December 16 – which has just passed – encourages reflection, introspection and the determination to correct course politically in order to build a federal democratic Pakistan.
It was on that unfortunate and tragic day in 1971 that a majority of us left Pakistan. In modern state history we have never seen a majority in a nation state separate from a minority in order to form a new state. In 1971, 56 percent of the population declared their independence from a minority, making this political tragedy a rather unique historical accident.
However, our textbooks, official historical reports and mainstream media discussions reduce this historical tragedy to a conspiracy by traitors and puppets of foreign powers and so on and so on. So what forced the Bengali people and the political leaders of the former East Pakistan to separate from (former) West Pakistan? Who was really responsible for this attitude?
These are some of the important questions any young Pakistani must ask, and there must have been some frustrations that they did not have satisfactory answers. Our officially closed corpus of political history does not address these real questions. Rather than answering these questions to the satisfaction of inquisitive young minds, it provides some imaginative and ahistorical answers by reducing the whole saga to an intrigue. But an officially closed corpus is an ideologically told historical representation of the state, written with a purpose.
The seeds of disintegration were sown on August 15, 1947, when Mr. Jinnah’s speech – of August 11, 1947 – was banned from being published in newborn Pakistan. In his speech, Mr. Jinnah clearly outlined Pakistan’s political future as a modern inclusive democracy in which every citizen would enjoy equal rights regardless of religion, ethnicity and political identity.
The very democratic principles on which Pakistan was to be built as a modern nation were trampled in 1949 when the first attempt was made to transform Pakistan into a theocratic and over-centralized state. In 1953 the Urdu-Bangla controversy developed into an identity politics crisis in which a large majority of Pakistanis felt oppressed under the theocratic ideology of an over-centralized state. These identity politics were the result of the capture by the elite and the prevailing ideology of (former) West Pakistan, which led the majority to stand up for their rights.
In a politically integrative federal democratic Pakistan, the question of ethnic identity politics could never turn into a political dystopia. The elite of what was then West Pakistan was afraid of democracy because it could allow the political leadership of what was then East Pakistan to rule the country as a majority leader.
Let’s not forget that the Pakistani movement was started from Bengal and the All India Muslim League was led by Bengali leaders. In fact, in what is now Pakistan – which was northwest India before the partition in 1947 – the Muslim League never really enjoyed popular popular support. Even in Punjab, the Unionist Party was more popular than the All India Muslim League. Historically, credit for creating an independent Pakistan is largely due to the Bengali, who opposed the policy of centralizing the Indian Congress, which had increasingly become an inwardly Hindu-dominated political party.
Contrary to the political goals of the Indian Congress, the political leadership of the All India Muslim League, including Mr. Jinnah, wanted to establish a modern federation in India. This is shown even in Mr. Jinnah’s April 1946 speeches. It is important to note that Mr. Jinnah and other leaders of the Muslim League had no doubt about the importance of federal democracy for an inclusive, pluralistic and stable modern state of multi-ethnic origin. It is strange, however, that with the establishment of Pakistan, the very democratic principles by which this newborn country should be governed were thrown away. That was the biggest political mistake in the founding phase of Pakistan, which after 24 years of founding the state led to the abandonment of (former) East Pakistan.
Who is responsible for this debacle? Those who betray the ideals of building a people-centered, inclusive and pluralistic Pakistan and have abused authority to protect their short-sighted interests at the expense of our country and its generations.
On December 7, 1970, parliamentary elections were held in Pakistan for the first time after 23 years of undemocratic rule in the country. There was political excitement when the citizens of Pakistan first elected their political representatives. These elections are considered to be the most transparent elections in Pakistan’s history, in which two major political parties won popular support for their social democratic manifestos.
These elections could be the turning point in our political history to build a democratic Pakistan, but unfortunately that did not happen. The East Pakistan-based Awami League won 160 seats, while the Pakistani People’s Party, based in West Pakistan, won 81 seats for a 300-seat national assembly. The Awami League emerged as the most popular political party with an absolute majority in forming a government. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the leader of the Awami League, presented his six-point agenda for a federal and decentralized democratic Pakistan, which was his party’s manifesto for the elections. He met strong opposition from Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
For Yahya Khan, the idea of ââpolitical decentralization and federal democracy was not acceptable. He urged Mujibur Rehman to abandon his six-point agenda of a politically decentralized and federal democracy. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto saw this as a political opportunity to oppose Mujibur Rehman despite his social democratic political agenda. Bhutto undoubtedly saw this as an opportunity to become the first elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, as both he and Yahya Khan did not want a Prime Minister from (former) East Pakistan for different reasons.
The democratic principle of majority rule was trampled on in this way – out of specific interests and also out of political opportunism.
The author is a social development and policy advisor and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
Email: [email protected]
He tweeted @ AmirHussain76