Liberation war exposed a neocolonial state’s failure

by Farooque Chowdhury

003WITH flawed political process, mismanagement of contradictions in body-society-polity, failures in political arrangement, incapability in the handling of aspirations ingrained within society, limitations in socio-political farsightedness of the dominating part of society and failures in making compromises with emerging reality, the dominating elite in pre-1971 Pakistan exposed its historical limits in its domain. It was a failure of the neocolonial state as well as of the imperialist power that stood by it as its guarantor and saviour. Bangladesh people’s war for liberation in 1971 exposed the failure, a significant development in the people’s stride onward.
Pakistan, the moth-eaten state as was reportedly described by its leader MA Jinnah, had always been in a precarious position since it was organised in 1947. ‘Pakistan has never been a country where the institutions might be stronger than personalities. The country has generally done well under authoritarian rule’. (British ambassador in Islamabad to secretary of state, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 1973, Diplomatic Report No 392/73, August 16, FCO 37/1334, The National Archives, London, cited in Mahboob Hussain, assistant professor, department of history and Pakistan studies, University of the Punjab, Lahore, ‘Parliament in Pakistan 1971-77 and Chief Executive: An Analysis of Institutional Autonomy’, Journal of Political Studies, Vol 20, Issue 1, 2013).
The state’s deep rooted problem is evident in the following finding and the question:
‘Pakistan has been in existence for more than four decades, yet has still not […] resolved the question of its nationhood. Does Pakistan’s national identity depend on Islam, the common faith of the majority of its citizens? [….] The country’s foreign policy files contain evidence of a seemingly unending debate about the nature of Pakistan state.’ (Mehtab Ali Shah, The Foreign Policy of Pakistan: Ethnic Impacts on Diplomacy, 1971-1994, IB Tauris, London, New York, 1997) Mehtab Ali Shah cites ‘the contradiction that exists between the country’s official status as an “Islamic” nation state, on the one hand, and the reality of its existence as a multi-ethnic society […] on the other.’ (ibid)
The state dived into more perilous position in 1971. Quoting Robert LaPorte’s ‘Pakistan in 1971: The Disintegration of a Nation’ (Asian Survey, Vol 12, No 2, February 1972) and other, Syeda Sara Abbas writes: ‘Pakistan was a country without a viable government, money, international policy or a constitution […]’ (‘Deliberative Oratory in the Darkest Hour: Style Analysis of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Statement at the Security Council’, Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies, Vol 3, No 1, 2011) The state ‘survived’ on ‘fatal links’, and the ‘fatal links’ or the ‘linkages of failure’ are told by Tariq Ali in his Can Pakistan Survive? The Death of a State (1983) and by Ayesha Jalal in her The State of Martial Rule (1991). Both of them cite linkage to, among others, the US imperialism. Like a business organisation, the state at least once, had a CEO, chief executive officer, a show of the state of the state’s nefarious political arrangement and compulsion, which many of the state’s 1971-mainstream politicians failed to perceive, which itself was a weakness in its system of observation, analysis and theory related to politics, especially the state.
004The last act began on March 25, 1971, and the act concluded on December 16, 1971, the day Bangladesh people formally achieved victory by waging an armed struggle. A retired brigadier writes:
‘On March 25, 1971, Gen Yahya Khan ordered the army to restore the writ of the state in East Pakistan [today’s independent Bangladesh]. On Dec 16, 1971, East Pakistan was no more.
‘That afternoon [of December 16, 1971] in Dhaka, the Pakistan Army lost its honour […] when Lt Gen AAK Niazi (Tiger) and his Eastern Command surrendered […] — honour that can be regained only on the battlefield. Until then, the ignominious defeat will continue to haunt the armed forces and succeeding generations in Pakistan.
‘After he [Yahya Khan] chose to solve a political problem by military means [….] East Pakistan, as it stood on Dec 3, 1971, was ready to fall like a ripe plum.’ (Dawn, December 3, 2009, ‘Blunders of the 1971 war’)
The military officer admits: ‘[T]he people there [in the erstwhile East Pakistan, today’s independent Bangladesh] had risen in rebellion against the Pakistani state.’ (ibid.)
‘In 1971 Pakistan suffered a near death experience: genocide, civil war, migration and territorial reconfiguration.’ (Syeda Sara Abbas, op cit) US Senator Fred R Harris cited a March 31, 1971 datelined report from The New York Times while urging the US government to ‘immediately end all military and economic assistance to Pakistan’ in his letter to William P Rogers, the US secretary of state: ‘Pakistani soldiers have been dragging political leaders in East Pakistan into the streets where they are summarily shot. […E]xecution squads led by informers are systematically tracking down and killing East Pakistani intellectual leaders so that the people of that region will forever remain without a voice.’ (US Senate, Committee on Government Operations, April 1, 1971) Congress member Halpern said in his statement: ‘thousands of people are being killed’. (Congressional Record House, ‘The need to clarify the Pakistani situation’, April 7, 1971, H 2524) US Senators Walter F Mondale,   Edward W Brook, Mark O Hatfield and Edmund S Muskie in their letter to William P Rogers mentioned ‘bloodshed in East Pakistan’ and ‘indiscriminate killing of unarmed civilians’. Senator Kennedy’s comments in early April are much known: ‘It is a story of indiscriminate killing, the execution of dissident political leaders and students, and thousands of civilians suffering and dying every hour. It is a story of dislocation and loss of home. It is a story of little food and water.’ With the situation the Pakistan state created in Bangladesh since March 1971 the state was engaged in its last act of delegitimising itself as it was conducting genocide in a part of the country while waging a war against the majority of the population under its control as the majority of the people yearned for justice and equity.
The state found no tools and mechanism for controlling and cowing down the majority of the population other than carrying on the genocide, which was a stark show of the state’s limits in the capacity to rule. The state of business in 1971 in the Pakistan statecraft was an example of a neocolonial state’s failure; and the genocide and the war against the people was no exception in the imperialist-neocolonial system. The genocide took away the state’s all claims to rule, and denuded its barbaric character. The war the state was waging against the majority of the population under its dominance ‘was intricate in nature as it involved gross human rights violations [….The] murder, rape and arson were severe enough to deem it an international crisis. (Syeda Sara Abbas, op cit) Ishaan Tahroor referred to Sydney Schanberg, an eyewitness and reporter, who termed it a pogrom, and cited the rape of 4,00,000. (Tharoor, ‘Keeping Dhaka’s Ghosts Alive’, Time, September 24, 2008)
Failure of the Pakistan state began since it was organised. ‘Political and economic mishandling of the East Pakistan by the former West Pakistan caused deep dissatisfaction and growth of nationalist feeling among the almost entirely Bengali population, regarded as inferior by most of West Wing’s Punjabis who were the majority of administrators. […] Unrest in the East was suppressed in a brutal pogrom by the army’. (Brian Cloughley, War, Coups and Terror, Pakistan’s army in years of turmoil, Pen & Sword Military, Pen & Sword Books Limited, South Yorkshire, Great Britain, 2008) Taha Siddiqui refers to a retired major of the Pakistan army, who fought in East Pakistan in 1971. The army officer ‘claims the cracks in the system had started to show long before 1971’ (The Express Tribune, December 16, 1971, ‘Remembering 1971: A retired major tells the story he’d rather forget’) ‘The retired major, who is a third generation military officer, says that when he was young, he used to visit his father who was also posted to Chittagong, Bangladesh. “The civil service, military and other high ranking government positions were all occupied by West Pakistanis, who considered Bengalis an inferior race,” he says. Many times he saw Bengalis openly humiliated and treated like “untouchables’.’ (ibid)
The failure culminated in 1971 while the Bengali people rose in revolt against injustice, deprivation, killing, violation of honour of its women, arson and loot.
Political crisis that the state was nourishing within its head began taking acute shape since the overthrow of dictator Ayub Khan in a mass uprising that reached its peak in 1969. A general election based on universal adult franchise was held in the later part of 1970. The days going to the election and the election results signalled the forthcoming conflict, and failure of a faction of the dominating elites of the state and success of the Bengalis, the majority of the population, in their political fight. The following finding is only an example picked up randomly from among many:
‘Between May and December 1970 the Jama’at campaigned frantically. Competition with the Awami League and clashes with Bhashani’s supporters escalated tensions in East Pakistan and Punjab, and clashes with the People’s Party tied down the Jama’at in West Pakistan. […] Despite untiring efforts, it won only four of the 151 National Assembly seats which it contested, all in West Pakistan [now, Pakistan], and only four of the 331 provincial assembly seats it had aimed for, one in each province except Baluchistan […] It trailed far behind the Awami League and the People’s Party […] and to its dismay and embarrassment finished behind the Jami’at-i Ulama-i Islam and Jami’at-i Ulama-i Pakistan. The Jami’at-i Ulama-i Islam even gained enough seats to serve as a partner to the National Awami Party […]  in forming provincial governments in Baluchistan and North-West Frontier Province. To the Jama’at’s surprise the two ulama parties did better than the Jama’at, although they had contested fewer seats and received a lower percentage of votes cast. […]  Where the Jama’at had won only four seats (and none in East Pakistan), […] the ulama parties had won seven seats each. […] In contrast with the Jama’at’s four provincial seats, the Jami’at-i Ulama-i Islam had won nine and the Jami’at-i Ulama-i Pakistan eleven. The Jama’at’s 6.03 per cent of the votes cast in National Assembly elections had yielded only 1.3 percent of the seats, and its 3.25 per cent share of the vote in provincial elections a mere 0.67 per cent of the seats. […T]he Islamic parties taken together did poorly in both parts of Pakistan. This limited the political power of Islam and further constricted the Jama’at. […] The election results dealt a severe blow to the morale of Jama’at members. Mawdudi’s leadership was questioned, as was the party’s time-honoured reliance on Islamic symbols and the putative Islamic loyalties of Pakistanis. The election results, moreover, effectively eliminated the Jama’at as a power broker.’ (Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: The Jama’at-i Islami of Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, ‘7. The Secular State, 1958–1971’, The elections of 1970 and their aftermath) Almost similar pattern was experienced by other rightist political parties including Muslim League, the party that claimed spearheading the political moves for the establishment of Pakistan.
Moreover, the Pakistan state found the ideological and theoretical basis of its existence was lost in the political fight as Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr writes ‘[t]he inability of Islam to keep the two halves of the country united’. (ibid ‘8. The Bhutto Years, 1971–1977’) The developments of contradictions, and deepening of failures led to further developments or complication of contradictions as Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr describes in the following way:
‘Driven by its dedication to Pakistan’s unity and unable to counter the challenge of the Awami League, the Jama’at abandoned its role as intermediary and formed an unholy alliance with the Pakistan army, which had been sent to Dhaka to crush the Bengali nationalists. After a meeting with General Tikka Khan, the head of the army in East Pakistan, in April 1971, Ghulam ‘Azam, the amir of East Pakistan, gave full support to the army’s actions against “enemies of Islam.” Meanwhile, a group of Jama’at members went to Europe to explain Pakistan’s cause and defend what the army was doing in East Pakistan; another group was sent to the Arab world, where the Jama’at drew upon its considerable influence to gain support. In September 1971 the alliance between the Jama’at and the army was made official when four members of the Jama’at-i Islami of East Pakistan joined the military government of the province. Both sides saw gains to be made from their alliance. The army would receive religious sanction for its increasingly brutal campaign, and the Jama’at would gain prominence. Its position was, in good measure, the result of decisions made by the Jama’at-i Islami of East Pakistan, then led by Ghulam ‘Azam and Khurram Jah Murad. This branch of the Jama’at, faced with annihilation, was thoroughly radicalised, and acted with increasing independence in doing the bidding of the military regime in Dhaka. The Lahore secretariat often merely approved the lead taken by the Jama’at and the IJT [Islami Jami’at-i Tulabah] in Dhaka. Nowhere was this development more evident than in the IJT’s contribution to the ill-fated al-Badr and al-Shams counterinsurgency operations.’ (ibid ‘7. The Secular State, 1958–1971’, The elections of 1970 and their aftermath)
The reality the neocolonial state was facing surfaced forcefully, and concerned quarters were looking at roots of the reality.  Citing ‘Abdu’l-Ghani Faruqi’s ‘Hayat-i Javidan,’ (HRZ, 31) Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr mentions one of those searches:
‘Since the beginning of the East Pakistan crisis, Mawdudi had claimed that the problem before the country was the product of lackluster adherence to Islam. He in fact blamed the loss of East Pakistan on Yahya Khan’s womanising and drinking. The IJT echoed Mawdudi’s sentiments: its answer to “What broke up the country?” was “wine” (sharab). Some in the army apparently agreed.’ (op cit, ‘8. The Bhutto Years, 1971–1977’)
On the basis of an interview with lawyer SM Zafar, Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr cites another similar evidence:
‘In 1972–1973, the military high command uncovered a conspiracy […] hatched by a group junior officers, led by Brigadier FB ‘Ali [….] SM Zafar, who defended the officers in court, recollects that they believed East Pakistan had been lost because of the government’s “un-Islamic” ways and Yahya Khan’s drinking in particular.’ (ibid)
Answers to the questions cropping up from the circumstances the neocolonial state faced, thus, are abounding. But do the answers not also create further questions for further inquiry? As, for example, picking out from many questions: (1) Why institutions are not stronger than personalities? (2) Is it factual that the country generally does well under authoritarian rule and, if the claim is factual, what’s the reason? (3) Why the state failed to solve the question of nationhood? (4) Why the country was without a viable government, a constitution, etc? (5) Why the state’s official status faced contradiction? (6) Why a state failed to resist a sharab addicted womaniser in usurping the helm of the state? (7) Is sharab more powerful than political process or when does sharab turns more powerful than political process? (8) Does a person or a group of persons determine fate of a state? (9) Is the state defensible if sharab turns more powerful than political process? (10) Are these the real questions? The questions turn more complicated if one looks at the political fight within and around the state machine that was going around since April 1971, the reactions among a part of its allies, and the genocide the state was carrying on. Positions of ZA Bhutto/Pakistan People’s Party, and its competitors during those days help find the reality of political jockeying that the state was experiencing. Statements of ZA Bhutto, Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan, Nawabjada Nasrullah Khan, Maulana Golam Gaus Hazarvi, Maulana Mufti Mahmud, Chowdhury Rahmate Elahi and other political leaders show their understanding of the situation and factional fight within the political system while the system was facing one of its most critical hours. The banning of all groups of National Awami Party and the cancellation of national awards of 32 high-ranking civilian officers in 1971 are a few more evidences of the state’s vulnerabilities. There are more evidences. Even failure of a part of mainstream political leadership related to the state to foresee the coming events or the path of political developments or the destined path of the state is an important question, which haunts political scientists and politicians. The complications thicken if the scene is compared with other neocolonial states. The complication deepens if the reality or the questions are related to the Bengali people’s armed struggle for liberation and its victory. It was a people’s interaction/contradiction with a neocolonial state, and their way to carry forward the contradiction with the aim of liberation. Throughout the entire course of incidents/development the Bengali people appeared as the hero of history, which was blindly ignored by a part of the mainstream politics of those days although this principal character of history — the Bengali people — shaped political destiny of many. Actions by the people were impacting not only destiny of their land, but politics of other countries, Cold War days super power relationships, etc also. It was a unique moment in the life of the Bangladesh people. There were dynamics, equations, momentum, relations, speed and velocity. Hence, for furthering people’s political participation/activism, and for learning, the issue demands study.

Farooque Chowdhury is a Dhaka-based freelance writer.

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