Bangla Desh: Creation of

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East Pakistan / Bangla Desh

EXCERPT: Remembrance of things past The work is a memoir with details of the people and events that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Departure from Karachi


East Pakistan Bangla Desh
East Pakistan Bangla Desh
Dr Aftab Ahmed

It was a lovely winter afternoon in Karachi, with a deep blue sky and bright sunshine when we took off. As we were air borne, I started thinking about my scanty and limited knowledge of East Pakistan and the people of that wing. I knew a couple of officers of my service but did not know them well enough. They were rather reserved and mostly kept to themselves. I had visited Dhaka only once, back in 1960, to attend a PEN conference of writers to which I was invited through the courtesy of Prof Ali Ashraf of the Karachi University’s English Department, whom I came to know when I was posted in Karachi. The conference was presided over by Prof Shahid Suhrawardy, elder brother of H. S. Suhrawardy, one of Pakistan’s Prime Ministers in the ’50s. The only two persons I knew from among the participants of the conference were Begum Shaista Ikramullah and Mr G. Allana, both of whom, like myself, had been invited from Karachi. The rest of the participants were all Bengali writers and intellectuals from East Pakistan. The moving spirit of the conference was Ali Ashraf’s brother Ali Ahsan, Professor of Bengali at the Dhaka University.

The conference was held in the fall of 1960, two years after Ayub Khan’s Martial Law. Ali Ahsan had taken good care that the papers presented at the conference were mostly non-controversial, almost conformist. But this was different from the tone and tenor of the discussions that took place in the conference. In the papers presented by Munir Chaudhary of the Bengali Department of Dhaka University, there were some very positive and candid remarks about the writers’ social responsibility. These remarks were indeed a breath of fresh air in the otherwise rather stilted atmosphere of the conference. I was quite impressed by them, so during the tea break I engaged Munir Chaudhary and his brother Kabir Chaudhary who was a Professor of English at a Government college in some other city, in conversation. Munir promptly invited me to tea the next evening at his University residence. There I met a few more Bengali writers and University teachers. They talked informally and more freely. I could see what the Bengali intellectuals thought of Ayub Khan’s Martial Law and how it had dashed their hopes of the February 1959 General Elections under the 1956 Constitution, agreed upon between the East and West Pakistan leaders. They argued that it was an East Pakistani leader Maulvi Tamizzuddin Khan, who filed a case against the abrogation of the 1956 constitution and that it was a Punjabi Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mr Justice M. Munir, who turned it down and gave a verdict in favour of martial law. There was in their remarks an easily discernible sense of bitterness, frustration and alienation from the West Pakistani power elite.

Actually I was to see more of this sense of frustration and alienation at the Finance Services Academy itself, where we had an equal number of West Pakistani and East Pakistani probationers. It was to be seen in a much sharper focus during the September 1965 war. The Academy was located at Walton in the Lahore Cantonment, an area very close to the border and the scene of action. As soon as the war started, the West Pakistani probationers left the hostel and went home whereas all the East Pakistanis had to stay on at the Academy premises; they had no choice.

My wife was still in Karachi, so I left my official residence on the campus and moved into a room in the hostel to live with the East Pakistani probationers. They were all in an extreme state of nervous tension, completely cut off from their homes with no news from their families. They remained glued to their transistor sets listening to Radio Pakistan, to All India Radio and particularly to the BBC to find out how the war was progressing. Then they would exchange notes with me and it was during this period, with the constant sound of artillery shelling during the day and tracer bombs during the night, that I came to know what their feelings were vis-à-vis West Pakistanis and how they looked at things in general and at the Indo-Pak war in particular. They heaved a sigh of relief when the war ended and a cease-fire was announced.

After a few days the West Pakistani probationers came back and normality returned to the Academy, but I could then see a divergence of attitudes between West Pakistani and East Pakistani probationers in the class discussions where controversial topics did somehow crop up. They were all young men fresh from the universities, and had not yet acquired the bureaucratic habit of reticence and reserve. They did not mind saying what they felt. I remember one morning when I was going to lecture on the administrative structure in the country with reference to the constitutional provisions, Tanvir Murshed, a probationer from East Pakistan stood up and said: ‘Sir this constitution begins with the declaration: ‘I General Muhammad Ayub Khan hereby give this constitution to the people of Pakistan’. Sir, does any constitution in any other country of the world start with such a declaration?’ Nasim Waqar, a probationer from West Pakistan, who was a law graduate, joined him and called it a one man constitution made to perpetuate himself in power. I listened to them for a while because I did not want to give them the impression that they could not have their say and then closed the subject with the remark: ‘The circumstance under which this constitution was promulgated are well-known but they do not form part of our course here’.

I could then see a divergence of attitudes between West Pakistani and East Pakistani probationers in the class discussions where controversial topics did somehow crop up.

Immediately after the war a rather unpleasant incident occurred. The classes were over and the probationers were in the dining hall having their lunch. I was sitting in my office when the head bearer came and informed me that there had been a scuffle between two probationers. A West Pakistani probationer, a big hefty young man had pounced upon a rather small built East Pakistani after an argument at the dining table. The other probationers from both sides intervened and they separated them. Soon after, some of the probationers from both the wings came to report the incident to me. What had happened was that an East Pakistani accounts service probationer had expressed his satisfaction over the end of the war and the cease-fire decision to which a West Pakistani custom service probationer took exception, a heated argument followed which led to the West Pakistani pouncing upon the East Pakistani probationer. I then callzzed the West Pakistani probationer involved in the scuffle and asked him what had happened. His narration of the incident was not any different. However, the cause of his provocation and fury was that he came from Jhelum district in the Punjab and many of his family members and friends had been killed in the war, he had therefore a burning desire for revenge against the enemy and the cease-fire for him was an act of cowardice. I tried to calm him and expressed my sympathies to him, but told him there was no reason for him to pounce on someone who had a different point of view.

I then called the East Pakistani probationer and heard his story. I explained to him the frayed nerves of the West Pakistani probationer because many of his relatives and friends had been killed in the war. Finally the matter was amicably settled and both persons involved shook hands with each other. The incident by itself was a minor one but it did show the acute difference of perception of an educated West Pakistani and an educated East Pakistani on national affairs.

These were recollections of the past that came to my mind but how the future unfolds itself was also now my concern. I would be engaged in a job that was normally reserved for a CSP or an information service officer. I belonged to neither of these cadres. I did not know the language or the land and knew little about the people. The world I was entering was going to be another world where I would be a stranger and an outsider in more than one sense. My foremost problem therefore would be acceptability by the people I work for and work with. It was to them that I had to show my mettle. I was engrossed in these thoughts all through the flight across the subcontinent. The weather remained fine and the Boeing flew like a bird with no turbulence of any kind. When we were nearing Dhaka, I could see the sun setting in a slightly cloudy horizon presenting a view of magnificent colours. By the time we got down it was dark at the airport and in the city.

Diversity cannot be undone

The reference to the decision of the Hindu leaders of West Bengal at the time of partition to join India, in the last observation of Kamruddin Ahmed quoted from his book A Social History of Bengal (P.IX, Introduction), earlier, requires an explanation. In February 1947 when the division of Bengal became a real possibility under the Indian partition plan, Abul Hashim a leader of the Bengal Muslim League, secretly discussed with Sarat Chandra Bose, a Bengali Congres leader, plans for a united and sovereign Bengal. In May, H.S. Suhrawardy, an eminent Bengali leader of the All India Muslim League and Abul Hashim did indeed work out an agreement with the willing Congres leaders in this regard. The agreement, however, was subject to the approval of the high commands of the Muslim League and the Congres, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the President of the Muslim League, reportedly gave his blessing to the agreement. The Congres leaders, Gandhi, Nehru and Patel and the Hindus in general were all opposed to the idea and nothing came of it.

Now the question is why did eminent Bengali Muslim leaders want an independent united Bengal and why did Jinnah give his blessings to the idea? The answer appears to be that in an independent united Bengal, Muslims would have been in a majority, though not very large. The point made by Hasan Zaheer (The Separation of East Pakistan) is well taken that for Bengali Muslim leaders.

Pakistan meant achieving state power to redress the injustices inflicted by Hindu dominance since the advent of the British, more than one and a half century earlier. As regards the Bengali language and culture, the Muslims had no problem with Hindus. They could share them and did not have to go to northern India for their cultural inspiration.

What was indeed the crux of the matter and a basic element in the cultural divide between West and East Pakistan. West Pakistan comprising Punjab, North West Frontier Province, Sindh and Balochistan were part of northern India and received their cultural inspiration from their respective regional heritages. They also imbibed the central tradition of Muslim India — a tradition developed in the United Province and Delhi, which now form part of the Indian Union, but which had been the seat of Muslim power in the subcontinent for centuries. The Urdu language is perhaps the most significant and most cherished heritage of the Muslims of India. It had developed as their main cultural language over and above the other regional languages. It is for this reason that the founding fathers wanted Urdu to be the only national language of Pakistan.

I tried to calm him and expressed my sympathies to him, but told him there was no reason for him to pounce on someone who had a different point of view.

The Urdu-Bengali controversy was only one aspect, perhaps the most important aspect, of the cultural divide. The other aspect related to the difference of attitudes between the people of the two wings towards music and dancing. In East Pakistan, people of all classes, high and low, loved these fine arts and considered them as a part of their culture. It was quite common and normal for womenfolk to sing and dance in mixed private parties and at public functions. There was no stigma attached to it nor was it considered un-Islamic. I was told by Ms Rokeya Rahman Kabeer, a former professor of history and now an eminent social worker of Bangladesh, that two of Maulvi Tamizzuddin Khan’s daughters took part in dance-play in early 1950, when Maulvi Tamizzuddin Khan was the President of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, having succeeded the Quaid-i-Azam in this position in 1948. He was a deeply religious man and prominent political leader of Muslim Bengal. In the mid and later ’60s, Firdousi Rahman and Shahnaz Begum, two well-known singers of East Pakistan, were educated girls from highly respectable families.

People in West Pakistan on the other hand, did and still do not like or allow their womenfolk to sing or dance even in mixed, private parties, leave alone public functions or on radio and television. It was considered infradig by the social elite and un-Islamic by the religious and conservative sections of society. Generally, it was taken as a sign of Hindu influence to cultivate and promote music and dancing. There was, as such, a strong prejudice amongst West Pakistanis against these fine arts which sometimes reflected itself in government policies and became a source of unnecessary irritation and resentment among East Pakistanis. For instance, Tagore songs were banned on the governmentmedia, radio and television, not realising that Bengali poetry without Tagore is like Urdu poetry without Iqbal.

I may perhaps illustrate the point further by relating an incident in which I was personally involved. It was February 1969 and the movement against Ayub Khan’s rule was in full swing. I was at that time serving in Dhaka as Joint Secretary, in-charge of the Branch Secretariat of the Central Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Suddenly the issue of the Tagore songs along with the issue of the bindia came in the forefront. I might perhaps explain that bindia is a mark, usually of crimson colour, worn commonly by Hindu women on their forehead. A certain class of modern women in East Pakistan also wore it as part of their makeup, I was told they had started doing so in greater numbers as a protest against the government policy of not allowing women to wear it while performing at public functions organised by government agencies or in television programmes because it was considered a Hindu custom. As the Bengali Language Day grew closer, there was a demand by the powerful student organisations that the day should be observed officially on the radio and television and the ban on Tagore songs and bindia should be lifted. I started receiving threatening messages from the student leaders that if the demand was not conceded, they would, burn the radio and television stations and take the members of the staff as hostages. The agitation could not be brought under control and the government had to concede the demand. So on February 21, 1969, the Bengali Language Day was officially observed on the East Pakistan radio and television, with Firdousi Rahman and Shahnaz Begum singing Tagore songs and wearing bindia on their foreheads. Whether they wore it normally or not, I do not know. But they did so on that particular day to celebrate the victory of the student community over the government.

This in substance is the story of the cultural divide and its impact on the politics of Pakistan between the years 1947-1971. The lesson it underscores is that regional ethnicity and multicultural traditions are distinctive features of today’s world. In federal structure linguistic and cultural diversity of the regions cannot be steamrolled in the vain hope of creating a unified culture. It has to be respected and accepted along with political and economic aspirations of the region. Things came to a boiling point in Pakistan because people had been denied the right to run their own affairs. During the period under review, the country remained first under the military rule of Ayub Khan and then of Yahya Khan for 13 years. One sometimes tends to speculate, that if parliamentary democracy had had the opportunity to debate and discuss controversial issues in a spirit of give and take, things would have been different, and Pakistan could have perhaps avoided the traumatic experience of a violent breakup. Or is it the fate of human beings to learn only after the events? As Kierkegard has said: ‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards.’

Excerpted with permission from Beyond the Vision: A soul-searching view of East Pakistan Separation By Dr Aftab Ahmad Dost Publications, Islamabad ISBN 978-969-496-287-0 147pp. Rs220

Dr Aftab Ahmed served as Joint Secretary, Ministry of Information in Dhaka from 1968 to 1970 and was a keen observer of events in East Pakistan before and during the 1971 war.

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