Ayub Khan and the ‘Bengali Question’

Ayub Khan is generally framed as an authoritarian modernizer who tried to build a centralized Pakistan run along technocratic lines. He is frequently set in contrast to the Islamizing Zia ul-Haq, who more aggressively pursued an Islamist ideological project after 1977. Huntington, in Political Order in Changing Societies, used Ayub as a classic example of the ambitious military modernizer bringing order from the wreckage of weakly institutionalized civilian democracy.

When it comes to Islam, Ayub is seen as personally not particularly religious, instead trying to mobilize a particular brand of Muslim nationalism for his own purposes, whilte set against the more ideological clerics and religious parties he despised. This is not wrong on certain dimensions (he certainly hated the traditionalist ulama etc), but it’s striking just how deeply his diaries reveal him to be obsessed with the question of religion and the Bengali. Hinduism is repeatedly equated to Bengali identity in his discussions of the problem of East Pakistan. I’ve found Ayub’s diaries (edited by Craig Baxter) quite fascinating; a few select excerpts on the Bengali issue:

  • If ground given to Bengali regionalism, “the point of no return would be reached and East Pakistan will go under Hinduism and be separated forever” (25 May 67, 100-101)
  • “when thinking of problems of East Pakistan one cannot help feeling that their urge to isolate themselves from West Pakistan and revert to Hindu language and culture is close to the fact that they have no culture and language of their own nor have they been able to assimilate the culture of the Muslims of the subcontinent by turning their back on Urdu. Further, by doing so they have forced two state languages on Pakistan. This has been a great tragedy for them and for the rest of Pakistan. They especially lack literature on the philosophy of Islam” (12 Aug 67, 132)
  • “the two communities lived strictly apart with very little in common. This is because our philosophy of life was totally opposed and so our culture too had to be different. Our contact is perfunctory and shallow. I told them that through emotional upsurge the East Pakistani had cut himself off from Urdu, the vehicle in which Muslim thought and philosophy is expressed. If consequence, he was now totally at sea, drifting. This will prove very dangerous for their future. If not careful they will have no choice but to drift back to Hinduism and be engulfed by it” (23 August 1967, 137)
  • “without meaning any unkindness, the fact of the matter is that a large majority of the Muslims in East Pakistan have an animist base which is a thick layer of Hinduism and top crust of Islam which is pierced by Hinduism from time to time” ( 23 August 1967, 138)
  • in conversation with Khawaja Shahabuddin re: East Pakistan “we could not think of a worst combination. Hindus and Bengalis. I told the Khawaja not to lose heart. If worse comes to the worst, we shall not hesitate to fight a relentless battle against the disruptionists of East Pakistan. Rivers of blood will flow if need be, unhappily. We will arise to save our crores Muslims from Hindu slavery” (7 Sept 1967, 145)
  • “I am surprised at the Bengali outlook. It does not conform to any rational yardstick. They were exploited by the caste Hindus, the Muslim rulers and even the British. It was at the advent of Pakistan that they got the blessing of freedom and equality of status and a real voice in the running of their government. . . any normal people should have recognized and rejoiced at this blessing. Instead, they urge to fall back on their Bengali past. This can only result in their complete absorption by Hindu West Bengal influence” (Jan-March 1968, 210 – date not given because during period of illness)


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