Causes of Separation of East and West Pakistan

Category: Asia, Bangladesh, Pakistan
Last Updated: 21 Mar 2023
Essay type: Critical Lens
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The separation of East Pakistan was a great setback to Pakistan. By 1970, sentiments for national unity had weakened in East Pakistan to the extent that constant conflict between the two Wings dramatically erupted into mass civil disorder. This tragically resulted in the brutal and violent amputation of Pakistan’s Eastern Wing. The Bangladesh Liberation War was a South Asian war of independence in 1971 which established the sovereign nation of Bangladesh.

The war pitted East Pakistan and India against West Pakistan, and lasted over a duration of nine months. Popular attention has, thus far, focused on the Pakistani army‘s action against the Bengalis, or on the India-Pakistan war. However, East Pakistan in 1971 was simultaneously a battleground for many different kinds of violent conflict that included militant rebellion, mob violence, military crackdown on a civilian population, urban terrorism to full-scale war between India and Pakistan. It witnessed large-scale atrocities, the exodus of 10 million refugees and the displacement of 30 million people.

Begali nationalists declared independence (March 26, 1971). The Pakistani Army attempted to regain control in East Pakistan and committed terrible atrocities. Indian troops entered the war and quickly defeated the Pakistani Army. The Pakistanis conceded defeat (December 16, 1971). President Yahya Khan resIgned. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took over Pakistan and recognized Bangladesh as an independent country.

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Causes Which Led To The Civil War 1971

Geographically Divided Nation Tensions between East and West Pakistan existed from the creation of Pakistan (1947). Pakistan was an odd creation wIth the two parts, East and West Pakistan separated by more than 1,000 miles. The two parts of Pakistan shared few cultural and social traditions other than Islam.

The fusion of east and west on the basis of Islam led to the frustration of Bengali nationalism. The lack of common bonds was accentuated when political figures in the West seized control of the new state, dominating both political and economic power. The military governments which gave little attention to political demands in East Pakistan only promoted discord. As a result, the resentment in East Pakistan gradually grew.

Awami League

The Awami League was founded as a an opposition party in East Pakistan soon after Pakistani independence (1949). The League has a moderately socialist ideology as was widespread in the new independent countries emerging from European colonial empires. Cofounder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman assumed leadership a few years later (1953). Disturbed by the dominate role of West Pakistan leasers, Rahman demanded a more equitable distribution of power (1966). His plan called for a federation of East and West Pakistan which would have given EastPakistan a level of autonomy.

Elections 1970

The first democratic elections in Pakistan were held in 1970 with the Awami League winning with a substantial majority. However Yahya Khan banned the Awami League and declared martial law after talks on sharing power failed. Bhutto was famously heard saying "break the legs" if any member of People's Party attend the inaugural session at the National Assembly. Fearing on capitalization on West Pakistan, West-Pakistanis fears of East Pakistani separatist, and Bhutto demanded to form a coalition with Mujib.

Both Mujib and Bhutto were agreed upon the coalition government, with Bhutto as President and Mujib as Prime minister. The Military government and General Yahya Khan was kept unaware of such of these developments. Both Bhutto and Mujib continued a political pressure on Khan's military government. Pressured by his own military government, General Yahya Khan postponed the inaugural session, and ordered to arrest Mujib and put Bhutto on house arrest.

Bengali Language Movement

In 1948, the Government of the Dominion of Pakistan ordained Urdu as the sole national language, sparking extensive protests among the Bengali-speaking majority of East Bengal. Facing rising sectarian tensions and mass discontent with the new law, the government outlawed public meetings and rallies. The students of the University of Dhaka and other political activists defied the law and organised a protest on 21st February 1952.

The movement reached its climax when police killed student demonstrators on that day. The deaths provoked widespread civil unrest led by the Awami Muslim League, later renamed the Awami League. After years of conflict, the central government relented and granted official status to the Bengali language in 1956, which was too late to diminish the the hatefulness East Pakistanis had for Urdu speakers.

Non Bengali Muslims

Non-Bengali Muslims from the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who had migrated to East Pakistan (East Bengal) after the partition of India were collectively referred to as “Biharis” by the Bengalis. Pro-liberation Bengalis assumed these non-Bengalis to be in favour of united Pakistan. But a significant minority of Bengalis, including the religious parties, was also for unity.

In addition, many Bengalis who voted for Sheikh Mujib out of a long-standing sense of alienation and a desire for provincial autonomy, may not have been in favour of outright secession. The profound polarisation of politics reached even into individual Bengali families, dividing some of them horizontally – for example the father, who had experienced the creation of Pakistan, supported united Pakistan, while the son, swayed by the oratory of Sheikh Mujib, joined the fight for an independent Bangladesh.

Shifting of the Capital

The decision of shifting of the capital city from Karachi to Islamabad was perhaps a good step taken in the regime of President Ayyub Khan (1960) but it hit the East Pakistanis like a bullet. The Bengalis said that massive development was taking place in West Pakistan and it was being financed from the money that belonged to East Pakistan entirely.

Biased Nature of West Pakistan

Inspite of the repeated protest by the East Pakistanis, they were discriminated in the appointments in the jobs. The development funds were not given to them honestly. The East Pakistanis developed a colonial attitude towards the Bengalis.

Causes of the Defeat In East Pakistan

Operation Searchlight

A planned military pacification carried out by the Pakistan Army – codenamed Operation Searchlight – started on 25 March to curb the Bengali nationalist movement by taking control of the major cities on 26 March, and then eliminating all opposition, political or military, within one month. Before the beginning of the operation, all foreign journalists were systematically deported from East Pakistan.

The main phase of Operation Searchlight ended with the fall of the last major town in Bengali hands in mid-May. The operation also began the 1971 Bangladesh atrocities. These systematic killings served only to enrage the Bengalis, which ultimately resulted in the secession of East Pakistan later in the same year. The international media and reference books in English have published casualty figures which vary greatly, from 5,000–35,000 in Dhaka, and 200,000–3,000,000 for Bangladesh as a whole, and the atrocities have been referred to as acts of genocide.

Mukti Bahini

Indian Secret Intelligence Services formed an Anti Pakistan Wing East Pakistan named as Mukti Bahini meaning Freedom fighters or Liberation Army, which actively participated in persuading Population of East Pakistan to demand for a separate country. The Pakistan Army launched military operations against Bengali civilians, students, intelligentsia, and armed personnel after sundown on March 25, 1971.

In response, Bangladesh declared independence and Bengali military and paramilitary personnel, as well as civilians, started spontaneous resistance against the aggression. This was the formation of the Mukti Bahini. The armed forces as well as the paramilitary and civilian forces who fought alongside them for the liberation of Bangladesh are referred to as the Mukti Bahini.

Involvement of India

Wary of the growing involvement of India, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) launched a preemptive strike on Indian Air Force bases on 3 December 1971. The attack was modelled on the Israeli Air Force's Operation Focus during the Six-Day War, and intended to neutralise the Indian Air Force planes on the ground. The strike was seen by India as an open act of unprovoked aggression. This marked the official start of the Indo-Pakistani War.

As a response to the attack, both India and Pakistan formally acknowledged the "existence of a state of war between the two countries", even though neither government had formally issued a Declaration of War.

Third Indian-Pakistani War, December 1971

Indo-Pakistani relations deteriorated yet again. This time the civil war in East Pakistan was the principal cause. After Pakistani air strikes, Indian troops entered the war (December 1971). India invaded East Pakistan in part in response to the charges of atrocities and the wave of refugees entering India. Pakisdtan conducted air raids on Indian air ports and airfields. Indians Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, addressed the nation by radio and proclaimed that the the Pakistani war against Bangladesh has become one against their homeland. The Indians quickly defeated the Pakistani Army.

Military Causes

West Pakistanis had poor equipment and an insufficient number of aircrafts which made it easier for the Indians to defeat the west Pakistanis. The 14 F-86s that were stationed in Dhaka had no night time flying capability. Their military weakness also became one of the strongest reason for failing in 1971 war.

The air and naval war

The Indian Air Force carried out several sorties against Pakistan, and within a week, IAF aircraft dominated the skies of East Pakistan. It achieved near-total air supremacy by the end of the first week as the entire Pakistani air contingent in the east, PAF No.14 Squadron, was grounded because of Indian and Bangladesh air strikes at Tejgaon, Kurmitolla, Lal Munir Hat and Shamsher Nagar.

Sea Hawks from INS Vikrant also struck Chittagong, Barisal and Cox's Bazar, destroying the eastern wing of the Pakistan Navy and effectively blockading the East Pakistan ports, thereby cutting off any escape routes for the stranded Pakistani soldiers. The nascent Bangladesh Navy (comprising officers and sailors who defected from the Pakistani Navy) aided the Indians in the marine warfare, carrying out attacks, most notably Operation Jackpot.

Islolation from the entire world

Neither America nor China was willing to support the Pakistanis because both thought that in East Pakistan there was a popular uprising of the people and both would not have suppressed it.

Existential fear

Back then, the Pakistani army was accused of forming militia groups to do its bidding in East Pakistan. This existential fear of a bigger, hostile India is central to Pakistan's security paradigm. In 1971 this fear was reinforced by the crucial role India played in the break up of Pakistan. For India, the situation became serious when nearly 10 million Bengali refugees crossed the border into its territory. There was a humanitarian crisis, but also an opportunity to cut Pakistan down to size.

Aftermath and surrender

The Pakistani army surrendered at Dhaka (December 16, 1971). More than 90,000 Pakistanis, mostly West Pakistanis, became Indian prisoners of war. President Yahya Khan resigned.Bangladesh and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took over Pakistan. The surrender led to the disintegration of East and West Pakistan and the establishment of Bangladesh. After 25 years, the East Pakistanis declared themselves independent and renamed their Province as Bangladesh.

The final reaction of the nation

Reaction to the defeat and dismemberment of half the nation was a shocking loss to top military and civilians alike. No one had expected that they would lose the formal war in under a fortnight, and there was also unsettlement over what was perceived as a meek surrender of the army in East Pakistan. Yahya Khan's dictatorship collapsed and gave way to Bhutto, who took the opportunity to rise to power.

General Niazi, who surrendered along with 93,000 troops, was viewed with suspicion and contempt upon his return to Pakistan. He was shunned and branded a traitor. The war also exposed the shortcomings of Pakistan's declared strategic doctrine that the "defence of East Pakistan lay in West Pakistan".

Pakistan also failed to gather international support, and found itself fighting a lone battle with only the USA providing any external help. This further embittered the Pakistanis, who had faced the worst military defeat of an army in decades. Pakistan finally recognized Bangladesh at the Islamic Conference in Lahore on February 22, 1974.

Related Questions

on Causes of Separation of East and West Pakistan

Why did East Pakistan separate from Pakistan?
East Pakistan separated from Pakistan in 1971 due to political, cultural, and economic tensions between the two regions. The people of East Pakistan felt that their interests were not being represented in the government, and that the West Pakistan region was receiving preferential treatment. This led to a civil war and ultimately the separation of East Pakistan, which became the independent nation of Bangladesh.
What were the differences between East and West Pakistan?
The main difference between East and West Pakistan was the geography. East Pakistan was located in the Bengal region of South Asia, while West Pakistan was located in the Indus Valley region of South Asia. Additionally, East Pakistan was largely populated by Bengali-speaking people, while West Pakistan was largely populated by Punjabi-speaking people.
Why Bengal separated from Pakistan?
The separation of Bengal from Pakistan was largely due to the cultural and linguistic differences between the two regions. The Bengali people felt that their language and culture were not being respected or represented in the Pakistani government, leading to a growing sense of alienation and resentment. This ultimately led to the creation of the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971.
Why did India help Bangladesh to get independence and how?
India helped Bangladesh to gain independence by providing military and diplomatic support during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. India provided military assistance to the Bangladeshi forces, and also provided diplomatic support to the Bangladeshi cause in the international arena. India's support was instrumental in helping Bangladesh gain independence from Pakistan.

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Causes of Separation of East and West Pakistan. (2016, Jul 03). Retrieved from

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