Causes of the Breakup of United Pakistan in 1971: Lessons Learnt

Shahid H. Raja
18 min readJan 17, 2022

Introduction

‘Wrong political decisions are like tuberculosis, easy to cure but difficult to detect in the beginning; once belated they become easy to detect but difficult to cure.’- Machiavelli

Most of the present-day developing countries are the ex-colonies of European powers which, after the dissolution of the colonial empires, got independence. The majority got new borders with new ethnic, racial, and cultural identities. Some were entirely new nations accommodated in newly-carved states with arbitrarily drawn borders. Pakistan is one such country that came into existence as an independent nation-state on August 14, 1947, after the dissolution of the British Indian Empire.

Pakistan was carved out of the erstwhile Indian subcontinent to provide a homeland to those Indian Muslims who perceived themselves to be a distinct nation based on several markers of nationhood. One of these markers and a predominant one was their Islamic identity. They did not want to live in a post-colonial united India which would be dominated by the Hindus, fearing economic injustices, political marginalisation, and social subservience. After a short struggle, mostly nonviolent as compared to the experience of other countries which got independence post-World War 11, Indian Muslims were able to get a separate homeland for them in 1947.

However, just after 25 years of its existence as an independent sovereign state, Pakistan broke into two pieces- the first though not the last, post-colonial state to suffer this fate. Its bifurcation into two independent states has been the subject of intense debate since then because it was one of the most significant events in modern history after the conclusion of the Second World War.

In the succeeding paragraphs, we will discuss the major reasons for the breakup of Pakistan and learn lessons from this momentous event.

Causes of Breakup

Like all momentous events, the separation of East Pakistan from united Pakistan and gaining independence had deep historical roots and varied social, economic, and political reasons. As it is difficult, almost impossible to pinpoint a single cause for this complex issue, we can discuss it under the following six headings whose synergetic impact resulted in the dismemberment of pre-1971 Pakistan namely

(a) Historical Baggage

(b) Political Governance

© Economic Management

(d) Social Dissonance

(e) The Bhola Cyclone

(f) Regional and global geopolitics

Let me explain them in a bit of detail

A. Historical Baggage:

Pakistan inherited more than 8,50,000 km of landmass which was divided into two wings one of which was only 15 %of the total but contained 54 %of the population. In between these two wings lay 1600 km of the hostile country waiting and hoping for the collapse of the new state sooner rather than later. Newly carved out the state of Pakistan contained 5 major and more than 12 minor nationalities which no doubt had successfully launched a movement for the creation of an independent nation-state of their own but were a far cry from calling themselves one nation.

However, despite all the above-mentioned diversity, the provinces, states, and regions comprising West Pakistan had several markers of becoming a nation over some time. The geographical contiguity of the territories comprising West Pakistan, their racial stock, the Islamic fervour of the people, and the common script of their languages (i.e. Arabic) spoken in these regions were fairly sufficient indicators of their becoming a distinct nation over time.

On the other hand, Bengal, part of which became East Pakistan, was a different ball game. Although Bengali Muslims took an active part in the creation of Pakistan, their homeland was destined to be a separate nation-state from the start. Separated from West Pakistan by 1000 miles of hostile territory, its people were of different racial stock with distinct cultural identities and spoke a completely different language. British Indian Government’s decision of 1880 to change the script of the Bengali language from Arabic, which is the same script in which Urdu is written, and replace it with the Deva Nagri script can be the starting point for the creation of Bangladesh.

Bengali Muslims, who chose to opt for Pakistan, shared only their religion with the people of other provinces in West Pakistan, which was too weak a bond to keep them attached to their compatriots under a single flag. Two Nation Theory which provided moral and political justification for the division of India was neither relevant for integrating these two distinct nationalities nor sufficient to create a new nation that demanded far more than mere religious affinity. A prescient indication of their destiny as two separate independent nation-states was given in the 1940 Lahore Resolution which demanded the division of India on a religious basis but proposed two Muslim states.

Taking a cue from this Resolution, a proposal for an independent United Bengal was mooted by Prime Minister H. S. Suhrawardy in 1946 but was opposed by the British colonial authorities. The East Pakistan Renaissance Society advocated the creation of a sovereign state in eastern British India. Keeping these two nation-states under one federation was a Herculean task that needed a long-term vision that incorporated inappropriate institutional arrangements and was implemented by a capable leader. With few exceptions, those who ruled Pakistan after her creation as an independent state woefully lacked qualities of great statesmanship.

Another historical baggage was the vast disparity in terms of the level of economic development and political representation between the two wings comprising Pakistan. Bengal remained economically underdeveloped and underrepresented in the political setup and organs of the state during the colonial period, more by choice and less by default for many diverse reasons.

Firstly, even if we disregard the hypothesis that Bengal was punished for its role in the 1857 uprising, it was not prudent to develop it industrially as it directly competed with Britain in textile manufacturing; its development would have adversely affected the British exports.

Secondly developing infrastructure in the flood-prone region was not as cost-effective, beneficial, and strategically important as central and northern India.

Thirdly, the commercial importance of Calcutta relegated the need for the development of East Bengal to a secondary position.

The same was the case in terms of administrative and political representation in governance structures and organs of the state. Bengalis in general and Bengali Muslims, in particular, had been systematically kept out of the decision-making processes in Colonial India after the cataclysmic events of 1857 which had created serious doubts about the loyalty of the Bengalis towards British rulers.

In contrast, regions and nationalities of northern India, which played a decisive role in crushing the rebellion, got very preferential treatment in their representation in institutions responsible for policy formulation and implementation. Resultantly Bengali Muslims had scant representation in state organs like armed forces, law enforcement agencies, civilian bureaucracy, etc. during the colonial period. Pakistan inherited this vast disparity but took too much time to rectify these historical injustices.

Consequently, when British Indian Empire dissolved, the two wings constituting Pakistan were far apart, not only geographically but also economically even though the areas becoming part of Pakistan were themselves far behind in terms of economic development compared with what India inherited. Its agriculture was still at the primitive stage where capitalist development had not made any inroads. It was a subsistence agricultural rural economy, with an extremely poor level of rudimentary infrastructure, technological penetration, or application of modern techniques of agricultural farming. The same was the case with its industrial sector, which inherited 34 industrial units of insignificant, almost all of them located in West Pakistan. East Pakistan producing 70 percent of the world’s jute was without any jute mill.

This historical baggage of disparity between the two wings in terms of economic development and representation in various state organs was to play the most crucial role in subsequent inter-provincial relations culminating in their separation and dismemberment of Pakistan.

B. Political Governance:

Like all post-colonel states, Pakistan inherited a lot of socio-political baggage of underdevelopment, regional disparities in political representation, and other myriad economic contradictions, which needed long-term prudent policies to sort them out. All the social and economic indicators pointed towards the above-mentioned great gap existing between the two wings.

It necessitated the formulation of comprehensive socioeconomic policies to bridge these wide differences in the standards of living of the people of both wings. This was all the more necessary in the backdrop of the Pakistan Movement which no doubt couched in religious terminology, was based on hard-core economic reasons. Religion provided the moral justification, symbols, and slogans but it was the broader economic deprivations that provided the main impetus for separatism.

There was thus an urgent need to develop a long-term vision, duly formulated with consensus along with a formally approved constitution and democratic institutions to implement this social contract between the state and the citizens in letter and spirit. It also needed devising affirmative action policies, rapid but inclusive economic development, greater social equality, appropriate political representation, and equitable share in the administrative and security organs of the state to remove the feelings of deprivation among the Bengali Muslims.

Unfortunately, the relative inexperience coupled with the short-sightedness of those who ruled the country after independence let the historical forces take their course which pointed towards separation right from day one. Ayub Khan has been blamed a lot, and rightly so, for the separation of East Pakistan, for pursuing a flawed economic development model and inappropriate political reengineering through basic democracies. However, earlier regimes cannot be absolved of the errors of omissions and commissions resulting in the fall of Dhaka.

Inordinate delay in the framing of the constitution resulting in their failure to hold general elections at the national level, thereby failing to create a national democratic forum for airing and listening to grievances of smaller provinces can be cited as the most important negligent act of the ruling elite of the 1950s. It also seriously undermined the state’s intuitional legitimacy, which let the market forces play a full role without the state stepping in to rectify the distortions created by theseforces resulting in the accentuation of historical disparity already existing between the two wings.

Secondly, in its efforts to have adequate safeguards in Colonial India, the Muslim League always stressed the weak center and maximum provincial autonomy, a theme, which echoed in the provincial assemblies voting for Pakistan. However, after Pakistan came into existence, the imperatives of the new state forced the ruling elite to change the equation. It would be a strong center in a federation that could guarantee the preservation of the new state.

This paradigm shift didn’t go well with smaller provinces in general and with East Bengal in particular because Punjab heavily dominated the Centre, thanks to the historical developments mentioned above. Heavy emphasis on a strong centre deprived the Bengalis of effective representation in the corridors of power. On the contrary, despite their numerical superiority, Bengalis could not get the representation in the national assembly their population warranted and were deprived of their majority through due process of law i.e. parity. The constitution which was passed in 1956 did not have an upper house to represent the unity of the country and the equality of the provinces.

If the political power was in the plains of Punjab, commerce was in Karachi, both in West Pakistan. Thus all the socioeconomic and political policies formulated by the government had a pro-western wing bias in implementation though not in intention or rhetoric. The Bengalis expressed their resentment against the poor treatment meted out to them by overwhelmingly defeating the Muslim League at the hands of the Jugtu Front, a coalition of nationalist elements in East Pakistan.

However, jugtu Front’s victory was short-lived; its government was unceremoniously dismissed within two months and a West Pakistani was appointed as governor. The second time they were treated like this was after the elections of 1970 when the Awami League, which stood for the same principles in Pakistan as was Muslim league in pre-partition India namely safeguarding the rights of the oppressed community, was not handed over power despite having a majority in elections.

The political mismanagement during Ayub Khan’s regime played a critical role in the eventual breakup of Pakistan in 1971. After the abrogation of the 1956 Constitution and the imposition of martial law by Sikandar Mirza, Ayub Khan ousted him and became the Chief Martial Law Administrator. He then replaced the consensus-based 1956 Constitution with the highly flawed 1962 Constitution.

Although there were multiple historical and structural, of the breakup of Pakistan in 1971, in hindsight, we can say that the promulgation of the 1962 Constitution was the beginning of the last stage of a united country. The 1956 Constitution, however flawed it might be, was a written agreement endorsed by the majority of the elected representatives who had taken part in the freedom struggle of the country, for their resolve to live together. Its abrogation nullified all the efforts made by the political elite of both wings to do so, cutting the very roots of the country as a united nation-state.

Secondly, a heavy concentration of power at the centre struck at the very roots of a federation, creating feelings of marginalized helplessness among the Bengalis. Declaring the state to be federal, it was a unitary structure standing on the bedrock of One Unit in West Pakistan. It provided one legislative list wherein the authority of the Central government was specified and residuary powers were left to the provinces.

Furthermore, the Central Government was empowered to step into any field outside that list. There was no provincial autonomy whatsoever because the Center repeatedly made inroads into Provincial and Residuary fields. which centralised power in West Pakistan and marginalized East Pakistan, creating deep-seated grievances.

These actions undermined the democratic framework and the federal structure, leading to the political and economic disenfranchisement of East Pakistanis. The culmination of these factors, along with a growing sense of nationalism in East Pakistan, ultimately resulted in the demand for independence and the creation of Bangladesh.

C. Economic Mismanagement:

There were two biggest grievances of the Bengalis against West Pakistan.

Firstly, not taking appropriate affirmative actions to accelerate the economic development of the Eastern wing on a priority basis and on a massive scale to reduce the economic disparity existing between the two wings as historical baggage.

Secondly, instead of spending more on the development of East Pakistan, there was a massive transfer of resources from East Pakistan to West Pakistan on an official and private level. Leaving aside the claims and counterclaims about the estimated quantum of resources transferred annually from East to West Pakistan, the fact remains that there was a systematic system of resource transfer through several means.

Erroneous pride in a strong currency, more as a counterpoise to Indian hegemony and less for economic prudence, resulted in the overvalued exchange rate which undermined the competitiveness of jute, the major earner of foreign exchange in East Pakistan.

On the other hand overvalued exchange rate heavily favoured the importing classes of West Pakistan, encouraging healthy growth of an aggressive private commercial sector in the western wing. East Pakistan failed to develop this vanguard of economic growth at a time when all the preferences were available for the industrialists

As the receipts from the export of jute were received and recorded in West Pakistan, less than half of it was spent on the development of the eastern wing due to strong incentives under the market mechanism in the western wing of the country. The same was the case with the foreign aid received by the government of Pakistan.

Another source of transfer of resources was the inequitable terms of trade between the two provinces for the supply of goods and services from one wing to another. The West wing supplied manufactured goods while the east had few goods to trade and those also consisted of agricultural raw materials which traditionally fetches lower prices as compared to manufactured goods.

The West Pakistani businessmen who owned almost the entire industry located in East Pakistan used to transfer all the profits earned from East Pakistan to the Western wing instead of investing wholly or partially in East Pakistan. Similar was the position in respect of the banking system, which was owned by them.

Last but not least was public finance. The majority of the taxes imposed were spent on defence and administration, heavily dominated by the West Pakistanis.

D. Social Dissonance:

While it is very comfortable to put all the blame squarely on the ruling elites of Pakistan for the separation of East Pakistan from its Western wing, it must be remembered that the civil society cannot be absolved of the portion of the blame for this fiasco resting on their shoulders. It was the social and cultural degradation of Bengali people and their culture in West Pakistan which can be held responsible for the alienation of Bengalis.

Not only the governing elites, even the public and the civil society considered Bengalis as an inferior race, and their culture were heavily influenced by Hinduism. Their contributions to the freedom movement were not properly recognised nor were their culture appreciated. It is an irony of fate that the Bengalis, who were in majority, had to pay human sacrifice for the recognition of their language as one of the official languages of Pakistan.

E. The Bhola Cyclone

The last straw on the proverbial camel’s back was the Bhola cyclone, which struck on November 13, 1970, one of the deadliest tropical cyclones in recorded history. With wind speeds exceeding 115 mph, the cyclone made landfall at the eastern coast of East Pakistan, including the islands of Bhola, Hatiya, and Sandwip inundating vast coastal areas. It caused the deaths of an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people, tens of thousands of homes were destroyed, and the livelihoods of millions were affected. Agricultural lands were flooded, leading to widespread food shortages.

Severely hampered by the lack of infrastructure and coordination, initial relief was slow, with limited resources reaching the affected areas. International aid started pouring in from countries and organizations worldwide, but the distribution was inefficient and marred by bureaucratic delays.

The slow and inadequate response from the West Pakistan central government exacerbated tensions between East and West Pakistan. The people of East Pakistan felt neglected and marginalized. The cyclone’s aftermath fuelled the political movement led by the Awami League, who made the poor handling of the disaster relief efforts a critical point in their campaign. Consequently, in the general elections held in December 1970, just a month after the cyclone, the Awami League won a landslide victory in East Pakistan, securing 167 out of 169 seats allocated to the province in the National Assembly of Pakistan.

The Bhola cyclone thus played a crucial role in the political dynamics of the region, highlighting the disparities between East and West Pakistan and accelerating the movement towards separation of former East Pakistan from its Western Wing

F. Regional Geopolitical Imperatives:

Lord Palmerston has rightly said that there are no permanent friends or enemies in international relations, only permanent interests. India’s permanent interest lay in its domination of South Asia and beyond according to their well-defined Pannikar Doctrine (named after K M Panikkar) which emphasized the importance of the Indian Ocean for the defence of India.

According to Panikkar, the British had kept out other imperialist powers from the Indian Ocean to protect their interests. India being the successor to the British Raj, should, therefore, use the same principle to incorporate other states and keep external forces from the Sub Continent.” Pakistan was a hindrance to the realization of this dream of the Indian ruling elite.

Cutting it to size became the overriding objective of Indian foreign policy for which the East Pakistan crises gave them a God-sent opportunity. Arriving with more than a million refugees as a humanitarian issue and a threat to their national security, India started preparing for a decisive war with Pakistan and launched a vigorous global campaign by raising the issue of the creation of Bangladesh at all the international and bilateral forums.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s military rulers could not read the writing on the wall, grasp the rapidly changing scenarios, and remained complacent, to say the least. Even their military acumen is doubtful. Defending every inch of a vast country with limited resources and a hostile population was not the right strategy; defending the capital would have been a better option allowing a negotiated settlement after stalemate. Consequently, Pakistan lost the war and with it, half of its country opted to become another nation-state.

Lessons for the Post-Colonial States

What are the lessons one can learn from the dismemberment of Pakistan within 25 years of coming into existence?

  1. Vision Needed:

You cannot rewrite history but you must have a clear-cut vision for the future backed by a definite roadmap. This vision must include a blueprint for redressing the inequities created as a result of colonial wrongdoings. Centrifugal tendencies are inherent in any post-colonial state because of boundaries left behind by the retreating colonial powers and the mix of nationalities clubbed together to live within these boundaries. It needs a very careful and prudent planning process with a five-pronged broad-spectrum attack: economic inclusion, democratic empowerment, affirmative action, mainstreaming, and social justice.

2. Provincial Reengineering:

While you cannot change the international borders howsoever arbitrary they may have been left by the ex-colonial masters, you must re-demarcate the internal boundaries according to the wishes of the people. If one province is too big in terms of population or its share in the power structure, there is a need to balance this anomaly by carving out new regional entities based on language which is one of the most important markers of a distinct nationality. The predominant position of one province or region, perceived as exploiting the smaller provinces, is anathema to any federation

3. Democracy Works:

Democracy has been much maligned for its alleged shortcomings such as corruption, mismanagement, economic disruptions, slow economic growth, etc. However, despite all these allegations, democracy is still the best form of governance humanity has ever experimented with. Let it run its course. Frequent, free, and fair elections will ultimately prop up capable leadership who are accountable to the public. Only genuine leaders elected through popular universal franchises are capable of holding the federating units together; dictatorship always leaves the countries broken and in a mess.

4. Cultures Evolve:

You cannot force cultural homogeneity through the barrel of the gun or state edicts. The evolution of a particular national culture takes time to which each federating unit contributes. Let a hundred flowers of different varieties and hues bloom rather than having a garden full of roses only. Unity in diversity is the hallmark of a true federation. Give respect to every major language spoken and let a national language evolve over some time.

5. Institutions Matter:

Soon after independence people are very emotional about their newfound nation-state; however, this sentimental legitimacy must be converted into institutional legitimacy by strengthening the service delivery institutions by improving their efficiency and effectiveness and broadening their ownership. Some of the institutions which matter the most are the armed forces, law and order agencies, judicial institutions, and nation-building departments like health, education, and general administration.

Civil society organizations and media are two very powerful institutions that can play a crucial role in making or breaking a country. Timely and forceful articulation of grievances of deprived regions by these institutions should be taken seriously and addressed appropriately. They are also instrumental in creating and fostering common denominators of cultural and social homogeneity in a country. Stifling them will deprive the policymakers of a useful channel of two-way communication with the populace.

6. Growth Matters:

Growth matters because it is only through growth that poverty can be alleviated and inequalities reduced but the content of growth and equitable distribution of fruits of growth matter more. Patterns of growth envisaged in the initial stages determine the prosperity of certain regions and the deprivation of others in the long run. Let the market forces work but the state must always be correcting the anomalies these forces always create due to the inherent logic of the capitalistic model of growth which is no doubt far more efficient than other modes but is also efficient in all its negative fallout.

As every student of economics knows market forces left to themselves not only create inequalities but accentuate and reinforce them. That is why Adam Smith gave a special role to the state when he stated-

“The third and last duty of the sovereign or commonwealth is that of erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works, which though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature, that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual, or a small number of individuals; and which is, therefore, cannot be expected that any individual, or a small number of individuals, should erect or maintain. The performance of this duty requires, too, very different degrees of expense in the different periods of society.”

7. Incremental Changes:

Do not go for revolutionary and drastic changes just for the sake of structural transformation. The Law of unintended consequences may sabotage all your good intentions. Incremental changes allow you time for midterm correction and pay dividends in broader perspectives

8. Devolution Works:

Devolution of powers and decentralization of service delivery institutions, backed by equitable distribution of resources is one of the key instruments to curb centrifugal tendencies among the regions feeling marginalization. Devolution can hold any federation together by helping to prevent or reduce conflict because they reduce actual or perceived inequities between various regions or between a region and the central government.

9. Early Warning Indicators:

Federations do not break overnight. Their seeds of destruction take time to germinate. There is always a time to salvage the situation before it is too late provided the leadership is responsible and responsive, civil society is aggressive and the media is vigilant. Keep an eye on early warning signs of centrifugal tendencies and address them in time and sagaciously. What Machiavelli said five hundred years ago is still applicable.

‘Wrong political decisions are like tuberculosis, easy to cure but difficult to detect in the beginning; once belated they become easy to detect but difficult to cure.’

From the book “Milestones of Pakistan History: 1857–1947”, published by Amazon and available at

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