1.2. The Bengali Ethnonationalist Movement and the Civil War in East Pakistan, 1952-1971
At the time of Independence, the State of Pakistan was composed of two wings, namely West and East Pakistan, separated by more than 1200 miles of Indian territory. Although the two wings were linked by religion, they differed strongly from an ethnic and linguistic point of view. Whereas East Pakistan was constituted of a homogeneous Bengali-speaking population, West Pakistan was divided between Punjabis, Pathans, Sindhis and Baluchis. Moreover, Bengalis formed the majority of the population, around 56%, all of them concentrated in East Pakistan. The Pakistani federal system was excessively centralized to the detriment of the provinces. Economic and political power was concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite from West Pakistan. Bengalis were hardly represented in the army and the bureaucracy. All the natural resources located in East Pakistan, such as jute for example, were exploited by the western wing and the wealth hence created was not redistributed to the eastern wing. The situation was felt by East Pakistanis as a form of internal colonization. In East Pakistan, it soon propelled a demand for more provincial autonomy which initially crystallized, around 1952, on the question of language, particularly the status of Bengali, which, despite being the most spoken language in the country, was not recognized as a national language besides Urdu.
During the next twenty years or so, the grievances of East Pakistanis never ceased to increase and their demands acquired somewhat secessionist overtones as expressed in the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League’s Six-point program. The relation between the two wings really deteriorated when General Yahya Khan, who took over power from President/General Ayub Khan in 1969 following mass agitation against his regime, refused to acknowledge the results of the first free and fair December 1970 general elections he had himself masterminded. The Awami League (AL), an East Pakistani political party, won the election on the basis of its Six-point program in favor of full provincial autonomy as they managed to get 167 out of 169 seats in East Pakistan, hence securing an absolute majority in the National Legislative Assembly. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People Party (PPP) won 81 out of 144 West Pakistani seats. Following the results, General Yahya Khan announced on February 13, 1971, that the national Assembly was to meet on March 3, 1971, in Dhaka. However, as the Six-point program was unbearable for both General Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, they strongly refused to negotiate with Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Awami League and ought-to-be Prime Minister of Pakistan, and sent the army to repress any dissent, thus prompting a full-scale civil war with genocidal features in East Pakistan.
The assessment of the death toll and the qualification of the violence still remain, thirty-six years after the events, the object of a bitter controversy. The estimates of the death toll vary tremendously. Most of them oscillated between 300,000 (Sisson and Rose, 1990) and 3 millions (Muhit, 1992; Jahan, 1997), to what is added between 200,000 and 400,000 women raped (Brownmiller, 1975). According to the Bangladesh authorities, the Pakistan army was responsible for killing three million Bengalis and raping at least 200,000 East Pakistani women. The Martial Law administration put the death toll around 26,000 Bengalis and accused the Bengali insurgents...