Bangladesh Celebrates 50 Years of Independence

On March 26, Bangladesh will be celebrating the golden jubilee of its freedom. Few outside South Asia remember that Bangladesh was once part of Pakistan. From 1947 to 1971, modern-day Pakistan was West Pakistan and Bangladesh was East Pakistan. They were both incongruously part of the same new country even though they were more than 2,200 kilometers apart.

A Tortured Past

Soon after Pakistan’s creation in 1947, the east was subjected to discrimination and repression. East Pakistanis demanded the recognition of Bengali as an official language. Their western brethren rejected that demand. In March 1948, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, visited the eastern part of the country for the first time and emphatically declared that “the state language of Pakistan [was] going to be Urdu and no other language, and anyone who [tried] to mislead [them] was really the enemy of Pakistan.”

Jinnah’s view that Pakistan would not remain unified without a single national language did not take into account East Pakistani aspirations. Protests broke out in Dhaka, the capital of modern-day Bangladesh, and the situation remained volatile till 1952. That year, the constituent assembly declared Urdu to be Pakistan’s national language. This caused students in Dhaka to protest and clash with security forces. Hundreds were injured and five died during the clashes. Today, the United Nations marks February 21, the day of the Dhaka killings, as International Mother Language Day.


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For the next two decades, West Pakistan continued to oppress East Pakistan. It became the dominant of the two halves of the country. Its military was dominated by Punjabis and Pashtuns. Its bureaucracy was staffed by muhajirs, the Urdu-speaking refugees who had fled west from India. Bangladeshis found themselves increasingly marginalized in the power structures of the new state. Jinnah’s two-nation theory assumed all Muslims were equal in a new Islamic nation. Instead, in this new state, taller and fairer Muslims were more equal than shorter and darker Muslims.

West Pakistan continued the British policy of economic exploitation of East Pakistan. Between 1947 and 1970, only 25% of industrial investment and 30% of imports went to East Pakistan, which provided 59% of the exports. West Pakistan gorged on the meat, leaving only bones for East Pakistan. West Pakistanis did so because they saw their eastern brethren as culturally and ethnically inferior. East Pakistanis seethed but could do little against a state controlled by an ever more powerful military.

On November 11, 1970, a major cyclone hit East Pakistan. With winds over 240 kilometers per hour, it left 500,000 people dead and 2.5 million homeless. West Pakistan responded slowly and poorly. As little relief trickled in, resentment grew. Things came to a head in the 1970 elections. Many parties divided the vote share in West Pakistan. In contrast, the Awami League, led by East Pakistani leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won a resounding victory in the national election. He had campaigned on the plank of Bengali autonomy. This was unacceptable to General Yahya Khan, the president of Pakistan, who instituted martial law. Protests erupted in East Pakistan. Emulating Mahatma Gandhi, Rahman called for a civil disobedience movement on March 7, 1971.

Campaign of Terror

Khan and Rahman met from March 16 to 24 but failed to come to an agreement. On the night of March 25, Rahman was arrested and Khan launched Operation Searchlight to restore the writ of the federal government. In reality, it was what the BBC has called a “campaign of terror.” Members of the Awami League, members of the intelligentsia, the Hindu minority comprising 20% of the population in East Pakistan and other perceived opponents of the West Pakistani regime were mercilessly killed.

Troops indulged in “kill and burn missions,” pogroms and mass rape. About 200,000 to 400,000 women and girls were raped. Anthony Mascarenhas, a courageous Pakistani reporter from a small community of Goan Christians in Karachi, broke the news to the world. On June 13, 1971, The Sunday Times published his story titled, “Genocide.” Mascarenhas was not far off the mark. This story captured global attention. George Harrison, the lead guitarist of the Beatles, along with Indian classical music maestro Ravi Shankar and other friends, organized a concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden on August 1.

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Not only journalists and artists but also intelligence officials and diplomats became increasingly disturbed about West Pakistani actions in East Pakistan. Archer Blood, the US consul-general in Dhaka, sent a telegram to Washington that has since come to be known as the “Blood Telegram,” the subject of a multiple award-winning book. He accused his superiors of failing to prevent genocide. In his view, US President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger supported a military regime in West Pakistan that was crushing democracy and slaughtering innocent people. The two hated Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi whom they saw as a strong Soviet ally and who had termed West Pakistani brutality a “genocide” as early as March 31, 1971. Nixon and Kissinger labeled Blood “the maniac in Dhaka,” recalled him to Washington and continued to back its Cold War ally in complete disregard of its wanton use of violence.

West Pakistani brutality triggered “the largest single displacement of refugees in the second half of the 20th century.” An estimated 10 million East Pakistanis sought refuge in India, forcing the country to intervene. Initially, India backed Mukti Bahini, the Bangladeshi guerrilla resistance movement. Then, it prepared for war. When West Pakistani aerial strikes hit 11 air bases in India on December 3, 1971, Indian troops invaded East Pakistan. On December 16, Dhaka fell and 93,000 West Pakistani troops surrendered. With the war over, Bangladesh was born.

Different Memories Drive Different Trajectories

The 1971 war has left different memories in the three countries of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. In Bangladesh, the war itself is seen as one of liberation, though different parties spin the narrative to suit themselves. Rahman’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, is prime minister, a position she has occupied since 2009. For India, the war is often regarded as the nation’s finest moment. It liberated David from Goliath and won its greatest military victory. In Pakistan, the war is airbrushed out of history, but its military elite has never forgotten its humiliating defeat. It embarked on using asymmetric warfare by using state-sponsored terrorism against its bigger neighbor, India. Pakistan has also sought to cultivate strategic depth by dominating Afghanistan to counter New Delhi.

In contrast to Pakistan, Bangladesh retains a close bond with India. Both countries share many commonalities. Both nations have settled their border disputes peacefully by signing the historic 2015 Land Boundary Agreement. India transferred 111 enclaves comprising 17,160.63 acres to Bangladesh, while the latter transferred 51 enclaves comprising 7,110.02 acres to India. Residents of these enclaves were offered citizenship of either country and, though it is early days yet, the agreement has held up remarkably well.

Bangladesh is India’s biggest trading partner in South Asia. India has given away millions of COVID-19 vaccines to Bangladesh for free. South and Southeast Asian nations, including Pakistan, have also benefited from India’s generosity that has been termed “vaccine diplomacy” in many circles. This diplomacy has worked exceptionally well with Bangladesh. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to be the guest of honor on March 26, Bangladesh’s national day. In his first overseas visit since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Modi will visit Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s memorial, two historic temples and sign a deal or two. It almost seems that this golden jubilee is rekindling an old love affair.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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