How Dhaka Fell In 1971
Pakistan came into being on August 14 1947 and broke up on December 16, 1971. Pakistan is still wondering what happened and gets riled over what is called the Fall of Dhaka, the day Pakistan army surrendered to the Indian Army. The Fall of Dhaka is put at the doorstep of India “that never accepted Partition” and always conspired against it from “day one”.
But Pakistan’s political-social elite has been guessing at other causes too. The ideological majority thinks East Pakistan never followed the “pure” nationalism of Pakistan. The late Supreme Court of Pakistan judge, Nasim Hassan Shah, once said that he regretted that Arabic was not made Pakistan’s national language in 1947. He referred to the language riots of 1948 in East Pakistan and said that had Arabic been suggested to “our Bengali brothers” they would have accepted it as the national language.
The Arabic “option” is a measure of the Pakistani mindset after 1947. Aga Khan had suggested that Pakistan adopt Arabic as its national language. An early governor of East Pakistan, Malik Feroz Khan Noon, not the brightest of the sons of Punjab, thought of the “next best” thing: He started the grotesque scheme of writing Bengali in the Arabic script. In 1952, there were 21 centres doing this in East Pakistan with Central Education Ministry funding. The Bengali East Pakistan chief minister didn’t know that this was happening outside the primary school stream, a provincial subject.
Unlike West Pakistan, where it was religion-based, in East Pakistan, nationalism was language-based, on Bengali. After Independence, Dhaka took a poem of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore as its national anthem. In Pakistan, the anthem is in Persian except for one preposition “ka” which renders it Urdu.
Senior civil servant, the late Hassan Zaheer, in his book The Separation of East Pakistan (OUP 1994), first revealed the ham-handedness of the policy of imposing Urdu on East Pakistan. According to him, the All-India Muslim League ran into trouble in 1937 when it proposed Urdu as the League’s national language. It was opposed by the Bengali Muslim Leaguers who got Jinnah to water down the resolution to read that Urdu should be encouraged in areas where it was spoken. In the 1951 census of East Pakistan, 8.8 million persons were recorded as literate, of whom 6.4 million were Muslims, and out of them only 10 per cent could read the Holy Quran. The final battle was over Urdu, not Arabic, and the Muslim League made the mistake of appearing to impose Urdu on East Pakistan.
Writes Zaheer: “Such was the insensitivity of the ruling party to popular issues that the East Pakistan Muslim League Council also recommended Arabic as the state language. This was not acceptable even to the West Pakistan intelligentsia.” What happened to the Muslim League in East Pakistan in the years that followed is part of history but even in its heyday it was a fragmented entity. The demise of the Muslim League took place when it tried to impose separate electorates on an East Pakistan overwhelmingly devoted to language and not religion.
But the rift that split Pakistan developed over the disparity of governance. Punjab and the Punjabi-dominated army ruled Pakistan soon after the birth of Pakistan. The services were also dominated by Punjabis through quotas but East Pakistan dominated in literacy and high education. Top seats in the civil services exams always went to East Pakistan. Pakistan couldn’t tackle the strange phenomenon of being divided by a thousand miles of India. Most of the foreign exchange was earned by exports from East Pakistan which was poorly defended when the big war of 1965 with India was fought. That sowed the seeds of December 16, 1971.
Bangladesh’s current population is 166 million, Pakistan’s is 220 million, while after 1947, East Pakistan was more numerous. Bangladesh’s growth rate is nearly 7 per cent, whereas Pakistan’s growth rate is below 5 per cent. Extreme poverty, or those living below the poverty line, in Bangladesh is under 9 per cent while those in Pakistan are 29.5 per cent. Bangladesh’s literacy rate is 72 per cent, that of Pakistan is 58 per cent and loaded more with ideology than useful knowledge. Bangladesh flourishes today. And Pakistan has one-less to worry about from its disaffected components.