Pakistan and Bangladesh are separately traveling in the same direction, toward erasure from the political maps of the future.
Pakistan ceased to exist 40 years ago. The secession, in 1971, of East Pakistan on the grounds of being Bengali rather than Muslim conclusively disproved the Two Nation Theory—even for those who had believed in it in the first place. If Pakistan wasn’t the homeland for South Asia’s Muslims, what was it? After the war, Pakistan could have rethought the basis of its existence as a political entity but didn’t. Instead, the Pakistan which remained tried to carry on, pretending that it was still the land of South Asia’s Muslims, just smaller … It never figured out why it should exist as a nation-state, and that combined with poor governance and major geostrategic factors have brought the country to a pass where its further dissolution is now argued increasingly in terms of when and how, not if.
Strange legacies also stalk the other South Asian states involved in this ‘second Partition’ of the subcontinent. India, in particular its Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, seemed crystal clear about the strategic aim of dismembering its implacable enemy. Who could possibly resist the opportunity proffered on a platter by the blundering regime in Pakistan in 1971? That part of India’s strategy is understandable, and it ended with a total triumph for India politically, militarily and diplomatically.
What is odd is India’s decision to continue—even reinforce—the Partition, which it has always lamented as a great calamity, visited on the subcontinent by the religious politics of the Muslim League and the ‘divide and rule’ parting shot of the departing British. Generations of Indians have grown up learning that the emergence of a secular, democratic republic encompassing the entire region at the end of empire in India had been spoiled by Jinnah, whose intransigence the colonial rulers had been only too happy to encourage. Partition was seen by Indians as an amputation, a disfigurement of Mother India. For the votaries of Pakistan (like for those who supported an independent Bangladesh later), it was a new beginning, the birth of a nation. But given the clear opportunity in 1971 to reverse the Partition of 1947 at least in the East, why didn’t Indira Gandhi incorporate East Pakistan into India?
It’s not like Gandhi had an unshakeable respect for the territorial sovereignty of other countries. She had, after all, boldly invaded East Pakistan to advance the strategic interests of India, and probably her personal political interests as well, and she showed no hesitation in annexing Sikkim in 1975. By the mid-1970s, she had reduced Sheikh Abdullah of Kashmir to such a state that he bowed to becoming chief minister of an Indian state. Why did she not offer Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father of Bangladesh, a similar deal?
Mujib had swept the 1970 Pakistani elections and was negotiating until the very end with West Pakistan’s military junta and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to rightfully take office as the country’s prime minister. Mujib—and many others in East Pakistan—had been demanding provincial autonomy, not independence. Surely provincial autonomy within the larger and more powerful India would have been even better. After 1971, had Mujib ruled a sizable state in democratic India at the head of a secular party, he might one day have made a bid to become prime minister of India! Yet despite the constant lament about the 1947 partition, India preferred not to reverse it and to simply stick a different label on the amputated limb of East Pakistan and leave it where it was.
India did not even take a critical piece of territorial reward in exchange for gifting the Bangladeshis a new nation-state. Indians have long been aware that the famous victory over Pakistan was achieved at great cost to India, not only in terms of bearing the burden of about 10 million refugees who had fled to India but also in lives lost of thousands of Indian troops. Many subsequently complained that not enough had been wrung out of Pakistan in the negotiations that followed. Yet this, too, reflects a strange preoccupation with Islamabad when the war had been fought over the territory in the east. What about what India could have demanded from the Bangladeshis before withdrawing? Why not, in the very least, take a swathe of territory across the northern part of what is today Bangladesh for better access to the Indian northeast? That would have solved the chicken-neck problem India has faced since the borders of 1947 were created, and connect to its northeastern states, all of which have been ravaged by multiple insurgencies and state repression for the entire post-independence period.
Relations between India and Bangladesh began to sour almost simultaneously with the victory celebrations of December 1971, and India came to view Bangladesh as a problem. Both countries have long-running disputes over river waters; there have been numerous incidents of violence between their border forces; and Indian politicians allege that millions of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh have crossed into India through the porous borders. They also complain that insurgents fighting India find refuge in Bangladesh, and, perhaps most ironically, they claim that Bangladesh has proved fertile ground for Pakistani intelligence operations against India.
To deal with some of these problems, India has been building a fence around Bangladesh. It seems to think it can put an entire country inside a cage. But it is not content with placing the country, which it created, in a sort of massive, collective house arrest. Through the heart of this caged population, India wants a road for itself to reach its northeastern states. One fears for the Indian personnel who would be traversing this road under the gaze of a populace held prisoner in their own land. What might happen to them? Visions of what happened to those who were unwelcome in East Pakistan in 1971 come to mind. What would be India’s reaction when similar things start happening to its own citizens? Yet the fence-and-road scheme has been progressing for a while without enough audible voices pointing out that this is an unworkable project.
The troubled relationship with India, along with its paralytic politics and external factors such as global warming and rising sea levels, contributes to the existential threat faced by Bangladesh. Despite its impressive performance in terms of some key socioeconomic indicators such as school enrolment and gender parity in enrolment—the exact causes of which are unclear given Bangladesh’s debilitating politics and rampant corruption—the combined force of the structural problems is likely to prove insurmountable. Though Pakistan seems to have advanced farther along the road to implosion, Bangladesh is treading a similar path.
After 1971 it was widely presumed that Bangladesh had escaped the identity problems of Pakistan by replacing the religious identity of Islam with a linguistic-cultural one of being Bengali. Bangladesh certainly seemed a far more homogenous entity than Pakistan (or India), which was thought to make for a more cohesive society. The problem is that the linguistic-cultural identity of being Bengali cannot serve as the justification for Bangladesh. Because the emergence of Bangladesh was reported in terms of Bengali nationalism, it is far too often forgotten that at least 40 percent of the world’s Bengalis are not Bangladeshis. They are Indian Bengalis (including a sizable minority of Muslims), living mostly in West Bengal but also dispersed all over India and the world. Nor is Bangladesh the exclusive homeland for Bengali Muslims: it still contains a Hindu minority and tribal hill peoples. Indian Bengalis, whether Hindu or Muslim, are not clamoring to join Bangladesh. Indeed, they seem content to be part of the larger, multiethnic entity that is India. Nor do Bangladeshi politicians claim to represent the Bengalis of India. So Bangladesh is not a homeland for Bengalis any more than Pakistan was a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims.
Even more interesting is the fact that there was once a political proposal based on true Bengali nationalism, which was rejected by the majority of Bengalis and has not been revived to date. In 1947, the Indian nationalist leader Sarat Chandra Bose tried to prevent the partition of Bengal by forging a pact with the Muslim League, but he found no takers in the Indian National Congress and among his fellow Bengali Hindus. His proposal was rejected and he was ostracized in newly independent India for his efforts. Bose’s ideas appear to have no political following in either India or Bangladesh, despite the occasional syrupy rhetoric from sections of the West Bengali literati. There is no visible movement calling for the reversal of the 1947 partition and the unification of Bengal on either side of the Radcliffe line in Bengal.
Because of the nationalist and secessionist sentiment in Balochistan and reports of severe state repression, many people think that Balochistan is Pakistan’s present day East Pakistan. This is erroneous. The sad fact is that state repression and human rights violations—as reportedly happening in Balochistan and as happened in East Pakistan—are common to both India and Pakistan. They are the inevitable result of the tussle between an over-centralized state and decentralization demands from its provinces. Balochistan is different from East Pakistan because Baloch nationalists did not accept from the start their incorporation into the newly created Pakistan. In this Balochistan is similar to parts of India’s northeast, where many tribal peoples, such as the Nagas, similarly challenged their absorption into India. Princely states such as Kalat or Manipur dispute their accession as obtained under duress. East Bengal, on the other hand, was at the heart of the Pakistan movement. The quarrel here was not with accession to Pakistan, but with the share of power and patronage thereafter.
The 21st century is likely to witness a major reorganization of political boundaries in South Asia: 1971 was but an unfinished sequel to 1947. In such an upheaval the Baloch territories are likely to go their own way, and other tribal regions along Pakistan’s western borders may also complete the irrelevance of colonial lines drawn through clans and kin. To the extent that the 21st century is really China’s century rather than Asia’s, the regions east of the Gangetic plains are likely to come under the direct or indirect influence of China. The leaders of South Asia could meet in a grand conference to manage the orderly redrawing of borders as well as the establishment of new federal structures of governance across the subcontinent, but there is little prospect of such an endeavor, hence the changes—when they come—are likely to be chaotic and messy.
It is not as though Pakistan and Bangladesh had no chance of survival no matter how problematic their origins. If they had justified their existence merely as accidents of history rather than through particular identities and focused on good governance, they may well have emerged as stable and prosperous entities. However, on the basis of trends so far, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which parted 40 years ago, are separately traveling in the same direction, toward erasure from the political maps of the future.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 23, 2011, issue of Newsweek Pakistan. Politics in Spires is grateful for permission to reproduce it here.
Sarmila Bose is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for International Studies, Department of Politics and International Relations, and author of Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War.