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1971 and a bit of alternative history

  • Published at 05:36 pm September 19th, 2018
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Imagining a different history / BIGSTOCK

What if Bangabandhu had taken charge as Pakistan’s prime minister?

History is consistently a matter of what is and what has been. It does not deal with what might or could have been. 

Even so, there are all those moments when we sit back and reflect on the course history could have taken in our times as also in earlier stages of the collective human experience. Would such a course have made any difference for us? 

One never knows, but we have just had the dubious pleasure of going through a “what if” write-up in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, where the writer speculates on the kind of Pakistan that would have shaped up if Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had assumed office as Pakistan’s prime minister in 1971. 

Hardly anything revealing emerges from the reflections of the writer. His conclusions boil down to a simplistic point: That the Pakistan army would yet call the shots, that Mujib would not be able to bring about any change, that indeed his government would not last.

That is a Pakistani point of view. And here, for readers, is the alternative history we might imagine here in Bangladesh, assuming of course that the military junta of Yahya Khan had not repudiated the results of the election of December 1970.

There is little argument that the Awami League, prior to taking office in Islamabad, would have carried its Six Points to a definitive conclusion through incorporating them in the constitution stipulated for formulation within a period of 120 days, as mandated by the Legal Framework Order of 1970. 

The Pakistan People’s Party would have raised huge commotion in the National Assembly, but the Awami League would obtain the support of such West Pakistani political figures as Khan Abdul Wali Khan and Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo for the Six Points to be the underpinning of the new constitution. 

From the outside, Abdus Samad Achakzai, GM Syed, Nawab Akbar Bugti, and Air Marshal Asghar Khan would have supported the move, for it would mean a remarkable degree of autonomy not only for East Pakistan but also for Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province (today’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa).

The Six Points would thus not only lead to a resurgent East Pakistan -- which the ruling AL would constitutionally rename as Bangladesh -- and Baluchistan and the NWFP, but would also lead to similar autonomy for Punjab and Sind, the two provinces dominated by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP. In the decentralization of power consequent upon the adoption of the Six Points, these two provinces would not wish to be left out of the mainstream of national politics.

In a reconfigured Pakistan, the AL would take power in Islamabad, with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the country’s first elected prime minister. The ruling party would likely invite Wali Khan’s National Awami Party to join it in a coalition, given that it had won no parliamentary seats at the election in the West but needed to project a nationwide image for itself. 

The opposition, in the form of the PPP and certain right-wing elements as the Muslim League’s Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan, would make it hard for the government to carry important legislation through but would not be able to make much headway.

One would see much bluster from Bhutto and frequent walkouts from sessions of the National Assembly by his party.

Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would assert full authority over the Pakistan army, making certain that appropriate laws were enacted to block any move by it to undermine civilian rule in future. The headquarters of the Pakistan navy would move to Chittagong, and in line with the Six Points, a para-military force comprising Bengalis would be established in Bangladesh. 

The government would take measures to stop the army from carrying on with its repressive policies in Baluchistan and would likely move to inquire into abuses by the military in the province and elsewhere in the country.

Under an AL government, flight of capital, and other resources from Bangladesh to West Pakistan would cease and the central government, in line with the Six Points, would meet its requirements through financial contributions from the five provinces. 

Cabinets headed by chief ministers would administer the provinces, with governors appointed to symbolize the provinces. The governors would not necessarily be men or women from the provinces they would preside over.

An AL government would bring about fundamental changes in Pakistan’s foreign policy, with particular reference to India. Given the secular character of the party, the government would move to re-shape ties with Delhi through jettisoning the hostilities and sabre-rattling that had traditionally characterized relations between the two countries, and would not let the Kashmir problem come in the way of friendly ties. 

The government would continue to uphold friendly ties with China, the Soviet Union, the West, and the Muslim world. 

But that would be on the basis of an independent exercise of diplomacy.

It is tempting to think that an AL government at the centre in Islamabad would go for striking a balance in the country’s education system, specifically by introducing studies of Bengali in West Pakistani schools and Urdu in schools in Bangladesh. 

The civil service would be recast to allow equal representation for educated young men and women from all over the country in the central administrative system on the basis of merit.

The most important aspect of a Pakistani government-led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman would be a remarkable transformation of the state into a secular entity, away from the religious moorings it had been founded on in the late 1940s. 

There would be serious resistance from religious extremists, who would be joined by the PPP and the Muslim League, but the change would be inexorable. In clear terms, Pakistan under an AL administration would be a loose federal structure where democratic politics, defined by healthy academic debate in parliament and outside, would be a defining factor.

But, of course, a more relaxed Pakistan underscored by the powers enjoyed by its federating units would in time lead to demands for enhanced political rights by these units -- as we have observed in Scotland, Quebec, and Catalonia -- opening the door to referenda on their future. 

Bangladesh would likely vote to move out of the union, but Baluchistan, Sind, and the NWFP would extract more concessions from the centre to continue being part of the Pakistan state.

That is alternative history for you. 

If Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had taken charge as Pakistan’s prime minister, the Pakistan army would not launch its genocide in Bangladesh and shame itself before world opinion.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto would not have gone to the gallows but just might have, through an exercise of politics characteristic of parliamentary government, become prime minister at some point and pushed the AL into opposition. 

The legacy of bitterness which has defined relations between Pakistanis and Bengalis since 1971 would not be there.

All of these possibilities were put paid to on the night of March 25, 1971. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.