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OP-ED: In March, the march of history

  • Published at 02:10 am March 4th, 2021
Bangabandhu
Photo: Bangabandhu Memorial Trust

In South Asia, this is a month of particular poignancy

The month of March resonates in the South Asian sub-continent with particular poignancy. Perhaps there is no other month in the calendar which brings together, ironically, the three nations which once were united India as March does. You can observe the month from the perspective of literary interest. And, of course, there is the deep involvement of history with and in it.

Go back to March 1940, for that was when the All-India Muslim League adopted what has come to be known as the Pakistan Resolution. The Muslim League meeting was held in Lahore, with the resolution being moved by Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Huq. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, destined to be the founding father of Pakistan, presented his arguments on what he considered to be a two-nation theory, or in his formulation the idea that Hindus and Muslims were two distinct nations and therefore could not cohabit in a single state.

As if to add weight to Jinnah’s arguments, Lord Louis Mountbatten landed in India in March 1947 and plunged into the business of vivisecting the country into two nations. Mountbatten was a man in a hurry, pompous and keen about his place in history. It was on that basis that he thought that India needed to gain freedom from British colonial rule, albeit through division.

Where the British Empire had earlier pursued a policy of “divide and rule,” Mountbatten, in the changed circumstances, seemed to amend it to mean “divide and quit,” the term Penderel Moon used as the title of his excellent book on partition.

March 1948 was again another decisive moment in sub-continental history. It was in that month that Jinnah made his first and last trip to Dhaka as Pakistan’s governor general and ended up inflaming Bengali passions with his insistence that Urdu be the language of the state of Pakistan. He remained blissfully unaware of Bengali sentiments on the language issue or chose to ignore them altogether.

His views on Urdu were expressed twice, at Curzon Hall of Dhaka University and the Race Course. His assertion that those who opposed Urdu were enemies of Pakistan was to be the bedrock on which politics in Pakistan would take shape. The ramifications would be unfortunate.

Pakistan’s ruling classes, symbolized by the Muslim League, were traumatized by the electoral victory of the opposition Jukto Front (United Front) in East Bengal in March 1954. The rout of the Muslim League was complete, but that did not stop the central government based in Karachi from employing any and all means to discredit the new provincial government led by Sher-e-Bangla AK Fazlul Huq. The ministry was dismissed two months after the elections through a law referred to as Section 92-A.

The Pakistan constituent assembly adopted and put into effect, nine years after partition, a constitution for the country in March 1956. It was an exercise that hardly resolved matters, for even though the document went for a parliamentary form of government, politics remained in a state of instability. Besides, the ruling classes had in 1955 redefined the state in a way that left the majority Bengali population of the country reduced to meaningless population parity with West Pakistan.

That came about through the unification of the four provinces of West Pakistan into One Unit, which was a stratagem to bring equality in numbers to the western and eastern segments of the country. The 1956 constitution hardly pleased the liberal political classes, but that it had been adopted was considered an achievement. Sadly, it was abrogated and parliament was disbanded when President Iskandar Mirza and General Ayub Khan, the commander-in-chief of the army, imposed martial law all over Pakistan in October 1958.

March 1969 was the season when Ayub Khan’s much-vaunted decade of progress ground to a swift end. Beginning in early 1968, the regime was confronted with mass protests in both East and West Pakistan. A galvanized opposition demanded that the country return to a parliamentary form of government. In East Pakistan, growing demands for the withdrawal of the Agartala Conspiracy Case and the release of the imprisoned Sheikh Mujibur Rahman compelled the government to accede to the demands in February 1969.

In that month, a crumbling regime called a roundtable conference to deal with the political crisis. The conference carried over to early March, but failed to resolve any major outstanding issues, especially those related to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s demand for autonomy for East Bengal on the basis of his Six Points. President Ayub Khan resigned on March 25, 1969. Pakistan passed under a second spell of martial law under General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, the army chief. Yahya Khan would be the last Pakistani ruler to preside over a united Pakistan and the first to oversee its break-up.

March 1971 remains, of course, a defining moment in history in South Asia. It was a season when the Yahya Khan military junta, in cahoots with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, made a fine mess of things through refusing to let the newly elected national assembly meet in Dhaka. Circumstances swiftly went beyond their control when the Bengalis, led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, had little option but to go for independence once the army went for a repudiation of the results of the general elections of December 1970.

Bangabandhu, who in normal circumstances would have taken over as the first elected prime minister of Pakistan, declared Bangladesh’s independence before he was arrested by the army. And then came nine months of a military-led pogrom that was to leave Pakistan defeated in war.

March 1977 in the sub-continent will forever be a matter of historical interest. It was in that month that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, having presided over a state of emergency since June 1975, decreed a return of democratic rights and called general elections. Her Congress party lost badly to a combine of opposition politicians embittered by her policies during the emergency. The Janata government, which followed hers in the end, turned out to be a chaotic affair. It would soon be a cacophony of discordant voices. The infighting and the incompetence made it easy for Indira Gandhi to ride back to power in 1980.

In Pakistan, March 1977 was the time when the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in office since late December 1971, went for general elections for the first time since 1970. The prediction was that Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party would win re-election with a reduced majority against the opposition Pakistan National Alliance. In the event, PPP activists and pro-Bhutto civil servants indulged in massive rigging, something that left even the prime minister surprised.

Predictably, the PNA took to the streets and would not rest until Bhutto agreed to fresh elections. That deal was initiated late on July 4, 1977. A few hours later, on July 5, Bhutto’s hand-picked army chief Ziaul Haq carried out the coup that put the government as well as the opposition out to pasture. Bhutto would be tried on disputed murder conspiracy charges and hanged in April 1979.

In March 1982, in Bangladesh, General Hussein Muhammad Ershad removed the government of President Abdus Sattar. Justice Sattar, who had earlier served as Pakistan’s chief election commissioner at the time of the 1970 election and later as vice president of Bangladesh under President Ziaur Rahman, had been elected to the presidency in his own right in November 1981.

Sattar defeated the Awami League candidate Kamal Hossain, who had been law minister and foreign minister in the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. General Ershad would hold power for close to nine years, until his ouster in the face of a mass movement in December 1990.

And thus does March have its place in the chronicles of South Asian politics. In March, it is the march of history that passes by the window of collective memory.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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