Birth of a nation, and the fall of the house that Jinnah built

UL Baruah | Updated on June 22, 2021

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The people of Bangladesh fought a war to save democracy — to defend the vote they had cast

As the then director of All India Radio’s External Services, UL Baruah chronicled the tumultuous events that led to the birth of Bangladesh in a series of commentaries aired on the Urdu, Pashto, Sindhi, Punjabi, Bengali and West Asian services of AIR. The dispatches have been put together in a collection in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh.

A Bangladesh War commentary: 1971 Radio Dispatches / UL Baruah / Indian Council of World Affairs and Macmillan Publishers India Pvt Ltd / Non-fiction / ₹1,650


An excerpt:

The Shadow of East Pakistan *

President and Chief Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan, Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, on Wednesday addressed a meeting of the judges of the Pakistan Supreme Court, the High Court of Punjab, civil judges and lawyers of Lahore. Radio Pakistan broadcast a recording of the President’s speech. The distinguished gathering clapped for Mr. Bhutto when he spoke of his determination to restore democracy in Pakistan, reform the judiciary and finally to vindicate national honour. He expressed his inability to disclose anything about his talks with Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. He was unable to give a date for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. Neither was he able to say by when the National Assembly would be convened. Mr. Bhutto said he was finding it difficult to convene the National Assembly without the representatives of what he described as “East Pakistan”.

This is reminiscent of what General Agha Mohd Yahya Khan used to say. The military dictators had said that it was not possible to have a representative government in West Pakistan when East Bengal could not be treated the same way. President Yahya Khan probably feared that democracy only in West Pakistan would expose the colonial character of the Pakistani regime in East Bengal. Later, when a civilian puppet government under Mr. Malik was installed in East Bengal no such steps were taken in West Pakistan because it might have been clear, even to President Yahya Khan, that nothing short of a genuine democratic setup would satisfy the aspirations of the people. While Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the leader of the Peoples Party, demanded from Yahya Khan the restoration of parliamentary democracy, it was the rightist parties — the Muslim League and Jamaat-e-Islami factions — that opposed Mr. Bhutto.

They were working for a rightist coalition to keep Mr. Bhutto out of power. But the pressure of the circumstances caused by the defeat of the military junta was such that President Yahya Khan had to hand over power to Mr. Bhutto not as his Prime Minister, but as the third dictator of Pakistan. It is a great tragedy for the people of Pakistan that whenever political changes take place in Pakistan, it is from one dictator to another. The emergence of and continuance of dictatorship in Pakistan is in no small ways connected with the inability of the two wings to come together in a rational constitutional arrangement.

When the Bengalis, Punjabis, Sindhis, Pathans and Baluchis were not integrated as one nation, Pakistan really had three political alternatives before it to end its continuing crisis. One was genuine democracy in the form of the majority rule, which would have meant political domination by the Bengalis. Second, a confederation conceding only foreign affairs and defence to the central government of Pakistan, as advocated earlier by Mian Iftikharuddin and later by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in his six points programme, and the third, separation — constitutional or otherwise. Obviously the second alternative would have been in line with the Lahore Resolution of 1940 and the six points of Awami League. This would have kept up an appearance of one Pakistan. But the question is whether the military rulers of Pakistan were really interested in maintaining the territorial integrity of Pakistan. It appears they were more interested in keeping power to themselves in the name of maintaining the integrity of Pakistan.

The shadow of East Pakistan still seems to haunt Mr. Bhutto. After all the blood that has been shed in East Bengal and after the birth of a democratic, secular Bangladesh, it would appear almost a dishonesty on the part of Mr. Bhutto to say that he is not able to convene the National Assembly in what is left of Pakistan on account of the absence of the members from East Bengal. It is reported that Mr. Bhutto, who went to school in Bombay, said in a school debate that while the British preached democracy, they only practiced hypocrisy. If the same charges are not to be levied against Mr. Bhutto, then he must forget about East Pakistan, which is now free Bangladesh, and go in immediately for convening the National Assembly and frame a democratic constitution for Pakistan. He must also let Sheikh Mujib go back to his people to build a free Bangladesh. It is only in such a realistic framework that cooperation between India and Pakistan would be possible to solve the problems created by the war, whether it is of the POWs or the Pakistani citizens in Bangladesh.

The House that Jinnah Built

The emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign democratic republic wedded to secularism and socialism is in many ways a turning point in the history of the Indian subcontinent. For the first time, the people waged an armed struggle against the brutal might of an occupation army and won freedom. The people of Bangladesh fought a war to save democracy — literally to defend the vote they had cast. The emergence of Bangladesh is a victory of geographical and therefore of social, cultural and economic factors, over sentiments and slogans. Geography, history and culture proved stronger than the tenuous bond of religion. In the defeat of those who wanted to use religion for political purposes, one could see a process of modernisation, removing the last vestiges of medievalism from the Indo-Pak sub-continent. Let us hope that this would be the last occasion in modern history when religion was used in such a big way as an instrument of oppression. The importance of being able to determine one’s economic and cultural life in accordance with one’s own needs and genius was the motivating factor behind the six-points programme of the Awami League. A national identity based on geography, language and culture became the focal point of a struggle against colonial exploitation.

The armed struggle in Bangladesh also showed how difficult it was for an autocratic military regime, not accountable to the people, to behave in a reasonable manner, much less transfer power to the people. The artificial prop, which the military rulers of Pakistan received as massive foreign economic and military aid, had taken them farther away from the people. The victory of the people of Bangladesh has quite predictably paved the way for democratisation of West Pakistan. So long as the military rulers of Islamabad held the people of Bangladesh in bondage, democracy could not come to the people of West Pakistan either. So, the struggle of the people of Bangladesh can also be seen as a part of the common struggle that the people of Pakistan have waged against dictatorship, leading to the overthrow of President Ayub Khan and promise of transfer of power to the people by General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan. The attempt on the part of the military rulers to bypass the verdict of the people by the military crackdown of March 25, 1971, soon transformed a constitutional struggle for autonomy into a war of liberation, leaving the people of West Pakistan confused and guessing.

The assumption of power by Mr. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in West Pakistan was a natural result of the victory in Bangladesh of the forces of democracy and secularism. India has gained immensely in prestige and self-assurance by being able to help an oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and dignity. The forces of autocracy and religious fanaticism have been defeated; a new nation has come into being with the help of a friendly nation dedicated to similar ideals. The two-nation theory of Mohammed Ali Jinnah lies buried under the corpses of his fellow religionists. Forces of democracy, secularism and socialism have received tremendous popular support, bringing in a new era in the history of Asia. The treatment that ‘Muslim Bengalis’ received at the hands of Islamabad must have shattered the dreams of those who still looked upon the house that Jinnah built as the ‘El Dorado’ of escape from realities of India.

The house that Jinnah built has collapsed. Political philosophers, who stressed the subjective element in the making of a nation, have been proved wrong. When Mohammed Ali Jinnah asserted that the Muslims of India were a nation, he was stressing a subjective element, whereas when everybody else said that India was a nation, they were stressing on objective factors. The struggle of the people of Bangladesh leading to the splitting of Pakistan into two states has resolved the perpetual constitutional crisis, which remained a part of the Pakistani legacy ever since its creation. East and West Pakistan really did not integrate itself into one nation.

* Commentary for broadcast on December 30-31, 1971

Excerpted with permission from A Bangladesh War commentary: 1971 Radio Dispatches by UL Baruah and published by Indian Council of World Affairs and Macmillan Publishers India Pvt Ltd

Published on June 22, 2021

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