Straight Talk

Tragedy of errors

In Bangladesh we like to pride ourselves on the observation that whenever the Bangladeshi people have been given the opportunity to vote their consciences, that we have delivered wise, responsible, and mature political judgements.
This interpretation of history takes as a starting point the 1954 provincial elections that brought the United Front to power, and continues through the 1970 national assembly elections that afforded the AL its massive majority that helped pave the way for an independent Bangladesh.
The next election to be generally accepted as free and fair came in 1991, in which the Bangladeshi people shocked the political classes when they voted the BNP to power, contrary to the conventional wisdom and despite the fact that the AL was at the time a far more formidable and established political machine.
Nor can the public's political judgement be faulted for the unceremonious removal of the BNP from office in 1996 or for voting the AL out of power in 2001.
But the point that I wish to make is that this narrative is only convincing if we start our calculations in 1954 and overlook the most consequential election ever held in this land, the election of 1946, in which, it can be argued, that the people (or at least one community) of the land that is now Bangladesh made a fateful choice, from which all sub-continental history since then flows.
Following the 1946 elections, Bengal, where the Muslim League won 110 seats out of 117 reserved for Muslims, provided the only provincial League ministry, and it was both the support of Bengali Muslims for Pakistan as well as their political control of the province that eventually provided the foundation and impetus for partition and Pakistan.
But one cannot be too hard on Bengali Muslims for their steadfast support for the Muslim League, and thus ultimately for Pakistan, throughout the 1940s. As Mr. Islam points out in his superb piece printed opposite, the true watershed moment came in the aftermath of the 1936 elections when the Congress declined to form a coalition ministry with Fazlul Huq's KPP and independents, leaving the opening for the League to join forces with the non-aligned Muslim political power-houses in the region and to eventually dominate East Bengal politics.
Thus, by the time 1946 came along, the Bengali Muslims were squarely in the League camp, and there were no other realistic options available. How and why politicians of the acumen and calibre of Fazlul Huq and H.S. Suhrawardy permitted themselves to be played by Jinnah, who turned on them as soon they had served their purpose, and be used as his generals in the battle for the creation of a country that served neither their personal political interest nor that of their constituencies, is another question.
How might history have unfolded differently? One alternative to partition could have been a united federated Indian sub-continent along the lines laid out by the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946, perhaps the most ingenious and comprehensive effort to accommodate both Muslim League and Congress demands prior to independence. However, by 1947, this possibility or any similar one was long dead and buried.
A second alternative would have been for a united Bengal to be incorporated into Pakistan, i.e. Pakistan without partition. However, this possibility was scotched on June 20, 1947 in the Bengal Legislative Assembly, when members of the non-Muslim-majority areas of Bengal voted 58-21 for partition. However, given the fact that the assembly as a whole had voted (more or less along communal lines) 126-90 for Pakistan, this is understandable.
Finally, there was the possibility of a United Bengal, as proposed by H.S. Suhrawardy and Sarat Chandra Bose, which, though it had the support of other prominent Bengali Congress and League leaders such as Abul Hashim and Kiran Shankar Roy, was opposed by others, and was eventually snuffed out by the two parties' central leaderships.
In the end, there was partition which split Bengal for good and led (for Bangladeshis) to 24 years of oppression.
Partition is a difficult subject for Bangladeshis. The conventions of patriotism seem to require that we never suggest that partition was a mistake and that the sub-continent would have been better off remaining in one piece, regardless of the fact that to any impartial observer this seems more or less self-evident.
The argument against partition is bolstered, in the Bangladeshi case, by the recognition that Pakistan, as originally conceived and created, was a travesty of a nation, built on entirely flawed concepts. But this recognition, interestingly, does not seem to translate into the corollary understanding that partition itself was a mistake. It is as though to argue that partition was a mistake is to argue that Bangladesh should not exist, since without partition there would be no Bangladesh.
But I don't see it that way. It seems to me that there is no necessary contradiction in acknowledging that Pakistan was a fallacious concept to begin with and in being a patriotic Bangladeshi, even though Bangladesh exists as a sovereign nation only in the context of a reaction to the creation of the nation of Pakistan.
So let me run the risk of having my patriotism questioned by stating that it seems to me incontestable that partition was a mistake.
However, I would like to finish here by quoting eminent Indian columnist and editor, M.J. Akbar, who has written eloquently about the three partitions of the sub-continent. We all know about the partition of 1947 and the partition (if you will) of 1971. But, according to Akbar, it was the partition of 1965 which has had the most far reaching consequences and which is the one that we should aim to reverse.
Prior to 1965, the borders between India and Pakistan were more or less open and goods and people traveled back and forth freely. It was in the run-up to the 1965 war that the borders were permanently closed and have remained so ever since (even after 1971). It is this partition that has kept the peoples of the three countries apart from one another and that has cleaved the sub-continent into three, and while we will forever remain three sovereign nations, it is this partition that it is in all of our powers and all of our interests to reverse.
Indeed, going forward, there is no reason why we Bangladeshis cannot enjoy the best of all worlds. There is no need to sacrifice our sovereignty and our national pride to avail ourselves of all the advantages of a united sub-continent.
As geographic and demographic imperatives and inevitabilities become impossible to resist and we move closer and closer towards total regional integration and cooperation, we will gain the benefits of a united federated Indian sub-continent as envisaged by the Cabinet Mission Plan 60 years ago.
But as an added bonus, Bangladeshis will, at the same time, be able to enjoy what no other sub-continental community -- neither the Sindhis nor the Tamils nor the Punjabis nor the Gujaratis nor even our Bengali brethren across the border -- can boast: our own nation, our own flag, our own cricket team -- in short, our sovereignty.
All things considered, and against all the odds, perhaps it didn't work out so badly for us in the end, after all.

Zafar Sobhan is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.


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