The Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 and the two state theory of partition

The 50th anniversary of the formation of the state of Bangladesh on 16 December is an opportune moment to reflect on two state theory of Partition in the Indian subcontinent in 1947, argues Murad Qureshi

Bangladesh and its diaspora around the world have so far in 2021 not been able to celebrate the formation of the independent state of Bangladesh – land of the Bengalis – fifty years ago in very extremely difficult circumstances from Pakistan because of the COVID19 pandemic. So they are sure to make the most of the 16th of December official celebrations.

Almost immediately from the incorporation of East Bengal into Pakistan in 1947 on the basis of the majority religion, a 24 year struggle for the liberation of Bangladesh began. Urdu was imposed as the state language of Pakistan while the vast majority in East Bengal spoke Bangla. Thus liberation began with the struggle for the mother tongue of Bangla and this would dominate matters throughout the fifties and sixties. The language movement came to the forefront of an independence movement in a way many of its participants at Dhaka University had not themselves initially appreciated, including the students who were martyred* in the language movement protests in 1952.

This is now celebrated asLanguages Martyrs’ Day (Shôhid Dibôs), a national holiday of Bangladesh that takes place on 21 February each year, commemorating the Bangla language Movement and its martyrs. On this day, people visit Shaheed Minar to pay homage to the movement’s martyrs, and arrange seminars discussing and promoting Bangla as the state language of Bangladesh. It has also been adopted by UNESCO since 1999 as International Mother Language Day, initiated by Bangladesh. As a worldwide annual observance to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and to promote multilingualism.

Another issue of equal contention in the 1950s and 1960s was the regional inequality and underdevelopment of East Bengal, which was an integral part of the very structure of the Pakistani military dictatorship. In response, due to these regional economic imbalances, sectional divisions grew, and support for the Bengali ethnic nationalist Awami League also grew, which invoked the 6-point movement for greater provincial autonomy politically. One of their demands was that East Pakistan be called Bangladesh.

The first General Election was scheduled in Pakistan in November 1970, but it soon had to be moved to December as a result of the Bhola cyclone on the Eastern wing. The cyclone was a devastating tropical cyclone that struck both East Pakistan and India’s West Bengal on November 11, 1970. It remains the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded and one of the world’s deadliest natural disasters costing half a million lives. The lack of response by the Pakistani authorities soon became another source of tension between the authorities and the Bengali people. 

When the election did eventually happen the results were not questioned as it was considered to have been a free and fair election run by the authorities but the implications of the results were quite clear: Pakistan had elected a Bengali as its Prime Minister, Sheikh Mujib Rahman, the leader of the Awami League after the party had won almost all the seats in East Pakistan where the majority of Pakistani lived.

So for some the history of Bangladesh’s struggle for liberation represents an example of “progressive” nationalism. As it is one the clearest and most courageous examples in modern history of a democratic movement pursuing every non-violent option, including winning a national election, in order to overcome the trap of underdevelopment and regional inequality that were part and parcel of the Pakistani military dictatorship. Furthermore the dictatorship would not yield to the results of a democratic vote. So on the 25th of March 1971 the Pakistan Army opted for mass murder under Operation Searchlight and from that moment onwards the Bangladesh War of Liberation began. It pursued the systematic elimination of nationalist Bengali civilians, students, intelligentsia, religious minorities and armed personnel. This included two of my uncles and it forced my family back to the UK, when we were otherwise settling down well back in East Pakistan in 1970.  Whilst doing this, the junta also annulled the results of the 1970 elections and arrested Prime minister-designate Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Hundreds of thousands were killed during a nine month Liberation War. The war ended on 16 December 1971 after the intervention of the Indian Army lead to the military forces of West Pakistan surrendering in Bangladesh. It is now celebrated as Victory Day in Bangladesh ( Bijôy Dibôsh). It is also commemorated across India as Vijay Diwas to honor Bangladeshi and Indian martyrs who laid down their lives in the war, marking the end of the 9 month-long Bangladesh Liberation War, the 1971 Bangladesh genocide and official secession of East Pakistan into Bangladesh.

Only four years after liberation, the coup of 1975 against Sheikh Mujib Rahman and his family, interrupted the journey to the land of the Bengalis. During the tenure of the back-to-back regimes of General Zia and General Ershad that emerged after the murder of Sheikh Mujib, notorious collaborators of the Pakistan Army found themselves under the protection of Bangladesh’s new military dictators, with several ending up in high government positions. It was certainly a curious turn of fate but also not an accidental one, with a great deal of planning and killing involved in order to create such a state of affairs.

The country started a transition to parliamentary democracy again from 1991 onwards, albeit with some remaining concerns about the culture of the democracy. It has shown it canmanage the response to natural and climate change disasters without too many fatalities, in contrast to 1970, and has per capita income levels higher than India, thus helping to move Bangladesh from being considered a least developing country’ to a developing one now. Its major security concern is climate change and it has shown much leadership in this arena as chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum at COP26 in Glasgow recently. In recent times Bangladeshhas accommodated a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar next door. It should also not forget the place of minorities like the Hindus, if it still to be the homeland of the Bengalis.

So in short, the formation of the state of Bangladesh clearly disproved the two state theory of partition of the Indian subcontinent on the basis of religion, the dominant ideology of imperialists like Mountbatten and backers of the creation of Pakistan state like the Muslim League elite. Linguistic, ethnic and regional divisions were shown to be far more important to a people than any religious affiliation. The theory had clearly disregarded that “India is not a nation, nor a country. It is a subcontinent of nationalities” as once stated by the founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The irony of which will not be lost on many who know the history of the Indian subcontinent.  

Murad Qureshi is a member of Liberation’s Central Council and a former member of the London Assembly

Image: Memorial to Victims of 1971 Liberation War – Dhaka – Bangladesh / Creative Commons

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