Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 5 Issue 125 | December 22, 2006 |

   Cover Story
   Straight Talk
   Special Feature
   Human Rights
   Dhaka Diary
   Book Review
   New Flicks

   SWM Home


Concern in London -1946
Would East Bengal be Economically Viable?

Azizul Jalil

Even as a part of Pakistan, would East Bengal (with the Sylhet district of Assam) be an economically viable entity? This was a concern of the British government and many others. Belying such doubts, East Bengal (renamed East Pakistan in 1956) did reasonably well during 1947-71 and involuntarily transferred economic resources, including foreign exchange earnings, toward the prosperity of West Pakistan.

Henry Kissinger opined that the proposed state of Bangladesh would be an international basket case.

Twenty years later, after the six-points demand of East Pakistan in 1966, the very same question was asked repeatedly right up to the day of independence in 1971. The most famous judgment on this issue came from Henry Kissinger during 1971. He opined that the proposed state of Bangladesh would be an international basket case. However, Bangladesh has survived and done quite well, despite continuing political discord and disunity in the nation. Even politically, it is a vibrant nation with a very high voter participation rate in the elections.

In late 1946, the British began to seriously consider granting Jinnah his Pakistan, composed of the Muslim-majority areas in the North-East and North-West of India. The federation plan of the Cabinet Mission had floundered and the prospects for Pakistan was being examined from many angles. Important among these were the defence and economic aspects of the proposed country. West Pakistan had the advantage of having a large army under British-trained army officials, senior civil servants, natural resources, developed irrigation system, mills and factories, and experienced trading, industrial and entrepreneurial class. It also had the advantage of the great port of Karachi. Naturally, more focus was on the far-flung Eastern Bengal, which was viewed as the weaker link in Pakistan.

Those who were toying with the idea of Pakistan knew that Bengal would most probably be partitioned and that there would be little possibility of the capital of Bengal, Calcutta, which was also a big port, going to East Bengal's share. Calcutta had a large Hindu majority and an entrenched and highly educated middle-class. They were in a predominant position in civil services, commerce and industry. Jinnah demanded Calcutta. He remarked that without Calcutta, East Bengal would not amount to much. In 1947, East Bengal was less-developed in every way compared to West Bengal. It had few known economic and natural resources except jute and tea. However, the jute mills were almost entirely located in Calcutta. There was at that time no known gas or oil in the eastern part of Bengal. The port of Chittagong existed since the middle ages and the Arabs and later the Portuguese traders and missionaries had used it as an entry point in East Bengal but it was small and undeveloped.

In the above circumstances, though the Muslim demand for Calcutta's inclusion in East Bengal continued until the time of Independence in August 1947, assessment of the economic viability of East Bengal without Calcutta were being conducted by the British in anticipation of the partition of Bengal. While going through the 900-page British Government document 'The Transfer of Power-1942-47', Volume VIII, edited by Nicholas Mansergh and published in 1979, I found a note sent on September 3, 1946 by R.J. Griffith to Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the secretary of state for India concerning, among others, the economic viability issue of East Bengal. Griffith was an influential European leader living in Calcutta. He was asked by the secretary of state to occasionally send his views on Indian affairs and the confidential note was his response.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the rather encouraging assertions by Griffith as early as 1946 about East Bengal's viability. It was indeed quite prophetic and came to be true. Since the secret British documents were available only in 1979, years after Bangladesh was born, the content of the note was probably not known to our leadership at the time.

According to Griffith, the British Government and the Viceroy of India had consistently over-rated the practical difficulties of partition. He felt that while it was true that East Bengal would not initially be an industrialised country, its agricultural resources would be considerable and with jute and tea as the foundation of its export trade, it would not be by any means the poorest independent country in the modern world.

Griffith's remarks concerning East Bengal were based on an authoritative study by Sir.R. Coupland(Report on the Constitutional Problems in India, III- The Future of India, 1943). Coupland, who was not unduly favourable to the idea of Pakistan, came to the conclusion that if Eastern Bengal included Calcutta, it would have a balanced economy, but that if Calcutta were excluded, Pakistan could only provide the minimum needs of defence by a fall in their standard of living and a sacrifice of social advancement. However, Coupland wrote: “material considerations are not always the decisive factor in national policy” and that it was more than likely that the Muslims would willingly suffer “a fall in their standard of living and a sacrifice of social advancement” in order to obtain their desire; they would rather be poor in Pakistan, than better off in a united India.

In his note, Griffith went on to say that if the Muslims failed to secure the inclusion of Calcutta, which is what happened after the Radcliff partition award, the absence of a major port would undoubtedly be a handicap but other countries in recent times have managed to survive a similar disadvantage. Griffith stated: “To either of these two arguments, Mr. Jinnah would undoubtedly reply with the parallel of the Balkan countries, particularly as they were before the second decade of this Century. It is difficult to see why East Bengal should be considered a less practical proposition than were Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro and so on.”

In Bangladesh, despite political discord and disunity, at least in the last 15 years there has been phenomenal development in all sectors due to the government's sound macroeconomic policies, infrastructural, educational and health investments, internationally admired social and economic activities of the non-governmental organisations, and remarkable private sector entrepreneurial activities. R. J. Griffith might not have been a famous person but we should be happy that he had good judgment and such confidence in Bangladesh and its prospects.

Azizul Jalil writes from Washington.


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006