Prelude to a national disintegration | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 25, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:54 PM, February 25, 2021


Prelude to a national disintegration

After half a century from where we began, Daily Star Books will spend all of this year—the 50th year of Bangladesh—revisiting, celebrating, and analyzing some of the books that played pivotal roles in documenting the Liberation War of 1971 and the birth of this nation.

When the country of Pakistan emerged at the end of British rule in the subcontinent, it did so with a purpose to unify two distinctly different regions into a single nation with a common ideology, culture, politics, and economy. It failed horribly, as we all know. Indeed, political scientist Rupert Emerson correctly pointed out, "by the accepted criteria of nationhood there was in fact no such thing as a Pakistani nation." But why was this the case? Rounaq Jahan explores the issue of Pakistan's failure to achieve its purpose in her book, Pakistan: Failure in National Integration (Columbia University, 1972), whose first Bangladeshi edition was published by the University Press Limited (UPL) in 1994.

The book is a remarkably meticulous cataloguing of the events of the 24 years leading up to the dissolution of Pakistan. What is surprising, however, is that although the book was published in 1972, it is the culmination of Jahan's PhD dissertation at Harvard University completed in 1970, well before the events of 1971 took place. Jahan undertook this monumental project within the constraints of strictly controlled media and data availability of Ayub Khan's regime, producing a pioneering comprehensive study. While we have the benefit of reading this with hindsight on the 50th anniversary of the Liberation War of Bangladesh, the book itself contains an exceptional analysis of the trajectory of a failing state, with predictions that range from astute to borderline psychic. 

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Jahan's thesis statement is simply that East Pakistan was, from the start, doomed to split, and not just due to being an exclave. To prove this, she steps through each period of Pakistan's history with incredible care, objectively presenting facts supported by well-researched data, and drawing out logical reasoning for every event. She lays bare the cogs behind political machinations, and presents us with a deep study of the disparity between the two wings. We know inequalities existed, but why did they? Jahan delves deeper into the background of these issues, gives us a clearer picture, and shows us how, even with leaders constantly striving to build one strong nation, a united Pakistan was always going to be a near impossible dream.

This book contains a contemporaneous study of historic truths we know as citizens of an independent Bangladesh, and provides us with crucial context to help our understanding of its birth. The study explores the contrast between the unity amongst the East Pakistani Bengali population rooted in a common language and a highly fragmented population of West Pakistan who had little in common, and how that led to the Muslim League leaders of new-born Pakistan spending a decade trying to unite a divided country based on a shared religion. However, Jahan correctly observes, the establishment of Pakistan presumed the existence of one Indian Muslim society and culture and completely disregarded regional variations. 

This was followed by another decade of focusing on unity through economic development under Ayub Khan, all while ignoring the specific needs and differences of each wing. We get a deeper view of how Ayub Khan concentrated power in the centre and emphasised on GDP growth instead of distribution of wealth, which exacerbated regional and socioeconomic gaps. Even when government policies facilitated growth for Bengalis, the West wing benefitted much more in comparison. 

For example, the regime's policy of economic development through private enterprise helped create an entrepreneurial elite class in the country who virtually owned all businesses and industries. This class was led by 20 or 30 families, but none of them were Bengali. Even when administrative power was delegated to the provinces, the central government could still intervene, or not approve, finances, meaning the power held by the provincial governments was just in name. 

Ayub Khan continuously rejected reform ideas put forward by Bengali intelligentsia that would solve these issues in the name of maintaining the national cohesion of Pakistan. Bengalis attempting to move forward were held back by a system that was never made for them, which led to two and a half decades of frustration being built up and exploding into the civil war that earned us our sovereignty. 

Rounaq Jahan's insight is arguably most evident when she illustrates the thought processes behind policy decisions implemented by the Pakistani government. The thoughts of leaders, from Partition to Independence, are carefully extrapolated from their words and their actions, and presented with clarity and simplicity for readers to bear witness. The likes of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Ayub Khan, and Yahya Khan cease being larger than life historical figures, and become fleshed out political leaders making the best out of a bad situation, while maintaining their own interests. Through her careful recounting of events, Jahan shows how their conflicting philosophies regarding nation building, and the tumultuous changing of leadership, only accelerated the inevitable crumbling of the nation.

There are a few sobering lessons to be learned from Jahan's study. The leadership ignored differences between the two provinces and refused to adapt to the needs of the people. Their goal was to bend the two parts of Pakistan into their desired shape, but instead of succumbing to that will, the country broke. This provides a stark reminder that the goal of policy-making should be to understand what people need and create a system that adapts to the needs of the people and improves their lives, instead of attempting to force citizens into an unyielding ideal the policymaker holds. The more rigid and forced a system is, the easier it will snap. 

Jahan also observes, astutely, that independent Bangladesh has inherited totalitarian practices introduced by the Pakistani ruling class including state interference in political institutions, fundamental rights and media, and use of religion and misinformation to influence public opinion. Pakistan: Failure in National Integration illustrates the importance of methodical study of society, politics, and the economy to understand and ensure that the relevant system is on the right track, and to circumvent the mistakes of the past from recurring again. Her rigorous analysis and accurate prediction of Pakistan's implosion demonstrates what happens when leaders and policymakers ignore warning signs and do as they please. The lessons we get from the book are timeless, and will forever be a pertinent read for those questioning what unites, or divides, individuals as people and as nations.

Yaameen Al-Muttaqi works with robots and writes stories of dragons, magic, friendship, and hope. Send him a raven at

Moneesha R Kalamder is editor-in-chief at Rantages. She reads everything and mostly writes comedy. Reach her at


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