Yet another political history and an afterthought
Political history is fascinating because it offers an insight into the genesis of political institutionalization, or the failure to do so, in any particular country. Political history, not infrequently, is a bone of contention because that insight might, and often does, take the form of diverse interpretations, which might only partially agree, or be at significant variance, with one another. The fact remains that Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign independent nation-state from the province of East Bengal, which was subsequently renamed East Pakistan. The fact also remains that the interpretation in the context of this emergence is often as diverse as the authors offering the explanation, and is inevitably influenced by new information coming to light. Therefore, any new work on political history will, in all probability, not be the final word on the subject, especially since new evidence regarding the emergence will continue to materialize for the foreseeable future.
Shaikh Maqsood Ali's From East Bengal to Bangladesh: Dynamics and Perspectives is one such work. It constitutes a part of the publisher's "Road to Bangladesh Series". The author, even though having a few axes to grind, and his own perspectives to air out, does not appear to have any particular agenda to champion, unless one considers sympathy for social justice as one. Ali lays out his objective at the outset: "This Book tries to throw some light on the overall predicaments of Former Pakistan and shows that the deeper reason for the dismemberment of Former Pakistan had been substantially 'structural'." If those capitalizations appear odd, there is a variety of them spread throughout the book, like Institutional Developments, News Paper, and others.
The author has advanced several propositions to support his structural hypothesis for Pakistan's dismemberment. Much of what he says is encapsulated in these sentences: "…over the long years of history, West Pakistan had developed itself as a feudal-tribal/caste-military dominated socio-political culture with a clear preference for authoritarian and centralized rule while East Bengal had emerged as a significantly successful fighter challenging its own feudal system with distinct preference for reform in the direction of representative governance and pro-people social change. Therefore, when in 1947, the two regions came under one polity at the end of the colonial rule, it was, not surprising for the people of East Bengal to find the West Pakistani power elites more interested in consolidating their power rather than handing it over to the people's representatives. Therefore, Former Pakistan, right from its beginning, seemed to be "one country" with "two societies" at "two different stages" on the historical development scale."
Ali painstakingly chronicles the separate paths that West Pakistan and East Bengal (he consistently retains this nomenclature for the region except for using "Bangladesh" where relevant) had historically gone through before merging into Pakistan. He draws on the pre-British and the British periods to highlight various issues that emphasized differences in societal development, ethnic makeup, culture, and economic activity, among others, between the two. "West Pakistan's structured society," the author contends, "its tradition of the Punjab administrative systems and its military organization made its people familiar with strong preference for a 'strong executive' and 'paternalistic authoritative rule'." At the end of which, he poses the obvious question: "Thus East Bengal and West Pakistan differed significantly in terms of social structure and political culture and so the question of the hour was: could the two different cultures form a viable State?" The answer, of course, was resoundingly given in 1971. Demonstrating his social outlook as much as a thoughtful what-should-have-been-done in nation-building of two almost mutually exclusive nations, Ali ponders: "…a Bengali ascendancy to power in Former Pakistan appeared to be 'historical necessity' for initiating drastic pro-people social change in West Pakistan."
Possibly because of his civil service background and higher education in Economics, the author gives much emphasis on the bureaucratic and economic factors that served to alienate the Bengalis against the West Pakistani ruling class. He refers to differences between what he calls the British colonial Punjab and Bengal systems to stress this point. The Punjab Administration system in Northwest India emphasized greater centralization, weaker local government and more discretionary power in the local administrators' hands, while the Bengal Administrative System stressed greater decentralization, local governance, and law and order. The Bengal system, to the British, appeared to be over-legalistic and slow, while the Punjab system seemed to be paternalistic, but swift in handling problems. For colonial purposes, the British preferred the Punjab system, and, consequently, in conjunction with a few other factors, the higher civil services and the armed forces saw domination by people from Northwest India. This preponderance of the Punjab system and personnel in the key services became even more stark when Pakistan came into being, a factor that was crucial in depriving the Bengalis of their legitimate political and economic rights, with catastrophic consequences for the country. The first concerted political reaction of the Bengalis to their sense of subjugation came in February 1950, when a Grand National Convention, presided over sequentially by Ataur Rahman Khan and Kamruddin Ahmed, was held in Dhaka. Its significance is articulated by the author: "This was the foundation of what the East Bengal leaders described later as the struggle of Bengali emancipation from West Pakistani domination."
Ali, like others before, and undoubtedly since, him, discusses the major political events that culminated in the birth of Bangladesh. Two observations in this context deserve mention for their insight and import: "The significance of the 1954 election in East Bengal was great: it was not only a protest against the Punjabi dominated Central Government; it also marked a new phase of social revolution within East Bengal." And, "…the higher civil servants of Former Pakistan were responsible to a great extent for the failure of the Parliamentary system in the country." The overwhelming majority of these higher civil servants were from West Pakistan. The author provides an extensive account of this phenomenon, including the manifold machinations that led to the grabbing of central governmental power by some of them.
Ali devotes several pages to the political, economic, and social development scenario of sovereign independent Bangladesh. Among other observations may be found a couple of sobering ones that serve to highlight the dysfunctions that this country is afflicted with: "By and large these rising middleclass elites in Bangladesh shared semi-feudal values --- although they spoke rhetorically about social and economic justice for the poor particularly during the pre-independence days." And, after the fall of the HM Ershad regime: "…although democracy had (been) restored in the country, the reluctance of the upper middle class political power elite to share political and economic power with the poor did not change much."
From East Bengal to Bangladesh contains more than its fair share of poor punctuation (especially the use of the comma), and a few spelling and grammatical errors have crept in. And there are some factual mistakes, and confusing or contradictory information. Sikhs are Punjabis just like the Punjabi Muslims and Hindus. The statement, "the President himself became the Chairman of the Planning Commission" is followed a few pages later by "the Chairman of the Planning Commission being given the status of a minister…." And Iskander Mirza cannot be Pakistan's third Governor General only to become its fourth Governor General a few pages down, while Ghulam Muhammad becomes the third! Notwithstanding these shortcomings and quirks, From East Bengal to Bangladesh: Dynamics and Perspectives is an illuminating addition to the growing literature on the political history of Bangladesh.