Ask for a piece on Pakistan and Bangladesh during December and you’re likely to get something about the 1971 wars — note the plural, because the eastern part of the subcontinent simultaneously experienced an inter-ethnic civil war and ethno-communal cleansing, genocide, inter-state conventional war and a war of national liberation, all climaxing in the crisp Bengali winter of 1971. Naeem Mohaiemen’s seven part series is an example, covering many aspects of that fateful year. Let me skip 1971 in this post. Instead, I’ll begin by marking the other December anniversary, one that will have a particular relevance for Pakistan and Bangladesh in 2013. And I’ll note the parallels between the post-1971 developments in the two wings of former United Pakistan.
A year before the guns fell silent in Bangladesh, peoples of Pakistan — with two wings then — voted in the first election in their history held on universal suffrage. The elections, supervised under an army regime, were accepted as free and fair by all parties.
Why did the army — which ruled directly for the previous 12 years, and exerted a heavy influence for the remainder of the country’s history until then, and sadly since, as we shall discuss below — allow free elections?
It was partly because the army feared a repeat of the 1968-69 urban uprising — proportionately speaking, larger than anything seen anywhere in the world in 2011 — which toppled the regime of Ayub Khan. The junta that came to power figured that relatively moderate politicians like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto might be easier to deal with than the radical students who swore by Che Guevara and Chairman Mao. The army intelligence also expected a divided parliament, with Mujib’s Awami League winning no more than a third of the seats, Bhutto’s People’s Party getting even less, leaving a dozen or so pro-army and so-called Islam-pasand parties taking the rest.
Of course, the army calculations were way off. The election produced a resounding victory for Bhutto in the west — whose party won 83 out of 138 seats. But this landslide was dwarfed by Mujib’s, whose party won 160 of 162 seats in the east — one of the clearest mandate anyone received in history. And both men proved intransigent after the election. Bhutto could not afford to sit in the opposition benches and lose the ‘bastion of power’ that was (West) Pakistani establishment. The junta’s bigger problem, however, was Mujib, for whom the six-points formula of maximum autonomy for the eastern wing was non-negotiable. The wars of 1971 were the result of the army’s final miscalculation to launch the Operation Searchlight.
Both Pakistan and Bangladesh will hold elections in 2013. Neither elections will be under martial law. Both countries have popularly elected, civilian governments, which will finish their terms, and seek re-election. Questions of army calculations about whether to allow an election or not simply do not arise in either country.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that neither elections are expected to go as smoothly as the ones in more mature democracies, including both countries’ common neighbour. The risk of army intervention — which may well be welcomed by an uncomfortably large section of their respective establishments — remains high in both countries. Over four decades after the first free and fair election, representative democracy — never mind any notion of participatory democracy — is yet to take root in the successor states of the former two-winged Pakistan.
Indeed, it’s remarkable to see the parallels in the post-1971 political developments of the two countries.
A magical realist masterpiece, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children has weird and improbable events and people juxtaposed against the history of the 20th century South Asia up to the late 1970s. One such improbable, and yet true, event was that at the time of writing, and thus the story’s culmination, military rulers of the erstwhile two wings of Pakistan had the same first name. Both successor states started with larger-than-life charismatic leaders, whose rules ended in tragic denouement inconceivable in 1972. Both states experienced long periods of direct army rule. In both countries, electoral democracy has meant two mutually antagonistic parties/coalitions who differ little on policy, but much on personality and the thirst for power over patronage and privilege. Both countries have experienced increasing religious extremism. More recently, in both countries, judiciary and media are experimenting with new found powers, not always to the best effect.
Throw in the political economy of NGO-led development in Bangladesh, or the misfortune of being next to a theatre of the Great Game for Pakistan, and it’s easier to see why democracy may have had such a hard time in these countries. Indeed, with increasing NGO activities in Pakistan and the Great Game coming to Myanmar — a theatre closer to Bangladesh — both countries have much to learn from each other’s recent misfortune.
Let me end with one particular lesson from the 1970s that both governments seeking re-election in 2013 should not forget.
From the vantage point of December 1971, one might have expected some form of military involvement in Bangladeshi politics. The nucleus of the Bangladesh army was the victorious Mukti Bahini, and its commanders like Ziaur Rahman might have expected some say in the new country’s affairs — historically, states founded by guns tend to give armed men some (if not all) power. It should have been a different matter in what was left of Pakistan.
If there was a state where the army rule, directly or otherwise, should have been thoroughly repudiated, it should have been Pakistan after December 1971. Army rule had lost half the country. A quarter of the army itself was taken prisoner-of-war by the ‘hated enemy’. The country was bankrupt, with its major port damaged. The idea that generals could save Pakistan should have died in the bloodbath of Dhaka.
Of course, it didn’t.
Bhutto used the army to silence legitimate dissent in Balochistan. And then, in 1977, he tried to rig an election that he might have won anyway, resulting in months of street violence and political gridlock, which paved the way for Gen Zia-ul-Huq’s grim rule.
Fast forward to 2013 and the coming elections. Army’s corporate interests, real and perceived threats of violent jihad, global geo-political machinations — all these factors notwithstanding, the most likely trigger for yet another ‘rescue operation’ by the generals in either country will be the politicians’ inability to hold a free and fair election and honour the results.
A December prayer for the two wings then — hold the elections, heed the results.
(This was written in December 2012 for a Pakistani magazine. I missed the deadline. It’s cross-posted in Mukti.
For the first time in its history, a democratically elected, civilian government has completed a term in Pakistan.)