The creation of Pakistan in 1947 as a strange state consisting of two non-contiguous parts prepared the way for the genocide.
by Massimo Introvigne
Part 1 of 8
2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the Bangladesh genocide of 1971, one of the most brutal and most forgotten pages of 20th-century history. The fact that violence against the Hindu minority has started again in Bangladesh in October 2021 makes the anniversary even more sad and sinister.
The genocide happened in 1971, but its root causes are much older. Perhaps the oldest is the accusation by Muslim traditionalists and fundamentalists that most Bengali-speaking Muslims are “crypto-Hindus.” While the term technically indicates Hindus who just pretend to be Muslims (or Christians) to avoid discrimination and persecution, it became a slanderous word used to criticize Sufis and others whose folk religious traditions appeared as unorthodox to fundamentalists, and who would occasionally also visit Hindu or Sikh shrines.
Such Islam was prevalent in what is present-day Bangladesh, although the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami was also active there at the time of Partition. In 1947, the British granted independence (although initially in the form of dominions maintaining allegiance to the British crown) to India. They had decided that leaving colonial India continue as a single country would lead to civil war and carnage, giving the sectarian tensions between Hindus and Muslims. Their solution was the Partition, i.e., creating two separated independent dominions: India for the Hindus and Pakistan for the Muslims.
While members of other religions were expected to stay where they lived, the Partition moved between 10 to 20 million people who did not want to remain in a country where their religion was not prevalent. Not all moved, though, and today there are still more than 200 million Muslims in India, at least four million Hindus in Pakistan (but Hindus claim the official statistics are manipulated, and they are in fact closer to 8 million), and more than 12 million Hindus in Bangladesh.
Pakistan was formed as a strange country, which included a West Pakistan (present-day Pakistan) and what was called East Bengal and later East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) in a single state, with a single government, but consisting of two non-contiguous parts distant some 1,700 kilometers from each other, with India in the middle. The borders of East Pakistan had a precedent in something also called Partition, which had occurred in 1905 when the Viceroy of India, Lord George Curzon (1859–1925), tried to prevent sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims in Bengal by dividing the Bengal Presidency (later the Bengal Province) in separated Hindu and Muslim provinces. Bengalis protested, and in 1911 the Partition of Bengal was cancelled. However, it served as a reference for creating East Bengal (later, East Pakistan) with the Partition of 1947.
There were two problems with the Partition. First, it did not happen calmly and orderly as the British had hoped. The resettlement of millions of people generated tensions, violence, and killings. Worse still, resettlement had been intended by the British as a voluntary choice, but some of these who did not want to leave were attacked by mobs of a different religion, forced to flee, or killed. In the end, although statistics are controversial, the Partition might have costed one million deaths.
Violence also erupted in East Bengal, where hundreds of thousands of Hindus were attacked by Muslim thugs. The religious geography of India was extremely complicated, and the British attempt to draw straight lines for the borders left areas that were traditionally Hindus, such as the district of Kulna in East Bengal, to Pakistan, and areas with a Muslim majority to India.
Geographical reasons led to award to East Bengal the Chittagong Hill Tracts, which had never been part of Bengal and had a Buddhist majority, in addition to a significant Hindu minority. On independence day, August 15, 1947, the Buddhists and Hindus of the Chittagong Hill Tracts took to the street with Indian flags, persuaded they were now part of India. Only two days later, they were told that their districts had become in fact part of Pakistan. They tried to revolt, but the Pakistani Army occupied the Tracts. Massacres, rapes, and extrajudicial killings followed.
A second problem, whose importance the British had under-evaluated, was that East Pakistan was much poorer than West Pakistan. Those in the West regarded their compatriots in the East as backward and, because of the old accusations, “bad” Muslims. On the other hand, while in 1947 there was a substantial demographic balance between West and East Pakistan, each with a population around 30 million, numbers in the East grew rapidly because both of the influx of Muslims escaping the Eastern part of India and of a higher fertility. The larger contingent of those who moved from India to West Bengal consisted of at least 500,000 Muslims from Bihar State. Bihari Muslims further grew because of demography, and will become in 1971 both actors and victims of the genocide. By 1951, the population of East Pakistan, 42 million, had overcome the one of West Pakistan, 33.7 million. Until 1971, East Pakistan continued to have a larger population than West Pakistan.
Because of the superior organization of political parties and the economic predominance of West Pakistan, political and military power in the newly created Pakistan remained largely in the hands of the Westerners. Although some Bengalis became presidents and prime ministers of Pakistan, their terms were short-lived and they were often ousted by military coups. In the higher echelons of the army, Easterners always remained a small minority.
This created an intractable political problem for Pakistan. Most Western Pakistanis wanted their government democratically elected. However, since demography meant that there were more votes in East Pakistan, where politics was dominated by a single party, the Awami League, founded as the Awami Muslim League in 1949 to protect the interests of the Easterners, it soon became clear that any truly democratic election will give the absolute majority of the seats to Awami. The result would have been that rich West Pakistan would end up being politically dominated by poor East Pakistan. For this reasons, democratic elections were never really held—until they did, in 1970, and triggered the genocide.