In 1947 British India was partitioned to form two new independent states: India, comprising the predominantly Hindu areas of the former British colony, and Pakistan, comprising the predominantly Muslim areas. Pakistan was divided into an east wing (present-day Bangladesh) and a west wing (present-day Pakistan). The two wings were separated by 1,600 km (1,000 mi) of Indian territory. Differences between the two wings of Pakistan soon developed, in part because their distance made governing difficult, but also due to substantial cultural differences. Chief among these was language. The West Pakistan-dominated government insisted that Urdu be the sole national language. Bengalis insisted that Bengali (Bangla) be accorded the same status. Riots ensued, one resulting in the death of a number of students in Dhaka. In 1954 the national legislature agreed that both Urdu and Bengali would be national languages. In 1949 Bengali leaders founded the Awami League to fight for the autonomy of East Pakistan.
The 1956 constitution of Pakistan decreed that each wing would have the same number of representatives in the parliament, even though East Pakistan had a larger population and was thus underrepresented. East Pakistan accepted this arrangement on the assumption that other inequalities would be remedied. These included underrepresentation in the civil and military services and the much lower rate of new economic investment in East Pakistan. Although the east wing earned a greater amount of foreign exchange than the west, largely as the result of its exports of jute and other products, the bulk of the foreign exchange was expended in the west. In addition, the central government and military were based in West Pakistan.
In 1966 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (“Mujib”), leader of the Awami League, set forth a political and economic program that aimed to redress these inequities. The six points of his program were intended to secure the autonomy of East Pakistan. The main demands were for a parliamentary government elected by universal adult suffrage, with legislative representation on the basis of population; a federal government with responsibilities limited mainly to foreign affairs and defense; and provincial autonomy in fiscal affairs and domestic policing. To the central government, the most dangerous of the six points was the one that provided for taxes to be collected only at the provincial level, as this would have forced the central government to operate under subsidies from the provinces.
In 1969 President Ayub Khan of Pakistan was replaced by General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan. Yahya announced that a parliamentary election would be held in 1970 and decreed that the equal representation of the two wings would end. Instead, parliamentary seats would be determined by the population of each of Pakistan’s five provinces, giving East Pakistan, the largest province, 162 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly. In the elections, Mujib and the Awami League ran on the platform of the six points and won 160 seats.
The Awami League’s overwhelming victory surprised Yahya and his advisers, who had underestimated the support for the Awami League. Yahya had expected no single party to win a majority, an outcome that would have given him more power over the parliament.
Mujib claimed the prime ministership and asserted that the six points would be enacted as the basis of a new constitution. Leaders in the west, headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, objected to these assertions. Demonstrations in the east were followed by a military crackdown. Mujib and other leaders were arrested; many were killed. A civil war ensued. Large numbers of Bengalis were massacred by the Pakistani military, and some 10 million Bengalis fled to the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal.
In early December 1971 the Indian military intervened in support of Bengali forces in East Pakistan. India’s intervention was brief and decisive. The Pakistani military surrendered in mid-December. On December 16 of that year East Pakistan became the sovereign nation of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh was soon recognized by most other nations, although Pakistan withheld diplomatic recognition until 1974 and China did not recognize the nation until 1976. The United Nations admitted Bangladesh in 1974.