The other March anniversary

Posted in fantasy by jrahman on March 24, 2011

This week, Bangladesh celebrates its 40th birthday — the country came into existence on 26 March 1971.  As it happens, this week as also seen the 71st anniversary of another seminal event — on 23 March 1940, the Lahore Resolution was presented at a meeting of the All India Muslim League by AK Fazlul Huq, the then Prime Minister of Bengal.   Popularly known as the Pakistan Resolution, it stated:

That the areas in which the Muslims are numerically in majority as in the North-Western and Eastern zones of India should be grouped to constitute independent states in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign.

Did the events of March 1971 nullify the resolution of March 1940?  Or was the earlier resolution realised by the later events? 

Beyond the chest thumping Bangla blogs and op ed columns, there is actually a very lively academic discourse that wrestles with these questions.  I strongly recommend the reader to writings of Ahmed Safa, Jatin Sarkar, Tazeen Murshid or Joya Chaterjee — a page of their average writing is much better than a dozen op eds by, say, Syed Badrul Ahsan (unless you read Ahsan for sheer entertainment value).

Personally, I prefer to see myself as a student of history, not a scholar.  So I don’t really have anything terribly original to say about that discourse.  Instead, let me indulge in ‘what if’ fantasies about a two-winged Pakistan surviving beyond 1971.

Let’s begin by paraphrasing something I wrote in 2009.

Questions like what if Bangladesh didn’t come into existence are meaningless.  One has to ask why partition happened?  If one believes it was a historical inevitability, then there is no event that could have happened that would have changed it.  If one traces it to specific factors, then the questions are what if even X or Y had (or had not) happened?

I think it’s self-evident that after the December 1970 election, creation of Bangladesh in one form or other was all-but-inevitable.  Perhaps a war could have been avoided if the Pakistani generals agreed to a 6-points based constitution.  But such a constitution would have established a de facto independent Bangla Desh within a Pakistani confederation.  With its own currency, powers to tax and spend, control over foreign economic relationship, and its own security forces, the government in Dhaka would have been independent in all but name. 

So we have to take this one step further.  Is there anything that could have prevented East Pakistan’s popular opinion to coalesce around the 6-points? 

Well, in 1956, Pakistan adopted a constitution whereby the two wings were far more autonomous than was the case under the Ayub regime, but the degree of autonomy fell far short of what would have been the case under 6-points.  That constitution also allowed for a parliamentary form of government, styled the country an Islamic Republic, and left the ethnic and cultural diversity of the country unaddressed. 

While there is no way to know whether that constitution, or something like that, have prevented East Pakistan from demanding 6-points, we know that this constitution was not given a chance.  Before an election could be held under this constitution, Ayub Khan imposed martial law in October 1958.  There are many reasons for the rise of Ayub regime.  A particularly important factor was that the army perceived that an elected, Bengali-dominated government would have been far less antagonistic to India. 

As early as the 1950s, Bengalis were complaining about paying for a large army that was needed to fight India in Kashmir.  It’s hard to see any event that could have made Bengalis be passionate about the Kashmir conflict.  And the enclaves in North Bengal are just too small to maintain armies on perpetual war footing. 

But what if Pakistan-aided militias had captured Srinagar in 1947 before Indian troops could arrive, and Kashmir had become part of Pakistan?  Presumably that would have lessened the need to create a large army? 


But even then, there would have been major differences among the two wings of Pakistan with respect to the attitude to India.

In the West, partition was accompanied by a very brutal communal cleansing.  Particularly in Punjab, there was a near total exchange of population.  Nothing like that happened in Bengal.  Yes, there were large exodus of Hindus from East Pakistan in 1950 and 1964, and from Bangladesh in 1992 and 2001.  But there was nothing like trains to/from Pakistan carrying corpses. 

Nationalist feel good story is that Bengalis are a kinder, gentler people incapable of that kind of barbarity.  Given the violence we met out to each other on a regular basis — never mind gruesome events like Pilkhana or ethnic/communal persecution committed by Bengalis on both sides of the border — I scoff at the nationalist line.  Rather, I think the presence of Gandhi in Calcutta and the co-operation of Suhrawardy and key Hindu leaders in the months around partition prevented a blood bath and population exchange in East India. 

Suppose Gandhi had gone to Lahore instead, and worked with Punjabi leaders of all communities?  Would the city of Ranjit Singh and Bhagat Singh have retained its massive Sikh communities?  Would Manto have written Toba Tek Singh?  Would up to 10 million non-Muslims remained in West Pakistan?  Would Karachi have seen millions of Mohajirs flooding in? 

We of course don’t know.  But we could guess that West Pakistani attitude to India (and I might add, North Indian attitude to Pakistan) would have been very different had partition been more peaceful in that part of India. 

What about in the East?  Without Gandhi’s presence, who’s to say that Calcutta, Bihar and Noakhali riots would not have engulfed the entire region.  Had that happened, who’s to say East Pakistan would not have seen 10 million Bengali Hindus replaced with 10 million Urdu speaking Muslims?  And we can safely say that the attraction of a Bengali nationalism would have been significantly diluted in that East Pakistan. 

So, no war in Kashmir, and a blood bath in Bengal — this would have helped with a parliamentary federalism in Pakistan.  Anything else?

Well, in its first decade, Pakistan had seven prime ministers, reflecting its very fractious polity.  There was no Pakistani Pundit Nehru.  Suhrawardy, who was the closest to a Nehru Pakistan had according to the London Economist, was handicapped by his dithering about whether to build a political career in India or migrate to Pakistan after partition.  Had there been a total communal cleansing in Bengal, Suhrawardy would have been forced to choose Pakistan unequivocally, and would likely have been the first Prime Minister of the new country.  Arguably, he would have done a far better job of consolidating parliamentary democracy than Liaquat Ali Khan.

Right.  What if Bengal was soaked in communal violence and East Pakistan ended up with a bi-lingual rather than bi-communal population, West Pakistan was relatively more pluralistic with large Sikh and Hindu minorities in Punjab, Kashmir had acceded to Pakistan without a war with India, and Suhrawardy was Pakistan’s first Prime Minister? 

What kind of Pakistan would that have been?


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