A brief (alternative) history of Pakistan
Since August, I have been posting about an alternate universe where partition had never happened. I have been asked about the reasons for this series. Is it really ‘the smoking gun’ evidence that this blog is really anti-Bangladesh, and wants to establish an Akhand Bharat?
I leave it to the reader to judge this blog for themselves. All I can say about that series is that I have fun writing it. I don’t believe in historical inevitabilities. But I do think choices and events and personalities can leave long lasting effects. Fantasies like what might have been can make us appreciate the reality more, and can help focus our minds about the task ahead. And it’s interesting to ponder about what might have happened if MK Gandhi, and not CR Das, died in 1926 with his signature political innovation in tatters.
It’s also interesting to wonder about what kind of Pakistan it would have been 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 the first Prime Minister?
Some folks will now get the chance to call this blog anti-Bangladesh because of its ‘hankering for united Pakistan‘. Others, enjoy the flight of fancy.
Was partition inevitable? The answer really depends on whom you ask. Or rather, where you ask. In north, west, or southern parts of the subcontinent, most people would reply in negative — if only this or that played out slightly differently, perhaps partition might have been avoided, the typical answer would go. Not so in the east however. There, the question would be met with an overwhelming, unequivocal yes.
And that’s not surprising given the bloodbath experienced in the region in 1946-47. We’ll never know exactly how many died in the Great Calcutta Killing and the aftermath in Bihar and Noakhali. But we know that it had resulted in 10 million Hindus leaving the eastern Bengal, and to be replaced by a similar number of Muslims from western Bengal, Bihar and Assam. In 1941, about a third of the population of the districts that formed the eastern wing of Pakistan were Hindu, while a quarter of the people in neighbouring Indian districts were Muslims. By 1951, both the proportions were close to 1%. It’s hard to believe today that Calcutta once had thriving Muslim neighbourhoods, or that Dhaka was not always a bi-lingual city.
Nothing like this happened in the other side of the subcontinent. Thanks to Mahatma Gandhi’s presence in Lahore, that city so little violence in those fateful months of 1947. And the leaders of all communities in Punjab played their part, and the Punjabi regiments of the army maintained utmost discipline. While a non-trivial number of people have continued to tickle across the border over the decades, particularly during the Sikh ‘troubles’ of the 1980s, Punjab still remains multi-communal, celebrating the idea of Punjabiyat, on both sides of the border.
Of course, was partition inevitable is an academic discussion. It did happen. On 14 August 1947, Pakistan was born as a separate state, with the founding father Mohammed Ali Jinnah as the first prime minister. He faced a daunting task. An entire new state apparatus would have to be set up. There were mass killings in Bengal, and massive population dislocation. To make things worse, Punjab was recoiling from a drought, and there were severe food shortages. No wonder the country’s first Governor General Lord Mountbatten infamously quipped that Jinnah got a ‘moth-nibbled basket case’.
Jinnah’s challenges were compounded by the two-winged nature of the country. The eastern wing comprised of districts that the prime minister is supposed have called a ‘huge rural slum’. By August 1947, it was clear that Calcutta and its industrial areas were not going to fall in Pakistan. Things were, however, slightly better in the west. The Radcliffe Award did result in Pakistan getting Lahore. And within weeks of freedom, Maharaja of Kashmir acceded to Pakistan, preempting an uprising by the state’s popular leader Sheikh Abdullah. Nonetheless, the fact remained that Pakistan was (and is) a unique country where the population is roughly evenly divided between two areas separated by a thousand mile of foreign territory.
And then, when Jinnah died within 13 months of partition, Pakistan looked set to collapse. That it survived is because of two men: HS Suhrawardy who became the country’s second, and longest-serving, prime minister; and Fazlul Huq, who replaced Mountbatten as the Governor General, and then became the country’s first president exactly ten years after he moved the Lahore Resolution.