Bangladesh, Pakistan trade luck

I FEEL GOOD about living to see this day.  Bangladesh, whose creation I once opposed, is belying my forebodings about its future. It has surpassed Pakistan and in some cases the economic behemoth of India in economic progress and well-being. Bangladeshi economic performance glows brighter when you compare that with the deepening economic crisis hobbling Pakistan.

Here’s how Bangladesh compares with Pakistan and India economically and socially, as shown by four key indicators. The first three are from the World Bank database, and the fourth from that of UNICEF.

Economic growth rates: Bangladesh – 7.9%; Pakistan – 5.4%; India – 7%.

Per capita income: Bangladesh – $1,700; Pakistan – $1,400; India – $2,000.

Life expectancy: Bangladesh – 73 years; Pakistan – 67 years; India – 69 years.

Literacy rate(15-24 years): Bangladesh – 73%; Pakistan – 56%; India – 69%.

First, a bit of the genesis of Bangladesh and Pakistan. In 1947 old Pakistan was carved out of two Muslim-majority slices of the Indian subcontinent, separated by 1600 miles of Hindu-majority India. East Pakistan, agrarian and flood-prone, was inhabited mostly by impoverished Bengalee Muslims. West Pakistan, especially its Punjab province, throbbed with industries and flourishing farms and was the locale of most of the country’s armed forces.

Bengalee Muslims had struggled onerously to create the “Muslim homeland” of Pakistan while the ethnically diverse Muslims of what became West Pakistan were opposed or indifferent to the Pakistan movement.  The irony of ironies, 24 years after the creation of Pakistan, Bengalee Muslims in East Pakistan split Pakistan to make their eastern province independent Bangladesh. They had become fed up with army rule, economic exploitation and political suppression by West Pakistan’s mostly Punjabi military, feudal and political elites. Ever since Pakistan is what had been West Pakistan. 

Bangladesh’s quite rapid economic progress and strides toward modernization have been an agreeable surprise to me because I had underestimated the progressive and creative potential of my fellow East Pakistanis. I believed that the relatively backward East Pakistan, with its stagnant economy, couldn’t survive, or at any rate would suffer, without the support of Pakistan’s western wing. In my column in the Pakistan Observer newspaper, published from Dhaka, now the Bangladeshi capital, I argue repeatedly that the “real task before us,” East Pakistanis, was to restore democracy in Pakistan, not dismember the country, which we had fought hard to create. East Pakistanis accounted for 56 percent of the Pakistani population, and I maintained that under a democratic system that would ensure free and fair elections, “we will rule Pakistan,” ending military rule and economic exploitation of the Punjabi clique.

On the morning of March 22, 1969, I was abducted at dagger-point from Dhaka by a dozen or so rowdy activists of the Bangladesh independence movement. My kidnappers called me a “Punjabi agent” and tormented me for my “filthy writings” against the Bangladeshi “national liberation.”  They eventually let me go with the warning that if I dared to write “one more word” against their movement, my corpse would be “floating in the Burigunga,” the river snuggling Dhaka’s southern border.

I soon dropped my byline from my commentaries and the Observer’s publisher, Hamidul Huq Choudhury, arranged to send me out to work as the paper’s London bureau chief. I wasn’t surprised when I learned that I was among about 200 East Pakistanis who had been declared persona non grata in the newly independent Bangladesh. I immigrated to the United States as a political refugee.

From America I began to watch Bangladesh’s steady economic rise, after a decade of economic downturn, a famine and two military coups. It led first to my confusion and then soul searching and research. From my inquiries I realized that Bangladeshis’ innate spirit of enterprise and ingenuity, which I suspect party derives from their genetic inheritance, have been propelling their rapid rise. I was at once embarrassed and elated. Embarrassed because of my underrating Bangladeshis’ capabilities and opposing their independence struggle, and elated because of the accomplishments of my fellow natives of Bengladesh. 

Bangladeshis are a hybrid racial strain, belonging to Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman, Australoid other racial stocks. In 2014 I ran into two German researchers in Dhaka who were investigating the genetic components of Bengalee ethnicity in Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, also inhabited by Bengalees. Ninety-eight percent of Bangladeshis are ethnic Bengalees. Fritz von Meyer, from Lower Saxony, told me that the “very rich racial mixture” in their genome had made Bengalees more inquisitive and innovative than people with less variegated racial and ethnic genealogies. I realized that military-political suppression by the Punjabi-led West Pakistani elites had,partly, kept that ingenuity and creativity from flowering among Bengalees in East Pakistan. 

Today I see the same deplorable drama playing out in what is left of Pakistan. I didn’t research the genetic or societal characteristics of Pakistan’s diverse ethnic communities, but Punjabis are known for their talent and enterprise, Pashtun for their indomitable courage and perseverance, Baloch for their vigorous spirit de corps and artistic aptitudes, and so on. If harnessed, these gifts of character and abilities could catapult Pakistan into high levels of progress and prosperity. 

Yet Pakistan is on the verge of an economic meltdown. In April a Pakistani economist warned that his country had “reached the point of collapse.” Kaiser Bengali said, “The alarm bells are ringing. We have no choice but to beg. I fear starvation, poverty and unemployment.”

Prime Minister Imran Khan, once an internationally famed cricket star, came to power promising to create 10 million new jobs and 5 million new houses and revitalize the economy. Little did he know that the burden of running an impoverished country with domineering army generals looking over your shoulders is quite a bit heavier than running through the cricket field with leg pads, thigh guard, helmet and gloves.

Pakistan’s growth rate has dropped to a nine-year low, to 4 percent; 35 percent of its population languishes below the poverty line. Yet curbs imposed by the IMF, which gave Pakistan $6 billion in loans to help stabilize the economy, bars the government from pursuing public sector program that could alleviate the hardships of the poor. Meanwhile, prices of sugar, flour, electricity and most other essential commodities and services are rising unremittingly. On top of it, the Pakistani government has had to announce a sharp tax hike, also under IMF pressure, which, when presented before the parliament, drew angry shouts and howls. The country’s productivity, reflected in its export earnings, has plummeted significantly. It’s telling to recall that as late as in 1992 Pakistan’s per capita real GDP, adjusted for purchasing power of the currency, was 65 percent higher than India’s. Today it’s 28% lower than that of its larger neighbor.

The rise of productivity, a fast rise, would be the key to Pakistan’s economic health, and with it political and social advancement. But raising productivity requires a motivated manpower with animated hopes and aspirations. The problem is you can’t truly motivate people into doing anything consequential if it doesn’t enkindle their creativity and energy and offer them a stake in the outcome of their drudgery. It all calls for social and political freedoms, which Pakistan’s power hungry military brass, landed aristocracy and government bureaucracy have resisted tooth and nail so far.

The military, in collaboration with the aristocracy and bureaucracy, has continually interrupted in the democratic process throughout Pakistan’s history. Imran Khan is Pakistan’s 19th elected prime minister. Thanks to military-bureaucratic interventions none of the 18 before him completed his or her five-year term in office. Khan is trying to complete his by accepting the military tutelage – practically ceding foreign relations to the generals and clearing his key domestic programs with them. That’s not a recipe for economic recovery or grown, let alone promoting freedom and democracy in Pakistan.

As I said on other occasions, I’m an optimist who is waiting for the day Pakistanis say enough is enough. That day they will rise to beat their swashbuckling generals and colonels back into the barracks – as the Turks did in the wake of the aborted Turkish military coup in 1916 – and win their freedoms and their and their childrens’ future.

ve and productivity. Since the secession of Bangladesh, Pakistan has had two paroxysms of repressive military rule, each lasting a decade, while the government and bureaucratic establishment and the landed aristocracy continue to repress and exploit the lower classes with abandon.

One especially deplorable aspect of this suppression has been governments’ “active indifference” – as a Punjab University sociologist called it – to the country’s economic development and social progress. On visits to Pakistan I’m pained by the sights of ill-kept, ill-managed schools; and ill-paid and under-qualified teachers. Successive governments have neglected the education and vocational training of Pakistani youth. The central government has had a policy of not building or helping the running schools in areas dominated by the opposition groups such as in Baluchistan and the tribal areas of the Pakhtunkhwa provinces. A 2016 study found that nearly half of 10-year-olds showed 6-year-olds’ competence in their national language, Urdu, or even their mother tongues. The arithmetic scores of 10-year-olds barely fits that of 7-year-olds; and so on. The natural consequence of this screw-up of Pakistani governments has been the country’s poorly educated youth with serious deficiency in vocational skills.The manpower is just equipped for the country’s modernization and economic advancement.

The central government is disproportionately dominated by Punjabi political, bureaucratic – and military – elites. As such the economic and social suppression, which comes down the harshest in the impoverished provinces of Baluchistan and Pakhtunkhwa, has been fueling anti-Punjabi and anti-Pakistani movements in those two provinces. It all sounds to me like the scenes that unfolded in East Pkistan in the late 1960s.

Azmat Hayat Khan, then director of the Area Studies Centre at Peshawar University in the Pakhtunkhwa city of Peshawar, has been an old acquaintance. On a visit to his think tank in Peshawar in 2007, he deplored that Pakistani elites had not “learned the lesson of Bangladesh.” Baloch separatists, he said, have the same grievances as did East Pakistanis. And they are “following the same script,”  while Pakistani authorities were “using the same tool,” military force, “to tackle the Baloch” militants. India had supported the Bangladesh independence movement and invaded East Pakistan to bring about the birth of Bangladesh. Khan said that Baloch insurgents were also “getting active support – arms, ammunition, money and intelligence from the same enemy,” India.

I don’t anticipate Balochistan becoming independent, not in the foreseeable future anyway. While Bangladesh was populous, detached from Pakistan and 1600 miles away, Baluchistan is geographically attached to the rest of Pakistan and sparsely populated. As of today, the secessionist movement there is under control, and more so the Pashtun separatist ferment. But trends in the two provinces are ominous.

  • Mustafa Malik is an international affairs commentator in Washington. He hosts this blog site.

Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik
Mustafa Malik, the host of the blog 'muslimjourney.com,' is a journalist, writer and blogger, based in Washington. He writes mostly about international affairs, liberalism and neoliberalism, U.S. policy toward Muslim societies, religious fundamentalism and Islamic renewal.Over the years Malik's writings have been published in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Atlanta Constitution, Miami Herald and other American newspapers and journals and in a host of Middle Eastern and South Asian publications. He has conducted field research in Europe, the Middle East, Turkey and the Indian subcontinent as a fellow of the University of Chicago Middle East Center, German Marshall Fund of the United States and American Friends Service Committee. His recent research projects focused on the Palestinian-Israeli imbroglio, America's campaign against terrorism and Islamic movements, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the nationalist projects in the Indian subcontinent.Malik continually gives lectures and media interviews on U.S. foreign policy, Islam and international affairs and has served as a panelist at seminars in the United States, Europe, Pakistan and India. He worked 16 years as a reporter, editor, columnist and London bureau chief for the Hartford Courant, Washington Times, Glasgow Herald and Pakistan Observer newspapers; as news editor of then Bengali-language biweekly Nao-Belal of Dhaka, Bangladesh; and as the European correspondent for the defunct newsmagazine Pakistan Monitor, published in Lahore, Pakistan.Malik also served as speechwriter for the late Pakistani Prime Minister Nurul Amin and carried out diplomatic assignments from the Pakistani government at the United Nations and in several European and the Middle Eastern countries. Malik was born in India and lives in the Washington suburbs.

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