Lessons of December 16
TODAY, Dec 16, Pakistan's opinionmakers will once again raise a loud wail and lament the final act in their country's dismemberment almost half a century ago. It will again be a ritualistic display of grief and no one will be convinced of its genuineness.
Nothing will be gained by beating chests, like Mary, Queen of Scots, did over the loss of Calais. The mourning will have meaning if the people of Pakistan took stock of their establishment's acts of commission and omission that drove the Bengalis out of the state that they more than any other community had helped create barely 24 years earlier. This exercise, which should include repentance as well as a legitimate reappraisal, is necessary if Pakistan is to ward off the danger of its demise as a democratic polity and the threat to its integrity.
Pakistan's founding fathers were so greatly carried away by the Muslim League's 1945-46 electoral victory across the subcontinent and the euphoria created by partition just a year later that they ignored the challenge posed by the provincial units' rising aspirations for autonomy. The 1919 scheme of diarchy had given the provincial authorities control over agriculture, education, public works and local bodies, key departments because of their relevance to the largest sections of their populations. It was this heady feeling of empowerment in one's own yard that had emboldened Fazl-i-Husain to tell the Quaid to stay away from Punjab and Sikandar Hayat to present an alternative to the scheme suggested in the Lahore Resolution. The same was the feeling in other provinces, a fact conceded by the authors of the Lahore (subsequently Pakistan) Resolution while deciding on its language - and which has haunted the rulers of Pakistan all of its 63 years.
The East Bengal people's aspirations for maximum power at the provincial level had an extra dimension. They had had a share in the Bengal government for 10 continuous years (193747) - led by Muslim premiers. But they had not forgotten how much more power they had enjoyed when Bengal had been first divided in 1905. The partition of 1947 gave them the province they had in 1905. Only full autonomy could mitigate the pain of loss of authority over West Bengal, especially Calcutta.
However, they were more than willing to restrain their desire for power for the sake of making Pakistan a success. They agreed to elect Muslim League leaders from minority provinces to the constituent assembly, they accepted the formula of bureaucrats' promotion whose beneficiaries were all non-Bengalis except one, they also accepted Karachi as the new state's capital and the fact that the offices of the governor-general, the prime minister, the president of the constituent assembly and the East Bengal governor were held by non-Bengalis. These gestures were not appreciated; instead a tendency to take the people of East Bengal for granted started taking root.
Before partition actually took place the Quaid-i-Azam briefly acknowledged East Bengal's yearning for autonomy by allowing Suhrawardy to make a bid for keeping Bengal united but after that Pakistan's leaders closed their ears to autonomy demands, beginning with their unwise language policy. Mujib might have indulged in exaggeration when he said that the denial of permission to a Bengali member to make oath in his mother tongue at the first session of the constituent assembly marked the beginning of his people's alienation from Pakistan, but the fact is that the country's establishment failed to realise that denial of a people's language is one of the first warnings of their loss of identify and sovereignty.
The policies of the centre took little time to make the people of East Bengal aware of their status as a colony. Provincial elections were held in the western wing in 1951-52, the Bengalis were made to wait till 1954 and then the elected representatives were not allowed to rule in peace. A strong man, Iskander Mirza was sent to drill them into submission. By and by the people of East Bengal became aware of the scale of denial of their rights.
Ayub Khan tried a trade-off between the Bengali people's rights and mega-projects and set Monem Khan after them. At the same time the hollowness of the strategy of defending East Bengal by making the defence of Lahore strong was exposed. This was a strategy effective in the Middle Ages when defence was an exclusively military affair and the people's relationship with the state did not matter.