Creation of Bangladesh and impact of the Cold War
Many factors led to the creation of Bangladesh, including Civil War, Indian Intervention, and the Cold War. Before Bangladesh was even a part of Pakistan though, it was a part of British India. The partition of British India into India and Pakistan created much chaos and confusion. The impact of the confusion and chaos could not be larger than it was in East Pakistan. East Bengal, as it was first called, was subject to West Pakistani rule and in 1952 became known as just East Pakistan. Those on the East side of this border were never happy with the set up and being ruled by those in the West. For a variety of reasons the Soviet Union had a bigger effect on the creation of Bangladesh than the U.S. The Civil War and Indian intervention though were also huge factors that led to the creation of Bangladesh. This paper goes into the background covering the differences leading up to the breakup of Pakistan, the civil war that broke out when West Pakistani troops tried to subdue the East, the regional war that broke out when India intervened, and the Cold War context that it was a part of at the time.
Since the partition of British India, it was almost impossible to see how Bangladesh would remain a part of Pakistan much longer. They were separated by geography, language, culture, and later on economic and political differences between the two sides of Pakistan. The only thing that made them a common state in the first place was their shared Muslim religion. The first thing to consider when looking at the differences between West Pakistan and East Pakistan was their physical size and population size. West Pakistan was bigger geographically, but East Pakistan had a population of about 20 million more people. West Pakistan’s 55 million people over-ruled the 75 million people of East Pakistan (Shanab 500). Separated geographically by the giant subcontinent of India, there was bound to be discontent. The Pakistan’s government’s actions in East Pakistan were ironic since it had just separated from the rule of British, with India, but now was acting similar to a colonizer themselves to those in East Bengal.
One of the ways West Pakistan was imposing its rule on East Bengal was through language. Most of those in East Pakistan spoke Bengali, but the government in West Pakistan wanted the national language to be Urdu (Oldenburg). Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, visited East Bengal in 1948 and proclaimed Urdu to be the national language (Wolpert, 38). This angered many of those in East Bengal. Out of respect for the founder of the nation and realizing that Jinnah was growing old, Bengalis did not completely break out in chaos when Jinnah was there. Jinnah did not just say that Urdu should be the only language; he even went as far to say that those who disagree were enemies of Pakistan (Oldenburg). While this did not have dramatic affects in short term, it proved to be a big mistake in the long run. It led to a build up tensions over the language issue, which eventually boiled over. In 1952 the tensions erupted when students began to protest the issue at the University of Dhaka (Zaheer 125). Students were protesting the language and the law passed by Pakistan limited people gathering to only 3 people. When some of the students were killed, chaos erupted in Dhaka for several days. The differences in geography and population made the situation almost impossible from the beginning. This coupled with the language difference between the two sides, made the break-up of Pakistan inevitable in the long term. However it was not just through language and cultural differences that the Bengali’s felt discriminated against, they also felt so through economic and political means as well.
West Pakistan kept their rule over East Pakistan tight by not allowing them to come to power in the national government and by not spending as much money on them. Even though the population was larger in East Pakistan, the capital was located in the West, in Karachi (“Pakistan Provinces”). All of the national leaders of Pakistan came from the West. It was hard for Bengali’s to rise through the ranks in the national government (Zaheer 16). Bengali’s were not represented significantly in the parliament or any other branch of the government. When Bengali’s did come to power politically they were always dismissed soon after by the central government. As a result of the Bengali’s being kept out of power politically, it became easy to see how they were discriminated against economically. With a larger population in East Pakistan than in West Pakistan, it would seem to be the responsibility of the government to spend more on East Pakistan. However this was never the case since Pakistan became its own country in 1947. Between 1950 and 1955, the government of Pakistan spent 68% on West Pakistan and 32% on East Pakistan (“Pakistan Period - Disparity and Six point demands Years Spending on West”), a more than 2 to 1 difference even though East Pakistan had more people. It did not get better after that either, from 1955-1960 the percentage of the federal government’s money that was spent on West Pakistan was 76% compared to only 24% on East Pakistan, a more than 3 to 1 difference. Overall, between 1950 and 1970 the national government spent about 71% on West Pakistan and 29% on East Pakistan (“Pakistan Period - Disparity and Six point demands Years Spending on West”). This led to a poorer economic quality of life for those in East Pakistan. The systematic economic discrimination became another reason why Bengalis felt like they should not be a part of the Pakistan at all and would advocate for more autonomy and eventually independence. The cultural, economic, and political discrimination lead to those in the East creating their own political parties and movements that would began to demand more autonomy and eventual independence.
The reaction of East Pakistan to the cultural, economic, and political barriers they faced was to try to gain power through political parties. They first tried to unite their political parties. The Bengalis started to form the United Front with all the political parties that advocated for more autonomy, the largest one being the Awami league. In 1954, national elections were held for the legislative branch, and the United Front had won 223 out of 237 seats (“History of Bangladesh 1952-1971”). The Awami league being the largest of these parties, won 143 of the total seats. However, the United Front would not have the opportunity to be effective in the legislative branch and advocate for the change they had wanted because they were later dismissed by the central government. This did bring an end to the United Front, but did not lead to the end of the Awami league. In 1956 the Awami league joined with the Republican Party to get a national assembly in the central government (“History of Bangladesh 1952-1971”). These moves show the Awami League’s versatility and ability to adapt to the changing circumstances. The leader of the Republican Party, Iskander Mirza, became President of Pakistan. The leader of the Awami league, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, became Prime Minister of Pakistan. This attempt by the Awami league did not last long either though. In 1957 President Mirza began demanding Suhrawardy’s resignation and by October he did resign (“History of Bangladesh 1952-1971”). Pakistan would face a long period of military rule after that. At this point in Pakistan’s history the military began to take charge in Pakistan. With the military in charge and the lack of autonomy for Bangladesh Awami league leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, put forward his 6 point plan in 1966 that called for full autonomy of Bangladesh with a parliamentary democratic system (“History of Bangladesh, 1952-1971”). This led to Rahman’s arrest in May of that year. This move by the Pakistani government showed they were intolerable of dissent and did not want to deal with any talks of separation or secession. In 1970 the major cyclone known as the Bhola cyclone devastated much of East Pakistan. The cyclone killed over 300,000 people and was the deadliest natural disaster in history (Dolce). Fed up by West Pakistan’s military rule, and their inability to respond effectively to the Bhola cyclone, in the elections of 1970 the Awami league won 167 out of 169 seats in the East Pakistan National Assembly. This gave it a majority of seats without needing a coalition partner (“Elections of 1970”). The Awami league’s rise to power though would be unacceptable to those in West Pakistan, proving to the Bengali’s that after all their attempts they would not be able to come to power peacefully. All of these factors made Civil War all but inevitable.
One of the factors that led to the creation of Bangladesh was Civil War. After the elections of 1970 the government in West Pakistan realized that if it wanted to stop the growing power of the Bengalis they were going to have to do so through force. Between March 10 and March 13 Pakistani international airlines cancelled all their international routes to urgently fly “governmental passengers” (“History of Bangladesh, 1952-1971”). These “governmental passengers were soldiers dressed as civilians. On March 25, 1971, the Pakistan army launched Operation Searchlight to get the Bengalis to submit to West Pakistan’s demands. In response Bengali leaders formed the Mukti Bahini, their guerilla and armed forces to fight Pakistani soldiers, and declared their independence from West Pakistan (Jamal). Mukti Bahini would go on to fight much more valiantly and effectively than the Pakistan army would have imagined. Many East Pakistani unites refused to fire on the Bengalis leading to a mutiny and many of them joined the Mukti Bahini (Zaheer 166). This proved that much of East Pakistan did not want to remain part of East Pakistan and would rather fight to separate than fight to remain a part of Pakistan. To stop coverage of the events, the Pakistani army locked up foreign journalists. The journalists were put in the Hotel Inter-Continental, and when they tried to see things for themselves they were told by the commanding officer “If I can kill my own people I can kill you” (Zaheer 168). This showed that the Pakistanis knew they were committing crimes and needed to cover up their actions in order to stop international opinion from being against them too heavily. With war having broken out, the Bengalis formed a provisional government with Sheikh Rahman as acting president on April 17 (“Nation Observes Mujibnagar Day Tomorrow”). Rahman was acting President, as opposed to actual President, because he was arrested at the start of the war by Pakistani forces. Due to the fighting breaking out and many Bengalis facing persecution, an estimated ten million people fled into India and became refugees (Grbac). The Pakistani government did not expect the Bengalis to put up much of a fight, and were in for a huge surprise.