Fear, force and fury – and a thin Bengali’s smile
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 4 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. See Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
The more fear one could stir up, the greater the king he was and being fearsome meant that one has unlimited capacity and unabated resolve to inflict pain, injury and cause death to any number of people. History of the world is awash with such formidable greats. So is that of the Indian subcontinent. For almost a thousand years, Muslim monarchs marching down from the western mountains have been the biggest suppliers of this commodity – the fear – to most parts of this vast land. Sovereigns oozed out fear like a fountain and a class of servants, performing civil, military and religious duties for them, fed on it. They were a kind of physical extension of the king. The populace knew the king through them only, and shuddered in front of the smallest of his functionaries.
The rule of the redoubtable Muslims in India was finally concluded in 1858 with British Crown formally assuming the control. It wasn’t a routine one-dynasty-replacing-another kind of change. The new rulers upset the whole applecart. They were not Muslims and neither were they Hindus. They introduced a different kind of government. Within a decade of this fateful event, Muslim clergy started reorganising itself and founded Darul Uloom Deoband. Muslim civil bureaucracy led by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan formed All India Muhammadan Educational Conference two decades later in 1886. All India Muslim League was formed at the 20th session of this Conference held in 1906 in Dacca. Indian National Congress had come into existence earlier in 1885. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Indian polity was realigning itself to the new realities, the most important of which were the prospects of people’s rule.
Now democracy feeds on numbers and survives by counting and the colonial administrative machine started crunching numbers as early as 1872. The first census conducted between 1865-72 however was not synchronous. The one conducted in 1881 is thus counted as the first one. The numerical facts, especially the population figures for different regions, casts and religions, soon became the biggest political realities. The stark one for Muslims, who could now see in quantitative terms that after around a thousand year rule, they were a minority in India. They were wary of the way the electoral system worked. They feared that in a democratic political system they will be rendered powerless. What chances did a community with just a quarter or even less voters stand?
Muslim League thus demanded separate electorate that ensured a quota of seats for them in the legislative bodies. The Indian National Congress opposed the demand as it wanted everyone to vote jointly. The Communal Award of 1932 (the act of the British government) accepted the minority position and separated the electorate along religious and communal lines. The division latter turned into the demand for, and then led to the creation of, two separate countries. Muslims were now in majority in the new country, Pakistan. They could practice democracy without the fear of numerical subjugation to an adversary, perceived or otherwise.
Conversely, the non-Muslims became a minority in Pakistan. Were they afraid of the Muslim majority? Shouldn’t they have demanded separate electorate now? Afraid they might be but they did not demand separation. In fact the opposite happened. A section of Muslim League vehemently opposed the joint electorate system and advocated that the separation of electorate on the basis of religion shall remain intact. Did they still fear Hindus who were reduced to a miserable minority? Politically active and vocal Hindu leaders did bother them and there is no doubt that Muslim League rulers wanted to get rid of them. But shouldn’t the joint electorate have done the trick – the minority voice lost in the loud clamor of overwhelming majority. Why did then Muslim League keep on insisting that the non-Muslim shall vote separately?
There was another divide on the issue as well and that might help explain this. East Bengal was deadly against separate electorate while the central and Punjab Muslim Leagues were its biggest supporters. Almost a quarter of East Bengal was Hindu and or Scheduled Cast while non-Muslims in western provinces made less than five percent of population. In present day Punjab, non-Muslims (mainly, Christians) are barely two and a half percent of population. So the province that had a miniscule population of non-Muslims advocated separate electorate while the one with a sizeable and significant one wanted Muslims and Hindus to vote jointly!
There was an ideological dimension to the issue as well. Those who wanted to make Pakistan an Islamic state considered it important to not let the votes of non-Muslims mix up with those of the chosen faithful so that the sacred state’s mandate is not ‘polluted’. For others, the non-Muslims started symbolising all of their identity markers other than Islam, like language and culture, which they shared with them and did not want to abandon while building the new state.
But I think more important than the ideological exegeses were the hard political facts – the hardest being that there were more Bengalis than all the rest put together. This was worsened by the fact that ‘the rest’ were divided into too many smaller units. So under a democracy, Bengalis would always win. So what? They were Muslims too. This was somehow against the blue print of Islamic republic as laid down by its self appointed architects. It has to be ruled by rent-seeking jagirdars of Punjab and khandani bureaucrats hailing from northern India. They had no respect for Bengali political leadership comprising mainly of middle class persons who were politically conscious, articulate and quite active.
So the ghost of democracy came back haunting nawab sahab and with vengeance. This time around they fretted at the prospects of numerically dominant Bengali Muslims ruling over them. They fumed at the tenets of democracy and geared up to fix it. They engineered a two-pronged strategy. One, was to ‘unite’ all except East Bengal into one state entity, called One-Unit scheme resulting in what was named the West Pakistan province. But even that was not enough to counter-weigh Bengalis who were a whopping 54 per cent of population. The second part of the strategy thus was to divide East Bengal into smaller units. And Muslim League had the experience of only one kind of division that is, along religious lines. So if Bengali voters were separated on the basis of religion, the Bengali Muslim representatives will fall fewer than the elected members of West Pakistan. Bengalis understood the plan and resisted it tooth and nail.
The first draft of the constitution presented by Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan in 1950 could not forward any proposal about the electorate system as there was sharp disagreement within the committee entrusted with the task. The next prime minister Nazimuddin gave in to the pressure of religious right and his draft, presented in 1953, proposed a separate electorate system but the draft was rejected after heated debate on this and other subjects. The third draft too failed to broker an agreement and just to ensure that the contentious issue did not stall the finalisation of the already too delayed constitution, it decided not to make any suggestion on electorate system, leaving the subject for the National Assembly to legislate upon latter. When the assembly took up the matter in October 1956, the division remained unabridged and the Electorate Act passed by the house provided for separate electorate in West Pakistan and joint in East. It was embarrassing for many in government to be unable to agree upon one system of elections in a country that wanted to take pride in its Muslim unity. The Act was soon amended to provide for the same joint system for both the wings.
However, no elections could be held under this law as General Ayub took over and abrogated the nascent constitution. When the general was tailoring a constitutional dress for his brazen military rule, he too was advised to separate electors but he didn’t. Nor did General Yahya dare to do that while drafting his Legal Framework Order that provided the basis for the first general elections in the country held in 1970. This however did not mean that the other party had abandoned their plan to separate voters. They continued to make efforts even after Bengalis had separated and in fact were successful afterwards only. But Bengalis persisted too and everyone had come to realise that come what may they will not compromise on this point.
Bengalis were not afraid of their fellow Hindu citizens and the ruling elite of Pakistan could not instill this fear into them either. Or maybe the Bengalis had started fearing their fellow Muslim overlords more and the state of Pakistan failed to divert their fear towards Hindus. Whatever, the Bengali refusal to reject Hindus as integral part of their polity actually made our elite dread Bengalis even more or perhaps their fear of Hindu and Bengali dominating them got mixed with each other. Blocked effectively on the premise of democracy, they did what people who feed on fear do. They inflicted the worst possible fury on Bengalis to stir fear in their hearts and yet the lean, placid Bengalis smiled – refusing to be afraid of their freedom. That’s how Bangladesh was born.
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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