The origins of Bangladesh and Pakistan's 1968

Submitted by AWL on 14 December, 2021 - 8:56 Author: Sacha Ismail
East Pakistan, 1969

East Pakistan, 1969

Fifty years ago one of history’s biggest anti-colonial struggles triumphed.

On 16 December 1971, the Pakistani armed forces that had waged a nine-month campaign of genocidal mass murder to subjugate Pakistan’s eastern half surrendered in the face of Indian military intervention. East Pakistan – East Bengal – became the independent state of Bangladesh.

The Bengali people of East Pakistan were among the largest of the many nations to throw off colonial rule in the 20th century. In 1971 Bangladesh’s population, 66 million, was larger than the UK’s; today it is the eighth biggest country, with 165 million people. In 1971 the Pakistani army and Islamist militias killed somewhere between 300,000 and three million civilians, and raped hundreds of thousands (Bangladeshi fighters also committed many atrocities, though on a different scale). Ten million, mainly Hindus, fled to India, and perhaps thirty million were internally displaced.

This is also a story of heroic resistance and struggles for liberation, by a movement many of whose rank and file aspired to create what they conceived of as a socialist society. It took place in the context of a great left-wing upheaval across the whole of Pakistan. Despite support from India, it won against opposition from the world’s great powers – including aggressive hostility from the United States and China, both of which aided Pakistan.

At the time Bangladesh’s “liberation war” was an important cause for much of the left internationally: but in its 50th anniversary year, there has not been much discussion on the British left. There should be more, as part of greater engagement with the left and labour movement in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

East Bengal and the language struggle

Bangladesh is an example of how nations do not exist as a given, but are formed in the course of history and struggles.

Bengal was the most populous province in British-occupied India and a centre of resistance to British rule. In 1905 the British government partitioned it, into a mainly Hindu West and mainly Muslim East, to undermine rising nationalist struggle. The partition was reversed in 1911, but it sparked both a radicalisation of Indian nationalism and a growth of separatist Muslim politics.

Many of the Muslim elite in the eastern part of Bengal were not Bengalis but Urdu-speakers whose ancestors migrated there during the Mughal Empire. (The now dispersed Urdu-speaking elite of Dhaka is my heritage on my father’s side.) They were important in the development of the Muslim-separatist movement across northern India, led by the Muslim League, that culminated in the creation of Pakistan alongside India in 1947.

The partition of India had many reactionary consequences, in the first instance terrible sectarian massacres as millions fled to “their” side of the new border. The “Muslim” state created – in fact Pakistan then was less of an Islamic state than today – was arguably always unviable, its two wings separated by over 1,200 miles of Indian territory.

Most Muslims in East Bengal seem to have rallied to the idea of Pakistan; but very quickly a different sort of identity, based on the Bengali language and ethnicity, began to assert itself.

The East Bengalis were a majority of Pakistan’s population. Yet in 1948 the government proclaimed Urdu – the language of only a small proportion of West Pakistanis, but central to the conception of a unified Muslim culture in the subcontinent that informed the project of Pakistan – as the sole national language. There were big protests in East Bengal (its official name was changed to East Pakistan in 1955). When the policy was reaffirmed in 1952, simmering discontent surged up.

Public meetings and protests were banned, and when thousands of students and others demonstrated in Dhaka, police killed at least nine. This sparked widespread unrest, including a general strike in the important industrial city of Narayanganj.

The development of bourgeois democratic institutions in Pakistan moved at a crawl. In the first election for East Bengal’s provincial assembly, in 1954, the “United Front” coalition led by a more Bengali-nationalist, secular split from Pakistan’s dominant Muslim League won a crushing majority, 223 seats to the Muslim League’s 9.

The same month as that election, Pakistan’s constituent assembly finally voted to make Bengali a national language. This would be incorporated into the 1956 constitution. But three weeks after the assembly’s decision the West-dominated federal government sacked the Bengali United Front administration, imposing rule from the centre. Immediately hundreds of activists were arrested, including future “Father of Bangladesh” Mujibur Rahman.

More and more Bengalis were coming to see the issues as about more than just language.

The Pakistani state

The resistance to giving Bengali official status had a powerful ideological dimension, but that became tied up with the Pakistani state’s material domination by the West of the country. Though the East had a majority of the people, up to 1971 it received on average only 40.5% of the public spending and investment West Pakistan did, and in 1955-60 just 31%. It was the economically stronger wing at the time of independence from Britain, accounting for two-thirds of Pakistan’s export earnings into the 60s (mainly from jute and tea), but its position declined steadily as wealth was redistributed to the Western ruling class through various mechanisms. By 1960 the West’s growth rate was 70% higher than the East’s.

The reason East Bengal was renamed East Pakistan in 1955 is that the four Western provinces were amalgamated into "one unit", to counterbalance the weight of the East and try to prevent any link-up between the Bengalis and smaller, disadvantaged or oppressed ethnic groups in the West. The majority of the Western population and ruling class were Punjabi.

The army’s senior officer layer was overwhelmingly West-dominated, with 1.6% of those ranked major or above of East Pakistani origin in 1956. (A decade later the figure had increased to 5%.) The very top military hierarchy was even more West-dominated, and it would shortly take control of Pakistan.

In 1955 the Awami (People’s) Muslim League which had won the East Bengal elections before being ousted split, with the majority becoming a left-leaning secular nationalist party, the Awami League. This party would lead the war in 1971. Although it was long out of power in the 1970s and 80s, it is the dominant party in Bangladesh today, inching towards something like a one-party state.

In 1956 the Awami League formed a coalition in Pakistan’s national assembly and took over the federal government, with its leader Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy becoming prime minister. (More left-wing forces broke away from the Awami League in protest at his pro-US international orientation.) But in 1957 Pakistani president Iskander Mirza, who had ruled East Bengal with an iron fist as governor after the dismissal of the United Front, pushed Suhrawardy out.

In 1958, Mirza carried out a coup against Pakistan’s anemic democracy, arguing publicly that democratic institutions were unsuitable for a country with a low literacy rate. He appointed general Ayub Khan as chief administrator of the martial law regime. By the end of the year Ayub, as he was known, had exiled Mirza to the UK.

There had been rising labour militancy in late 1958, and a general election due in March 1959. Fear of the country's workers and peasants and fear of the Bengali majority were surely central to why bourgeois democracy was so slow to emerge in Pakistan and why it was snuffed out so quickly.

Ayub Khan remained dictator, overseeing extensive industrialisation (mainly in the West, at the expense of the East), growing inequality and brutal repression, until 1968. At the end of that year huge social and political upheavals beginning in the West became the prelude to national liberation struggle in the East.


When we discuss the struggles of 1968, we usually talk about France, the UK, the US, perhaps Italy and Czechoslovakia... The millions of Pakistanis whose struggles overthrew the dictatorship deserve restoration to the leading place in the story of that revolutionary year. Pakistani-born leftist Tariq Ali has gone through a long process of political degeneration, but his description of the 1968-9 upsurge is eloquent:

"The gap between the actions of the Pakistani students and workers and the actual conquest of power was much narrower than in France or Italy, let alone the United States or Britain… The scale of the movement was breathtaking: during five months of continuous struggles that began on November 7, 1968, and ended on March 26, 1969, some 10–15 million people had participated in the struggle across East and West Pakistan."

Like in France, an initially small student struggle sparked this vast mass movement. Some students from the West Pakistani city of Rawalpindi were arrested on 7 November 1968 after purchasing smuggled goods from near the Afghan border. When Rawalpindi students struck and demonstrated, one was killed – and within days student protests swept across Pakistan.

By December large numbers of workers and unemployed people had joined the students, with strikes and working-class direct action spreading across the country.

Soon East Pakistan joined the fray. Left nationalists took the lead in organising a general strike in Dhaka on 8 December, when Ayub Khan was visiting the city. The regime imposed a curfew, but the strike was highly successful nonetheless. Dozens were wounded when the police opened fire and hundreds arrested; a flood of strikes followed in Dhaka and other towns. The struggle spilled over to the countryside, with peasants attacking the police and expelling rent collectors.

As well with connecting with urban workers, the students were remarkably successful in reaching out to the countryside and mobilising peasants and rural workers. This was partly due to family and wider kinship connections with the villages; but also the students’ verve in connecting their struggle to much wider grievances in society, in the context of a yawning growth of inequality.

On 6 December the Rawalpindi students held a conference and demanded an impartial commission to investigate police violence. On 25 December, at a demonstration of tens of thousands of students and workers, they announced that they would no longer present any demands to the military regime, but only to a “people’s government”. The student movement now focused on demanding Ayub Khan’s resignation.

In January 1969 a Student Action Committee was formed in East Pakistan by supporters of the Awami League and the Communist Party. It proclaimed an eleven-point program, only the first of which dealt with student issues (though that included seventeen demands!) The eleven points included release of political prisoners, universal suffrage to elect a national government, full autonomy for East Pakistan, and subfederation with provincial autonomy in the West – but also nationalisation of the big industries and the financial sector; measures to raise living standards and guarantee the right to unionise and strike; and abrogation of military pacts with the US and its allies.

On 17 January a “Demands Day” mobilised massive demonstrations in East and West.

As an East Pakistani newspaper put it, the students’ charter of demands “exceeds the imaginations of ordinary political parties… Their programme and leadership has largely been accepted by the people of the country”.

The top leaders of the main opposition parties were in prison.

That included Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, imprisoned since 1966 and when the protests erupted on trial for supposedly conspiring with India.

Of humble rural origins and growing progressively more radical during the 1960s, Mujib was nonetheless a solidly bourgeois politician. After the removal of Suhrawardy as Pakistani prime minister, he had led a shift to more firmly demanding strong regional autonomy.

From 1966, the Awami League championed "Six Points" to guarantee genuine autonomy. Their launching was met with a surge of repression, including the jailing of Mujib and other leaders. On 7 June 1966 an East Pakistan general strike in protest at the arrests set off months of violent clashes between activists and the state, with hundreds of Bengalis killed.

After the students launched their demands in 1968, the Six Points moved from being seen as radical to more like a minimum programme for East Pakistan.

In the West the political fruits of the revolt were gathered by the populist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), launched in 1967 by a much more sinister ruling-class politician, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. From a wealthy landlord family in Sindh, Bhutto had served as Ayub Khan’s foreign minister until August 1966!

His criticisms of his former master were right-wing as well as left-wing, urging an even more chauvinist and militaristic stance towards India. During his time in office he had developed close ties with much of the senior officer corps, and he maintained them once in opposition. He aggressively opposed self-determination for the Bengalis - and would back their suppression, providing crucial assistance to the military.

The PPP, while talking about "socialism", also opposed land reform. Far from being socialist, it was opposed even to two of the key democratic changes required in Pakistani society.

However, Bhutto’s militant- and left-sounding attacks on the regime garnered major popular support. Particularly after his arrest early in the protests, many left-wing activists tragically regarded him as a hero.

Released in February 1969, Bhutto, Mujib and other opposition leaders took part in national talks with the regime. Bhutto made clear he would not accept the Awami League’s Six Points or anything like them.

Unrest continued to burn on a huge scale, with mass Bengali-nationalist agitation in the East and waves of workers' struggles in the West. March 1969 saw a virtual uprising in the industrial areas of Karachi and other cities. Then on 25 March, after over a decade in power, Ayub Khan resigned and army commander-in-chief Yahya Khan took over.

On 26 March Yahya imposed martial law. Remarkably, the movement which had shaken Pakistan to its foundations was quickly demobilised - with the help of Bhutto and his party.

The "new" regime declared it would hold elections, but Yahya Khan had no intention of giving up control, telling an army gathering that he was prepared to stay in power for “the next fourteen years or so”.

Pakistan’s first ever general election took place on 7 December 1970. The results were a shock for the military leaders.

The Awami League and self-determination

Only the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami and three fragments of the Muslim League seriously organised on both sides of Pakistan. These and other openly right-wing parties were routed: Jamaat did best with 6%. Promising “Islamic socialism” and “bread, clothing and shelter” for the people, Bhutto’s PPP won 18.6%, entirely in the West, and 81 of the region’s 138 seats. The Awami League won 39.2%, entirely in the East, and 167 of 169 seats – a majority across Pakistan.

East Pakistan’s strong “communist” and “communist”-adjacent left was divided between pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing wings. The former tended to fade into being indistinguishable politically from the Awami League; the latter sounded more radical, but under the influence of the Chinese regime, closely allied to Pakistan, was ambivalent about Bengali self-determination (though for some the course of events shifted this stance). So the left was easily pushed to the side.

The Awami League was a bourgeois party, backed by many of East Pakistan’s capitalists as well as middle-class professionals, but it drew in the energy of the 1968-9 uprisings and mass support from workers, peasants and the poor, in addition to the student movement.

Its campaign was boosted by the horrendous impact of the Bhola cyclone, making landfall on East Pakistan’s coastline on 12 November. Hundreds of thousands died and millions lost their homes. Despite the government’s low political capital, its indifferent response shocked millions.

Even aside from the central question of autonomy or self-determination for the East, the election results gave the Awami League every right to form Pakistan’s government, with Mujib as prime minister. But Bhutto would not accept that. He conspired with the generals to postpone the national assembly meeting, telling them he would support repression against the Bengalis.

The US government also indicated to Yahya that it would endorse military action.

Troop reinforcements began arriving in Dhaka on 27 February 1971. On 1 March, the convening of the national assembly was cancelled – without rescheduling.

Within an hour of the announcement, hundreds of thousands poured into the streets of Dhaka. Public and private employees went on strike, while university campuses emptied. A cricket match between Pakistan and the Commonwealth XI was abandoned as spectators joined the demonstrations. Thousands of protesters carried iron rods or sticks, and thousands chanted not just for autonomy but for an independent Bangladesh and armed struggle.

In broad sweep Bengali nationalism was progressive and liberatory – and resisting a brutal, utterly
reactionary oppressor. Even at this stage it had, like almost all nationalist movements, its ugly side. The late 60s saw rising tensions between Bengalis and minorities in East Pakistan, particularly Muslim communities originating in the Indian region of Bihar, who tended to sympathise with Pakistan. In early March 1971 Bengali nationalists killed hundreds of Biharis.

The Awami League leadership hesitated to declare independence. Negotiations with the military dragged out. On 24 March Bhutto reaffirmed to Yahya he would support repression. At 11.30pm on the 25th, Operation Searchlight, a wave of killings targeting Bengali nationalists, the left, students and academics, and East Pakistan’s Hindu communities, began – and with it Bangladesh’s war of liberation.

• A later article will tell the story of the war itself.

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