Down the Malay Barrier 8.

            Dismantling the British Empire after the Second World War unleashed all sorts of hostilities that the British had long sought to damp down.  The division of Britain’s Indian Empire offers a good example.  Broadly, many Muslims refused to live under Hindu majority rule.  Pakistan was born.  Population exchanges amidst communal strife wreaked bloody havoc.[1] 

            The new Pakistan had two components: West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).[2]  The two regions shared little but religious faith.  The Punjabis of West Pakistan were lighter-skinned racists[3] who saw themselves as a warrior people and the true Muslims in the country.  The Bengalis of East Pakistan were darker-skinned, and regarded by the Punjabis as “fake Muslims” and a naturally submissive people.  Bengali tolerance of a large minority of Hindus added fuel to the fire of Punjabi discontent.  One stumbling block to Punjabi domination lay in Pakistan’s pretense to democracy: the Bengalis outnumbered the Punjabis.  Pakistani democracy failed to launch; from 1958 to 1970, a military dictatorship ruled the country under a series of leaders.  Along the way, a Bengali nationalist movement, the Awami League, sprang up.  Foolishly from the point of view of the Punjabis, in July 1969, President General Yahya Khan announced that elections would be held in December 1970.  He said that these would move Pakistan toward democratic government. 

            Punjabi hostility actually looked to be a lesser problem for Bengal.  Far more pressing danger arrived annually from the physical environment.  Bengal lies at the intersection point of the shallow, northern end of the Bay of Bengal and the mouths of the Ganges-Brahmaputra rivers.  The low-lying delta country is caught between the great rivers and the monsoon storms that blow northward across the bay.  In November 1970 one such storm slammed into East Pakistan.  It killed half a million people.  The survivors suffered immense misery.  The government appeared largely indifferent to that suffering.[4] 

            Events spiraled downward in a hurry.  The Awami League won the elections (December 1970); Yahya Khan and the Punjabis refused to transfer power; the leader of the Awami League declared independence (March 1971); the Army launched “Operation Searchlight” during which it killed perhaps as many as 3 million Bengalis; 7 million more Bengalis fled to neighboring India, while other stayed to wage war against the Army; Yahya Khan ordered air attacks on India in retaliation for its support of the Bengalis; and India invaded East Pakistan, where it crushed the army of Pakistan.  East Bengal gained its independence as the new nation of Bangladesh. 

            Bangladesh is about the same size as the state of New York.  Its population is eight-times as large (170 million v. 21 million).  Its big industries are farming and “fast fashion” manufacturing.  The monsoon storms keep coming, while climate change caused sea-level rise looms.  Bangladesh has all kinds of problems.  Being ruled by Punjabi soldiers isn’t one of them.    


[1] The photographer Margaret Bourke-White documented parts of the partition.  See: Margaret Bourke-White Partition India – Search (bing.com) 

[2] Scott Carney and Jason Miklian, The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, An Unspeakable War, and Liberation (2022).  Reviewed by Tunku Varadarajan, WSJ, 19-20 March 2022. 

[3] Turns out, Islam isn’t any better about this than is Christianity. 

[4] If not something worse.  One Punjabi army general was quoted saying that “this cyclone solved about half a million of our problems.” 

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