Bengal Muslims: History of Betrayals


Scottish historian Sir William Hunter (1840-1900) wrote in 1871 that “a hundred and seventy years ago (In 1700), it was almost impossible for a well-born Musalman in Bengal to become poor; at present it is almost impossible for him to continue rich.” (Ref: Iftekhar Iqbal, World Congress of Economic History, Helsinki August 2006). If Sir Hunter were to make the statement a century later, he would perhaps add: now, “almost impossible for him to avoid poverty.”

Yet, it may seem strange that the Bengali Muslims, who overwhelmingly opted to live as independent Muslim state after the British left, had to fight again to get out of the Muslim Pakistan. Contrary to the thinking of many analysts, the reason was not Islam by any stretch of imagination. Muslims of Bengal had always remained devoted to their faith, far better than their compatriots in the western half. I lived there for 8 years (1963-1971) and I can vouch for it. One doesn’t need to be a space scientist to understand that the reason for Pakistan’s break up was politics and economics.

A Wrong Cannot be Made Right

Many writers try to point out that the Bengalis were to blame for the Operation Searchlight on March 25, 1971. They argue that, apart from their faulty politics, Bengali activists incited a “restrained” Pakistan military (at times referred to as Punjabis because they formed the bulk) in East Pakistan in the prior weeks. They ignore the fact that when the junta failed to honor the verdict of the people who elected Awami League, led by Bengali leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, to victory, in the 1970 election, the people were in their rights to express their frustration and outbursts against the military. It was an outburst of their continued neglect, deprivation, and subjugation for 23 years.

(The December 1970 election results were ominous!  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won 160 positions–all in East Pakistan– out of 300 National Assembly seats, thereby becoming the absolute majority party. Pakistan Peoples’ Party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto won 81, but none in East Pakistan. This itself was an indication that the two wings of Pakistan were drifting.)

It may, however, be correct to some extent that Sheikh Mujib, as the majority leader, failed to play his role prudently and correctly. But a wrong cannot be made right, nor a right can be made wrong. A few low-level military-public clashes and political missteps could not justify a wholesale genocide, with a casualty to the tune of anything between 300,000 to 500,000.

(There has never been an independent survey of the deaths in Bangladesh. Estimates vary from Pakistan’s Hamoodur Rahman Commission’s ridiculous number of 26,000 to Sarmila Bose’s 50,000 to 100,000 to American political scientist R J Rummel’s 1.5 million.)  

To put the record right, the Operation Searchlight did not start on March 25, 1971. It was devised by the junta at Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s lush palace at Larkana, Sindh, in mid-January 1971. ​

(Bhutto, winning a majority in West Pakistan, mostly in Punjab and Sind, rarely made it a secret that he would not allow a Bengali in command in Islamabad.)

While President General Yahya Khan and Bhutto were mostly busy with what they enjoyed the most, the generals drew the blueprints to annihilate the Bengalis. Operation Searchlight was born. Please read: “Bangladesh; The Road to March 1971: Birth Pangs of a Nation” in this context.

Rewriting Indian History

Most of us try to look at the past or judge the past events from today’s mindset, which is not wholly correct. Thousands of years ago, could we make a person believe that the earth was round? And that it went round the sun?  Some of our arguments seem to suggest that we could. Let us take the relatively recent events. To understand the genesis of August 15 or November 7 of 1975, we need to revisit the time and consider the factors that prevailed at the time. If we talk about the post-1970 election situation in East Pakistan, we must place ourselves in that situation.

While discussing the Indian partition, we at times ignore the prevailing political, social, economic and religious environment, as well as the mutual relationship among various groups of that time, say a century or two ago.

Muslims of the sub-continent were made to suffer by design. After taking control of India in 1857, the British Crown adopted a policy to keep the two dominant groups–Hindus and Muslims– antagonistic. In that Machiavellian policy, the British took the collaborative Hindus to their side and kept the Muslims at the receiving end. They indoctrinated the Hindus with the argument: “OK, we are imperialists. And that is bad, but for heaven’s sake, compare us with the Muslims from whose rule we have salvaged your lot.” (Ref: Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a controversial Indian think tank and academician). And the Indian history started to be re-written. So came the Hindu Mahasabha, Hindutva, the radical RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, aka, Hindu Saffron Terror) and many other Hindu fundamentalist organizations. Today’s ruling fundamentalist BJP in India is heavily dependent on the support of the RSS. Muslims are left far behind in this scheme.

Bengal Muslims were the worst victims of the British discriminatory treatment, aided by Hindu collaborators. I learned from elders that in olden days (during the time of my grandfather and great grandfather), middle and lower-class Muslims in rural areas wore dhoti or scanty loin clothes. My relatively affluent Ukil (legal counsellor) great grandfather attended courts in dhoti and a half overcoat. Being a conservative Muslim, he had a fezcap on top. Over time, my family’s fortune dwindled. Even, I had a difficult time in youth. Rarely had I more than one shirt and a pair of lungis at a time. Pajama, sandals, rubber or canvas shoes were luxury items. I got to wear trousers only when I entered college.  Accordingly, the mindset of the two times and two peoples would not be the same. Socio-economic condition impacted our mindset.

Religious Divide 

As we can see, Indian Muslims remained largely neglected under the British. They feared they would remain so under a Hindu dominated India. So, the majority of them wanted a separate homeland. Bengal Muslims, being the worst victims, overwhelmingly supported the idea.

(To me, Assam-Bengal should have been an independent entity, which some Bengal leaders campaigned for. It was viable politically, economically and socially, with Hindus and Muslims staying at par in political power. Jinnah had no objection to the idea. But it could not be materialized due to vehement opposition from Gandhi, Nehru and other Congress leaders who tagged Mountbatten along. Hindu leaders could not afford to lose Kolkata, the business and cultural center at that time.)

However, for the Bengalis, the passion for Pakistan evaporated within two decades of their togetherness. Few of them could visualize what mischief some ambitious and corrupt Punjabi leaders would play with their lives to invite disaster in 1971.

Pakistani Rulers Kept Bengalis Second Class

There is no reason to believe that Pakistanis were all nice and friendly. Prolific writer-researcher Firoz Mahboob Kamal wrote a detailed piece on the topic (বিবিধ ভাবনা (৩৫) ( I lived in West Pakistan for 8 years (1963-1971), in the air force and army. Of course, there were many good people among them. In rural areas, people are very friendly and helpful. But from my personal experience in the military and urban elites, I had observed that the majority of them sneered at and looked down upon the Bengalis. The rulers thought and kept them as second class.

(In 1964, instructors selected me, then a Squadron Commander, to be the Commander for the Passing Out Parade and I had successful rehearsals for about two weeks. One day, the Punjabi Base Commander came to inspect the progress of the rehearsal. He didn’t like a tiny Bengali commanding nearly 500 airmen. He cited my not-so-good marching. To the contrary, instructors praised my marching as one the best. The Base Commander selected a tall Punjabi, and I reverted to my Squadron. That was one time I grudged why Allah did not add a few inches to my height of 5’-5”.)     

In the military academies and training centers, over 95% instructors and commanders were Punjabis. As a result, the Punjabi cadets and trainees usually topped the Gradation List. A few Bengalis did make it there, because they were too good to be ignored. In civil services, the situation perhaps was no better.   

During the much-touted Decade of Development, President Ayub Khan built a few attractive things like Ayub Nagar, today’s Sher-e-Bangla Nagar, the Sangsad Bhaban, a Steel Mill, a few WAPDA constructions to charm the Bengalis. But the Bengalis did not see what he did in the other half of Pakistan during that decade. West Pakistan, which was already better developed than East Pakistan at independence, had far more development works– the Islamabad, the Tarbela Dam, increased defense installations with sophisticated weapons and equipment et al– said to be done with the jute money. When I arrived in Lahore in 1963, I thought I was in a foreign country.

I picked up the following from my book A Soldier’s Debt (Amazon, 2015).

First, see how Pakistani leaders looked at the Bengalis:


  • Malik Feroz Khan Noon, one-time governor of East Bengal and later Prime Minister of Pakistan, said, “East Bengal Muslims were converted to Islam from l ow-caste Hindus and they were not true Muslims.” (J Sen Gupta, Eclipse of East Pakistan, Calcutta, 1963). To the contrary, in 1946, the Bengali Muslims overwhelmingly voted in favor of a separate Muslim homeland for themselves.


  • President Mohammad Ayub Khan described Bengalis: “…. they (Bengalis) have all the inhibitions of downtrodden races and have not yet found it possible to adjust psychologically to the requirements of new- born freedom.” As for West Pakistanis, his view was that they were the “greatest mixture of conquering races anywhere in the world….and that has brought a fusion of ideas, outlook and culture despite the linguistic variety they obtained.” (M Ayub Khan, Friends Not Masters, Oxford University Press, New York, 1967).


Although East Pakistan had a larger population, West Pakistan dominated the divided country politically and received more money from the common budget.


Year Spending on West Pakistan (in millions of Pakistani rupees) Spending on East Pakistan (in millions of Pakistani rupees) Amount spent on East as percentage of West
1950–55 11,290 5,240 46.4
1955–60 16,550 5,240 31.7
1960–65 33,550                        14,040 41.8
1965–70                             51,950                        21,410 41.2
Total                        113,340                      45,930 40.5
Source: Reports of the Advisory Panels for the Fourth Five Year Plan 1970–75, Vol. I,

published by the planning commission of Pakistan.

At birth in 1947, East Pakistan was underdeveloped compared to its western half. The difference continued to grow under the Pakistani rule. First, predominantly Punjabi rulers deliberately imposed a discriminatory developmental policy in the eastern wing. Second, because of the presence of national capital and a greater number of foreign investments, the western wing had the benefit of larger government fund allocations. Third, due to low numbers of local entrepreneurs in East Pakistan, existing labor unrest due to mismanagement and continued political unrest attracted low foreign investments there. Fourth, Pakistan’s state economic priority was for higher urban industrial development. East Pakistan’s agrarian economy did not suit that policy, so it was left out.

Bengalis were grossly under-represented in the Pakistan military. In 1965, the officers of Bengali origin in the forces made up of just 5%, of which only a few were in command positions, majority being in technical or administrative posts. Pakistani leaders thought Bengalis were not “martially inclined” unlike the Pathans or Punjabis. The tag of “non-marital” was humiliating to the Bengalis. Besides, East Pakistan received fewer benefits of huge defense spending in contracts, purchasing and military support jobs. The Indo-Pak war of 1965 highlighted the sense of defense among the Bengalis. An under-strength Infantry Division and a squadron of low-level combat aircraft, with no tank support, made the wind a sitting duck in an Indian retaliation during the conflict.

A few examples of Ayub Khan’s much touted Parity Formula (in 1970).

(Ref: Bangladesh Documents, Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, 1971) Employment in percentage:

                                                West Pakistan                         East Pakistan

Population 43% (56 million)               57% (74 million)



Central Civil Service 84% 16%
Foreign Service 85% 15%
Army 95% 5%
Navy 86% 14%
Air Force

Employment in numbers:

89% 11%
Defense Forces 500,000 20,000
Officers of the rank of General 16 1
Pakistan’s national airlines (PIA) 7000 280
PIA Directors 9 1
PIA Area Managers 9 0
Railway Board Directors 7 1
Foreign Heads of Mission


Social Welfare:

60 9


Population 56 million 74 million
Number of doctors 12400 7600
Hospital beds 16000 6000
Rural Health Centers 325 88
Urban Comm. Dev. Center

Allocation of Annual Budget:

81 52
Defense (Total 60%) 50% 10%
Non- defense (Total 40%) 25% 15%


Points to Note


  • 22 families based in West Pakistan controlled 90% of the industries and 70% of the total wealth of Pakistan.


  • East Pakistan provided 60% of the total revenue and received only 25% of the budget allocation, while West Pakistan was allocated 75% by providing only 40% of the budget.


  • During the 10-year period of 1958-68, East Pakistan exported Sterling 1153 million- -60% of the total- – and its share of import was only 30%, at Sterling 1000 million. During the same period, West Pakistan exported only 40% of the total, at Sterling 820 million, while its imports stood at 70% at Sterling 2315 million.


  • East Pakistan got 23% of the total funds, including foreign aid, for development projects, while West Pakistan got away with the lion’s share of 77%.


  • In 1949, the per capita income in West Pakistan was 18% higher than that of East Pakistan. In 1969, the gap widened to over 70%. The per capita income quadrupled in West Pakistan in 20 years, at the cost of East Pakistan.


  • East Pakistan’s share of GDP in 1949 was Rs.123.60 billion against Rs. 121.06 billion of West Pakistan. Because of a rapid pace of industrialization in the western wing, East Pakistan’s share in 1967 stood at Rs. 202.35 billion, while it rose to Rs. 286.52 billion for West Pakistan.


  • While West Pakistan continued its fast- paced industrial developments, the eastern half remained its feeder market for raw materials.


  • In 1969, Bengalis had to buy their staple food rice at Rs. 50 a maund (82 lbs.), while the price was Rs. 18 in West Pakistan. West Pakistanis bought their staple food wheat at Rs. 10 a maund, while East Pakistanis had to pay Rs. 35 for the same.


As such, Bengalis had a legitimate right to display their anger against the Pakistani rulers who kept flouting the political and economic rules.

(Frederick Douglass (a former slave), American social reformer and statesman of the last century, said: “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”)


R Chowdhury is a former soldier, freedom fighter and diplomat. Spends retired life in reading, writing and gardening. Published three books and a few are in the pipeline.



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