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TOPIC: General Studies 2
- India and its neighbourhood
March 26 marks 50 years since the start of Bangladesh’s liberation war, a bloody nine-month campaign that culminated in the nation’s independence on December 16, 1971. It was a violent birth, with some of its roots in the 1947 partition of India – when Pakistan was created as a separate nation.
As the British Empire left the subcontinent, an estimated 200,000 to 1.5 million people were killed in sectarian violence associated with the partition and 10 million to 15 million were forcibly displaced.
Newly independent Pakistan comprised two separate geographical areas separated by over a thousand miles of Indian terrain. While both regions included significant Muslim populations, West Pakistan was made up largely of Punjabi, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Baloch and other smaller ethnic groups. In contrast, the population of East Pakistan, which became modern-day Bangladesh, was predominantly ethnically Bengali, as the territory was formerly part of the Indian region of Bengal.
Each of these factors – particularly the differences in language and political and economic inequities – laid the groundwork for Bangladesh’s independence struggle.
Challenges faced by East Pakistan
Just eight months into Pakistan’s existence, Jinnah had arrived in Dhaka and addressed two rallies. He declared Urdu the state language of West and East Pakistan. He forgot that the people of East Pakistan did not speak Urdu — they spoke Bangla. The seeds of the Bangla Language Movement — as well as the Bangladesh Liberation War — could be traced to Jinnah’s proclamation.
The Urdu-only policy aimed to create a single identity out of two culturally distinct regions united by a common religion – Islam. More broadly, it aimed to consolidate the national identity of the recently independent Pakistan. In East Pakistan, the declaration was followed by the banning of Bengali books, songs and poetry by Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Bangla language as the medium of education and primary mode of instruction was also banned. All currency and official documents, including postal stamps and railway tickets, were printed in Urdu.
A major reason for this was significant economic disparities between the two regions. West Pakistan controlled the country’s industry and commerce while East Pakistan was predominantly the supplier for raw materials, setting up a situation of unequal exchange.
West Pakistan deprived and coerced East Pakistan in more areas than one. Jute — and other crops — cultivated in East Pakistan had their prices determined in West Pakistan; a mere half of the profits trickled back to East Pakistan. Apples, grapes or woollen garments produced in West Pakistan were sold at 10 times the price in East Pakistan. Discrimination was such that the slightest of dissent branded one an enemy of Pakistan or of Islam. Persecution, arrests, incarcerations were the order of the day.
In 1959-60 the per capita income in West Pakistan was 32% higher than in East Pakistan. By 1969-70, it was 81% higher in West Pakistan. Investment policies including in educational infrastructure consistently favoured West Pakistan.
East Pakistanis had little access to the Central government, which was located in the West Pakistani city of Islamabad. They were severely underrepresented in politics. West Pakistani political leadership did not see Bengalis as “real” Muslims. Both in political circles and socially, Bengali cultural practices were considered of a lower social status.
The efforts to “Islamise” East Pakistanis through Urdu and “purify” Bengali culture from “Hindu influences” resulted in massive nonviolent demonstrations and strikes.
The seeds of Liberation
Bhasha Andolon: On February 21, 1952, students and other activists launched a language movement called the “Bhasha Andolon,” which demanded Bangla be recognized as the state language for East Pakistan. Thousands of school and college students protested, defying Section 144 of the Criminal Procedural Code, which prohibited assembly of five or more people and holding of public meetings. The crackdown that followed claimed several lives. From 1950 to 1969 it also galvanised a growing movement for autonomy across East Pakistan.
1969 uprising: A mass uprising in 1969 was brutally put down by police and led to the imposition of martial law.
Cyclone Bhola: In 1970, a devastating cyclone called “Bhola” in East Pakistan claimed 300,000 to 500,000 lives. The indifferent response of the West Pakistan government further inflamed tensions.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won national election: A big turning point came the same year when the sole majority political party in East Pakistan, led by Bengali politician Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won a landslide victory in national elections. The Pakistani leadership was reluctant to accept the results because it did not want an East Pakistani political party heading the federal government. This resulted in the start of a civil disobedience movement in East Pakistan.
Launch of Operation Searchlight: As the demand for Bengali autonomy grew, the Pakistani government launched Operation Searchlight, a military operation to crush the emerging movement. According to journalist Robert Payne, it killed at least 7,000 Bengali civilians – both Hindus and Muslims – in a single night.
On March 26, Bangladesh was declared independent and the liberation war began.
The Birth of Bangladesh
At midnight on March 25, Pakistan unleashed genocide in Bangladesh. Refugees streamed into India. On December 3, India officially entered the war on the side of Bangladesh.
- As Pakistan’s atrocities increased, then PM Indira Gandhi decided to take action and ordered the Indian Army to launch an offensive against Pakistan followed by a full scale war against its neighbor.
- Indian Army captured around 15000 km of Pak territory with the war lasting around 13 days and ending with the fall of Dhaka and the public surrender of Pak military.
On December 16, 1971, the Pakistani military surrendered to the Indian Army, marking it as Bangladesh’s Victory Day.
As the genocide began on the night of March 25-26 is commemorated as the day of liberation.
- The Pakistani military and its local collaborators specifically targeted Hindus, who in the 1961 census represented 18% of East Pakistan’s population of 50 million.
- An estimated 10 million Bengalis became refugees in India. A further 20 million were internally displaced. An estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Bengali women were systematically raped.
- Independent research estimates 500,000 to 1 million people were killed in the genocidal campaign. The Bangladesh government maintains that 3 million Bengalis were killed in the war.