Why Countries Break? Lessons from Breakup of pre-1971 Pakistan

By | on May 28, 2015 | 0 Comment

pak war‘Wrong political decisions are like tuberculosis, easy to cure but difficult to detect in the beginning; once belated they become easy to detect but difficult to cure.’



Most of the present day developing countries are the ex-colonies of European powers which, after the dissolution of the colonial empires, got independence. Majority got new borders with new ethnic, racial and cultural identities. Some were entirely new nations accommodated in newly-carved states with arbitrarily drawn borders. Pakistanis one such country which came into existence as an independent nation-state on August 14, 1947 after the dissolution of the BritishIndian Empire.

Pakistan was carved out of erstwhile Indiansubcontinent to provide a homeland to those Indian Muslims who perceived themselves to be a distinct nation on the basis of several markers of nationhood. One of these markers, anda predominant one, was their Islamic identity.They did not want to live in a post-colonial united India which would be dominated by the Hindus, fearing economic injustices, political marginalisation and social subservience. After a short struggle, mostly nonviolent as compared to the experience of other countries which got independence in the post-World War 11, Indian Muslims were able to get a separate homeland for them in 1947.

However just after 25 years of its existence as an independent sovereignstate, Pakistan broke into two pieces- thefirst though not the last, post-colonial state to suffer this fate. Its bifurcation into two independent states has been subject of intense debate since then because it was one of the most significant events in modern history after the conclusion of the Second World War.

In the succeeding paragraphs, we will discuss the major reasons for the breakup of Pakistan and learn lessons from this momentous event.

Causes of Breakup

Like all momentous events, separation of East Pakistan from the united Pakistan and gaining independence, had deep historical roots and varied social, economic and political reasons. As it is difficult, almost impossible to pinpoint a single cause for this complex issue, we can discuss it under the following five headings whose synergetic impact resulted in the dismemberment of pre-1971 Pakistan namely (a) HistoricalBaggage (b) PoliticalGovernance (c) Economic Management (d) Social Dissonance and (d) Regional and global geopolitics.

Historical Baggage

Pakistan inherited more than 8,50,000 km of land mass which was divided in two wings one of which was only 15 %of the total but contained 54 %of the population. In between these two wings lay 1600 km of hostile country waiting and hoping for the collapse of the new state sooner rather than later. Newly carved out state of Pakistan contained 5 major and more than 12 minor nationalities which no doubt had successfully launched a movement for the creation of an independent nation-state of their own but were a far cry from calling themselves a one nation.However, despite all the above mentioned diversity, theprovinces, states and regions comprising West Pakistan had several markers of becoming a nation over a period of time. Geographical contiguity of the territories comprising West Pakistan, their racial stock, Islamicfervour of the people   and the  common script of their languages (i.e.  Arabic) spoken in these regions were fairly sufficient indicators of their becoming a distinct nation in not so far future.

On the other hand Bengal,part of which became East Pakistan, was a different ball game. Although Bengali Muslims took active part in the creation of Pakistan, their homeland was destined to be a separate nation-state from the start. Separated from West Pakistan by 1000 miles of hostile territory, its people were of different racial stock with distinct cultural identity and spoke a completely different language. British Indian Government’s decision of 1880 to change thescript ofthe Bengali language from Arabic, which is the same script in which Urdu is written, and replacing itby Deva Nagri script can be the starting point for the creation of Bangladesh.

Bengali Muslims, who chose to opt for Pakistan, shared only their religion with the people of other provinces in West Pakistan, which was too weak a bond to keep them attached to their compatriots under a single flag.Two Nation Theory which provided moral and political justification for the division of India, was neither relevant for integrating these two distinct nationalities nor sufficient to create a new nation which demanded far more than mere religious affinity. A prescient indication of their destiny as two separate independent nation-states was given in the 1940 Lahore Resolution which demanded division of India on religious basis but proposed two Muslim states. Keeping these two nation-states under one federation was a Herculean task which needed a long term vision incorporated in appropriate institutional arrangements and implemented by a capable leadership. With few exceptions, those who ruled Pakistan after her creation as an independent state woefully lacked qualities of great statesmanship.

Another historical baggage was the vast disparity in terms of level of economic development and political representation between the two wings comprising Pakistan. Bengal remained economically underdeveloped and underrepresented in political set up and organs of the state during the colonial period, more by choice and less by defaultfor many diverse reasons.Firstly, even if we disregard the hypothesis that Bengal was punished for its role in 1857 uprising, it was not prudent to develop it industriallyas it directly competed with Britain in textile manufacturing; its development would have adversely affected the British exports. Secondly developing infrastructure in flood prone region was not as cost effective, beneficial and strategically important as central and northern India. Thirdly, commercial importance of Calcutta relegated the need for the development of east Bengal into secondary position.

Same was the case in terms of administrative and political representationin governance structures and organs of the state. Bengalis in general and Bengali Muslims in particular had been systematically kept out of the decision making processes in Colonial India after the cataclysmic events of 1857 which had created serious doubts about the loyalty of the Bengalis towards British rulers. In contrast, regions and nationalities of northern India, which played the decisive role in crushing the rebellion, got very preferential treatment in their representation in institutions responsible for policy formulation and implementation. Resultantly Bengali Muslims had scant representation in state organs like armed forces, law enforcement agencies, civilian bureaucracy etc. during the colonial period. Pakistan inherited this vast disparity but took too much time to rectify these historical injustices.

Consequently when British Indian Empire dissolved, the two wings constituting Pakistan were far apart, not only geographically but also economically despite the fact that the areas becoming part of Pakistan were themselves far behind in terms of economic development compared with what India inherited. Its agriculture was still at the primitive stage where capitalist development had not made any inroads. It was basically a subsistence agricultural rural economy, with extremely poor level of rudimentary infrastructure, technological penetration or application of modern techniques of agricultural farming.Same was the case with its industrial sector, which inherited 34 industrial units of insignificant, almost all of them located in West Pakistan. East Pakistan producing 70 per cent of world jute was without any jute mill.

This historical baggage of disparity between the two wings in terms of economicdevelopment and representation in various state organs was to play the most crucial role in subsequent inter-provincial relations culminating in their separation and dismemberment of Pakistan.

Political Governance

Like all post-colonel states Pakistan inherited a lot of socio-political baggage of underdevelopment, regional disparities in political representation and other myriad economic contradictions, which needed long term prudent polices to sort them out. All the social and economic indicators pointed towards the above mentioned great gap existing between the two wings. It necessitated formulation of comprehensive socioeconomic policies to bridge these wide differences in the standards of living of the people of both wings. This was all the more necessary in the backdrop of Pakistan Movement which no doubt couched in religious terminology, was based on hardcore of economic reasons. Religion provided the moral justification, symbols and slogans but it was the broader economic deprivations which provided the main impetus for the separatism.

There was thus an urgent need to develop a long term vision, duly formulated with consensus along with a formally approved constitution and democratic institutions to implement this social contract between the state and the citizens in letter and spirit.It also needed devising affirmative action policies, rapid but inclusive economic development, greater social equality, and appropriate political representation, equitable share in the administrative and security organs of the state to remove the feelings of deprivations among the Bengali Muslims.

Unfortunately the relative inexperience coupled with the short sightedness of those who ruled the country after independence let the historical forces take its own course which clearly pointed towards separation right from the day one. Ayub Khan has been blamed a lot, and rightly so, for the separation of East Pakistan, for pursuing a flawed economic development model and inappropriate political reengineering through basic democracies. However earlier regimes cannot be absolved of the errors of omissions and commission resulting in the fall of Dhaka.

Inordinate delay in framing of constitution resulting in their failure to hold  general elections at national level, thereby failing to  create a national democratic forum for airing and listening of grievances of smaller provinces can be cited as the most important negligent act of the ruling elite of 1950s.It alsoseriously undermined the intuitional legitimacy of the statewhich let the market forces play full role without state stepping in to rectify the distortions created by these very forces resulting in accentuation of historical disparity already existing between the two wings.

Secondly in its efforts to have adequate safeguards in Colonial India, the Muslim League always stressed for the weak centre and maximum provincial autonomy, a theme, which echoed in the provincial assemblies voting for Pakistan. However, after Pakistan came into existence, the imperatives of the new state forced the ruling elite to change the equation. It would be a strong centre in a federation which could guarantee the preservation of the new state. This paradigm shift didn’t go well with smaller provinces in general and with East Bengal in particular because the Centre was heavily dominated by the Punjab, thanks to the historical developments mentioned above.Heavy emphasis on strong centre deprived the Bengalis of effective representation in the corridors of power.On the contrary despite their numerical superiority, Bengalis could not get the representation in the national assembly their population warranted and were deprived of their majority through due process of law i.e. parity.The constitution which was passed in 1956 did not have an upper house to represent the unity of the country and the equality of the provinces.

If the political power was in the plains of Punjab, commerce was in Karachi, both in West Pakistan. Thus all the socioeconomic and political policies formulated by the government had a pro-western wing bias in implementation though not in intention or rhetoric. When the Bengalis expressed their resentment against the poor treatment meted out to them by overwhelmingly defeating Muslim League at the hands of Jugtu Front, a coalition of nationalist elements in East Pakistan, its government was unceremoniously dismissed within two months and a West Pakistani was appointed as governor. Second time they were treated like this was after the elections of 1970 when Awami League,which stood for the same principles in Pakistan as was Muslim league in pre-partition India namely safeguarding the rights of the oppressed community, was not handed over power despite having majority in elections.

Economic Mismanagement

There were two biggest grievances of the Bengalis against West Pakistan. One was not taking appropriate affirmative actions to accelerate the economic development of the Eastern wing on priority basis and on massive scale to reduce the economic disparity exiting between the two wings as a historical baggage. Secondly, instead of spending more on the development of East Pakistan, there was a massive transfer of resources from East Pakistan to West Pakistan on official and private level. Leaving aside the claims and counterclaims about the estimated quantum of resources transferred annually fromEast to West Pakistan, the fact remains that there was a systematic system of resource transfer through several means.

  • Erroneous pride in a strong currency, more as a counterpoise to Indian hegemony and less for economic prudence, resulted in overvalued exchange rate which undermined the competitiveness of jute, the major earner of foreign exchange of East Pakistan. On the other handovervalued exchange rate heavily favoured the importing classes of West Pakistan, encouraging a healthy growth of an aggressive private commercial sector in the western wing. East Pakistan failed to develop this vanguard of economic growth at a time when all the preferences were available for the industrialists
  • As the receipts from the export of jute were received and recorded in West Pakistan, less than half of it was spent on the development of eastern wing due to strong incentives under market mechanism in the western wing of the country. Same was the case with the foreign aid received by the government of Pakistan.
  • Another source of transfer of resources was the inequitable terms of trade between the two provinces for the supply of goods and services from one wing to other. West wing supplied manufactured goods while east had few goods to trade and and those also consisted of agricultural raw material which traditionally fetch lower prices as compared to manufactured goods.
  • The West Pakistani businessmen who owned almost the entire industry located in East Pakistan, used to transfer all the profits earned from East Pakistan to western wing instead of investing wholly or partially in East Pakistan. Similar was the position in respect of banking system, which was owned by them.
  • Last but not the least was public finance. Majority of the taxes imposed were spent on defence and administration, heavily dominated by the west Pakistanis.

Social Dissonance

While it is very comfortable to put all the blame squarely on the ruling elites of Pakistan for the separation of East Pakistan from its Western wing, it must be remembered that the civil society cannot be absolved of the portion of blame for this fiasco resting on their shoulders. It was the social and cultural degradation of Bengali people and their culture in West Pakistan which can be held responsible for the alienation of Bengalis. Not only the governing elites, even the public and the civil society considered Bengalis as inferior race and their culture heavily influenced by the Hinduism. Their contributions to freedom movement were not properly recognised nor were their culture appreciated. It is the irony of the fate that the Bengalis, who were in majority, had to pay human sacrifice for the recognition of their language as one of the official languages of Pakistan.

Regional Geopolitical Imperatives

Lord Palmerstone has rightly said that there are no permanent friends or enemies in international relations, only permanent interests.India’s permanent interest lay in its domination of South Asia and beyond according to their well-definedPannikarDoctrine (named after K M Panikkar)  which emphasized the importance of the Indian Ocean for the defense of India. According to Panikkar, the British had kept out other imperialist powers from the Indian Ocean to protect their interests. India being the successor to the British Raj, should therefore, use the same principle to incorporate other states and keep external forces from the Sub Continent.” Pakistan was a hindrance in the realisation of this dream of Indian rulingelite.

Cutting it to size became the overriding objective of Indian foreign policy for which the East Pakistan crises gave them a God- sentopportunity. Making the arrival of more than a million refugees as a humanitarian issue and a threat for their nationalsecurity, India started preparing for a decisive war with Pakistan and launched a vigorous global campaign byraising the issue of creation of Bangladesh at all the international and bilateral forums. Unfortunately the Pakistan’s military rulers could not read the writing on the wall, grasp the rapidly changing scenarios and remained complacent, to say the least. Even their military acumen is doubtful. Defending every inch of a vast country with limited resources and hostile population was not the right strategy; defending the capital would have been better option giving an opportunity for a negotiated settlement after stalemate. Consequently, Pakistan lost the war and with it half of its country opted to become another nation-state.


Lessons for Post-Colonial States

What are the lessons one can learn from the dismemberment of Pakistan within 25 years of coming into existence?

  1. Vision Needed: You cannot rewrite the history but you must have a clear cut vision for the future backed by a definite roadmap. This vision must include a blue print for redressing the inequities created as a result of colonial wrongdoings. Centrifugaltendencies are inherent in any post-colonial state because of boundaries left behind by the retreating colonial powers and the mix of nationalities clubbed together to live within these boundaries. It needs a very careful and prudent planning process with a five pronged broad spectrum attack-economic inclusion,democratic empowerment,affirmative action,mainstreaming andsocial justice
  2. Provincial Reengineering:While you cannot change the international borders howsoever arbitrary they may have been left by the ex-colonial masters,you must re-demarcate the internal boundaries according to the wishes of thepeople. If one province is too big in terms of population or power structure share,there is a need to balance this anomaly by carving out new regional entities on the basis of language which is one of the most important markers of a distinct nationality. Predominant position of one province or region, perceived as exploiting the smaller provinces, is an anathema for any federation
  3. Democracy Works:Democracy has been much maligned for its alleged shortcomings such ascorruption, mismanagement, economic disruptions and slow economic growth etc. However despite all these allegations, democracy is still the best form of governance humanity has ever experimented with. Letit run its course. Frequent, free and fair elections will ultimately prop up capable leadership over a period of time, accountable to the public. Onlygenuine leaders elected through popular universal franchise are capable of holding the federating units together; dictatorship always leave the countries broken and in a mess.
  4. Cultures Evolve: You cannot force cultural homogeneity through the barrel of the gun or state edicts. Evolution of a peculiar national culture takes time in which each federating unit contributes. Let the hundred flowers of different varieties and huesbloom rather than having a garden full of roses only. Unity in diversity is the hallmark of a true federation. Give respect to every major language spoken and let a national language evolve over a period of time.
  5. Institutions matter: Soon after independence people are very emotional about their newfound nation-state; however these sentimental legitimacy must beconverted into institutionallegitimacybystrengthening the service delivery institutions through improving their efficiency and effectivenessand broadening their ownership. Some of the institutions which matter the most are armed forces, law and order agencies, judicial institutions and nation building departments like health, education and general administration.

Civil society organisations and media are two very powerful institutions which can play a crucial role in making or breaking of a country. Timely and forceful articulation of grievances of deprived regions by these institutions should be taken seriously and addressed appropriately. They are also instrumental in creating and fostering commondenominators of cultural and social homogeneity in a country.Stifling them will deprive the policy makers of a useful channel of two way communication with the populace.

  1. Growth matters:Growth matters because it is only through growth that poverty can be alleviated and inequalities reduced but content of growth and equitable distribution of fruits of growth matter more.Patterns of growth envisaged in the initial stages determine the prosperity of certain regions and deprivation of others in the long run.Let the market forces work but state must always be correcting the anomaliestheseforces always create due to the inherent logic of the capitalisticmodel of growth which is no doubt far more efficientthan other modes but is also efficient is all its negative fallout. As every student of economics knows market forces left to themselves not only create inequalities but accentuate and reinforce them. That is why Adam Smith gave a special role for the state when he stated-

The third and last duty of the sovereign or commonwealth, is that of erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works, which though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature, that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual, or small number of individuals; and which it, therefore, cannot be expected that any individual, or small number of individuals, should erect or maintain. The performance of this duty requires, too, very different degrees of expense in the different periods of society.”

  1. Incremental changes: Do not go for revolutionary and drastic changes just for the sake of structuraltransformation. Law of unintended consequences may sabotage all your good intentions. Incremental changes allow you time to midterm correction and pay dividends in broader perspectives
  2. Devolution works: Devolution of powers and decentralisation of service delivery institutions, backed by equitable distribution of resources is one of the key instruments to curb centrifugal tendencies among the regions feeling marginalisation. Devolution can hold any federation togetherby helpingto prevent or reduce conflict because they reduce actual or perceived inequities between various regions or between a region and the central government.
  3. Early Warning Indicators: Federations do not break overnight. Their seeds of destruction take time to germinate. There is always a time to salvage the situation provided the leadership is responsible and responsive, civil society is aggressive and media is vigilant. Keep an eye on early warning signs of centrifugal tendencies and address them in time and sagaciously. What Machiavelli said five hundred years ago is still applicable. ‘Wrong political decisions are like tuberculosis, easy to cure but difficult to detect in the beginning; once belated they become easy to detect but difficult to cure.’

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