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Tackling the difficult political history of the sub-continent

  • Published at 11:52 pm December 20th, 2019
A primer on political history
A primer on political history

Professor Nurul Islam’s exploration of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh should be required reading for all committed to learning this history

Professor Nurul Islam is a distinguished economist of global repute. He is teacher of my teachers. I have reviewed most of his books written on the Bangladesh economy, including his fascinating autobiography. 

All these books have been written for professional economists and young researchers. However, the book which I am going to present today to the readers is simply unique. 

This is a book which has been written in his simplistic style with a passion to educate the younger generations who often receive confusing messages regarding their political history from the traditional historians. 

So, from that perspective, this is an exceptional book and the author should be congratulated for this socially responsible attempt to clarify the mess which has been baffling the youths.

The book India-Pakistan-Bangladesh published by Prothoma Prokashan (2019) is a historical writing about the break-up of British India into two and then eventually three nations written by economist Dr Nurul Islam. 

The book first explains the circumstances that led to British India being divided into two nations -- India and Pakistan -- and then the eventual struggle by East Pakistan for freedom and the formation of Bangladesh as an independent nation. 

In this sense, the title of the book explains its content, since the geographical area known as India before 1947 got transformed into India and Pakistan after they gained independence from the British, and later in 1971 East Pakistan gained independence and became Bangladesh. 

In Dr Nurul Islam’s own words “…the book seeks to answer an often-asked question whether the partition of British India could be avoided as well as a follow up question whether the breakup of Pakistan was inevitable.”

The book is based on the hypothesis that when political parties are based on a fixed characteristic like religion or race, voters in an electoral democracy vote for the party that have the same characteristic as the voter, and as a result there is the creation of a permanent majority and a permanent minority. 

In such a case, it is almost impossible for the minority party to win and the minority group may then have to face inadequate opportunities in political, economic, and social spheres. 

A major reason that led to the partition of India was that MA Jinnah was aware that the Muslims in India were a minority and, in the case of an electoral democracy, the Muslim League would become the permanent minority with very slim chances of being part of the central governing body. 

Again in 1971, West Pakistan and East Pakistan were separate geographical regions, and most of the population of Pakistan belonged to the Eastern counterpart. However, the civil society, military, and central government were all more dominant in West Pakistan. 

An electoral democracy would then result in West Pakistan becoming the permanent minority, and those with power in West Pakistan would see a decline in their powers, which they did not want.

Historical context

The first part of the book explores the historical context that led to the Partition of India. India had a fair share of population coming in from both religions of Hinduism and Islam, but the majority were Hindus. 

When the British ruled the region, they did not settle in India and only used the place for the purpose of resource extraction. Most of the local governing was done through “Indian natives.” However, the Muslims wanted to retain their Islamic roots and identity in the early days of British rule, whereas the Hindus were willing to learn from the British. 

As a result, Hindus got an advantage and were able to occupy most of the administrative positions of pre-Partition India. A failed mutiny took place in 1857, mainly led by the Muslim members of the British Indian Army. The failure led the Muslims to practise more orthodox Islam. 

This ultimately meant that the population of India at that time contained a more progressive Hindu majority and a rather backward Muslim minority.

Road to Partition 

The second part of the book explains the events that led to the Partition of India. By the late 19th century, Muslims were becoming more progressive and modern as they realized their earlier follies. The Indian National Congress was formed in December 1885, and had little participation from the Muslim community. 

The Congress had started a movement for self-government, and later, in the early 20th century, the British government introduced a separate electorate system for the Muslims. This was so that Muslims could be more integrated into politics, and have more representation. 

The Muslim League was formed in 1906 in Dhaka. In 1916, the Congress and Muslim League joined forces in order to attain the institution of self-government in India. The Muslim League came up with the “fourteen-point demand,” but it was denied by the Congress, claiming that they too represented the mass of the Muslims of the country and special considerations were not, therefore, required. 

British India saw two political parties by the 1930s -- the Indian National Congress, which consisted of mainly Hindu members, and the Muslim League with Muslim members. In order to establish self-governance, the British introduced provincial assemblies of elected representatives. 

The Congress and the Muslim League took part in the elections and Congress won most of seats. The results of this election showed that the Congress became the permanent majority since they represented Hindus, and on the other hand, the Muslim League were the permanent minority.

Jinnah then propagated the “two-nation theory” which said that the Hindus and Muslims were two different nations. The idea of nations based solely on religion was rather unique since the general definition of nationhood included common historical experiences and shared values, ideals, and future aspirations. 

But here, only religion was considered to be the basis of nationality. In 1947, the British proposed the Cabinet Mission Plan, which separated British India into three territories: Group A, B, and C. 

Group B and C were proposed to have consisted of the Muslim Majority areas and would have considerable autonomy. The Congress, which was proposed to have Group C with Hindu majority, did not agree to the Cabinet Mission Plan and this ultimately led to the Partition of India into two nations. 

A huge number of people migrated from one region to another -- the Muslims went to Pakistan and the Hindus went to India. A lot of violence took place against the minorities of the regions and many lives were lost. The trauma of this violent partition still persists in the psyche of both Muslims and Hindus who had to face this tragedy.

Pakistan is born

Part three of the book describes the creation of Pakistan. In August 1947, Pakistan became a nation with two regions separated geographically by India. The regions were smaller than what was originally proposed in the Cabinet Mission Plan, and the country had to face many disadvantages because of this.

East Pakistan lost out because of the Partition since most of the industries and commercial areas of Bengal remained in Kolkata and West Pakistan inherited infrastructurally developed areas. Even though the founders wanted a parliamentary democracy for the constitution of Pakistan, the five provinces could not come to an agreement. 

The army that Pakistan inherited from British India was nearly one-third of the former Indian army and hence relatively more powerful compared to its Indian counterpart, given the smaller size of Pakistan’s land and population. 

It also wanted a strong government so that they could have access to the resources. All institutions of the central government were located in West Pakistan and the military also consisted of people mainly from the West. 

As a result, West Pakistan managed to get an overwhelmingly large share of the budget, even though East Pakistan housed majority of the population. The foreign trade policy and allocation of credit was centralized under the constitution of British India, promulgated in 1935. Representation by East Pakistan was 5% in the military, 30% percent in the bureaucracy and 15% percent in business. 

The government also transferred resources from East Pakistan, which was already poor compared to the wealthier West Pakistan. The increased entrepreneurship and investment in West Pakistan did not create employment in the East and the government in the West had no incentive to allocate resources to East Pakistan. 

In 1948, the decision was taken to make Urdu the state language of Pakistan. This resulted in the Language Movement of 1952 by the student community and was resolved by violence on part of the government. By 1956, East Pakistan created their own opposition political party. 

A lot of back and forth took place in order to prevent East Pakistan from assuming power, since it was obvious that an electoral democracy would make East Pakistan the permanent majority. The disagreements of 1956 led to the implementation of martial law under Ayub Khan. 

In the early 1960s, the government decided to ban the works of Rabindranath Tagore, claiming that he promoted Hindu culture. However, East Pakistanis considered this to be an attack on their identity. 

East Pakistan was also left completely defenseless during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. In the late 1960s, Ayub Khan became unpopular to all of Pakistan due to the Tashkent Declaration, which was thought to have capitulated to the diplomatic pressure of India and given in too much to them. 

A conference was held in Lahore in 1966, where Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman presented the “Six-Point Program” as a future blueprint for the constitution. The program was rejected right away by the West Pakistani delegates. 

Around this time, the Awami League was the biggest party in East Pakistan and Pakistan People’s Party was the largest in the West. West Pakistan did not desire an electoral democracy since the parties were based on unalterable characteristics and the majority belonged to the East. 

The end of Pakistan

Part four is titled “End of Pakistan” and is essentially talking about the end of East Pakistan. The rejection of the Six-Point Program led to movements in East Pakistan. Awami League faced suppression by the Ayub government and many leaders along with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman were imprisoned under the false accusations of Agartala Conspiracy case. 

Ayub resigned after becoming ill in the face of broad-based protests from the agitating students, workers, and masses, mainly from the eastern part of the country, and was succeeded by General Yahya who arranged for a direct election to take place. 

The AL fought in the election on the platform of the “Six-Points Program” and won all the seats in the national parliament from East Pakistan and became the single majority party in the National Assembly. The AL’s win meant the program would have to be implemented and East Pakistan would gain significant autonomy over their resources. 

The West Pakistani elites tried hard to make Bangabandhu abandon the program. However, they failed. In the end, the army used force against East Pakistanis. East Pakistanis fought back with arms and the struggle for independence began. 

About 10 million refugees went to India. These refugees created pressure on the Indian economy and the displaced Bengali youths were trained in guerilla warfare to fight back for their just cause since there were no agreements among Bangabandhu and General Yahya. 

Eventually, India directly interfered in the war and backed the Bengali freedom fighters. The West Pakistani forces surrendered on December 16, 1971. 

Bangladesh is born 

The fifth part of the book is about the emergence of Bangladesh. Bangabandhu came to Dhaka on January 10, 1972, after being released by the Pakistani army, and formed the government of Bangladesh. 

The country was war-torn and faced many disadvantages. There was a lack of adequate administrative institutions and the economy was also backward. The constitution of Bangladesh was based on democracy, nationalism, secularism, and socialism. 

The principles of democracy and nationalism were attained from the struggle for independence. Since 1947, the people of East Pakistan have struggled for democracy. Bangladesh was a nation that was not solely based on religion. Bangladeshi nationalism was meant to embrace all the cultural and religious diversity present in the country. 

Socialism mainly indicated towards welfare liberalism of the West. The state was responsible for improving the standard of living of the people through economic growth, generating employment, and providing social security. 

Secularism implied the separation of state and religion. Although, in later years, the constitution was amended quite a few times with changing governments, and has moved away from what it initially aspired. 

The value of the primer

Since the intended audience for the book is young adults, I think the book does exceptionally well in briefly explaining the history behind the formation of the country. The concise size of the book will not discourage young readers and, despite being concise, it has a lot of information that the younger generation is likely to be unaware of. 

It provides a lot of insight on the economic aspects and thinking that went into Bangladesh becoming an independent nation. This is also something which I believe many young adults do not have enough knowledge about. 

The appendix about the Six-Points Program and two economies thesis are also brimming with information and describes, very briefly, two important topics that have contributed to the formation of Bangladesh. 

The presentation of this primer is not only simple and lucid, but also captivating with flawless, well-reasoned arguments.

Professor Nurul Islam will be well-remembered by the young readers for this gift of a primer on the political history of the sub-continent, which has been experiencing many common problems despite some spectacular progress in areas of economic development. 

Certainly, Professor Islam is absolutely on target when he writes his concluding sentence of the book which says: “They are yet to develop a spirit of cooperation that allows them to live in harmony.” 

This primer deserves to be a textbook in almost all undergraduate courses of history, political science, and economics in all the universities of the sub-continent. 

Atiur Rahman is a Bangabandhu Chair Professor, University of Dhaka, and a former Governor of Bangladesh Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]

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