Bangladesh turns 50
Pakistan's greatest defeat remains taboo

In 1971, Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan after a bloody civil war to become independent. But the events of that time are still largely taboo today. A reappraisal of this central chapter in Pakistan's history has yet to take place. Analysis by Mohammad Luqman

"So much affection – and yet we are mere strangers to you today. How many encounters will it take for us to be comrades again?" These are the opening lines of the oft-sung melancholy poem by celebrated Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. In 1974, Faiz visited the capital Dhaka for the first time since the civil war. His impressions and the trauma of the war that resulted in Bangladesh's secession and independence inspired him to write these lines.

On 16 December 1971, Pakistani General Abdullah Khan Niazi signed the capitulation live on camera, transferring nearly 90,000 Pakistani soldiers into Indian captivity. At the end of 2021, Bangladesh celebrates the 50th anniversary of its independence. What the Bengalis consider the birth of their nation represents for Pakistan the greatest military defeat in its history. Beyond the nationalist narrative of both states and the dispute over the actual number of civilian casualties, the human tragedy of this era has scarecely been addressed. In Pakistan, the subject remains taboo to this day.

The forced cancellation of a conference organised by the renowned Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in March 2021, which aimed to take a critical look at what happened, is typical. Just a few days after the event was officially announced, the university mysteriously called off the academic event.

Resistance in East Pakistan against national language Urdu


Pakistan emerged as a nation state of Indian Muslims after the partition of British India in 1947. Provinces with a majority Muslim population were combined to form the new state of Pakistan. Since East Bengal was predominantly Muslim, it now became part of Pakistani territory, despite being almost 1500 kilometres away from the western part of the country. There was no land connection between the two territories. Moreover, East Bengal was the most populous region of the new state and was ethnically Bengali. Against this background, the central government in Karachi called for unity between the two sections of the country.

"Father of the Bangladesh nation" Mujibur Rahman at a rally (photo: Michel Laurent/AP/picture-alliance)
Mujibur Rahman at a rally with his supporters: the charismatic politician is widely regarded in Bangladesh as the "father of the nation". However, the birth of the new state was marked by a bloody civil war. On 26 March 1971, Rahman proclaimed the country's independence from Pakistan. Thereupon, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces in what was then East Pakistan gave the unspeakable order for Operation Search Light. It marked the beginning of the civil war, which is believed to have cost the lives of up to three million people. Rahman himself was assassinated in a military coup four years after independence

Initially, the idea of a single national language, Urdu, seemed the obvious means of achieving national unity. What the predominantly West Pakistani politicians in central government did not reckon with, however, was the strong resistance in East Pakistan to such a project. By adopting the idea of a single national language, the Bengalis feared the loss of their mother tongue and identity. In 1952, students demonstrated in Dhaka against the unpopular policy. A crackdown by the security forces resulted in student fatalities and injuries and there was rioting across the province.

Although Bengali would be recognised as an official national language a few years later, the unfortunate handling of the controversy had already laid the foundation for East Bengal's disaffection with Pakistan.

The new Awami League party that emerged in the wake of this dispute won an absolute majority in East Bengal during the 1954 elections and now formed the new provincial government. Tensions with central government remained high as the region demanded more autonomy and parity regarding government expenditure. At the end of 1954, Karachi dissolved the provincial government in East Bengal and imprisoned Awami League members on charges of treason.

A plot by India?


Over the next few years repressive rule by successive central governments only increased the resentment felt by those in East Pakistan. In 1966, the charismatic Mujibur Rahman (1920-1975) became party chairman of the Awami League and proposed far-reaching autonomy for East Pakistan in a so-called six-point plan. In the new capital Islamabad, the military government saw the plan as an attempt at de facto secession by the eastern province and some even suspected an Indian plot to divide Pakistan.

This was probably not entirely unjustified. As India's top diplomat Sashanka S. Banerjee confirmed in an article in 2020, Mujibur Rahman had already asked New Delhi to support independence for East Pakistan in 1962. By his own admission, Rahman developed the idea for an independent Bangladesh as early as 1958.

The parliamentary elections of 1970 swept Mujibur Rahman's party back into power in East Pakistan with an absolute majority; it also topped the league table of national results, making it the strongest political force in Pakistan. The military dictatorship under General Yahya Khan (1969-1971) was initially reluctant to grant Rahman any mandate to govern and pressured Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which had won in West Pakistan, to negotiate with Rahman on the formation of a unity government.

More on this topic