Home to one of the world’s most densely populated and poorest regions in the world, South Asia is made up of 8 nations including the islands of Maldives and Sri Lanka located at the southern tip of the region. The region is also one of the most heterogenous in terms of language, races and religion such as Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism and Islam. Inevitably, this very diversity has caused much threat to the social fabric, security and harmony of the nations both domestically, intra-nationally and internationally. This is not to say that all conflicts are ethnic-based; there are other prominent conflicts arising from territorial disputes, particularly the on-going Kashmir imbroglio.
The South Asian region alone has seen many historical moments with regards to nationalism in the past decades. This essay will be looking into the struggles of Awami League, a Bengali nationalist opposition party, for the liberation of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) from Pakistan (formerly West Pakistan). Before anything, it is imperative to make clear what nationalism means.
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Defining the term ‘nationalism’
Nationalism has never had a concrete definition owing to its broad concept which differs from one sociopolitical climate to another. Scholars, however, have attempted to define this ambiguous term for pragmatic purposes. Anthony Smith defines nationalism as “an ideological movement for the attainment and maintenance of autonomy, unity and identity on behalf of a population some of whose members deem themselves to constitute an actual or potential “nation”” (Smith). It is essentially a manifestation of ideological goals they hope to achieve through united efforts. It is embedded in the behavior and thoughts of individuals, who then spread this ideology in the form of politics. At the end of the day, they hope to achieve statehood.
On this basis, it is agreeable that nationalist movements aim to actualize their political goals. Pakistan’s nationalist movement was manifested in the demand for a separate homeland for the Muslims in 1947. Bangladesh’s nationalist movement is, similarly, rooted in the demand for a separate homeland. Being subordinates vis-à-vis the West Pakistan since 1947, they demand a homeland to protect and preserve their interests. An autonomous homeland in which they would be free from the Hindu Muslim domination that is the West Pakistan and the unjust discrimination.
Urdu or Bengali?
It is worth understanding that the breaking up of British India in 1947 into two separate nations of Pakistan and India was due to the belief that Muslims and Hindus have very distinct and stark differences in culture, language, practices and belief in which it was impossible to ever achieve a commonality (Moore). Propagated by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the emergence of Pakistan was meant to be a Muslim nationhood, where the nation was to be built in the name of Islam, also known as Islamic nationalism.
It is against this political backdrop that shaped the Bengali’s fight for independence. The quest for the liberation of East Pakistan started a year after Pakistan’s independence. In February 1948, Muslim League led by then Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan proposed that Urdu was to be Pakistan’s only national language, against the will of Bengali majority. Imperative a language is in building a national identity, quite inevitably, this spawned disgruntlement and acrimony within the Bengalis as they felt neglected in the decision-making process. The government’s stand to make Urdu the national language was just as Hindi was made India’s national language. On the other hand, the Bengalis stand was because Bengali is the language spoken by majority (54%) as compared to Urdu (7%) in Pakistan (Mussarat Jabeen).
The declaration of Urdu as a national language led to protests in Dhaka in 1952 and eventually the birth of the language movement (Lewis) advocating for recognition of Bengali as a national language. This inter-wing linguistic war lingered and turned to become a very controversial issue and strained relationships between the two wings. Little did they know, it was merely the start of what was to be the most extensive and profound effects to be recorded in the history of Indian sub-continent.
Other forces at work
There was a conflation of many other aspects that led to the disintegration of Pakistan. Since Pakistan’s independence, East Pakistan had been internally exploited and discriminated by their Western counterparts socioeconomically and politically. These disparities between the East and the West placed the East at a disadvantage,z leading to the growth of nationalistic movements.
Economically-wise, West Pakistan was mainly an agricultural economy while East Pakistan was the largest producer of raw jute and exporter of raw cotton. It goes without saying that the bulk of foreign exchange came from East Pakistan (Sengupta). However, it was used for the imports of consumer goods in West Pakistan. Subsequently, trade deficit of West Pakistan was regularly financed by that of East who managed to sustain a trade surplus (Gull). This was the case for total government expenditure as well. Between 1950 and 1970, total government expenditure was $30.95 billion. West Pakistan took a huge share of $21.49 billion while East Pakistan, despite having more than 55% of the country’s population, only got about 30% share of the total expenses (Ayaz).
In addition, Bengalis had a meagre share in government services and military (Ahmar) and in the Pakistan International Airport, there were only 280 East Pakistanis employee compared to 7000 from the West Pakistan (Oldenburg). Such economic and political inequality fueled a sense of injustice which fed the growing dissatisfaction with the central West government and hence the demand for East Pakistan to be an independent state.
What aggravated the Bengali’s sentiments towards an independent state was the apathetic response of the Pakistani government during the November 1970 cyclone. Cyclone Bhola, one of the most catastrophic natural disaster, claimed about 500,000 lives and left thousand others starving. With all the international aid and assistance flowing into the east wing from the US and other parts of the world, the central Pakistani government did nothing more than allocating a single helicopter to fly over the area, assessed the situation and declared the day it as “major calamity area” . It is even further exacerbated that this response took more than a week later. The callous response of the government led to high levels of anti-West Pakistan feeling (Najam).
This is but a manifestation of the lack of pathos and the altruistic character of the central government towards the victims of the disasters. In fact, in a press conference after the disaster, Sheikh Mujibur declared that “East Pakistan must achieve self-rule by ballot if possible, and by bullet, if necessary” (Ludden). After being evidently treated as second-class citizens and not being given help from their very own national counterparts, they felt a greater need to attain autonomy.
In East Pakistan’s demand for greater autonomy and equal power-sharing, the emergence of Bangladesh may have been avoided if East Pakistan acted according to the 1970 general elections results. Awami League’s party won a landslide victory by successfully capturing all but 2 seats in the east-wing. This meant that Mujibur would become the Prime Minister, and thus be able to preserve and protect the interests of Bengalis (Oldenburg). However, the West Pakistan administration were unwilling to accept, cueing a constitutional crisis that led to the 1971 civil war (The Guardian).
The victory of Awami League meant that the new constitution was to embody the party’s Six-Point program . First articulated in February 1966, the doctrine was vested in a common goal – that East Pakistan should be given as equal an autonomy to govern their province and protect their interests (Oldenburg). That they would be treated and seen as equal in the eyes of their fellow compatriots in the other wing. The doctrine is important in highlighting the justification of East Pakistan’s separate state. Their liberation is strongly vested in the idea of being able to possess and exercise power and preserve and practice their Bengali identity and culture.
Let us not forget that leading up to the birth of Bangladesh, West Pakistan launched Operation Searchlight attack on the Eastern wing in 1971 to get rid of the Hindus whom they believed have influenced the nascent of Bengali Opposition (Oldenburg). While there was an uncertainty of exact numbers, certainly thousands died, thousands of women were raped, and a mass refugee was triggered (D’Costa). This mass genocide was the last straw that eventually led to Bangladesh’s emergence.
A breath of fresh air
The cauldron of emotions and sociopolitical and economic instability led to the growth of Bengali nationalistic movement. The lack of acknowledgement of the Bengalis fostered a culture of hatred surrounding the central government. East Pakistan’s separate homeland is compelling in terms demanding political power and control over economic resources and putting an end to the invidious discrimination and “colonial exploitation” by the West wing. Insurmountable and onerous the obstacles were, Bangladesh finally breathed fresh air when West Pakistan conceded.