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The Shape of Pakistan: Notes on South Asia in Crisis

by Eqbal Ahmad, 17 December 2013

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Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Winter 1972

The Shape of Pakistan

Notes on South Asia in Crisis

[This unfinished manuscript was mailed one hour before Eqbal Ahmad went to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for his trial.]

To the Editors:

I am unable to fulfill my promise to write a researched and thought-out essay on the continuing South Asian crisis. Pressure of events has been preventing me from sustained academic work. However, I am deeply touched by your gesture of sympathy and solidarity, and wish to somehow be included among friends who have contributed to this issue of the Bulletin. I can imagine no tribute more appropriate than this to the memory of a committed Asian scholar, my only surviving brother, a comrade in hard times, and the best of friends.

Here are a few reminiscences on the doubts and decisions we faced following March 25, 1971, when the Pakistani generals began their criminal suppression of the electoral verdict of the majority, to save the integrity of the nation. In the first few weeks of the conflict while Saghir was still with us, we had agreed on the fundamentals and thrashed out our minor differences - on the phone, at meetings in Seattle and subsequently, toward the end of June, in New York City where we met, for the last time with Feroz and Aijaz Ahmed to discuss how we as Pakistani radicals should relate to the crises in our country. These reminiscences are followed by my reaction to the Indian military intervention, and a few reflections on the challenge of the future in Pakistan.

I hope this would convey at least a sense of the complexities which characterized the conflict in the sub-continent and of the political paradoxes and moral dilemmas it posed for us all. In recent weeks I have felt, with increasing intensity, renewed contempt for the academic experts, liberal politicians, and professional peace-mongers who propagandized the cause of Bangladesh and of India with easy slogans, misleading information, and incorrect analysis. I am yet unable to fully comprehend why the crisis in Bengal aroused so much partisan passion among the humanitarians who are not known to have been particularly moved by the massacre of Indonesians, the plight of Palestinian refugees, or the genocide of the Vietnamese and Laotians. As persons who took extra risks to oppose the criminal conduct of Pakistan’s military regime, I do not want that Saghir and I be bracketed with those supporters of Bangladesh.


On April 10, 1971, the New York Times published a statement signed by us [Saghir and Eqbal Ahmad, ed.] jointly with Aijaz and Feroz Ahmed. The army had intervened to offset the results of Pakistan’s first freely held national elections, transforming the demand for autonomy into a movement towards independence. Judging that a problem which owed its existence to the militarization of our society could not be solved by military means, we condemned the Pakistani military regime, affirmed the Bengalis’ right of self-determination, and committed ourselves to actively working for the creation of a situation wherein the people of East Bengal might indeed be able to exercise this fundamental right. In a subsequent article I explained the reasons for taking this position. (New York Review of Books, Volume XVII. Number 3.) Here I should speak mainly of the doubts we have had.

Arriving at this position was not easy for us. We did not have natural sympathies with the Bangladesh movement. We distrusted the Awami League’s bourgeois bias, elitist traditions, and pro-Western outlook. From the beginning, Muslim nationalism in Bengal had two distinct populist and elitist traditions. The two had confronted each other occasionally, and often coexisted in a relationship of antagonistic collaboration. The former, represented in the 1930’s by men like A.K. Fazhid Haq, in the 50’s and 60’s by Abdul Hamid Bhashani, had always played the primary role in mobilizing the masses by supplying social and economic content to political programs. The elitist wing, led by men like Suhrawardy (mentor of Sheikh Mujib), had always succeeded in ultimately appropriating, through powerful external support like that of the British in the 1900’s and of the Muslim League national leadership in the 1940’s, the popular cause for advancing vested interests. As the successor and direct descendant of the elitist tradition, the Awami League elicited our ideological opposition.

Its middle class composition, history, and external connections only augmented our suspicions. A reminder is needed that the origins of the party lie in its leaders’ support for Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S. Before 1957, the old Awami League included the elements of what is now the National Awami Party, and Bhashani was its president. In 1956, at the Kagmari Conference, there was a party split over the issue of alliance with the U.S. The pro-U.S. faction led by Suhrawardy and Sheikh Mujib took control of the Awami League; opponents of the military alliance left and later formed the National Awami Party.

At least since then, the party and its leaders have maintained intimate links with vested interests and institutions, in the U.S. no less than in West Pakistan. Unconfirmed reports existed that since 1961 when India, particularly the eastern regions of it, became a special area for anti-Chinese intelligence and subversive activities, the League developed connections with friendly elements there also. The connecting links were frequently the operatives of multi-national, interlocked, corporations such as Pan Am and Chase Manhattan, as well as the: C.I.A. For example, well known to us was Yusuf Haroon, a Pakistani multi-national millionaire from New York who has now admitted to keeping Sheikh Mujib on his payroll for 15 years (including during his prison terms) and to providing the Awami League, with the consent of General Yahya Khan, $300,000 in 1970 for the fateful election campaign. (New York Times, January 4, 1972).

We were less impressed by the Awami League’s electoral victory than the formal result suggested. It occurred in a virtually uncontested election since Bhashani’s N.A.P. boycotted it. However, by giving the league a simple majority in the national assembly the election brought it a new esprit of power, and disturbed the army’s calculation of cooling off Sheihk Mujib with a conservative West Pakistani coalition. The details of the Yahya-Mujib-Bhutto negotiation are now beginning to be known. It appears that the army and the West Pakistani politicians were willing to accept the limitation of federal power to Defense and Foreign Affairs provided the authority of these two departments were not denuded by giving to East Pakistan the powers to raise a separate militia and to regulate international aid and trade (the Awami League’s Last two of six points).

Our discomfort with the Awami League was increased by the quickness with which its leaders quit the interior of East Bengal, the promptness with which they established a provisional government in mythical Mujibnagar (the fastest creation of a provisional government in the history of liberation movements!) and the warm reception they were accorded by the Indian government. It was clear to us that if the Indian government did not feel confident of controlling Bangladesh, it would not risk supporting a secessionist Bengali nationalist movement in the Pakistani half of Bengal. However, until Saghir’s death, i.e., until after the signing of the Indo-Soviet treaty of friendship in August and the massive flow of Soviet arms to India and the eastern front, our scenario did not include a full-scale Indian invasion of East Bengal.

We had, nevertheless, viewed India as holding the winning cards in the provisional government which claimed legitimacy, and in the Mukti Bahini on the frontier which was being equipped, advised, and logistically supported by India. Together, these two could challenge any combination of guerrillas inside East Bengal after the inevitable defeat and withdrawal of the Pakistani army. We underestimated the Awami League’s capacity for disintegration, overestimated the Indian government’s sense of propriety, and failed to fathom the depth of Russian commitment to acquiring allies against China.

The press and public still do not seem to understand U.S. policy toward the crisis in the sub-continent. It will take an article to analyze this classic case of real politik and good example of how Dr. Kissinger’s theories translate in practice. At first, Washington’s policy of seemingly supporting Pakistan baffled us. Then it began to become clear that the U.S. was more interested in giving the Pakistani army an illusion of support than in actually aiding their military effort. For example, U.S. arms aid and sales to Pakistan in 1971 amounted to less than $30 million according to independent sources, to $5 million according to Dr. Kissinger’s December 7 backgrounder. Throughout the crisis the U.S. maintained the unpopular posture of appearing to favor the military junta. Yet at no point did Washington provide the junta with concrete, as contrasted with psychological, aid corresponding to its needs. Obviously, geo-political considerations dictated that Washington should have little interest in assuring the unity of Pakistan. In fact, since April 1971 the Nixon government had assumed that Islamabad would lose East Bengal - a prospect not dreaded by the U.S. because Bangladesh as an Indian protectorate could be safely assumed to become at worst a Russian base against China, at best a client of the U.S.

West Pakistan, on the other hand, is crucial to the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of creating in the oil center of the world, the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean regions, a new configuration of power, independent of Western Europe but dependent on the U.S.A., from Spain and Portugal through Greece and Israel to Iran and West Pakistan. Hence a policy designed not so much to help out a bogged down or beleaguered ally, but to keep a client hooked, with spare parts and moral support, into the system of dependence. Whether or not Z.A. Bhutto has the inclination and courage to cut the umbilical cord and defeat this policy remains to be seen.

There were personal factors which may have reinforced our doubts. We grew up during the independence movement for Pakistan and had lost out homes, friends, and kin during the conflict for its creation. It was hard for us not to wish that the two Pakistan would maintain some organic links and their peoples somehow would struggle together toward a socialist society.

Finally, Saghir and I were agonized over the fate of the Bihari minority in Bengal. Biharis ourselves, we knew the anguish of these people who had to move two or three times since 1946 to escape massacres in India, and had finally found haven in Pakistans to which they remained loyal. Homeless, Urdu speaking, hated by Bengalis, favored by West Pakistanis in the east, they were caught in the middle. Throughout March, before the military intervention and while the Awami League had de facto control of government, some 10,000 of them were massacred by Bengali zealots. Later the military cited these massacres as the reason for its brutal intervention, and the government’s White Paper of August 1971 gave exaggerated accounts and figures (100,000 killed) on them.

We were appalled by the irresponsibility of the Awami League, and mourned the death of the luckless Biharis among whom were several relatives. But we were not willing to equate the actions of Bengali vigilantes with those of the government and the criminal acts of an organized, professional army. In any case, the army could not provide lasting security for them. In fact, it did not even intervene to stop their massacres which went on for three weeks while the Generals sought extra-parliamentary deals with the politicians. Saving civilian lives was not the motive behind the army’s vast repressions. Furthermore, unequal bartering of brutalities is not a function of responsible government. And criminality is not a commercial proposition: one cannot deposit the crimes of one into the account of another. The very fact that the military regime sought justifications for its behavior by referring to the excesses of the Awami League and the aroused Bengali masses was a measure of the steep decline in the civic standards of our army and civil services.

In sum, we had a sense that supporting the Bengali right of self-determination was ethically and politically necessary. Yet it was not an anti-imperialist struggle. In fact, the foreseeable consequences of the junta’s irrational, fascistic policy were to advance the expansionist designs of India, the power hunger of the U.S.S.R., and the imperial interests of the U.S.A. Given a choice between infantile Bengali bourgeois nationalism and fascistic Pakistani militarism, we decided to concentrate on opposing the military regime.


Now I must condemn India’s massive military intervention. It violates the U.N. charter and reinforces the dangerous trend set by imperial powers toward direct foreign interventions in civil conflicts. How reprehensible the international community deemed the Indian action is best indicated by the overwhelming vote in the U.N., including those of India’s staunch allies, Yugoslavia and Egypt. That India ignored the U.N. resolution was a witness to its disregard of international opinion, and another reminder of the helplessness of humanity confronted with aggression.

Itself threatened by centrifugal forces, the Indian government does not view with favor demands for regional autonomy, much less secession. Hence regardless of human costs, India supported the Nigerian Federal Government against Biafra. The sword of central authority has fallen swiftly on recalcitrant people in India. West Bengal, the Indian half of Bangla Desh, has been repeatedly subjected to military intervention and, currently under direct Federal rule, is the scene of widespread and systematic repression of the left. Its people share with East Bengalis a contiguous boundary, a common culture and language, and the fate of being an overpopulated, undernourished mass deprived of their rightful place in national government. Only religion (Hindu and Muslim) and competing nationalisms (Hindu and Muslim) separate them. A sovereign, secular, and socialist Bangladesh can be enormously attractive to the Marxist majority of West Bengal, and threaten the ’integrity’ of India. To prevent this, India must keep Bangla Desh in bonds and make it a hinterland of West Bengal rather than a beacon to its Bengali future.

The power of the East Bengali people cannot flow out of the barrel of Indian guns. The direct military intervention is intended to promote an Indian protectorate rather than a genuinely independent Bangladesh. It is aimed at propping the dwindling power of India’s Bengali clients - the Awami League and communist (Moscow-oriented) leaders in exile; and the conventionally-trained frontier Bahini constituted partially by Indian-trained elements but mainly by the East Pakistan Rifles and East Bengal Regiment which, by May, had regrouped in India after breaking away from the Pakistan army. It seeks to offset the growing strength of the nascent, but progressively radical, self-reliant guerrillas who were inducted in the interior by leftists who, unlike the Awami Leaguers and their [conventional] frontier Bahini, did not flee the interior of Bengal for the relative security of Indian sanctuaries.

India claims its intervention is motivated by its commitment to self-determination, and concern over the refugees. It is incredible that self-determination is invoked as a justification for war by a government which forcibly occupies Kashmir and denies its people the plebiscite pledged by Indian and sanctioned by the U.N., a government which has suppressed the Naga and Mizo peoples’ juridically just struggle against Indian annexation with a violence little publicized but more prolonged and no less brutal than that of the Pakistani junta in Bengal.

Deeply moved by their plight but unaware of the complexities of the refugees’ problem in the sub-continent, world opinion accepts them as a credible justification for war. Yet, Mrs. Gandhi’s outright rejection of U. Thant’s proposal indicated that the - goal of dismembering Pakistan took priority over the refugees’ welfare and return. While sympathetic U.S. Senators were given guided tours of the refugee camps, severe limits were imposed by India on international relief organizations, preventing reliable estimates on the actual number of refugees.

Full-scale war will aggravate suffering and create more refugees. Apart from indeterminable war victims, at least four million stranded minorities (Bengalis in West, non-Bengalis in East Pakistan) may be massacred unless there is a settlement negotiated with provisions for these peoples. Furthermore, military victory in East Pakistan will not eliminate India’s refugee burden. The bulk of the refugees, being Hindu, are unlikely to return to predominantly Muslim Bengal in the foreseeable future. And unless massacred, more than two million Bihari in Bangla Desh can now only return to India (they came to East Pakistan as refugees) where their presence might spark fresh communal riots. Prominent Americans who invoke the refugee problem to justify Indian military intervention are either irresponsible apologists of India or ignorant of the complexities of communal conflicts in the sub-continent.

The U.S. administration has deceived the public so often that few can believe it. American aid to the Pakistani junta, however negligible to its actual needs, only encouraged its intransigence in coming to a quick settlement. Yet I know Dr. Kissinger’s recent assertion to be true. By summer’s end the Generals had begun bending to seek a settlement. Beset by the pressures of massive Soviet armaments, Indian troops on the frontier, inflation and growing resistance at home, by October they were willing to concede the autonomy which in March they had so brutally tried to prevent. Important Bengali leaders were initially interested but - abjectly dependent on Delhi - began refusing discussions on any terms except immediate and total independence. Indian military moves put an end to the dim hopes of settlement. As always, outside intervention stifled the restorative capacity and adjustive ability of a people torn by civil conflict.

Separation of East Bengal from Pakistan I snow a reality, and represents the first needed break in South Asia from the alien, colonial tradition of centralism. What is needed now is an orderly transfer of power, permitting the exchange of imprisoned and stranded persons, safeguarding the safety of minorities, and assuring the majority peoples their inalienable rights. The roots of conflict in the sub-continent lie in the two sub-continental governments’ forcible suppression of public demands, and in politicians appropriating popular causes for advancing vested interests. The people of East Pakistan voted for autonomy which the military tried to prevent. But the Bengali clients of India did not have the mandate to proclaim independence from behind Indian tanks. Similarly, Kashmiris do not wish to live under Indian occupation, but I am not sure that they wish to join Pakistan. In both cases, as in Nagaland, only free and internationally supervised elections can determine whether the people concerned want autonomy or independence, federation or confederation. Peace may begin to have a chance in the sub-continent when the peoples of these ravaged lands have exercised their right of self-determination.


Chroniclers will record December 17, 1971, as the day of the dismemberment of Pakistan. Historians will say that the destruction of the country, as conceived and constituted by its founding fathers, began on the night of March 25. From that moment, the movement toward disaster was inexorable, for the men who held our destiny were oblivious to reason of politics, diplomacy, morality, and military strategy. Eight months later, that is, some 25,000 dead persons, millions of displaced citizens, thousands of raped women and orphaned children later, the disintegration of Pakistan climaxed in the surrender of 100,000 soldiers and civilians and the betrayal of millions who had, out of choice or necessity, remained loyal to the state. Few nations can claim a chapter so dark in history. To honor our past and for the sake of our future, we must ask why it happened?

We welcome the appointment by Mr. Bhutto of a Commission to inquire into the causes of Pakistan’s present predicament. Yet we fear the prevailing tendency to put blames on blundering individuals who, in fact, were mere agents of the forces that caused the crisis. The Commission will fail in its historic obligation if it does not examine the roots of the problem and satisfies instead the passions of the moment by finding scapegoats.

We must recognize that the disaster occurred because we permitted it to develop. The excesses of the Awami League notwithstanding, the issues were relatively clear cut, the inhumanity of the military intervention unquestionable, and, from the start, its consequences obvious to anyone who dared to think. Yet few educated citizens at home or abroad had the clairvoyance or the courage to disrupt their lives, jeopardize their ambitions, and take risks to challenge the junta they are so vociferously condemning today. Almost to the last day of ignominious surrender, no leader of importance seriously questioned the basic premises of the junta’s policies. In that sense many who are now calling for the trial of Yahya and his cronies are not free of complicity in the crimes against the country and its people. Finding scapegoats, surrogates of our crippled sensibilities and bruised consciences, will serve no good purpose. To the contrary, it may prevent the needed concentration on fundamentals.

The fundamental cause of the crisis lies in the betrayal of our people’s ideals of Pakistan. The common Muslims’ struggle for a state was based on their longing for a society free of oppression, injustice and inequality. When the Muslim masses rallied to the appeal of an Islamic state, it was their way of saying that they wanted a good state and just government. Hence Muslim nationalism had earlier and stronger popular roots in those regions like Bengal where the oppressor class was largely Hindu. For the Muslim elite however, Pakistan meant the end of Hindu competition and the establishment of its own monopoly of power and privileges. The tragedy of Pakistan lies in the fact that for 23 years this elite, consisting of landlords and capitalists, bureaucrats and military men, held on to its privileges at the expense of the people and clung to power at the cost of participation. The lesson we must draw is that only the total transformation of Pakistan’s economic and social structure will provide the basis for constructing a progressive, just and durable new order.

The sub-continent’s worst colonial heritage was consecrated in Pakistan. We were ruled in the vice-regal tradition of executive centralism. When permitted to exist, the legislature was required to be a rubber stamp. Independent judiciary was judged a liability and emasculated. Power was concentrated in the bureaucracy and the army, both trained and tested by colonial Britain and aided and armed by imperial America. The poor were disenfranchised; government was unaccountable to the public. The callousness of our rulers was undiscriminating. Yet the more disadvantaged people of East Pakistan could only comprehend their condition as caused by regional discrimination. Their efforts to exercise their rights as a majority people were subverted in 1954, 1956, 1958, and 1968. In 1971 they were utterly brutalized.

In order for Pakistan to prosper in freedom and dignity we must withdraw the power presently vested in the army and bureaucracy and restructure both institutions. Our armed forces are better trained to occupy the country than to defend it. The bureaucracy is raised to rule the people, not to serve them. Their colonial ethos, authoritarian structure, mediocre standards, and managerial outlook were suited to the service of their foreign mentors, and are unfit for a modern, independent nation. They must be transformed into popular, participatory institutions emanating from and accountable to the people, capable of defending the country, and serving the public. I hope that our defeat at the hands of an equally obsolete, if more numerous and gadget-heavy, Indian army will compel us to creativity and innovation rather than to put on more military fat and to harden the authoritarian arteries of the bureaucracy.

Similarly, I hope that renewed quest for national unity will not lead us again toward mindless centralization. We are still a diverse country united by culture, religion, nationality and a yearning for justice, equality and freedom. Diverse lands like Pakistan do not respond to European models of integration. Nor can genuine regional grievances be suppressed by the repressive arms of government. Respect for regional cultures and traditions, and maximum local autonomy within the framework of popular, national planning are the requisites of unity and strength.