By Tahir Mehdi
December 15, 2014
Most Pakistanis feel uneasy coming to terms with the reality that is Bangladesh. They hide themselves behind a shoddy narrative of 1971, and neatly categorise the whole thing as a 'conspiracy'. It might well have been one. But who conspired against whom and when? What were the Bengalis up to? And how did they reach breaking point?
This article is the Part 2 of a four-part series that looks back at the events of 1971 in Pakistan from the perspective of the development of democracy in this country. Read the first part here.
It is but natural that every one of us has multiple identities. The many faces that we wear can peacefully coexist, complement and/or conflict with each other. Their interplay is complex and the politics that they generate is even more complicated, knotty and intriguing.
In other words, one can very easily be a Bengali Muslim or a Punjabi Muslim or a Muslim farmer or a Hindu farmer or a Punjabi farmer or a Bengali farmer. Political pursuits and aspirations of each of these groups converge at certain points and diverge at others. The success of a political party or a leader depends upon its ability to cut across a multitude of political interests and ambitions and rally them for a common cause.
If you wish to see this now-it-converges and now-it-diverges phenomenon walk in our history, you need to meet Mr Abu Kasim Fazal ul Haq. He was Prime Minister of the undivided Bengal when Quaid-e-Azam chose him to present the Pakistan Resolution at the general meeting of the All India Muslim League (AIML) held on 23 March 1940.
Muslim politicians from Punjab, Sindh, Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and other parts of India who had gathered in Lahore for this meeting, supported the Resolution and it became Muslim League’s cause célèbre. Only a few of these leaders were actually elected from the platform of AIML in the 1936 elections, but they made common cause with the Muslim League.
Fazal ul Haq or Sher-e-Bangla (as he was popularly known as), was heading a coalition government in undivided Bengal at that time. His 'Krishak Praja Party' (literally meaning Agricultural People’s Party) had emerged as the third largest party of the state in 1936 elections. The top position was secured by Indian National Congress and the second by Muslim League. None had a simple majority and only a coalition government was possible.
Haq did not like the increasingly communal politics of the Muslim League and had campaigned against this party of Muslim Jagirdars and Nawabs during elections. He wanted to build on Bengali identity and thought that the Congress, (which was, like him, against communalism) would be his natural ally.
But Congress probably found Haq’s farmer-centred politics too ‘red’ to accommodate. Some leaders of the Praja Party were suspected to be communists. Bengali farmers identified Zamindars and financiers of agriculture, most of whom happened to be Hindus, as their main adversaries, while Congress found many ardent supporters in the same privileged Hindu class. Moreover, Congress stressed more on the Indian-ness than on being Bengali, Punjabi etc.
So, Congress refused to join hands with Haq and pushed him towards Muslim League, which was actually waiting for this opportunity.
A coalition cabinet was sworn in, but in a week's time, a section of the Praja Party joined Congress to oppose some of their own party’s budgetary measures. On the other hand, the more ‘red’ of Praja’s members thought that the party was reneging on its election agenda. Diverse ambitions gave rise to factionalism, which weakened the Praja party and Haq’s position as the leader of the coalition. He became more and more dependent on Muslim League, that was hell bent on dividing the Bengali polity along the religious lines.
Sometime after the Pakistan Resolution, Haq started opposing the two-nation theory and openly campaigned against it. That, however, doesn’t mean that he did not empathise with the Muslims’ quest for identity in the Indian political theatre.
Haq, who was three years older to Quaid-e-Azam, was the secretary of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League from 1913 to 1916, and the President of the All India Muslim League from 1916 to 1921. He was an active member of the Khilafat Movement of the early 1920s. In 1917, Haq also served as the Joint Secretary of Congress. (It wasn’t considered a sin to be a member of both the Muslim League and the Congress till then.)
But like most Muslim politicians of that time, he saw the question of Muslim identity in the broader context of India nationalism. Over the years, many Muslim leaders took their quest to the next stage – a separate homeland for Indian Muslims, but Haq failed to reconcile with it.
Muslim League was able to project ‘the Muslim homeland’ as the panacea for all ills, and the idea clicked. Haq’s Praja Party got a severe drubbing in the 1946 elections, winning just four seats of which two were his own.
Muslim League, on the other hand, had its dream come true with 110 of 117 Muslim reserved seats in Bengal. Hussain Shaheed Shuharwardi of the Muslim League formed the government in the state. Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in August 1946, with blood flowing everywhere the communal lines turned into borders. Haq joined Muslim League in September 1946 and moved to Dhaka after Partition. He started serving the East Pakistan government as Advocate General.
Haq failed in coalescing his various aspirations into the politics of his liking and was outmanoeuvred and overrun by others. Muslim League succeeded in shaping the political discourse along its preferred religious lines and achieved its main goal. But the party misunderstood the Bengali support. Bengalis did not think that being Muslim required them to stop being Bengali or being Pakistani compelled them to quit being Hindu.
A few months after the Independence, Bengali students protested against Urdu being declared as the only national language and demanded that their language should also be given the same status. Haq joined the protest and was injured when it was baton-charged by the police.
The Constituent Assembly found itself in a perpetual logjam. Bengalis were not asking all else to bow before them. They simply demanded their democratic rights – their language, culture shall be respected; their resources shall belong to them; they should get from the federal pool a share proportionate to their population.
The blue-blooded Muslim League thought that it could continue to gamble on the back of the wild card of religion. So if you demanded rights for your homeland, you were accused of narrow provincialism that was against the lofty pan-Islamist ideals, if you dared to ask for your share in resources, you were blamed for obstructing the renaissance of Islam and if you wanted respect for your language, you were definitely a traitor and an Indian stooge.
Bengal was no banana state; neither was Muslim League an imperial power. So Bengalis made up their minds to send a shut up call.
The rulers in Karachi, the then capital, probably knew what was around the corner. The tenure of the assemblies of Punjab, Sindh, Pakhtunkhwa and Bengal elected in 1946, was to expire in 1951. The Constituent Assembly had failed to build a consensus on even the broad features of the new State by that time and in the absence of a new design, the old state assemblies had to continue.
Elections to the Punjab Assembly were held in March 1951 and to the Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, then NWFP, in the latter part of that year. Sindh came under the Governor’s rule in 1951 before elections to its assembly in 1953.
Muslim League managed to win in all of these elections. It was also the ruling party in East Bengal since 1946. The writing on the wall was quite clear and all that the League could do was to delay the next elections, as much as possible.
Finally, elections to the East Bengal Assembly were announced for March 1954. A large number of disgruntled Bengali Muslim Leaguers had parted ways with their party as early as 1949. Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, Maulana Bhashani, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and many others formed All Pakistan Awami Muslim League.
Fazal ul Haq who had supported the Bengali language movement all along, formed the Sramik Krishak Party (literally meaning Workers’- Farmers’ Party) in 1953. The two decided to jointly contest against the Muslim League in the 1954 elections and chose Fazal ul Haq to lead the alliance known as 'Jugtu Front'.
Jugtu Front presented a 21-point program that promised a national language status for Bengali, rejection of the draft Constitution that had refused to give Bengalis share in parliamentary seats proportionate to their population, dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and its replacement with a new directly elected assembly mandated to draft a constitution for the country.
Muslim League frantically searched for a magic wand. It sent Fatimah Jinnah to East Bengal on a whirlwind election campaign. Bengalis had already had enough. She could do no miracle. In the 309-member house there were 237 Muslim seats, of which Muslim League could win a paltry 10, independents three, Khilafat-e-Rabbani one and the United Front 223! There could be no stronger verdict than this.
The Central government in Karachi refused to replace the Constituent Assembly with the one directly elected by the people, as demanded by the United Front and went about framing and approving a Constitution which was in no way acceptable to Bengalis.
The so-called establishment of Pakistan knew that Bengalis won’t budge; they delayed the next election for 16 long years and when these were finally held in 1970, Awami League won 160 of 162 seats allocated to East Bengal in the house of 300. The verdict again was loud and clear and yet again, the Bengalis found no one listening to them in the federal capital.
They must have realised that they can wake up someone who is asleep but not the one who is pretending to be sleeping.
An earlier version of this article was published on this website on December 13, 2012.
Tahir Mehdi works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy