Personal accounts of 1971

Bilwani describes how Gujarati business clans from West Pakistan lost their investments East Pakistan following 1971.

Ajmal Kamal December 16, 2011

Mohammad Siddiq Bilwani, the author of the book with the twin title — Bilwani ka Andaz-e Bayan and Main ne Dekha Suqoot-e Dhaka — was born in Bantva, a small town of the princely state of Manavadar, located in Kathiawar, Gujarat. He was running a family business in the South Indian city of Mysore when the Partition of 1947 happened. He played an active role in bringing his family and valuables to the safety of Karachi and then went back to his native town to dispose of the immoveable assets and transfer the family’s capital to the capital city of the new state. His family, like other business clans of Gujarat — Khoja, Bohra, Memon, Kutchi and Ithna Ashri — quickly resumed their businesses in various places in Pakistan. He went on to expand his business to East Pakistan as early as the 1950s and his business involvement continued till the last days of united Pakistan.

Trying to discover Bilwani’s personality and thinking is useful as his experiences in an active practical life have informed his view of the long series of events that led to the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state. For example, it is hardly surprising that he often looks at the traumatic days of the civil war in the eastern part in comparison with the similar days of 1947-48, during which communal riots, tension, a two-way transfer of population, division of assets between the two states and transfer of private capital took place. He is of the firm opinion that the 1971 civil war was much bloodier and more destructive than the events around the Partition. He observes that while some specific areas — Punjab, Bengal and Bihar — were vastly and tragically hit by killings, rape and looting, other parts of the subcontinent — such as Sindh, Gujarat, large parts of UP and CP and almost the entire southern subcontinent — remained relatively calm although passions were high and so was communal tension. He recalls the experience of his biradari and other biradaris from Kathiawar and other parts of Gujarat that were able to not only safely bring their member families to the new state but also to transfer their capital to start their life again in the new state. (It should not be forgotten here that many such business clans were already settled in the areas that came to become Pakistan from the colonial days, mostly the late 19th and early 20th centuries.)

Bilwani notes that in 1947, the two states had been able to facilitate transfer of cash, assets and private capital. He mentions the name of a fellow Gujarati, HM Patel, who represented Pakistan on the committee overseeing the division of office equipment and furniture on a 80:20 ratio between the newly-born states of India and Pakistan.

On the other hand, the level of mutual hatred and hostility between the parties involved in the civil war of East Pakistan in 1971, was much higher and engulfed the entire area now forming Bangadesh. A very large number of people were killed and maimed at the hands of the Pakistani armed forces, militias and police; the rebel Bengali members of these forces, state-supported razakar outfits (such as alBadr and alShams having a Bengali and Bihari membership), indigenous and India-trained bahinis (the most famous being the Mukti Bahini) and sundry lawless elements working on their own. The industrialists and tea-planters, who had their business base in West Pakistan, had to leave all their immoveable assets without any compensation (except the large amounts of cash that they were able to withdraw from banks and smuggle to West Pakistan before withdrawals were banned by the Awami League).

Bilwani describes how the Gujarati business clans — Adamjee, Dadabhoy and many less known ones — from West Pakistan had invested in the eastern wing in jute, paper and other industries and tea plantations, which they lost in 1971 (Kutchi Memons had large businesses in Calcutta and Burma, which they were able to shift to East Pakistan after 1947, but they, too, lost everything. Since they had little business presence in West Pakistan, they were hit harder than other business communities). All these industrial and business interests were officially taken over by the Bangladesh government, because of the widely-held and realistic view that these export-oriented industries and businesses had resulted in gross economic exploitation of East Bengal, as almost the entire foreign exchange earned through them was routinely allocated to West Pakistan and this practice had continued throughout the life of the two wings together. Bilwani, too, notes in passing that the miserable condition of the infrastructure in East Pakistan showed how little was invested there. Any protests on the continuation of the practice of economic, political and cultural exploitation were suppressed by exercising brutal force. The heartless and greedy policies devised and cruelly imposed by the ruling classes of West Pakistan — with the support of the civil and khaki bureaucracy — resulted in a huge human misery on all levels.

Bilwani mentions how he made several trips to East Pakistan during the war. One such visit he undertook on March 23, 1971 — when East Pakistan was on the verge of being hit hard by Operation Searchlight — when, on his arrival in Dhaka on his way to Chittagong, he saw Khan Abdul Wali Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (separately) who were preparing to leave for home. He describes his 130-mile-long road journey through Sitakund, Koni, Daudhundi, Comilla to Chittagong, which was taken over by the Mukti Bahini a couple of days later. A little more than 300 men of the Baloch Regiment of the Pakistan Army got besieged in the cantonment; they were rescued by their colleagues from Comilla cantonment after about a week and the town came back under the nominal control of the Pakistani forces. The Bihari settlements of Wireless Colony, Sholaset and Pahartali were besieged from all sides and supply of food and other essential items was cut off. The Biharis were all but abandoned by those who they had supported.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2011.


Cynical | 11 years ago | Reply

@mind control

Brilliant response @Abdul Rehman Gilani. You should have been a lawyear (may you are one). Would have loved to see a reply from Abdul Rehman Gilani. My guess is, he will not appear on this page again.

Shamsad | 11 years ago | Reply

@Shakir Lakhani: It is unfortunate to draw parallel on religious lines. Your belief in one religion and one Nation has been proven wrong on more than one occasion. If Banglladeshies were so find of Paksitan, then such an uprising as in 1971 would never have been possible. Just the fact of same religion cannot create a single nation. This weird idea and thought must be confided to grave for peace in this world.

Even Middle east which is cradle of Islam has numerous Nations. By your idea, they all should have been a single country! You seem to miss any diversity below the color of religion. As a muslim born in India, I very well know the tragedy of fanning religious identiies and the havoc it brings to humanity. Pakistan is already suffering from numerous idealogical cracks withing, therefore it is ideal to keep its attention on its own problems instead of prying in the neighbourhood.


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