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East Pakistan to Bangladesh: Causes Behind the 1971 Separation | Muhammad Sadiq Farooq

Pakistan since its creation has had many dark times, however, 1971 remains to be the darkest one.  Despite common ideology and struggle for independence, the eastern wing of the country chose to go a separate way. Although it is the most important historical event in the history of Pakistan, not much has been written or said about it. This article is aimed to be a valuable addition to the watershed.

Reasons Behind separation of East Pakistan:

The separation of East Pakistan can be attributed to 4 major factors; Political, Economic, Military/Strategic, and administrative. Let us discuss them briefly:

Political Causes

Pakistan came into existence as a constitutional federation of different provinces. However, the constitution-making process never met its desired end. It was first delayed and later disrupted, owing to the fear in military and bureaucratic circles of the western wing that a “Democratic system will lead to a permanent majority of Eastern wing.”, because that is where the majority of Pakistan’s population happened to live at that time.

As a result, the military and bureaucratic leadership intervened in the constitutional process. Many formulas were presented by them such as “One-Unit” and “Parity Principle”, all of which were aimed to undermine the political majority of the eastern wing. Moreover, the prime ministers belonging to East Pakistan were removed from office i.e. Khwaja Nazim uddin, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, and Muhammad Ali Bogra.

In 1958, the constitution was abrogated by Ayub Khan which later led to military rule. Once there was a dictatorship in the country, all hopes of representation and fair play died for the people of the eastern wing. Moreover, their beliefs were further strengthened by the massive rigging in the 1964 elections, conducted by Ayub Khan. All of these events radicalized the opinions in East Pakistan.

Economic Causes

The above-mentioned causes were reinforced by strong economic trends. Historically, provinces shared almost 50% of their revenue with the centre (under British). However, after the creation of Pakistan, this number jumped to 90%. This meant that almost all of the revenue generated by the province was taken by the center. The situation was further aggravated by the fact that East Pakistan was the richest, and the highest revenue-generating province and was responsible for much of the country’s foreign exchange. However, it was not getting its due share in return.

The economic disparity between the two wings of the county also posed a major reason for the growing sense of alienation in East Pakistan. 80% of government expenditure was in the western wing, along with much of foreign investment, and industrialization. This was reflected in the growing disparity in the per-capita income. Not only the western wing enjoyed a higher GDP but it also had a much higher growth rate than its eastern brethren. This divergence and disparities in economic trends set up a stage for the radicalization of opinion.

Military and Strategic Causes

Up till 1965, Pakistan’s military doctrine implied, “Defense of the East lies in the West”. This meant that in case of any conflict with India, West-Pakistan would effectively neutralize any threat, and would force India to retreat from the eastern end. This resulted in heavy military concentration in West-Pakistan, while East-Pakistan was deprived of any military might. The demand for shifting of naval headquarter to Dhaka was also rejected.

This theory was shortly put to test in the 1965 war, where East-Pakistan could barely defend itself and was virtually left on its own while being defenseless. This proved the doctrine to be completely flawed and unviable. Ironically, the military leadership was still persistent to stick to it and didn’t change or modify it, despite many requests from the leadership of the eastern wing. This inculcated a feeling of distrust and insecurity in the people of East Pakistan.

Mishandling of Crises (1969-1970)

The disruption of the political process, denial of democratic rights, growing economic disparities, and flawed military doctrine alienated and radicalized the opinion and grew the feelings of disaffection among the people. All of this was evident, but the final nail in the coffin proved to be serious mismanagement of the political crises that erupted in 1969-1970.

Ayub Khan resigned and handed over power to Yahya Khan. He being the CMLA, announced fresh elections, to be conducted on “simple majority provision.” When the results came out, Awami League turned out to be the majority party with more than 160 seats. However, the meeting of the national assembly wasn’t called, and the Awami League was not handed over to the government. This led to major protests in the whole of East Pakistan.

In response to this a large-scale military crack-down called “Operation Search Light” was conducted that claimed lives of thousands and created humanitarian crises. This provided ample opportunity for India, to emerge as a Human Rights champion. India not only supported insurgency in East Pakistan but also intervened militarily. Ultimately, forcing Pakistan to surrender its control over the eastern wing.

Author’s Credentials

Muhammad Sadiq Farooq is an undergrad student of history at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. He regularly writes for various newspapers and journals. His area of interest includes the Political and Economic history of South Asia.

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