The cyclone that broke up Pakistan

Dear Sir,

Fifty one years ago this week, the Bhola cyclone hit then-East Pakistan causing tremendous and unparalleled casualties and devastation on November 11, 1970. It is still the most fatal tropical cyclone and natural disaster in recorded history. Approximately 500,000 died, mostly because the storm engulfed the low-lying areas of the Ganges Delta. Incidentally, the Bhola cyclone was the most powerful of the 1970 North Indian Ocean cyclone season.

The military dictatorship of Yahya Khan was reproached for its delay in providing relief to the affectees, both by the East Pakistani politicians as well as the global media. When elections occurred a month later, the Awami League swept to a massive victory in East Pakistan, while the ongoing tensions between the province and the centre initiated the Bangladesh War of Liberation, leading to huge atrocities; hence Bangladesh was created as an independent country.

Maulana Bhashani, the chief of the National Awami Party, stated that this situation was enough proof that the government’s efforts to rescue the people from the cyclone were inadequate.

The particulars of the reconstruction plan for the devastated areas were not revealed. They were managed by the government and no say in the composition of the project by East Pakistanis or the affectees was allowed.

Apart from the activities of the then US ambassador to Pakistan, the East Pakistani politicians also criticized the presence of British forces. Azad, a newspaper issued from Dhaka, disclosed at that time that Washington expressed its willingness to give assistance for managing natural disasters as well as other grants, but also wanted to set up a naval base at Chittagong in return.

But this proved fruitless as the Awami League under the leadership of Sheikh Mujib achieved a landslide triumph in the elections on December 7, 1970, mostly due to discontentment regarding rehabilitation work in East Pakistan. Following the cyclone, elections for nine National Assembly and 18 provincial assembly seats could not be held until January 18, 1971.

The way relief efforts were managed by the Pakistan government aggravated the resentment in then-East Pakistan, bulging the resistance movement there. Money did not reach swiftly and supplies also did not reach the affected areas in time. As the agitation worsened, foreign workers left over apprehensions of violence.

The conditions morphed into the Bangladesh War of Independence, expanded to become a full-fledged war between Pakistan and India in December 1971, and ended with the liberation of East Pakistan as Bangladesh. A cyclone had created a new country.

Raza Naeem |Lahore

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