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The Bhola Cyclone of 1970

No political history of Bangladeshi nationalism fails to link the Bhola cyclone to the Awami League election landslide that unleashed the struggle for independence weeks later, but elite-centred accounts routinely ignore the significance of the environment in political history (Ahmed 2013; Iqbal 2010). Bhola was a critical juncture (USAID 2007, 42), a 'perfect storm' that crowned a series of natural disasters which made ever plainer the neglect by the Pakistani state and the need for an alternative political dispensation to serve the interests of its precarious peasantry. It was a national disaster, whose 'socio-psychological impact fell on the entire incipient Bengali nation' (Khondker 1995, 176).

The Bhola cyclone, one of the deadliest tropical storms in world history, struck the Bay of Bengal on 12 November 1970. It was forecast to be of moderate intensity, and radio warnings only started late in the afternoon (not that anyone trusted these messages). Travelling at 150 mph at high tide, it generated a 20-foot tidal wave that swept at least a quarter of a million people and possibly twice as many, with their animals, crops, and houses, into the Bay of Bengal.[1] One man watched helplessly as his five children were swept away by a howling frenzy of water, wind, and flying debris. Almost half the population were washed away in one area. People spoke of the wave as similar to a bombing raid—presciently, it turned out, with the Pakistani army raids only four months into the future (Schanberg 1970).

Disastrous though it was, the Bhola cyclone was no freak occurrence. The coast around the Bay of Bengal is highly exposed to tropical storms and tidal surges (Frank and Husain 1971, 438); almost half of deaths from tropical cyclones since the nineteenth century have been around the Bay of Bengal (in Paul 2009). Historical records suggest severe cyclones occurred on average twice or less frequently per decade from the 1790s to the 1900s, at which time the average rose to around three per decade. The 1960s were a decade of unusually intense cyclonic activity, with ten major events, or one each year (Frank and Husain 1971 citing Husain 1966).

Around two million people lived in the most damaged areas; a million acres of crop were destroyed and a further million damaged (World Bank 1970);

400,000 houses and 3,500 schools were damaged, and 65 per cent of total fishing capacity destroyed (Frank and Husain 1971). Four months later one million people still depended on relief (Sommer and Mosley 1972). The government of Pakistan knew that coastal East Bengal was often buffeted by cyclones and tidal bores, and it took some preventive and ameliorative action (Reilly 2009). But disasters of this kind were accepted as part of the landscape. It was days before news of the catastrophe reached even Dhaka (then Dacca), let alone the capital Islamabad so much further away. New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg described the Pakistani government's view of their failure to tackle the cyclone:

Because natural disasters are so common and so difficult to control in East Pakistan, and because resources are so limited, the central Government pleading helplessness, has tended to ignore the disasters and invest its resources elsewhere.

(Schanberg 1970)

There was little to impede the cyclone on its way to its victims. Many of these islands were too new to even have the protection afforded by mature trees, and the Sundarbans forest that once covered that part of the coastline had been cleared over the preceding century, partly thanks to colonial policies.[2] The government of Pakistan had established a programme to develop cyclone protection, warning, and shelter systems; deliver relief; and reduce vulnerability by re-zoning land settlement after the North Indian Ocean cyclone season of 1960, but it was designed without regard to the people it should protect and had little impact (Islam 1971).

Since 1970, there has been investment in preventive infrastructure such as embankments, technically superior and credible early warning systems, and networks of somewhat more user-friendly cyclone shelters and evacuation routes, as well as in safe water and food supply and other relief systems

(Alam and Dominey-Howes 2015). Crucially, there has been an emphasis on building the administrative and human capacities to prepare and respond speedily and effectively when disasters strike. The more severe cyclone Gorky in 1991 killed a still tragically vast 143,000 people, but cyclone preparedness had improved in the intervening twenty-one years, and many lives were probably saved. In 2007, Cyclone Sidr was as severe in magnitude as the Bhola storm, but the death rate was one-hundredth of that in 1970.[3]

The Bhola cyclone dramatized the arguments for independence better than any campaign or manifesto. The cyclonic sixties had already put disaster management on the political agenda of the nationalists. Among its commitments, Sheikh Mujib's Awami League manifesto prominently featured commitment to flood relief, while the National Awami Party (Bhashani wing, or NAP (B)) campaigned on a platform of protection against natural disasters. The veteran NAP leader, 'friend of the farmers' Maulana Bhashani, had declared in September that

if concrete steps were not taken to correct interregional inequities and to protect Bengal against the destructive vagaries of nature, East Pakistan would be forced to separate from the western wing and develop friendly relations with whomever it wanted. (Sisson and Rose 1990, 30)

Indeed, the first direct democratic elections in Pakistan's history had originally been scheduled for July, only to be postponed to 7 December because of excess flooding in the east. Thus the cyclone struck Bhola only three weeks before the much-anticipated election, perfectly timed to politicize the Pakistani regime's lackadaisical relief effort. Whether deliberately callous or not, the Pakistani government's cyclone relief effort was certainly slow and careless of appearances. Getting off to a sluggish start, there was an effort to imply that Bengali political leaders were crying wolf and overstating the devastation by claiming a million victims. The international community shouldered the burden of supplying and distributing relief from the outset, and were 'more responsive than the central government of Pakistan' (Khondker 1995, 180). Although slow to act and reliant on external aid, the Pakistani authorities retained control, keeping political considerations paramount: Indian offers to lend aircraft to help with relief were declined. Two recent books on the birth of Bangladesh linger on the details of Yahya's callousness: Raghavan (2013) depicts the architect of Pakistan's return to democracy surveying the cyclone damage from the air, en route back from a successful trip to China (which he did not cut short), nursing a hangover with a few beers and pronouncing that it did not look so bad after all; Bass (2013) has him touring with a gold-topped cane. After a week in which no assessment of damage or declaration of national disaster was made, and under growing public pressure from domestic and international media and private displeasure from the friendliest of Western powers (that is, from Richard Nixon and Kissinger), Yahya apologized and made assurances that all necessary steps would be taken.

The political significance of the cyclone response was its timing. This display of unconcern took place only three weeks before an election scheduled to return Pakistan to democracy after its almost unbroken history of military rule. This was a major mass electoral event, and the ruling elite had fielded candidates (Baxter 1971). The political imbecility and grotesquely bad timing of the cyclone response all but defies explanation. Were the Pakistani authorities truly unable to guess that a few hundred thousand East Pakistanis washed out to sea might cause ructions? That their survivors might have a grievance against a state that failed to get its boots muddy? Apparently this was beyond their imagination. A powerful editorial in Forum, a left-leaning magazine from East Pakistan, summarized the political lessons:

A people's government would have had its chief executive with his cabinet sitting in Bhola... personally directing relief operations... The demand for popular government is thus no casual whim of ambitious politicians. It is an imperative for the survival of 70 million people. We have no illusions that elections are the end to our problems. They will merely record before our people and before the world the basic urge of the people of East Pakistan to rule themselves. It is a demand which on (sic) longer needs elaboration or justification. It now only has to be registered loud and clear. If this demand once made is ignored by our ruling classes, the next stage in the struggle for democracy will unveil itself. There is still time for statemanship [sic] which preserves this nation in peace and amity. But this can only be demonstrated if the people of East Pakistan speak with a clear voice. Our dead have voted with their lives: Let the living speak with their votes. (reproduced in Ghosh 1990, 190)

One political champion of the Bhola cyclone victims was the fascinating figure of Maulana Bhashani, 'friend of the peasants', Sufi pir or saint, Islamic preacher and theorist, and leftist firebrand leader of the National Awami Party (NAP (B)), an offshoot of the early Awami League. Bhashani was then 85, with seventy years of organizing peasants and the disenfranchised under his belt, credited with having led the recent movement that forced General Ayub Khan to resign. Bhashani's messages of Islamic equality and non-communalism in the struggle against oppression and the risks of peasant life spoke to what many people who subsisted precariously together in this delta feared and needed.[4]

The Red Maulana was the first political leader to arrive on the scene. Hearing the news on the radio (or in the newspaper, depending on legend) by his sickbed, he famously sprang up and made the gruelling journey to the cyclone areas. Abid Bahar paints a moving picture of Bhashani touring the area with great assiduousness and sadness. At Friday prayers in Noakhali, he preached that people should prepare for jihad or a struggle against injustice. He later told the press that the people had told him: 'Ora keu ashe ni'—'none of them came'. He returned to stage a huge event in Dhaka where he notoriously declared 'Assalam Alleikum' to Pakistan—an ironic greeting, which he followed up with the call 'Independent East Pakistan Zindabad!', calling for independence. Finally, he and NAP (B) withdrew from the elections, apparently from a combination of respect for the victims and an unwillingness to legitimize the elections.[5]

In November 1970, the Awami League's Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was riding a wave of popularity after his recent release from jail; he followed Bhashani three days later with an angry speech about the failings of Pakistan. When asked if this now meant independence, he promised: ‘not yet.' Mujib made the crucial point that the cyclone failure was a failure of the Pakistani state, not just of the Yahya regime (Ludden 2011): in this political dispensation the state was structurally and functionally incapable of protecting the people on its far southeastern fringes. After Bhashani's exit, the Awami League inherited the mandate to protect the masses of the peasants against such crises.

As wave follows storm, three weeks after this display of unfeeling, the first properly democratic elections produced a landslide for Sheikh Mujib's Awami League: they won 160 of the 162 National Assembly seats allotted to East Pakistan, with around 72 per cent of the vote, and 288 out of the 300 East Pakistan provincial assembly seats, in 'possibly the greatest victory of any party in a free and contested election anywhere' (Baxter 1971, 212). The cyclone put a shine on what was always going to be a victory, making it sharper and more pregnant with possibility, ensuring the Awami League's ‘six-point' demand for regional autonomy under a federal system was not only a serious contender but the only real game in town. But regional autonomy was not to happen, and by March 1971 the Pakistani army had attacked its erstwhile compatriots in a vicious and bloody struggle that lasted nine months and killed hundreds of thousands, and possibly many more.

  • [1] On the cyclone itself, see Frank and Husain (1971);on its epidemiology Sommer and Mosley(1972).
  • [2] On environmental history in the colonial period, see Iqbal (2010) and on patterns ofsettlement in the Bengal delta see Bose (1986).
  • [3] On cyclone preparedness see Haque (1997);Chowdhury etal. (1993);Paul (2009;2012);Paulet al. (2010);Paul and Dutt (2010);Alam and Collins (2010);Haque and Blair (1992);Karim andMimura (2008).
  • [4] Several young scholars are researching the 'Red Maulana' at present, but to date Abid Bahar andPeter Custers are the most prominent studies of his political thinking and organization (Custers2011;Custers 2010;Bahar 2003).
  • [5] Other views suggested political strategy played a part, for Bhashani (who may have feared NAP(B) would not win many seats) (Feldman 1978;Baxter 1971) and for the Awami League, whodeemed it tactical for the election to go ahead while their campaign messages captured theoutraged mood of the moment (Ghosh 1990).
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