The crow is white, Bengal is Pakistan
Pakistanis refuse to see Bangladesh eye-to-eye. They hide themselves behind a very shoddy narrative of the happenings of 1971 that only describes it as a conspiracy. It might well have been one. But who plotted against whom and when? What were the Bengalis up to? How did they reach the breaking point?
This article is Part 1 of a four-part series that attempts to see the happenings of 1971 in Pakistan from the point of view of the development of democracy in this country.
Exaggerations are permitted in poetry, and distortions can be tolerated in business but then there are limits. You can’t call a crow white. But come statecraft, everything becomes possible. Even the word ‘justice’ can stand in for ‘injustice’ or at least the word ‘parity’ can be deployed to hide ‘disparity’. If you think I am exaggerating, you need to revisit one important event of the early history of our country.
The areas that constituted Pakistan in 1947 were ruled by the British under different arrangements. Bengal, Punjab, Sindh and Pakhtunkhwa (then NWFP) were provinces with working elected assemblies. Balochistan was governed by an appointed Commissioner, tribal areas by Political Agents and then there were a number of, what were called Princely States, nominally ruled by Rajas under the paramountcy of the British Crown. And they came in all sizes. The princely state of Amb was so tiny that it drowned in the Tarbela Dam Lake in the 1970s. The Bahawalpur state was one of the largest princely states of India and its area now forms three large districts of Punjab. The Baloch states were very thinly populated, while Punjab was quite crowded. Each of these entities had a standing as a ‘state’, however rudimentary its stage might be.
The people who were handed over the reign of the new country on 14 August 1947 were supposed to work out a system for all of these entities to peacefully coexist and grow together. They did sit down and ponder over this but whatever the route they considered and howsoever they divided the state power, it came down to one dreadful point – the Bengalis were more in number than all the rest put together and under a democracy nothing could bar them from getting a major share in the new state. Now that was totally against the scheme of things for the country that was supposed to herald Islam’s renaissance and hoist its flag on every other building in South Asia. The dark skinned Bengalis, sharing culture and language with their Hindu compatriots did not cut a figure to fit the coveted slot. This glorious feat could only be performed by the blue-blooded Muslim elite that had migrated from India, with a few others playing second fiddle and the rest serving as foot soldiers.
So, that was the first crossroad that our country found itself at – if we take the simple democratic path, we miss the golden opportunity to revive all of our lost glories (by losing the government to Bengali majority). And if we stick to this cherished goal, we needed to get around democracy and find some non-democratic solution to ‘the Bengal problem’. At the end, it didn’t turn out to be very difficult. The ruling elite unearthed a trove of edicts, historical references and quotable quotes that allowed them to bend the rules the way that serves ‘the larger national interest’ and avoid rigidly following democracy that was anyways a ‘Western concept quite unsuitable to our kind of polity’. One of our visionaries had forewarned us about the pitfalls of democracy that counts everyone as one without distinguishing them on the basis of their piety.
When the first draft of the Constitution (Interim Report of the Basic Principles Committee) was presented to the Constituent Assembly in September 1950, it provided for two elected houses – the House of Units where all provinces will have equal representation (as provinces have in the Senate these days) and the House of People. The Committee did not forward any suggestion about how the provinces will be represented in this house whose members were supposed to be directly elected by the people, it lacked agreement. Bengalis were being offered half the seats, while their share proportionate to their population was more than that. They were not ready to surrender their right and thus the impasse.
Prime Minister Nazimuddin was, however, able to make clear suggestions. When he presented the second draft in the Assembly, it provided for 120 seats in the House of Units and 400 in House of People. Half of both of these were given to East Bengal and the other halves were divided among nine units of western Pakistan (the provinces of Punjab, Sindh, NWFP, what is now Fata, Bahawalpur, Balochistan, Balochistan States, Khairpur State, Federal Capital) roughly according to their share in population. The same principle, share proportionate to population, was not resorted to while allotting seats to Bengal. This obvious disparity and injustice was named the ‘Principle of Parity’. That’s how the narrative went: Pakistan comprises of two wings, East Pakistan, consisting of East Bengal and West Pakistan, constituted by nine units and the two wings must get equal representation. Bengalis did not accept to be less equal and the draft was rejected.
The next Prime Minister, Mohammad Ali Bogra, was over confident about his arithmetical skills. The third draft that he presented in October 1954 clubbed the nine units of western Pakistan into four groups and gave them, and the fifth unit, Bengal, equal seats (10 each) in the House of Units, while dividing the 300 seats of the House of People roughly according to each unit’s share in population. East Bengal, with 165 of the 300 seats got majority in the House of People but not in the House of Units where it had just 10 of the 50 seats. All laws had to be approved by both the Houses and in a joint sitting (of 350 members), East Bengal (with 165+10=175) was in parity with the West. In a way, it offered a win-win solution to both the Bengali nationalists and the Pakistani establishment. But, a solution was not what the ruling elite was looking for. The draft was approved by the Constituent Assembly and a team was tasked to write the constitution, Governor General Ghulam Muhammad, however, dismissed the government and dissolved the Assembly the same month.
The undemocratic step was sanctioned by the judiciary that innovated and employed the ‘Law of Necessity’ for the first time. It took Governor General a year to put in place the second Constituent Assembly. Unlike the first one, it followed the ‘Principle of Parity’; that is, only half of the members of the second Constituent Assembly (40 out of 80) were taken from East Bengal, while in the first one they had 44 of 69 seats. The first important thing that the new Constituent Assembly did was to ‘unify’ the nine units of the western wing into one province – the amalgam was called West Pakistan, and the initiative the One-Unit scheme. That gave the parity narrative some legal and moral grounds as the country now comprised of two provinces being treated equally, instead of 10 units with one being less equal than the other nine. The ruling elite, or the establishment as we know it now, made it known, loud and clear, that it would not accept anything more than ‘parity’ for East Bengal. There is no surprise then that the Constitution that this Assembly finally passed in March 1956 provided for one elected house – National Assembly – comprising of 300 members elected directly by the people with half coming from East Pakistan and half from the West.
Bengalis held faith in democracy and lost in Pakistan.
The first Assembly could not dare hold general elections. Everybody knew that given the vast disagreements, elections under the prescribed system would be disruptive. General Ayub thought that the blatant use of force was a viable alternative and jumped in. He was wrong. He held the country together at gun point. A decade later, when he finally had to withdraw the gun, General Yahya agreed to hold direct elections under adult franchise to a National Assembly that would formulate the country’s constitution. His Legal Framework Order (since there was no constitution in place at that time) conceived a 300 member National Assembly with 162 elected from East Bengal, accepting the old Bengali demand. But perhaps, it was already too late.
The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.
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