Separation of East Pakistan-The Untold Story

Muhammad Najm Akbar

Bravely, producer and writer Javed Jabbar probes the disastrous chapter of the dismemberment of Pakistan in his December 2021 documentary on the Separation of East Pakistan. Only marginally, however, the documentary approaches the “untold” story that it sets out to tell. While soundbites from scholars like Dr. Ayesha Jalal and Ian Talbot figure in the documentary, their research and publications do not fully inform the production.

After a history of three-quarters of a century, the documentary mirrors the biggest gap that characterized the first twenty-four years of Pakistan’s history. The Federation then denied or continued to turn a deaf ear to the Bengali voice. When it listened, the Federation tended to see conspiracies and faithlessness in the Bengali narrative. This callous clampdown on the Bengali voice had been the lingering essence of East Pakistan’s grievances from the beginning of the freedom movement. Bengali narrative never gained eminence in the story of the federation of Pakistan. Javed Jabbar fails to break that pattern. Bengal does not find a voice in the story he tells.

The Bengali disenchantment with the Federation of Pakistan did not take long to find expression. The documentary rightly highlights the difficulties that the geographical distance of 1000 miles posed to a nascent nation-state. The writer generously permits the Federation to make mistakes while constructing a nation-state with that kind of physical impediment. Unfortunately, he ignores the fundamental reality of Pakistan’s federal structure, a partial bequeath of the Raj. While retaining a firm grip on the central government, the British had begun opening the local institutions to their subjects late nineteenth century and since the early twentieth century initiated devolution of powers to provincial elites. The 1935 Government of India  Act reinforced that process. An amended version of this act became Pakistan’s interim constitution in 1947. The change that took place in the federal structure was the creation of a different central, federal government.

The state of Pakistan 1947 opted to make Karachi its capital although the majority of its citizens lived in its eastern wing. The center of the new Federation of Pakistan carved out of British India, moved from the British Viceregal stronghold of Delhi to Karachi. The governments in the constituent sub-units of Pakistan, the Muslim majority provinces, had already been in place. The new federal center, literally and figuratively, failed to hold. Most unluckily, it botched its bid to establish constructive working relationships with the constituents of the Federation. While the documentary refers to the power games that resulted in frequent changes of Prime Ministers up to 1957, it overlooks the far more pertinent facts about how the center kept losing the trust and confidence of the constituent units.

The documentary extensively refers to the founder of Bangladesh. A bigger requirement would be to extend the timeline of the East Pakistan story, objectively and chronologically. Hasan Zaheer, for example, has expansively documented in The Separation of East Pakistan (1994), that the Muslim League lost most of the appeal to the electorate it had gained in the elections of 1946 within the first decade of Pakistan’s existence.  The periodization of his book is highly significant because he considered the history of three interconnected segments of Bengali nationalism from 1935-1971 as one unit. The Establishment viewed the leadership in Bengal with absolute skepticism ab initio. The examples that Zaheer cited included more of the “untold” than Mr. Jabbar has projected in this documentary. Bengal’s voice was a nuisance forever. Suhrawardy was a persona non grata despite leading the sub-unit of Bengal into the Federation. The Federation maneuvered to exclude him from leadership, disqualified him for the Constituent Assembly, and externed him from East Pakistan. The organizational decisions within the party disregarded the realities on the ground. The Federation also delayed the provincial assembly elections scheduled for 1951 to March 1954. The Muslim League then won only nine seats in a House of 309 members. The United Front, a shaky alliance of anti-Establishment, anti-Muslim League parties, won the elections to the chagrin of the federal government. The Establishment dismissed its first Ministry within months but had to restore it by June 1955 before a reconstituted Constituent Assembly could begin its work. In the second Constituent Assembly, Muslim League had only one of the forty-one Bengali seats. Suhrawardy, nonetheless, made the adoption of the 1956 constitution possible (Zaheer, xviii-xx, 39). Within a year, the Establishment abrogated that constitution. The documentary should dig deeper into the “untold.”

While referring to the debate over six points the documentary finds justification in the demand for prior agreement on broad principles within the representatives of different constituent units of the Federation. It argues that in a federation the constituent units have the right to make such demands. The writer, however, never extends this right to the constituent unit of former East Pakistan during the rest of the exercise. The documentary thus essentially becomes another version of the suppressed story of the most tragic debacle in Pakistan’s history. It fails to track the location of the untold. It is not just in the remainder of Pakistan. The untold, from the beginning, has been the East Pakistan, Bengal, or Bangladesh side of this story. The documentary makes no effort to bridge that gap. The producer’s website shows that his company headquarters is in the Gulf. The location thus offers him an advantage to reach out to the scholars in Bangladesh. If there cannot be a direct debate, invite them at least to articulate their version of the story.

Several participants in the documentary make a case in mathematical and statistical terms to poke holes in the alleged size of atrocities that the Pakistani establishment committed. Viewers infer from the rebuttal that Bengalis made such allegations, but the voice of the aggrieved individuals is nowhere in the documentary. If scholars or decision-makers in Pakistan after a history of seventy-five years aspire to confront the facts of an irredeemable past, their focus must be on a better path toward the future. This would happen only if they incorporated into analysis the Bengali narrative, the uninhibited, uncensored voice of Bengal, and Bengali historians.

The lopsided discussion on the Bengali allegations of genocide and the size of atrocities in the documentary does not help. Bangladesh has been making a case. A research University in the United States has recognized the possibility of genocide in East Pakistan and instituted doctoral research on the topic. Scholars have seized the complexity of the issues and are exploring their different aspects. This documentary failed in that effort.

The use of force in East Pakistan figures in the documentary. Like the language issue, however, the documentary lacks credence. On the language issue, the documentary only arbitrarily reflects the Bengali voice. They laid down their lives in 1952 to make a fundamental claim on the Federation, and seek recognition for their culturally, historically, and linguistically rich mother tongue. They annually commemorated February 21, as Martyrs’ Day to mark that sacrifice. Bangladesh prevailed on UNESCO in 1999 and the UN in 2002 to mark the day as the International Day of Mother Tongues. The memory lives now across the globe. The executive producer acknowledges their demand but not before tempering this royal concession with totally inappropriate counter-facts, comparing a massively spoken mother tongue with an acquired second language as it stood at a very low rate of literacy in 1947.

On the use of force, one of the participants evokes the states’ right to defend and protect their territorial integrity quoting instances from within the South Asia region. He must also consider the right to self-determination and will of the people, that indispensable asset of states. What happens when millions of masses pour into the streets to defy a governance structure, which has no native support base to counter that surge? Beginning in 2009, Bangladesh materialized its plans to prosecute War Crimes alleging egregious violations of human rights. Though contested and controversial, the Tribunal imposed harsh judgments, including capital punishments. The Tribunal revealed, above all, how profoundly Bangladesh continued to begrudge an “occupying establishment” of the past. Pakistan must face that reality. Finding new pathways to denial will not serve the purpose. The halfhearted, indirect, and ambiguous efforts to heal the scars of the past would not work.

External interference and predatory practices of any foreign state violate international law. The internal factors of incessant discontent and frustration, however, carry a bigger and more decisive weightage in the East Pakistan story. Inept Federal decision-making on financial, administrative, constitutional, and developmental issues opened the doors for predators to enter. The “untold” story of the lack of civil or military accountability for a historical disaster of that magnitude is also missing from the documentary.  

Incorporating the plight of Biharis makes sense.  Given the depth and breadth of this issue, however, a brief section does not do a great service to the Bihari cause. It should be the topic of a separate documentary and, of course, the voice of Bangladesh should be fully incorporated into the analysis.

The tragedy of East Pakistan is principally the outcome of inequality and a deep sense of alienation. An insensitive governance structure and establishment 1000 miles away failed to comprehend and recognize the plight of an aggrieved unit of the Federation. The historians and documentary makers in Pakistan will not break new grounds if they simply replicated the kind of disregard and condescension that marked the years before Pakistan’s dismemberment. The future would need the estranged citizens of once United Pakistan while they are alive to talk to each other as equals and figure out how they could move forward. The ghosts of the past will not go away until erstwhile subunits of a Federation learn to talk to communicate with them together.

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Najm Akbar

I have remained focused on the interface of history and policymaking while pursuing graduate studies in history at Fresno State, developing on three years of my education at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (MA 1995, MALD 2011). While teaching Urdu between 2005-2018, or holding diplomatic assignments between 1981-2002, the intersection between these two processes has been the mainspring of my personal, professional and intellectual pursuits. This platform would continue that endeavor.

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