Fall of East Pakistan : Can We Learn From History? Mustansar Siam sat down with Dr. Ilhan Niaz, Chairperson, Department of History, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and author of four books, including The Culture of Power and Governance in Pakistan and The State during the British Raj: Imperial governance in South Asia 1700 to 1947, to discuss the separation of East Pakistan. What had been some proximate reasons behind the fall of East Pakistan: Can We Learn From History?? And, has the 18th amendment proven successful in diminishing the reservations of those who were feeling alienated?
Mustansar Siam (MS): What actually happened on the eve of 16th December 1971? What remained some proximate factors that ultimately led to the separation of East Pakistan?
Dr. Ilhan Niaz (IN): Well, I mean as I have mentioned when you contacted me that I am not an expert on this particular issue, there are plenty of people better qualified than me to comment on that particular crisis and its outcomes. I am also not a military historian. So, I only know what happened on December 16, based upon memoirs and other things that have been made public about that period of time. So, what I gather is that what happened was that the Indians were successful in reaching the outskirts of the capital of East Pakistan and that the will of the Pakistani military commander in East Pakistan to continue offering resistance collapsed that led to the surrender of military and civil personnel representing the central government in East Pakistan to the Indians. Of course, technically speaking, if you see the famous Dawn headline next day: it says in effect that the war is going to continue. But, for all practical purposes, that meant that the war on the Eastern front was over. As far as the causes are concerned, I mean there are so many that we can get into, there are so many that we can discuss. I think at one level you can say that Pakistan’s military and political decision making during the crisis itself was extremely faulty. There was a failure to anticipate likely Indian actions. There was also a failure to prepare for a serious military strategy to defend East Pakistan in the event of an Indian attack. This failure partly had its roots in the traditional security doctrine that prevailed at the time about how the defense of the Eastern wing of the country lay in the Western wing of the country, which justified the concentration of military assets in the Western theater. But, as we all know from the 1965 war, those assets concentrated in the Western theater were barely enough to stop an Indian attack across the international border. They were obviously not sufficiently strong to actually create enough of a counter offensive that it would deter the Indians from taking on East Pakistan if they felt that an opportunity had arisen.
MS: After the Separation of East Pakistan, there had been criticism of the Two Nation Theory. Indira Gandhi famously noted that she had drowned the Two-Nation Theory in the Bay of Bengal. Do you think that the separation of East Pakistan was the negation of the very idea of the Two-Nation Theory?
IN: If we go back to the fall of Dhaka taken by Curzon at that time when East Bengal was separated from West Bengal and created as a Muslim majority province, the Hindus of West Bengal were extremely upset by that, and that led to a very serious agitation, and ultimately it led to an undoing of that partition. But then what we see is that in the 1940s, as you have, the rise of Muslim nationalism, when the time came to actually go for independence and the fall of Dhaka, the Hindus of West Bengal were not willing to live in a United Bengal state where the majority of the population would happen to be Muslim. So in a way, that episode itself basically demonstrates that the bond between the Hindu Bengalis and the Muslim Bengalis, even though they shared so much else in common in terms of culture, language and other things, was somehow trumped by the fact that the Hindu Bengalis were not willing to live in a state where the majority would be held by Muslim Bengalis. Now, regarding the overall structure of Pakistan, in terms of how it comes into existence in 47 over there, there is little doubt that when you compare East Pakistan or East Bengal, as it was then called, to the territories that were to become the Western wing of the country, there really wasn’t much other than religious commonality that gave the state of Pakistan a sense of national togetherness or national identification. So in that sense, what we can also say is that between 1947 and 1971, the leaders of Pakistan, which were predominantly, of course, from the Western wing of the country, were unable to actually provide the kind of content, the kind of political programs, the kind of social uplift that would have convinced the people of East Pakistan that they were better off remaining part of a United Muslim state. So I think that when it comes to nationalism or when it comes to any form of ideology, these debates are always highly subjective. In a sense that the same people who were very keen on Pakistan in 1947, if you look at the Muslim League in Bengal, it was in many ways a better developed political party in East Bengal than it was in the Western parts of what would become Pakistan. But after independence, the East Bengalis seemed to have lost the confidence that they would have a fair chance of participating in the politics and in the decision-making of a United Pakistan. But of course, from Indira Gandhi’s perspective, certainly I think that she would have felt validated in the sense of having drowned the Two Nation Theory, as she put it. But on the other hand, if the Two Nation Theory was really incorrect, then certainly Hindu Bengalis may have preferred to have had a United Bengali state rather than separating and being a part of India. So, you can make an argument either way.
MS: There is another predominant and robust argument about the Fall of Dhaka that Pakistan was born with a geographical defect. The distance between East and West Pakistan was 1600KM, and this political edifice eventually would have to be separated. How would you place this argument among several others?
IN: I would basically say that in today’s world, when you have modern means of communication, formal geographical distance is not by itself an indicator that a territory or a group of territories cannot work together as part of a united government. So, for example, if you look at the American Federation, Alaska and Hawaii are located very far from the continental United States, and you could make an argument that that distance means that they should not be a part of the United States. In a similar manner, there are other States, like, let’s say, Indonesia that have a large amount of islands that are separated from each other, where internal communications are in the traditional sense, quite challenging, but they have been able to maintain their coherence as nation states or states post 1945. So I think that certainly geographic distance can pose challenges but geographical distance in itself does not seem to be the determining factor in whether a state or federation can work together for a long period of time.
MS: What lessons can we learn from this unfortunate incident? Because there are still reservations among different factions coming from South Punjab and Baluchistan particularly?
IN: I actually am of the view that Pakistan, that is to say, the Western part of Pakistan; if you think of pre-71, and obviously, then all of Pakistan after 1971 actually has a fair bit going for it in terms of national integration and in terms of the ability, if we want to, to make a case that these territories have enough of a commonality by way of geography, by way of a shared river system, a shared pattern of agricultural economy, by virtue of the fact that there has been a tremendous amount of internal migration over the last 50, 60 years, that has led to a situation where many different communities are now living alongside each other in our major cities, whatever their origins might be. I think that we can actually make a pretty good case that Pakistan is in the process of acquiring the characteristics of a national state. But what I find more interesting is that our elites, they continue to beat the drum of religion as the primary instrument of identifying Pakistanis as a nation. Now, before 1971 that made sense because as I mentioned a bit earlier, there really wasn’t much else other than religion that bound East Pakistan and West Pakistan together. But after 1971, there [are] actually a great deal of other things that bind the people of Pakistan together. And instead of actually trying to cultivate a sense of national identity, rooted in the shared historical experience of the Indus region, rooted in the tremendous amount of demographic change and interaction that has taken place over the last several generations, we still seem to be sort of imagining that it is the year 1946, and we want to bring all of the Muslims together on essentially a communal or a religious platform. So in a way, I fear that Pakistan has sort of become trapped by the original programming of the Pakistan movement [and] that we have not been able to grow beyond our original programming. And notwithstanding the fact that the objective situation now would actually allow for a more balanced or more historical, more geographical sense of Pakistani nationalism to be promoted, we are still stuck in the whole Islam is in danger, and you’re a Muslim first, and it is because you are a Muslim that you are a Pakistani. So there appears to be a disconnect in that our leaders and our elites and our cultural propagandists for the state, they seem to be existing in this sort of a time where we are still under British rule, and we’re we have to bring all the Muslims together, and Islam is the force that can provide that asbiyah (Group feeling).
MS: Has Pakistan learned the lesson from the fall of Dhaka, particularly when there is greater demand by the state to reverse the 18th amendment?
IN: Well, it depends upon what lessons we are talking about. So, for example so one big lesson that Pakistan learned from the secession of East Pakistan is that all this rhetoric about there being a rules-based international order, all this rhetoric about there being an architecture of alliances that will protect smaller states against stronger states, that all of that was, in fact, complete nonsense, that essentially if you are a second tier power operating in the world and you want to retain a certain amount of autonomy in your decision making, then the only way you can do that is by relying upon your own defensive capabilities. So in that context, I think that Pakistani elites did draw a very powerful lesson from the secession of East Pakistan, and they decided to embark upon a very ambitious, for that time, project of making Pakistan a nuclear weapons state. So that is one lesson that they definitely did learn. And, if anyone has been watching what is happening to the Ukraine, I mean, Pakistanis can certainly sympathize with what the Ukrainians are experiencing. It is because we experienced something very similar in that a more powerful neighbor, essentially tried to, and succeeded, in that case, in bringing about a change to UN recognized boundaries through the use of military force. But Pakistanis also fully understand, as the Ukrainian President is now realizing that you’re essentially on your own, no one’s going to come to help you. And I think that realization and the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear power has a lot to do with the secession of East Pakistan. Of course, there are other lessons as well that we should have learned from that. So one lesson, for example, that we should have learned from the crisis in East Pakistan, and what happened during it is that our governments need to treat our people a lot better than they actually do. That if you disrespect people, if you humiliate people, if you cause unnecessary harm to people and those people think that you are doing those things to them because they happen to belong to underprivileged or marginalized communities, then obviously that will breed alienation, it will breed discontent, it will create continuous problems for you in the peripheries. It will also be damaging for your international reputation. So unfortunately, post-1971 Pakistan seems to have become a more communally oriented state. So the kind of oppression that Pakistan visits on religious minorities that’s there for all to see the way in which the Pakistani government treats dissidents. I mean, these days there is a whole thing going on about the whole PECA amendment Act. Of course, PECA was originally passed by the PMLN government and that under the current government, they’re trying to make it even more draconian in order to go after anybody who might disagree or might dissent from the policies or the personalities of the government. So I am again afraid that that lesson we seem to have not learnt from the East Pakistan crisis.
MS: My last question is not directly linked with our debate. It is about your recently published book The State during the British Raj: Imperial Governance in South Asia 1700-1947. You have argued that the Pakistani and Indian elite remained unsuccessful in modernizing institutional frameworks. Can you please explain how and in what ways the failure of the institutional framework resulted in the crisis of governance in South Asia?
IN: All right. I think if, let’s say look at just Pakistan, our own experience, the British Indian civil service structure, just to take one example, was not organized, nor was it intended to bring about rapid economic development or industrialization or any of the things that the government of Pakistan wanted to bring about after 1947. What happens in Pakistan is that rather than reforming our civil service structure in order to keep those aspects of the imperial legacy that are useful, i.e., having a merit based service and modifying those things that are not useful or that are harmful, such as the over emphasis on having generalists (non specialists) in all key decision making positions. What we do is that we blindly adhere to the myth of the general administrator as the proper person to be heading highly specialized departments. Now in 1959, Ayub Khan created the Pay and Services Commission. It was chaired by Justice Cornelius. Cornelius himself, of course, was a former ICS officer, and he then went into the judiciary and he’s, of course, very famous as a judge because of his refusal to agree with the doctrine of necessity. But in his capacity as the chairman of the Pay and Services Commission, he essentially made the case that if Pakistan would like to modernize, it needs a civil service structure that is knowledge based, subject based, and highly specialized. So what he proposed was that every subject, every government Department should essentially operate in a self-contained hierarchy with integration between its Secretariat and its field posts. What he was arguing for was that what we should do is that if you want to, let’s say, have health or you want to have education or you want to build infrastructure, you essentially need specialized services for these things. And in those specialized services, you need to recruit people with specialized knowledge and then promote them and train them accordingly. Now, what this would mean is in practice that let’s say the health Secretary would be essentially a medical doctor with advanced degrees in medical management. The education Secretary would be an educationist with relevant qualifications and experience in managing education. The people in charge of your various infrastructure development organizations would then be engineers that had management training and experience and so on and so forth. Now this effectively cuts at the heart of the monopoly or the near monopoly, the civil service of Pakistan, now known as the Pakistan Administrative Service enjoys. So when Cornelius was making these recommendations, 90% of Ayub Khan’s federal secretaries were [ex-ICS/CSPs], and they, of course, ganged up on this proposal and they convinced Ayub not to implement it. Then, when Bhutto comes to power and there is another wave of civil service reforms, again, nobody paid any attention to what Justice Cornelius had said. Instead, what Bhutto wants is to have a civil service structure that does not have any statutory safeguards. That is essentially a prime ministerial civil service that answers directly to the top boss and where people can be promoted and even recruited – reference the lateral entry scheme – on the basis of political loyalty. So he wants a politically committed civil service structure and that of course means that the professionalism of people and their security from political interference, all of that is not necessary. So what we effectively do is that first under Ayub Khan we miss a huge opportunity for setting our bureaucratic institutions on the path of becoming modern bureaucratic institutions based upon specialized knowledge and then, under Bhutto, what we do is that rather than trying to improve things the government of the day consciously breaks the back of the civil service structure in order to render it the instrument in the hands of whoever happens to be politically powerful at any given point in time. So rather than moving forward, we first fail to move forward and then we essentially convert our bureaucracy into a kind of neo-medieval bureaucracy where personal loyalty and sort of arbitrary internal management prevail. So we end up with, in a way, the worst possible bureaucratic structure any state that would want to modernize can end up with. You have a bureaucratic structure where not only are people not posted or transferred on the basis of merit, they are not recruited on the basis of their specialized knowledge. It is essentially an accident of the examination result that lands you in one service or the other and there is no attempt to actually manage these services in a professional or a sound manner. So, you don’t even acquire the skills you need as you progress in the service even if the initial recruitment is not necessarily based on subject knowledge. So that is what we end up with now. This kind of state machinery obviously cannot develop the country. It can’t even develop itself. So how is it going to develop the rest of the country?