Bangladesh flood
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The Final Straw: How a cyclone created a revolution in Bangladesh

6. Jul 2023

by Muhammad Asiful Basar, Doctoral Candidate, Institute of Development Studies, University of Antwerp, Belgium and Senior Lecturer, Department of History and Philosophy, North South University, Bangladesh.

The birth of Bangladesh as an independent nation-state in 1971 was a remarkable moment in modern history. It was remarkable not only for its people’s lengthy fight for freedom but also because of the role of the Bhola cyclone, an unforeseen natural disaster that accelerated Bangladesh’s separation from the rest of Pakistan. Yet the cyclone – and how it affected local, regional and global politics – has only received limited attention by the historians.

What was the impact of the cyclone?

Following its establishment in 1947, Pakistan endured 23 years of unstable rule, with a one-party-dominated system and military interventions eradicating any semblance of democracy. The first period of martial law began in 1958, which saw General Muhammad Ayub Khan installed as chief martial law administrator and president. In the early 1960s, a movement for democratic restoration took shape, spearheaded primarily by the Bengalis of East Pakistan, who constituted 54% of the Pakistan population. Despite their significant contribution to the national economy, the Bengalis of East Pakistan were consistently marginalized by the ruling elite. This inequality led to demands for provincial autonomy, expressed in the “Six-point” movement, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the president of East Pakistan-based political party, Awami League.

In response to these growing calls for democracy and equality, the military government announced the date for the country’s first-ever national election. The election was scheduled for 7 December 1970, to be held simultaneously across all provinces. However, just three weeks before the election, at midnight on 12 November, a devastating cyclone with winds of up to 200 km/h struck the coast of East Pakistan. Accompanied by 10-meter waves, the cyclone wreaked havoc, causing immense loss of life and property for millions of people. The people of East Pakistan received limited warning about the cyclone, as the early warning system failed to function properly. The media and government officials were preoccupied with the election and gave scant attention to the impending disaster. Despite the fact that the East Pakistan government was informed by the Indian Meteorological Department about the cyclone’s imminent arrival at the coast, this warning was issued at least three days prior.

The cyclone and electoral politics:

The aftermath of the cyclone proved to be even more devastating than the cyclone itself. It took nearly 10 days for the government to declare a state of emergency and deploy the military to assist in relief and rehabilitation efforts. This delayed response deeply affected the views of Bengalis and ignited their nationalistic aspirations during this final phase of election campaign. The second military president, Yahya Khan, who had replaced Ayub Khan in 1969, faced severe criticism for his mishandling of the disaster, with many considering his indifference to be criminal negligence.

Maulana Abdul Hamid Bhashani, leader of the left-wing National Awami Party (NAP), joined the chorus of critics condemning the government’s response to the cyclone. He accused the Pakistani government of displaying a complete lack of concern and indifference toward the victims. On 23 November 1970, he took the bold step of declaring East Pakistan’s independence and called for a boycott of the upcoming elections. Following his lead, two other leftist parties also decided to boycott the election.

In this crucial period, East Pakistani politicians, particularly Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, seized the moment as an opportunity to rally Bengali unity against the West Pakistani elites. Sheikh Mujib highlighted the central government’s inadequate response to the catastrophe and emphasized the need for increased autonomy to better protect the people of East Pakistan from future natural disasters. Employing tactics such as public gatherings, marches, and posters, Mujib drew attention to the disparities between East and West Pakistan and repeated the demands for greater autonomy. One influential poster with the caption, “Why is Golden Bengal a Crematorium?” became a symbol of his campaign.

The electoral outcome and the mess afterwards:

Political observers expected the Awami League to emerge as the leading political party in East Pakistan, but very few predicted them to win 160 out of 162 seats in the election. The election outcome came as a shock, not only to the political parties but also to the Pakistani military. The military had greatly underestimated the influence of Mujib’s Awami League in East Pakistan. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, president of the second-largest party, the Pakistan People’s Party, swiftly rejected the election result and called for fresh elections. The central government also refused to acknowledge the Awami League’s mandate, while the military dismissed Mujib as an Indian agent. Despite the Awami League’s unexpected victory, which granted Mujib and his party an absolute majority and the legitimacy to form government at the center, power was not handed over.

Instead, on March 25, 1971, the military initiated a brutal military operation known as Operation Searchlight. This event sparked a civil war that lasted for nine months and devastated the country again. In late 1971, India intervened in the conflict, resulting the birth of another Indo-Pak war that lasted a mere 13 days. As a consequence of this conflict, the Pakistani authority ultimately surrendered, leading to the establishment of Bangladesh

In summary, the Bhola cyclone of 1970 not only caused immense devastation but also had far-reaching political consequences. The disaster shaped the electoral landscape in East Pakistan, leading to a call for a boycott of the elections by the head of the NAP, which resulted in the Awami League gaining a significant majority. The military’s refusal to transfer power to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman ultimately sparked the civil war that led to Bangladeshi Independence. Despite the historical significance of these events, they have largely been overlooked in global historical accounts. The Bhola cyclone and its aftermath serve as a reminder of the complex interplay between natural disasters and politics and the enduring legacy of such events.

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This post is based on a longer article examining the role of the cyclone in the independence of Bangladesh, recently published in Contemporary South Asia. The article is available Open Access via the following link https://doi.org/10.1080/09584935.2023.2203901

Author: Muhammad Asiful Basar, Doctoral Candidate, Institute of Development Studies, University of Antwerp, Belgium and Senior Lecturer, Department of History and Philosophy, North South University, Bangladesh. Email: [email protected]