Pakistan celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. But it is not the state that Jinnah created out of partition in 1947. In 1971 its more populous eastern wing declared unilateral independence. Colin Smith recalls the large and small atrocities that accompanied the birth of Bangladeshby Colin Smith / May 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
It is not the most dashing way to go to war. I was being pedalled towards the sound of guns in a pedi-cab, an overgrown tricycle powered by poverty. The feet on my pedals were clad in the grey plastic pointed slippers worn by most of the Bengali peasantry, and which resembled the beach shoes I wore as a child. They were made in China which had a sweetheart trade deal with Pakistan, to whom they also supplied their version of the Kalashnikov rifle.
I was in what was then east Pakistan and is now Bangladesh, heading down the road from the Indian border to the town of Jessore. The most deadly thing I saw in the hands of Bengali civilians that morning were cheap, single-barrelled shotguns. Most of the youths in shirts and chequered lungis who flagged down my pedi-cab demanding to know who I was and where I was going were carrying no more than sharpened bamboo sticks and machetes. They were elated, drawing courage from each other. “Where are you from?” they asked, their faces close, fingering my black shoulder bag. “London proper? What is your good name?” “Are you married? How many sons?” The fashionable length of my hair also invited comment: “Are you knowing the Beatles?”
I was 26 and a staff reporter on the Observer. This was my first big foreign news story. I had never set foot in India or Pakistan before and on the flight out I took a crash course in the politics of the subcontinent reading long articles in the Observer and the Sunday Times. In 1947 Quaid-E-Azam Jinnah, a chain smoking barrister, founded Pakistan, the world’s first theocratic state and a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent-nearly one quarter of the population of British India. But Pakistan was built like a pantomime horse. Its halves were separated by 1,200 miles of Indian territory. Where its backbone should have been Pakistan had religion and, in the end, religion was not enough. The small, dark Bengalis of east Pakistan had little in common with the tall, light-skinned Punjabis and Pathans of west Pakistan, apart from religion and British ways of administering themselves. The east wing, with its main town of Dhaka, was the more populous half of the Muslim state yet it was governed from Islamabad, the new capital Pakistan had built in the Punjab.
According to Sheikh Mujib…