Wages of the rulers’ sins

By Zubeida Mustafa

Howard Zinn, the American historian and activist, once said that when you look at history from the “point of view of people at the bottom rather than the people at the top, everything looks different” . The criteria you use to judge policies are also different.Hence to be meaningful history must be written as the people’s history.

What happened in East Pakistan in 1971 when Bangladesh was born in blood and tears has been recounted by bureaucrats, military generals, historians, economists and scholars prolifically—but mostly from their own subjective point of view. Not much has been said about the people whose story remains largely untold. Much has been written about the exploitation of the eastern wing by the centres of power in the west. What befell the people has remained buried in silence, at least in Pakistan.

It is time this aspect of the tragedy of 1971 was uncovered. Time has now distanced us from the events that were highly emotive when they occurred. Now they can be addressed with a cool and dispassionate detachment. If you set politics and economics aside and look at the human dimension what emerges clearly is a different story.

The policies of the powers that be and their repercussions unleashed forces that affected the relations between the preponderantly Bengali population of East Pakistan and the small non-Bengali community generically referred to as Biharis (though not all of them came from Bihar). For years they had lived together and the post-Partition generation born in the golden land, to borrow from Tagore’s Golden Bengal, was beginning to integrate with the natives. Mixed marriages were no longer unheard of while the youth had become fluent in Bangla.

Then how would one explain the hatred that was spewed to tear apart the two people who had lived in peace for over two decades? As has been the case all over the world, foolish and selfish policies of power hungry leaders who control the destinies of nations get translated into animosities and hatred between the people they lead. That is the story of Bangladesh as well.

The arrogance of many West Pakistani bureaucrats and army generals created resentment among the Bengalis. The 25 years that Bengal was a part of united Pakistan were marked by a continuous power struggle between the leaders on constitutional issues. Paradoxically this did not affect the harmony between the two communities.

Islamabad’s biased administrative and economic policies that discriminated against East Pakistan and ensured that it did not receive the optimum benefit of its resources hurt the residents of all ethnicities equally. According to the data given by the Central Statistics Office of Pakistan, East Pakistan had 29,633 primary schools in 1947-8 and their number fell to 28,225 in 1966-7 (West Pakistan had only 8,413 in 1947 and 20 years later their number had shot up to 33,271).

Cracks first appeared when Pakistan’s war with India in 1965 led Bengalis to believe that they had been left undefended. Then came the celebration of the ‘decade of development’ in 1968 that exacerbated the bitterness. East Pakistan had not really been a beneficiary of this ‘development’. Sporadic violence between the Bengalis and Biharis were at times reported, though these pale into insignificance before the events of 1971.

The army crackdown of March 25, 1971 that came in the wake of the breakdown of the constitutional dialogue marked the start of the violent phase. The Pakistan Army resorted to the use of brutal force and killings and rape were reported on a large scale. Sarmila Bose’s Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War (OUP) recounts it all. The Bengalis retaliated by forming the Mukti Bahini comprising regulars and civilians, trained in India, who fought a guerrilla war against the Pakistan Army while also unleashing terror on the Biharis, who were also killed in large numbers. They became innocent hostages and were indiscriminately seen as representing West Pakistan (see Aquila Ismail’s forthcoming book, Of martyrs and marigolds).

As the violence spiralled, ethnic divisions got mixed up with ideological-political loyalties. Cashing on this trend, the Pakistan Army set up three paramilitary forces—Al Shams, Al Badr and Razakars—comprising members of the Jamaat-i-Islami and other Islamist parties of Bangladesh to act as informers and to eliminate pro-independence Bengalis. They comprised predominantly Bengalis though some Biharis also joined them.

As a result the relationships between the two communities were affected not because of their own actions. The self serving policies of those in power and those aspiring for power changed the face of Bangladesh by altering the Bengali majority’s perception of their ‘Bihari’ compatriots whose loyalties became suspect. They came to be seen as agents of West Pakistan.
Forgotten was the harmonious past they had shared together.

That is a common story repeated all over the world: the common man pays for the sins of his rulers. Aquila Ismail’s book (published by CreateSpace) fictionalises poignantly the events of 1971 and is based on her personal experience. The quoted passage below sums up the phenomenon of changing relationships:

“Now it is not East Pakistan,” Abbu interrupted her, “It is now not the land of the Muslims. It is Bangladesh…the land of the Bengalis.”

“But we came here right after Pakistan was made, so we belong here. Do not torture yourself. We have so many friends. They will make sure nothing happens to us.”

“None of that matters now. We are not accepted as Bengalis…we speak Urdu and anyone who helps us will be branded as well,” Abbu said.

Source: Dawn

4 thoughts on “Wages of the rulers’ sins”

  1. Wages of the rulers sins was certainly a worth article to go through with . I still remember those splendid days where i was born and studied in Dacca . The biggest culprit who was responsible for all the trouble and fall of East Pakistan was non other than Bhutto.
    To my opinion we are once again travelling through a very grave period in history. we all will be responsible god forbid if any thing happens. see what we are doing with our economy and the most dangerous thing which we are doing is defaming our own Armed Forces and isi without them we may be a flourishing country but a impotent one under india and the west
    j mannan karachi

    1. I totally agree Bhutto was a power hungry politician and the trend continues as a legacy in his political party.
      Mujib-ur Rahman should have been the Prime Minister of Pakistan, as Awami League had won the election.
      Bangla Desh is much better off than Pakistan because they have a strong sense of cultural values and has a better educated class.
      Politicians like Bhutto have destroyed Pakistan and even his son in law is not sparing any oppurtunity to destroy and loot the country.
      Joi Bangla.

  2. @ Mustafa

    For me it is a great and strong article on the following two main reasons a) Yesterday I hoped or visualized that you should also write on this topic and today it landed on your website though formal intimation has not landed into my INBOX – so a matching thought and b) Media (of India and Pak) has remembered it in a formal way but you have told us in a different way. It has been rightly said that different people always do differently.

    This article proves the striking skills of your professionalism. You are a fine example for other women. Wish!!!

    There are too many features of 1971 war or birth of Bangladesh and I would like to share only following two:

    a. Perhaps it was the first in world history that MAJORITY (then East Pakistan) has to fight the MINORITY (now Pakistan) for their right.

    b. In 1971 Pakistan was having strong and superior quality of Arms as compared to India. But ultimately the men behind machine proved winner.

    @ J Mannan

    Accepted that Bhutto was responsible for 1971 War and Pakistan suffered too much. But there is a need to curse those who were responsible tor 1947 Partition. To whom we should curse for Kashmir problem? Rulers’ sins are present at every stage and every where.

    1. Well, when British ruled India they had handfull of their own soldiers therefore even than minority ruled the majority.
      I don't think Pakistan had superior arms than India in1971. India had whole hearted support from Russia whereas US as usual pretended to be ally of Pakistan.

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