As Prime Minister Imran Khan’s newly elected government pushes forward its vision of a ‘Naya (New) Pakistan’, it is important that the lessons learnt from the country’s troubled past also be kept mind. These include lessons learnt not only from the sub-continent’s colonial past, but also from the series of events that inevitably led to the East Pakistan debacle. While much has been written on the country’s struggle for independence from colonial rule, there exists a glaring lack of honest introspection into the events that led to the secession of East Pakistan. As 16th December, the date of Pakistan’s surrender of its Eastern Wing quietly passes by, it is worth revisiting why this ignominy has been more or less self-censored as part of the country’s national discourse.
As many scholars have noted over the last few decades, Pakistan’s history has itself become a site of contestation amongst various commentators. The very idea of an official narrative, with all its discursive underpinnings is one that has been argued against consistently by some of the country’s leading scholars. These arguments have themselves become enshrined in much lauded works such as K.K Aziz’s seminal ‘The Murder of History’ or for instance Ayesha Jalal’s ‘The Sole Spokesman’. With an emphasis on deconstructing the country’s dominant historical narrative, a common theme running throughout these works is the call for greater introspection from which to perceive and contextualize the present. By taking a step back and laying bare the many myths that have been propagated as part of Pakistan’s culture and identity, it is important that the lessons learnt from our troubled past are employed in the present, lest we remain doomed of repeating the same mistakes over and again.
Applying this approach to the history of East Pakistan, the consensual narrative that is widely presented revolves around how it was Indian interference that primarily led to the secession of a key territory comprising of 55% of the country’s overall population. It attributes India’s long-standing animosity towards Pakistan as the primary cause for the creation of Bangladesh. Hence, in the vast majority of history text-books being taught in schools throughout Pakistan, the emphasis has largely been on how India served as the architect of this traumatic and psychological setback to Pakistan, severing the close historical, cultural, and religious ties that had once bound East Pakistan together with its Western wing.
What this narrative completely ignores however is the decades of neglect, mismanagement and systemic marginalization of East Pakistan’s population at the hands of the dominant status quo in Pakistan’s Western wing. Politically under-represented, economically marginalized and even culturally ostracized, one wonders what recourse was left to these citizens who had merely traded colonial subjugation under the British, for second-class citizenship within a newly independent Pakistan. While India did play a dominant military role in the 1972 conflict which eventually led to the creation of Bangladesh; laying the blame entirely on Indian interference is ignoring the decades of policies and systemic marginalization for which the then governments of Pakistan are largely to blame. Not to mention the unprecedented violence which the Pakistani military resorted to in its last ditch efforts at maintaining its control over the Eastern Wing.
It is no surprise that based on the prevailing politics of the South Asian region, this narrative which emphasizes Indian interference has been further reinforced over the last seven decades’ animosity between India and Pakistan. In fact, drawing on the steady deterioration of Indo-Pak ties, it remains hostage to the prevailing accusations of cross-border terrorism and state-sponsored unrest currently being leveled by both countries against one another. Pakistan for instance has repeatedly pointed out that India has long been fomenting unrest in Balochistan and its adjoining tribal areas, in effect waging a proxy war along the same lines as it did in former East Pakistan. There exists credible evidence linking certain militant groups operating within these areas directly with the Indian state and military.
However, owing to the heavily securitized nature of Pakistan–India relations, such claims and activities have over the years sadly become accepted as the norm rather than the exception. This ‘normalization’ has in turn allowed previous Pakistani governments to easily attribute widespread underdevelopment and the lack of security within the country to the nefarious ‘external hand’ of foreign powers.
Hence, while there is a certain truth to the considerable extent to which India’s nefarious designs have impacted the country’s progress and development, this should not be used as an excuse for the Pakistani government’s own lack of policy and proper governance. This holds especially true for some of Pakistan’s most marginalized regions.
There is no denying that there has for instance existed a very real historic marginalization of the people of Balochistan as well as the tribal areas to the North. There exists even today a glaring lack of infrastructure development as well as a severe dearth of basic public goods such as education and healthcare. While these factors alone may not warrant a full-fledged secessionist movement, they do create certain conditions to be exploited by the state’s adversaries.
If the prevailing narrative regarding East Pakistan is taken as an example, there is still perhaps a long way to go before the Pakistani state fully accepts and takes ownership of its own shortcomings with regard to its development focus. If Pakistan is to better insulate these troubled areas from external influences, what’s required is an honest and deep introspection on how to truly re-prioritize the country’s economic development and governance agenda. If not, then history shows that there is unlikely to be anything Naya (New) in the newly elected government’s vision for Pakistan.