In Bangladesh, December 16 marks the anniversary of the victory of Indian and Bangladesh forces over what was then West Pakistan.
Between 1955 and 1971, Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan. On the other side of India, the country we know as Pakistan was West Pakistan.
Although more people lived in East Pakistan than in West Pakistan, the West controlled the country both politically and economically. Since representation was by “unit” rather than by population, East Pakistan’s potential for equal government participation was eliminated.
In the face of rising Bengali dissatisfaction, the President rescinded the “One Unit” rule in 1969, allowing East Pakistan equal representation in government based on population. However by this time many in the East considered the change “too little too late,” and the nationalist Bengali movement continued to gain steam. Tensions increased during the campaign of 1970 in anticipation of the country’s first truly democratic election.
In the midst of this political storm, a real storm struck.
The Bhola Cyclone of November 1970 was the deadliest hurricane ever recorded. The people of East Pakistan had just recovered from an October cyclone that destroyed 200 villages, when Bhola touched down on November 12.
Even deadlier than the 2004 Tsunami that swept through Indonesia and Thailand, the Bhola Cyclone killed between 300,000 and 500,000 people, mostly in what is now Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). The storm struck during high tide. Tazumuddin, a community of over 160,000 people, lost nearly half its population. Islands were entirely wiped out, and millions of survivors were left homeless. West Pakistan’s underestimation of the disaster and their perceived slow response to send aid ignited the East.
In the December 7, 1970 election, East Pakistan’s Awami party won a landslide victory, taking all but two of East Pakistan’s alloted 169 seats in the National Assembly, and gaining for the first time a majority in the Assembly.
Rather than allow the Awami party to form a new government, the sitting government refused to acknowledge the election results and suggested a compromise: two Prime Ministers.
The suggestion outraged the East, which had been effectively ruled by West Pakistan for decades. When peace talks failed, violence broke out in East Pakistan. On March 26, 1971, the East declared independence as the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
Millions of refugees fled from Bangladesh to India during the 8-month war. In December, India entered the war on the side of Bangladesh; within two weeks Indian and Bangladesh forces surrounded the Pakistani army. The Pakistan army surrendered on December 16, 1971, a day still celebrated in Bangladesh as Victory Day.