Towards 1971 II: The Making of a Tragedy

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[Part 2 of 6]

Painted on a wall inside my old school.

 Translation: The Ideology of Pakistan: Every nation has a specific civilization and culture. The civilizational and cultural capital of the Muslims of the Subcontinent comes from Islam. This capital, their beliefs and religious rituals, mannerisms, religious and historical literature, literary and technological research, is preserved in their literature and philosophy. On this basis, the Muslims of the Indo-Pak Subcontinent understand themselves to be a separate nation. This was also the reason why two societies, that is, the Hindu society and the Muslim society, came into being in the Subcontinent. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Allama Muhammad Iqbal stressed that Muslims are not a a faction but a separate nation. When with the beautiful efforts of these elders, Muslims came to believe firmly that Congress, established by an Englishman Allen Hume, is an anti-Muslim Hindu organization, they put forth a demand for a separate homeland for themselves. Foundational Principles of the Ideology of Pakistan: 1. The Muslims of the Subcontinent constitute one nation. 2. The Muslims will live freely in accordance with the eternal principles of Islam. 3. The Muslims of the Subcontinent need a free country to retain/maintain their separate/distinct national existence, so that they can make religious, societal, political, cultural, and economic progress. Truth is weary of bodies without soul / The living God is the God of the living.

Bengal played a crucial role in the Pakistan movement, but within a little over two decades after the creation of Pakistan, a political movement with broad popular support in East Bengal turned secessionist and sounded the death knell for the State of Pakistan as it had existed. This parting of ways of the erstwhile East and West Pakistan, as Philip Oldenburg has persuasively argued, “cannot be called inevitable unless one considers forces centered in West Pakistan which pushed the country apart.” Different conceptions and models of the state animated ideas of Pakistan in the two so-called wings of Pakistan. The West Pakistani model of the state, in Philip Oldenburg’s words, “saw the state of Pakistan as inseparable from the Muslim nation of the Indian subcontinent, a nation locked in combat with the Hindus,” and Urdu formed a central plank of this narrative. To the East Pakistanis/Bengalis, the creation of Pakistan meant the escape of the majority from the economic, intellectual/educational, and political domination of Hindus. The fact that Muhajir and Punjabi-dominated West Pakistan imposed its own vision of the state of Pakistan on East Pakistan to the detriment of all other visions is central to the making of the second partition.1

East Pakistan/East Bengal had more than half of the population of Pakistan, was demographically its largest province, and had a vibrant history of activism and political awareness. The Muslim League and the West Pakistani elites construed Bengal as a threat, since in a democracy, Bengal would have dominated Pakistani politics. “The Muslim League thus tried its best to contain East Bengal and deny its rightful representation in the nation-state both at a symbolic level (in the ‘imagined community’ of the nation) and at the level of the state (that is, political representation, recruitment into the bureaucracy and the military, and access to economic resources),” writes Saadia Toor, in her book, The State of Islam: Culture and Cold War Politics in Pakistan.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Jinnah had re-organized the Muslim League into a centralized political party, and the centralizing drive of Jinnah’s leadership continued and cemented his control over both the party and state after independence with, among other things, his retention of the colonial office of Governor General, and abandonment of the idea of a federal state with a weak center and strong provinces. The vertically integrated and centralized state structure—one that did not include many Bengalis at higher echelons– involved unification of the civil services under its aegis and a highly powerful civil and military bureaucracy that acted as the shadow government of Pakistan at the expense of elected officials. Through this vertical integration of the State and the non-representation of Bengalis in the center, what was set in motion was a clash between a Bengali middle class seeking equal representation and, in Toor’s words, “an increasingly fascist ruling party at the center dominated by not just the (predominantly Punjabi and Muhajir) West Pakistani ruling elite but also the Bengali Ashraf.”

The earlier Hindu-Urdu language controversy informed the stubbornness with which Bengali linguistic demands were met. The Hindi-Urdu controversy, Toor writes, “had resulted in the breaking up of the shared and syncretic literary tradition represented by a single language (Urdu/Hindustani) into (Muslim) Urdu and (Hindu) Hindi under pressure from Hindu nationalist forces.” Thus Urdu had become a cornerstone of the ethnic nationalism of the North Indian Muslims whose “ideology of Muslim nationalism […] underpinned the demand for Pakistan.” Urdu’s stature in the Muslim nationalist narrative had become even more heightened due to the fact that many of the landmark monuments of the Indo-Islamic history, on the basis of which the separate nation-hood of Indian Muslims was asserted, were now in the state of India. The declining status of Urdu in the Post-Independence India further exacerbated the sense of siege that proponents of Urdu felt, and Hindi being declared the national language of India prompted Urdu’s proponents in Pakistan to harden their stance for Urdu as Pakistan’s national language. Last but not the least, the Bangla-Urdu language controversy heightened anxieties of Muslim nationalists of the geographically non-contiguous “wings” of Pakistan that perhaps there was also a cultural non-contiguity.

With Bangla not appearing on coins, stamps, and official forms, the status of Bangla language became a contentious issue almost immediately after the creation of the state of Pakistan. The demand that Bangla be the national language was buttressed by the fact that a majority of Pakistanis spoke Bangla, albeit mostly in East Pakistan, while Urdu was the first language of just 5 percent of Pakistanis, whatever the claims of the latter being a lingua franca of Indian Muslims and central to their cultural identity. However, in November 1947 Urdu was proposed as the medium of instruction and recommended as the national language in the National Education Conference. Even when Urdu’s use as the medium of education was left to the discretion of provincial governments, thanks to the strong opposition of the Bengali participants, the federal Minister of Education continued to make statements that Urdu should be the national language of Pakistan. On December 5th 1947, a street demonstration protested the conference. The State responded by invoking the very colonial-era law prohibiting public assembly that Bengalis had fought against on the road to decolonization. The resulting clash between the protesters and the Police only fueled Bengali resentment towards the Muslim League government.

The East Bengal Language Committee (EBLC) was set up in 1949 to pursue the possibility of writing Bangla in the Arabic script to make it more of an “Islamic language.” This would purge it of its Hindi influence and help it to shed its Sanskrit past, thus bringing it “into harmony and accord with the genius and culture of the people of East Bangal in particular and Pakistan in general.” (EBLC, 1949:2) The committee, despite its retrograde assertions of Bangla being a non-Muslim language, did not agree to the proposed change to Urdu script. But this was too little, too late, and did not allay the popular Bengali fear that the state will impose Urdu on them. In the aftermath of the massacre of tens of protestors on February 21, 1952, remembered as Ekushey, the government did declare Bangla as the second national language, but the West Pakistani elite’s anxieties over Bengal’s demographic majority remained and would lead to the declaration of emergency rule and the unification of West Pakistan into one administrative unit by executive order.

The Bangla script and vocabulary was seen to be too close to Sanskrit and therefore Hinduism. This was consistent with the West Pakistani view that Bengalis were ‘Hindu-like’ and under the influence of Hindus. This identification of Bengalis and Bengali culture with Hindus, Hinduism, and thus with India, became the reigning paradigm with which all things Bengali would be considered. As Toor shows, two tropes were deployed to conceptualize and represent East Pakistan: East Bangal as a problem province rife with Hindus and Communist subversives working to destroy Muslim Pakistan; and Bengali culture, language, and people as ‘Hindu-like’ and under heavy influence of Hinduism, and therefore, not Pakistani enough. As Raj Kumar Chakravarti, a Hindu Congressman from East Bangal noted in a 1952 Constituent Assembly Debate, “whenever there is trouble in Pakistan, it is attributed by the people to ‘the enemies of the State’ and, by insinuations, the Hindus are regarded as these enemies.” The paranoia about Indians “dressed differently” crossing into East Bengal to sow discord had manifested into scapegoating. As Toor puts it, “This chain of significance (dressed ‘differently’ = Hindu = Indian) also relied on and reinforced the idea that to be a Hindu was not to be Pakistani.” Toor quotes Shri Dhirendra Natth Dutta, an opposition member of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, whose complaint to the Speaker of the House captures the deleterious impact of the aforesaid state discourses: “If we put on Loongi, poor Muslim clothes in Eastern Bengal, it is said we disguise ourselves. If we put on Dhoti then it is said that we have come from West Bengal. There is such a sense of mistrust and this has been engineered under the Government of Pakistan.”

Jinnah himself was, of course, one of the sources and proponent of this paradigm, as is evident from his March 1948 address in Dhaka on his first official tour to the province in the wake of the initial agitations of the Bengali Language Movement, wherein he terms the proponents of Bangla language to be “enemies of Pakistan” and thus seditious: “Let me make it clear to you that the State language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Anyone who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan.”2

Three days later Jinnah would go on to affirm Urdu as the language that “embodies the best that is in Islamic culture and Muslim tradition and is nearest to the language used in other Islamic countries.” He also located the demand for Bengali language rights in the infamous “foreign hand.” In Jinnah’s words, “Our enemies, among whom I regret to say, there are still Muslims, have set about actively encouraging provincialism in the hope of weakening Pakistan, and thereby facilitating the re-absorption of this province into the Indian Dominion.” […] “[T]he recent language controversy … is only one of the many subtle ways whereby the position of provincialism is being sedulously injected into this province.” In short, the Bengali demands were not genuine but were the nefarious handy work of “our enemies” whose ranks were peopled mostly by Hindus. The Bangla Language Movement, in this view, was a Hindu/Indian conspiracy.

The colonial/Orientalist historiography at the heart of the two nation theory that posited Muslims and Hindus of India as not only historically separate and distinct, but also fundamentally different, is manifest in Jinnah’s conflations: Bengal’s Hindus (“Our enemies, among whom I regret to say, there are still Muslims”) with Indians (“position of provincialism is being sedulously injected into this province”), Urdu language with Islamic culture, any attempts to dislodge Urdu’s dominance as sedition to the nation at the behest of the Hindu enemy across the border. These conflations will burst forth in all their murderous glory in 1971 with the genocidal attack on Hindus and ‘Hindu-like’ Bengalis.


Previously: I



  1. Philip Oldenburg, “A Place Insufficiently Imagined”: Language, Belief, and the Pakistan Crisis of 1971,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Aug., 1985), pp. 711-733. []
  2. Quoted in Oldenburg, 1985. []

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