on ‘distribution’. As a consequence, wealth had accumulated in the 22 families in West Pakistan and the poor became poorer.
The people of East Pakistan had rejected the undemocratic system of governance introduced by General Ayub and that was manifested in their voting in favour of the opposition nominated presidential candidate in 1965. That 47 per cent of the electorate in East Pakistan voted against General Ayub defying pressure, intimidation and enticement underscores the depth of their discontent against the policy of the establishment. They wanted an end to the undemocratic system of governance, right to choose their own representatives, fair share of the resources of the country, equal opportunities to participate in nation building activities, rule of law and peaceful co-existence with neighbouring countries. During the 17-day war with India the people of East Pakistan felt helpless as there was no defence force around to protect them against foreign invasion. The foreign minister proudly claimed in the national assembly that the Chinese threat had deterred India from marching across the eastern wing, proving that the defence of East Pakistan was never a priority of the central government. Against this backdrop, at the all party conference in Lahore in May 1966, Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman submitted the famous Six-Points Programme demanding greater autonomy for the eastern wing. The people of East Pakistan including the intelligentsia welcomed the programme as they believed that the central government could no longer be trusted and the autonomy would be the answer for political and economic exploitation.
The government reacted in an oppressive manner. It arrested thousands of Awami League leaders and activists under the emergency rule. They were kept in detention for years and their detention could not have been challenged in the court of law. The daily Ittefaq which lent support to the Six-Point Programme was banned. Its editor was arrested and put behind bars. He was released after ten months of imprisonment on medical ground. The attempt to assassinate General Ayub in December 1967 while on a tour to East Pakistan and the efforts of a group of Bengali defence and civil service personnel to secure cessation of the eastern wing were the outcome of a stagnant political system that had no window for peaceful transfer of power. The detention, torture and the trial of the personnel allegedly involved in the break-up of eastern wing from the rest of the country strengthened the resolve of the people to seek separation from Pakistan. In the first-ever general election held in November 1970, people gave a verdict in favour of greater autonomy, if not independence. The refusal of the army establishment and West Pakistani leadership to respect the verdict of the people of East Pakistan culminated in the birth of independent Bangladesh. The price of independence was colossal.
Now on the fortieth anniversary of our victory there is a need for soul-searching. How far have we achieved the lofty ideals for which people made colossal sacrifice? Have we restored democratic system of governance? Do we respect the verdict of the people? How far have we introduced the rule of law? Have we been able to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor? On the 40th anniversary we must seek answer to these questions.
Soon after the government took charge of the newly independent country it entrusted parliament with the task of drafting the constitution and within nine months the constitution was prepared. It made a provision for the parliamentary system of government and emphasised the four ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism for which people had struggled. The constitution came into effect on December 16, 1972. It was a remarkable achievement. The constituent assembly of India took more than three years and that of Pakistan took nine years to prepare their constitutions while we were able to do the same within a year. In March 1973 general election took place. People endorsed the constitution and a parliamentary system of government began its journey. However, this journey was short-lived. The famine of 1974 which killed over 60,000 people, the worsening economic condition and the deterioration of law and order made the government extremely nervous. It wanted a way out and at one stage decided to shift from multi-party democratic system to one-party rule. On January 25, 1975, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution was passed by parliament allowing a one-party system and making the president the head of both the government and state. The media was brought under government control. The politicians, journalists and even senior bureaucrats were asked to join the party named BAKSAL. Democracy, one of the lofty ideals for which people of Bangladesh had fought so long and suffered so much, was killed only three years after the country gained independence.
The general election of 1973 generated considerable enthusiasm amongst the people. Major political parties and prominent politicians from both sides of political divide participated in the election. However, there were reports of intimidation and threats and before the day of election 10 ruling party candidates were declared elected unopposed. At the initial vote counting as many as 30 opposition candidates were declared leading but on final counting their opponents were declared victorious. Out of 315 members only nine were declared elected from the opposition parties. The conduct of the Election Commission and the process in which final vote counting was carried out and announced created a credibility gap and a serious suspicion in the minds of the people. The ruling party tarnished the image of the Election Commission and set a precedent from which we have not yet recovered.
To assist the law enforcement agencies the government created Rakkhi Bahini, a paramilitary crack force, in March 1973. It was assigned to recover unauthorised arms, check smuggling at the border, hoarding and black marketing. The Rakkhi Bahini also got involved in eliminating the political dissidents. There was no regulation to control their conduct. They could arrest, detain or even kill anybody in discharge of duties. Reports of Rakkhi Bahini’s brutality appeared in the press from time to time and people began to wonder whether the severity of their atrocity exceeded that of the Pakistan army. JSD, the militant and arch rival of the ruling Awami League, bore the brunt of Rakkhi Bahini’s torture. It claimed that thousands of its activists and supporters had been killed by the Rakkhi Bahini. The people of Bangladesh had the first taste of extrajudicial killing at the hands of the Rakkhi Bahini which people in their wildest dream did not imagine. Though the Rakkhi Bahini was disbanded in August 1975, it set a trend in motion which still continues.
During the autonomy movement thousands of political leaders, workers and students were arrested and kept in detention for years. Since they were apprehended under the Defense of Pakistan Rule their detention could not have been challenged in the court. Many of the detainees came from middle class and low-income families and during detention their families faced severe economic hardships. People were scared to extend financial support to them for fear of harassment by the establishment. Now the number of political prisoners has declined but the assassination of political adversaries has made a dramatic rise in recent years. This is a new phenomenon in free and independent Bangladesh.
The people of Bangladesh always resented the income disparity between the rich and the poor and concentration of wealth in the 22 families. They fought for an egalitarian society where the rich would not get richer and poor poorer. At the time of independence the number of people living below poverty line was 30 million and in the past four decades though the percentage of people living below poverty has declined but the number has increased to over 48 million. At the same time there were only seven millionaires in Bangladesh in 1971 but in 2010 the number of millionaires reached to 27,400.
Our borders with India are well defined in the map but not on the ground. People living on both sides of the border are used to buy essentials from markets on either side. India is now building fences along the border and civilians passing along the fences are killed by the Indian security forces. The Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Teesta and the Meghna which have originated either in India or further north but flown through Bangladesh territory before being merged into the sea are indeed the lifeline of our water resources. India has built dams on these rivers or on their tributaries ignoring protests from Bangladesh. The reduced discharge of Ganges water at Farakka has caused colossal damage to our agriculture, navigation and environment. Due to massive withdrawal of water at Farakka about 22 rivers in Rajshahi and Khulna divisions have dried. India promised to conclude water sharing agreement of the river Teesta during the much-publicised visit of prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh in September but at the last moment it retracted. Denial of Teesta water would bring about another disaster to agriculture, navigation and environment in the northern region. Of late India has decided to build another dam at Tipaimukh on the river Barak, which, once completed, would seriously disrupt the flow of water in north-east Bangladesh. Our hope of having peaceful coexistence with the neighbour has been frustrated by India’s terrorism at the border and theft of water from international rivers.
We have not been able to consolidate democracy even after forty years of trial and error. The parliament has been repeatedly made dysfunctional. Society is deeply polarised. Major political parties are hostile and inimical to each other. They are unable to meet around the table and seek consensus on national issues. Corruption has dug deep into the marrow of the society strong enough to thwart any attempt of reform. The rich are getting richer and poor poorer. Kidnapping, torture and killing of political adversaries have soared but perpetrators are pardoned at the highest level. The new generation is getting disillusioned and drifting away from the ideals on which the country was founded. A nation divided within and its youth disillusioned cannot live long, far less march ahead.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations. Original article that was published in The Daily New Age can be found here.