The birth of Pakistan in 1947, shortly before India gained Independence, is a history that is rife with narratives of political violence. Even as West Pakistan and East Pakistan came into being, what remained a matter of contention was the issue of a collective identity for this fledgling nation. What, after all, could unite two parts of the same country separated by 2000 kilometers of Indian soil? The answer to this, of course, was language – the most basic medium of human communication. Whereas the Partition had left the landscape in a state of tumult, finding a common language that could appeal to people from spatially removed territories provided a possibility for some form of reconciliation. It was assumed that if people from both East Pakistan and West Pakistan spoke the same language, this would incorporate a sense of solidarity and nationhood amongst them.
In the Pakistani Educational Conference of November 1947 held in Karachi by the Minister of Education, the central debate concerned itself with the question of which language deserved pride of place as official state language of Pakistan. While West Pakistani leaders advocated for the acceptance of Urdu alone, those of East Pakistan present at the conference opposed it vehemently on grounds that Bengali was already a common spoken tongue amongst the majority population that would make up the new country (only 7% of the population spoke Urdu, while 56% spoke Bengali). Despite obvious resentment, however, the Pakistani government proceeded to use Urdu in all forms of currency, money order forms, postage stamps, official letterheads and railway tickets.
This decision did not go down well with the common crowd in East Pakistan who retaliated by arranging a public gathering at the University of Dhaka on December 8, 1947 to protest against what they claimed was cultural domination by the Central Pakistani Government. In the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan in February 1948, this unrest was taken to new lengths when a motion to include Bengali for addressal in the Assembly was rejected outright by the Chief Minister of East Pakistan, West Pakistani leaders and Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. What soon followed was a barrage of protests, subdued only partially by the government’s use of tear gas and baton charges. Unknown to the Pakistani government, their violent response to peaceful protest gatherings had only kindled the fire of the Bengali Language Movement that would go down in history.
With the death of both Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan in 1948 and 1951 respectively, Khawaja Nazimuddin assumed the position of Prime Minister. Earlier, right after the protests of March 1948, he had visited Dhaka to sign an eight point agreement with the All Language Action Committee that promised to pass a new resolution which would seek to include Bengali as one of the official languages of Pakistan. Now, on coming to power, Nazimuddin showed no inclination to live up to that promise whatsoever. Contrarily, on January 30, 1952, the Basic Principles Committee of the Constituent Assembly went ahead to submit a recommendation that argued for Urdu to become the only official language of Pakistan.
On February 22, 1952, thousands of students of Dhaka took to the streets in protest marching all the way to the Provincial Assembly to assert their stance. What had begun as a peaceful, determined rally to assert the right to one’s mother tongue was soon transformed into a scene of utter chaos as police and paramilitary troops opened fire on the crowd claiming five lives and injuring several hundreds. Yet the shooting was far from subsiding even with these losses; instead several more people were killed the next day during the course of a prayer vigil and mourning procession in memory of those who had died the previous day.
News of the multiple deaths spread like wild fire through East Pakistan inciting nationwide resistance. Victory, however, would not come until another four years. On May 7, 1954, the Constituent Assembly voted in support of Bengali as one of the official languages of Pakistan. It would take another two years before this came to fruition. On February 21, 1956 the National Assembly of Pakistan finally declared both Urdu and Bengali to be the two official languages of the nation.
60 years have gone by since East Pakistan successfully reclaimed Bengali as its national language. What had begun as an intellectual cry for visibility and inclusion through language left the common man in East Pakistan reeling with an incited desire for self-determination. The 1971 liberation war that paved the way for the emergence of Bangladesh, therefore, only served to deepen past wounds while also creating newer ones.
As per the Tripartite Agreement of April 1974, Bangladesh and Pakistan have been working on overcoming the hurdles in their bilateral relations. Yet, the situation of Hindus and Bengalis in Pakistan seem to be deteriorating over time. The Pakistani newspaper Dawn reports that over the years, “the population of Hindus left in Pakistan has dwindled to about one of two percent and continues to decrease. Being a tiny, oppressed and scared minority, they have no role in public life.” Furthermore, according to the The Express Tribune, “there are around three million Bengalis in Pakistan and most of them live in Karachi. Bengalis are also mostly from the poorest strata of the society, mainly due to their alien status in the country as well as due to the discrimination they face in public services.”
Most of the Hindus or Bengalis native to Pakistan are often neglected by the Government and deprived wrongfully of a citizenship. One such example is Asma, a Bengali resident from Khuda ki Basti, who has been suffering from Hepatitis C, yet is unable to seek treatment as she lacks a national identity card despite having lived in Pakistan all her life. No different is the situation of Haji Abdur Razaq, supreme council member of the Bengali community in Karachi, who tells The Express Tribune, “I was born in PIB Colony in 1954 and have a Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC), but my children have been given the run by NADRA,” While Haji and Asma are only two among several others who have faced similar injustice at the hands of the Pakistani government, there seems to be little that is being done to amend such a situation. The reason, of course, as expressed by a Bengali worker Muhammad Kamran has much to do with “the mindset of the people in power… that is what trickles down.” Indeed, Kamran may not be too far from the truth when he says that.
The struggle for rights faced by the Bengali community in Pakistan today reminds one of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 that became a milestone in East Pakistan’s fight for reclamation of national identity. While one cannot say for certain whether the deteriorating plight of Pakistani Hindus and Bengalis is a direct consequence of the hurt Pakistani ego from 60 years ago, it may be safely assumed that this has no little part to play in Bangladesh-Pakistan relations as it stands today. What has aggravated the relationship between both countries further is the support extended by Bangladesh to India in recent times as Indo-Pak relations become more and more strained.
The discriminatory treatment meted out by the Pakistani government towards its Bengali community therefore seems to be the result of a political prejudice that has its roots much deeper in the past – a retaliation born of a war that is decades old. This would explain why, despite repeated protests, the Pakistani government has chosen to conveniently overlook the dismal condition of the Bengali communities living under its administration. The only reparation that the Bengali community can expect at such a time, it seems, is recognition by the government of the community’s legal rights brought about forcefully through what could be another long struggle for self determination.