Bangladesh Secedes from Pakistan

East Pakistanis’ perceptions of denial of political rights—especially the right of the Awami League to form a government after electoral victory—climaxed in the secession of Bangladesh through a civil war. The prospect of war between India and Pakistan over Bangladesh brought about a realignment of regional and global forces.

Summary of Event

In the wake of British withdrawal in August, 1947, India and Pakistan emerged as two independent sovereign states following the bloody partition of the subcontinent. The demand for a separate state for Muslims was formulated by the leaders of the Muslim League, mainly between the 1920’s and the 1940’s. Self-rule became the main goal of the nationalist movement and was viewed as protection from the possible future tyranny of a Hindu-majority state. Initially, independent states were sought for the Muslim-majority areas in the northwestern and northeastern zones of undivided India. As the transfer of power from the British approached, the Muslim League, Muslim League under Mohammed Ali Jinnah, negotiated for a single state for the Muslims of the two zones, which were a thousand miles apart. From the beginning, the prospects of a strong national integration of Pakistan were bleak. Bangladesh;secession from Pakistan
Pakistan;Bangladesh secession
Civil wars;Pakistan
[kw]Bangladesh Secedes from Pakistan (Mar. 26-Dec. 16, 1971)
[kw]Secedes from Pakistan, Bangladesh (Mar. 26-Dec. 16, 1971)
[kw]Pakistan, Bangladesh Secedes from (Mar. 26-Dec. 16, 1971)
Bangladesh;secession from Pakistan
Pakistan;Bangladesh secession
Civil wars;Pakistan
[g]South Asia;Mar. 26-Dec. 16, 1971: Bangladesh Secedes from Pakistan[00240]
[g]Pakistan;Mar. 26-Dec. 16, 1971: Bangladesh Secedes from Pakistan[00240]
[g]Bangladesh;Mar. 26-Dec. 16, 1971: Bangladesh Secedes from Pakistan[00240]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 26-Dec. 16, 1971: Bangladesh Secedes from Pakistan[00240]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Mar. 26-Dec. 16, 1971: Bangladesh Secedes from Pakistan[00240]
[c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;Mar. 26-Dec. 16, 1971: Bangladesh Secedes from Pakistan[00240]
Jinnah, Mohammed Ali
Mujibur Rahman
Yahya Khan, Agha Mohammad
Bhutto, Zulfikar Ali
Gandhi, Indira

Religion proved to be a weak bond of unity in comparison with cultural, linguistic, and other primordial loyalties of the peoples. Retrospectively, the East Pakistanis remained dissatisfied with the Muslim League’s bargaining for a single state and apprehensive of playing second fiddle to the West Pakistanis, who dominated the national political, economic, and bureaucratic (civilian and military) circles. The geographic distance between the two zones, popularly known as the “wings” in Pakistan, posed a serious administrative challenge. There were gross cultural and linguistic differences between the Eastern Bengalis and the Western populations of Punjabis, Sindhis, and Pathans. The domination and unequal treatment by the national government of the East Pakistanis in the postindependence period paved the way for the civil war of 1971. The long series of grievances of Bengalis against the national government began with the decision to make Urdu the official language of Pakistan in 1948. The strong reaction of Bengalis, who took great pride in their own language and literary tradition, was viewed as an unpatriotic act. Later, in 1956, Bengali was recognized as an official language along with Urdu only after rioting, police action, and bloodshed. By then, the Bengali grievances had been diverted to other issues.

Between the late 1950’s and the late 1960’s, the protests of East Pakistanis against the national government mounted sharply. They were proportionately underrepresented in the national political circles and in the civilian services despite their 54 percent majority in the general population. The appointment of a few Bengalis to top posts was viewed as symbolic only, as a show of Pakistani unity. Bengalis were appointed to the positions of governor-general, prime minister, and president of Pakistan. In most cases, these appointees remained in office only as long as they were subservient to the West Pakistani politicians and bureaucrats. Many resigned on their own. The top political and administrative positions in the provincial government in East Pakistan invariably went to the West Pakistanis.

The problem of Bengali underrepresentation was much more acute in military services, where they held only 6 percent of key positions. This underrepresentation was interpreted as a continuation of the British policy of treating Bengalis as a nonmartial race. Bengalis believed themselves to be defenseless in case of an attack from India, as their defense had to come from the West Pakistanis. The industrialization of East Pakistan was totally neglected. Its role was mainly that of a supplier of raw materials and a consumer of finished products of Western industries. The Western Pakistani entrepreneurs also controlled the industries in the East. Moreover, an equitable share of the export earnings of Pakistan from the indigenous jute crop was denied to the East. West Pakistan also remained the sole beneficiary of economic and military aid received from allies in the Western world.

A strong Bengali political mobilization took place during the 1960’s, under the Awami League. Awami League Its leader, Mujibur Rahman (known as Mujib), advanced his six-point political and economic program in 1966. It became the mandate for the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. The six points had a dual objective of complete autonomy for East Pakistan within a loose confederation and the creation of a weak center, with power only over defense and foreign affairs. The center was to be dependent economically on the federating units. Mujib’s proposal coincided with a general demand in both East and West for democratization of the political process. Later on, a Democratic Action Committee was formed of united opposition parties. The political center’s response to the changing political situation under both Mohammad Ayub Khan (1958-1969) and Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan (1969-1971) was to strengthen the powers of the national executive, appoint West Pakistanis to the top positions of administration in the East, imprison all opponents and leaders of opposition parties, and strengthen the role of the military in politics. In view of the rapidly deteriorating situation, Yahya Khan proposed the framing of a new constitution by a duly elected constituent assembly and showed willingness to broaden the base of autonomy and economic distribution for the East. Elections were to be held on the basis of a joint electorate and population. Yahya Khan, however, was committed to maintaining the authority of the central government and the unity of Pakistan.

The first general elections in Pakistan were held on December 20, 1970. The Awami League under Mujib won a majority in parliament, and the prospects of the Bengali, Mujib, in the prime minister’s seat and of provincial autonomy for the East were in sight. The latter was totally unacceptable to Yahya Khan and the former a threat to Bhutto, who had ambition to be in power. The delay in the transfer of power to the Awami League aggravated the Bengali population. The course for separation was set as Mujib began to show rigidity that the new constitution must be based on the six points. Bhutto began to plead for unity of the nation. Several abortive attempts were made by Yahya Khan between January and April, 1971, to reconcile the stands of Mujib and Bhutto. The last in the series to be rejected was Mujib’s proposal in March, 1971, that he be named prime minister of East Pakistan and Bhutto be made the prime minister of West Pakistan.

Between March and December, 1971, Pakistan’s unity was maintained only by threats of violence. On March 1, 1971, Mujib called for civil disobedience and strikes to protest the indefinite postponement by Yahya Khan of the March 3 meeting of the National Assembly. Public demonstrations, looting, arson, and rioting were brought under control by the military only after three hundred people were killed and many more injured and left homeless. Military troops in the East were doubled in numbers to sixty thousand by the end of summer. At the time of independence for Bangladesh in December, 1971, their numbers were estimated at ninety thousand.

On March 15, 1971, Mujib took over the administration of Bangladesh (Bengali Homeland) on the basis of his electoral victory in 1970. A reign of terror was unleashed under orders from Yahya Khan, beginning on March 25. Mujib was arrested and sent to West Pakistan. Three military battalions, with a force of ten tanks, attacked the defenseless city of Dhaka. Universities were a special target of the army. Intellectuals, professors, and students were mowed down by firing squads. Genocide of the unarmed population as well as of armed guerrillas, both in cities and in the countryside, resulted in thousands of deaths. Crowds of people were forced into buildings that were then set on fire. Women were raped, maimed, and killed. In many cases, they were forced to drink the blood and eat the hearts of their children. By the end of the summer, the number of killings was estimated at 300,000. A substantial number of Bengali Hindus and Muslims, about ten million by December, 1971, fled to India as refugees. Many of them died there of epidemics. The atrocities committed by the Pakistani army caused a militant twist in the secessionist movement.

Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s first prime minister, who was assassinated in 1975.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

On April 11, 1971, a provisional government in exile in India was announced for the “independent, sovereign republic of Bangladesh,” with Mujib as the president. Mukti Bahini, Mukti Bahini the liberation force organized under Colonel M. A. G. Osmani, Osmani, M. A. G. began to counter the actions of Pakistani troops and the civilian militia recruited from among the non-Bengali, particularly the Bihari, populations. The Mukti Bahini freedom fighters received training and ammunition from neighboring India. World public opinion began to turn in favor of the Bengalis as the horror stories of torture began to travel. Pakistani diplomats of Bengali origin began to resign from their posts abroad, and the anti-Pakistan campaign led by India and others at the United Nations focused the world’s attention on atrocities in Bangladesh. Pakistan was on the defensive and began to mount military and diplomatic pressure against India. Under immense pressure from its citizens, the alarming entry of refugees, and the perceived threat to its territorial security from the garrisoning of Pakistani troops on its borders, India decided to intervene militarily in the liberation movement for Bangladesh. The Indian intervention was decisive for the emergence of Bangladesh.

The war between India and Pakistan, which was fought in both the eastern and the western sectors, lasted from December 4 to December 16, 1971. The new state of Bangladesh was born when the Pakistani armies surrendered. India became the first country to recognize Bangladesh on December 6, 1971.


The prospect of war between India and Pakistan over Bangladesh brought about a realignment of regional and global forces. The Soviet Union moved closer to India through a twenty-year treaty signed in August, 1971, while China, a long-term adversary of both India and the Soviet Union, moved closer to Pakistan with a unilateral defense guarantee. The United States, under Richard M. Nixon’s Nixon, Richard M. presidential administration, sided with Pakistan even in the face of gross violations of political and human rights of East Pakistanis.

With major powers on each side, India could unilaterally intervene to liberate Bangladesh without any external interference. India emerged as a regional power through its intervention, but its role as a “subimperialistic” state was to have an adverse impact on its future relations with the neighboring states, including Bangladesh. Soon after its emergence, Bangladesh made a series of allegations against India, including that the Indian troops stayed on for too long after the surrender of the Pakistani army and that no representative of the Bangladesh provisional government or of Mukti Bahini was present for the event.

Five days after the Pakistani army’s surrender, Yahya Khan handed over his resignation and transferred powers to Bhutto. In January, 1972, President Bhutto unconditionally released Mujib from a Pakistan prison, where he was held facing charges of treason and a death penalty. On January 10, 1972, Mujib arrived in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and was hailed as the “father of the nation.” He assumed the offices of president and, after two days, prime minister of Bangladesh.

The overthrow of Pakistani rule and the regime change did not lead to the freedom and prosperity to which the mass movement in Bangladesh had aspired. Problems of economic reconstruction and development, and the establishment of law and order following death, destruction, and the armament of civilians, proved to be the most serious challenges. On the political front, the new ruling elites did not prove to be very different from their predecessors. After consolidating his power, Mujib viewed the consensus of people behind him as an excuse to establish an autocratic rule. He began to dispense patronage among his comrades, friends, and family members. He alienated a number of skilled bureaucrats and politically ambitious personalities. The economic situation worsened, with soaring prices, scarcity of goods, and uneven distribution. Famine and natural disasters added to the misery of the people. The superior treatment of the former Mukti Bahini guerrillas over the professional soldiers in the army, including the “repatriates” from West Pakistan, created low morale, resentment, and frustration among the latter.

In 1975, Mujib formally discarded everything for which Bangladesh had stood. He amended the constitution to concentrate powers in his own hands, abolished political parties, and suspended fundamental rights, including freedom of speech, the right to dissent, and equal opportunity of employment. On August 15, 1975, in a military coup known as the “Major’s Plot,” Mujib and several members of his family were assassinated. Revolutions and coups;Bangladesh Mujib’s death initiated a period of political instability and power struggles. In the post-Mujib period, military rule was restored in Bangladesh. A series of coups and assassinations of the heads of state continued.

The economic situation in Bangladesh remained gloomy even after two decades of independence. Poverty, disease, hunger, underdevelopment, overpopulation, and natural disasters remained the hallmarks of Bangladesh. Nevertheless, Bangladesh has gradually overcome its past image as an almost hopeless case of poverty, recording spectacular gains in productivity over the years. The nation has recently enjoyed political stability and economic growth. Bangladesh;secession from Pakistan
Pakistan;Bangladesh secession
Civil wars;Pakistan

Further Reading

  • Baxter, Craig. Bangladesh: A New Nation in an Old Setting. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984. Deals with Bangladesh’s preindependence past and makes a critical assessment of the postindependence period. The historical, social, political, and economic aspects are analyzed in depth. Relations of the new state with regional and global powers are examined.
  • Baxter, Craig, Yogendra K. Malik, Charles H. Kennedy, and Robert C. Oberst. Government and Politics in South Asia. 5th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2002. This comprehensive volume provides a detailed and comparative review of the existing political systems in South Asia. It examines the transformation of the political process in Bangladesh from its democratic base into authoritarianism.
  • Franda, Marcus. Bangladesh: The First Decade. New Delhi: South Asian Publishers, 1982. Provides an account of the developments immediately surrounding the emergence of Bangladesh, the role of Indian intervention in its liberation, the phenomena of assassinations, coups, and countercoups, and the country’s struggle for existence.
  • Khan, Mohammad Mohabbat, ed. Bangladesh: Society, Politics, and Bureaucracy. Dhaka, Bangladesh: Center for Administrative Studies, 1984. A collection of contributions by experts from many countries in various fields. Contributors give a retrospective analysis of the first ten years of Bangladesh’s existence. Originally, these papers were presented at a conference held at Harvard University.
  • O’Donnell, Charles Peter. Bangladesh: Biography of a Muslim Nation. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984. The most complete and detailed work on the systematic developments, from 1947 to 1971, leading to the emergence of Bangladesh. Discusses the aftermath of secession from Pakistan; the problems of political control, economic reconstruction, and development in Bangladesh; and the international relations of this new polity.
  • Sisson, Richard, and Leo E. Rose. War and Secession: Pakistan, India, and the Creation of Bangladesh. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. An unbiased account of the historical events leading up to the crisis of 1971.
  • U.S. Library of Congress. Federal Research Division. Bangladesh: A Country Study. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1989. Edited volume provides a complete analysis of the history, culture, society, and politics of Bangladesh. It is an excellent source for getting acquainted with the important personalities and processes of the society and politics in Bangladesh. Details of the geography and ecology of this country are outlined.

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