Bengali Nationalist Rebellion
By Muhammad Kamal
In 1971, Pakistan as a nation suffered the most appalling shock in its entire history. We lost one wing of our country due to reasons that are well known yet not very well understood. From the very beginning, the relations between the two wings were strenuous and complicated. The three main areas of conflicts between East and West Pakistan were the language issue, differences regarding the nature of federation, and economic centralism. The question of the status of Bengali language was resolved by the mid-1950s but no consensus could ever be reached on constitutional and economic issues.
The rise of Bengali sub-nationalism can be attributed to the nationalistic sentiments that were induced within East Pakistan by Bengali nationalist leaders. These sentiments are easy to induce when a certain identity is suppressed and lacks the autonomy to maximize their interests, i.e., the citizens of East Pakistan were alienated by neglect of their welfare by the then government. This resulted in Indian involvement and propaganda in the East wing. Even before intervening militarily, India started supporting the separatists in East Pakistan against Pakistan military.
There was a growing realization in the eastern wing that East Pakistan had by now become a mere colony of West Pakistan. A shared border with India was further solidifying this narrative in the East wing. In East Pakistan, even though Maulana Bhashani spoke for the peasants of the province, it was Sheikh Mujib, who, after raising his Six-Point Agenda in 1966 for greater provincial autonomy was fast emerging as the main voice of Bengali nationalism at a time when Ayub was forced out. It is important to state that while some Bengali voices were challenging the unity of Pakistan, Mujib, at this political juncture, was still in favor of a united, federal Pakistan.
Tensions rose in December 1970 when the Awami League party won the national elections but West Pakistan parties, namely the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), refused to hand over power. This enraged the nationalist groups of East wing and also sparked communal violence. The nationalist sentiments that were growing because of economic disparity between the two parts, and because of the hegemony of the West Pakistani ruling elite over East wing, and a demeaning attitude towards Bengali culture further soured relations between the two wings. All hell broke loose when in 1971 Bengali nationalist rebellions backed by India started using violence as an excuse to attack Punjabis and Bihari (Urdu Speaking) communities in East Pakistan. As the violence escalated, India used this excuse to intervene militarily in East Pakistan further provoking the uprising of violent separatist groups. The conflict ended in the creation of Bangladesh.
All in all, the lessons from great saneha of East Pakistan perhaps are still left unlearned. Although the separation of East Pakistan brought about democracy in Pakistan and reforms like 18th amendment are proving to be a step forward towards ethnic and cultural cohesion, yet today we still face issues of greater centralization against so-called provincialism, with little accountability and retribution of those who were responsible for the breakup of Pakistan. Moreover, we must not forget that it was India’s direct support to the East Pakistan liberation movement, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, and we cannot and would not let that happen again.