Uprising in Pakistan – How to Bring Down a Dictatorship by Tariq Ali

Disintegration, when it came, was not gradual. The general election of 1970 gave an overall majority to the nationalist Awami League, which drew its power from the eastern side of the country. In the west, the newly created Pakistan People’s Party led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto defeated all the traditional parties. Peasants disregarded their landlords and voted for the PPP en masse. Had Bhutto done a deal with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the Awami League and accepted a federal structure for the country as a whole with equal rights on every level, a new Pakistan could have been built.

Instead Bhutto, the most popular leader in the western wing, ganged up with the Pakistan army, refused to accept the majority vote, and gave green lift for the army to crush the aspirations of the Bengali people. The rest is history that I have written about elsewhere. An uprising that began by uniting Pakistan was commandeered by politicians and generals. Blaming India for taking advantage during the civil war that ensued doesn’t absolve Bhutto and the generals. It was a disgrace.

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Neither East Pakistan – Bangladesh as it became in 1971 – nor West Pakistan remained stable for very long. In Bangladesh a group of young officers supported by Pakistan and US collaborators assassinated Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family.

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In Islamabad, the general gave Bhutto enough rope to hang himself, and when he refused to do so they did it for him. Both segments of Jinnah’s Pakistan followed a similar pattern: military dictators (at one point there was Zia in both the East and West) created parties, rigged elections, made large amounts of money and ultimately retired. Bhutto and Sheikh Mujib each had a daughter elected prime minister. Benzair was assassinated. Hasina is currently prime minister of Bangladesh. Both countries are beset by corruption and religious intolerance. Socio-economic indicators of progress are considerably more positive in Bangladesh than in Pakistan. The uprising remains a memory.

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The Pakistani dictator Ayub was extremely sympathetic to the troubles facing de Gaulle, and there is some evidence to suggest that messages were exchanged soon after May 1968. Certainly, the Pakistani ruling class put forward the view that the May revolt in France was merely the result of a ‘Jewish Conspiracy’ to publish de Gaulle for his ‘pro-Arab’ sympathies. It is a sad reflection on the political consciousness of students in West Pakistan that in many cases this story was accepted at face value, and I was questioned about it closely by many student militants.

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There were certain similarities between the May revolt in France and the November uprising in Pakistan. In both countries a strongman had held power for ten years with the support of the army, and the political system was that defeat at the polls was improbable.

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For ten years Ayub ruled Pakistan with the backing of the army and the bureaucracy, and with the support of the feudal and capitalist interests in Pakistan. Opposition movements, whether led by students or initiated by workers in the form of strikes, had been ruthlessly suppressed and even a gentler form of opposition by bourgeois political parties had not been tolerated. The press had been effectively silenced and the radio was controlled by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The propaganda of the regime was so crude and blatant that it alienated the people, and one of Ayub’s last gimmicks – the setting up of the Green Guards and the publishing of a little Green Book containing his ‘thoughts’ – had not even amused the students; it had simply disgusted them.

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These ten years they had designated the ‘decade of development’, and as far as the capitalists were concerned they certainly were the years during which properties were developed, fortunes amassed and the Ayub family emerged as one of the twenty richest families in the country. For the people of Pakistan, they were ten years of darkness, oppressions and increasing material poverty – and of intellectual poverty, the result of the rigorous political and cultural censorship imposed by the regime.

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The thirty-three days which elapsed between Ayub’s speech announcing his withdrawal from politics and the military take-over by General Yahya Khan saw the political processes of Pakistan in full play. The right-wing political forces and pro-Moscow groupings were mobilized into a hurried united front to negotiate with Ayub at two successive conferences. These were known as the Round Table Conferences, a title obviously inspired by the conferences which took place in London during the 1930s when the representatives of the Indian bourgeoisie negotiated India’s political independence with the British ruling class. During these thirty-three hectic days the civilian representatives of the landowners and upper petty bourgeoisie argued desperately to be allowed to participate in the running of the state, but their own differences and the predetermined decision of the army to take over power after Ayub frustrated them. The army was worried that a civilian government coming in the wake of a mass popular upsurge would be forced to make radical concessions; and also a civilian government posed a threat to the financial autonomy of the army, which had become a jealously guarded preserve. Therefore, no civilian government could be tolerated immediately after Ayub.

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The poetry of Habib Jalib (the Poet of the Revolution), who had been imprisoned many times by the dictatorship, was in great demand. It reflected the moods and aspirations of the masses engaged in struggle, and though effete critics attacked the literary merit of his poems they themselves stayed aloof from struggle.

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The fact that the masses felt that they, and only they, had brought down Ayub gave them a feeling of confidence that they could act in a similar way with any future regime which sought to oppress them. But they lacked an organization, and this made the army take-over on 25 March 1969 a comparatively each affair. After a historic struggle lasting over three months by the Pakistani students, workers and peasants, there had merely been a change of dictators and the Pakistan army had emerged clearly and unmistakably as the main defender of bourgeois law and feudal order in Pakistan.

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However, there were some important differences between the martial law of 1958 and the take-over of 1969. Though the army was numerically much stronger in 1969, politically it was in a much weaker position and the second martial law was not feared as the first one had been. Even though the martial law regulations were in many instances exactly the same, the attitude of the masses was different.

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When Ayub arrived in Peshawar mass student demonstrations greeted him, and student-police clashes took place all over the city. Ayub’s public meeting was packed largely with plain-clothes policemen, members of the Convention Muslim League, local landlords and their tenants who had been forced to attend, in addition to large numbers of hired cheerleaders. Some students had also managed to get past the security barriers. From the very minute Ayub arrived at the meeting-place it was clear that all was not well. Anti-Ayub slogans were shouted, and slogans against the millionaire Ghafoor who was hailed as ‘sugar thief’. After Ghafoor had finished presenting the address of welcome, a young student stood up and fired two shots at Ayub. The result was pandemonium. Ayub hid behind the sofa on the platform while one his sons three himself on top of him. The student was arrested and removed from the meeting, but for a long time Ayub stayed crouching behind the sofa. After assurances from his followers that it was over he emerged from his hiding place, and soon after, left the meeting for Government House, shattered and shaken.

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The local bureaucracy was quite unprepared for the demonstration. As the Gordon College students marched towards the offices of the civil secretariat, the Commissioner fled and asked the Deputy Commissioner to deal with the students. The Deputy Commissioner found himself in a quandary. He had sent all the available police to the Polytechnic to deal with Mr. Bhutto’s arrival, so he came out himself to speak to the students; but they wanted, as they put it, someone ‘of higher authority’. The Deputy Commissioner then informed them that he had come alone to meet them whereas he could have brought a whole posse of policemen to deal with them. This so enraged the students, not least because they knew it was a lie, that they tore off the Deputy Commissioner’s trousers and spanked him. They would continue to demonstrate, they said, until their demands were met, and they were prepared to discuss these demands only with someone who had authority to accept them. After this the students moved towards the Hotel Intercontinental to go and speak to Bhutto.

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The demonstrator’s mood was restless. Every official car with a flag was stopped, the flag was removed and anti-Ayub slogans were shouted at the occupants. The limousine carrying the Chief Election Commissioner, the man who was to help rig General Ayub’s next election, was stopped and the bureaucrat’s ears were pulled after which he was allowed to proceed on his way. There was no police opposition at this first demonstration, although the students were unprecedentedly aggressive. Considering the repressive nature of the dictatorship, it was a striking display of student power.

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Rawalpindi, the scene of this first important demonstration, was not only the headquarters of the Pakistan army; Ayub had also made it his capital city, partly because he was reluctant to be far away from the army, but also because he was enraged in depoliticizing the nation and Karachi’s strong political traditions hampered this process.

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East Pakistan had always been politically ahead of their counterparts in West Pakistan. The Bengali students had been the first to demonstrate against martial law, but in 1962 and 1963 they had stood almost alone and they had been crushed. In 1964 they had been extremely active in Miss Jinnah’s election campaign, not because they had any illusions about the old lady’s political views, but because she had become a magnet for the forces struggling against the hated dictatorship. As we have seen, her defeat had caused a general feeling of frustration which had affected the students more acutely than anyone else, perhaps because they had suffered most from arrest and torture.

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Ayub himself choses this particular moment to visit Dhaka, thus diverting the entire police force and army units in the city for his personal protection. He was greeted by angry demonstrators and black flags (a sign of protest in Pakistan) wherever he went – in fact, from the airport to Government House and back. He had come to cheer his soldiers in the National Assembly. This pathetic and grotesque body was meeting in Dhaka. Never has a parliament seemed more superfluous, its debates more irrelevant, and the people inside it more isolated, than the National Assembly in Dhaka when the masses were demonstrating on the streets of their city. Among a host of other demands, they were asking for a free ballot, and they were being answered by police bullets. It did not even occur to the people to march to the National Assembly and stone it or burn it down; even the most illiterate worker in Dhaka knew it for the decrepit body it was. Ayub left Dhaka as he had come, skulking like a whipped dog. But he still thought that he could win.

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Nobody asked why or pointed out that the supreme leader who had created this strange bird, Muhammad Ali Jinnah barely knew a word of Urdu himself. English was his favored tongue. At best, he managed a little pidgin Urdu. Quite a few British civil servants and officers spoke it better than he did. Nonetheless Urdu was imposed without any opposition in the Punjabi heartland of the West wing.

In contrast, East Pakistan consisted largely of Bengalis, who were proud of their own refined language, known locally as Bangla, and a literature that was over a thousand years old. It was foolish of the Western overlords to announce that Bangla would take second place to Urdu. When the frail supreme leader arrived in Dhaka in 1948, he was given a reception that shook him to the core: tens of thousands of angry demonstrators, spearheaded by students, hurdling stones at the motorcade and chanting anti-Jinnah slogans, made it clear that nobody could rob them of their language. The police opened fire, and some students were killed, later to be commemorated with a ‘language martyrs’ memorial’.

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Pakistan had yet to celebrate its first anniversary. Jinnah did not stay too long in Dhaka, poor man. The massacres that accompanied Partition in 1947 had taken a heavy toll on him. After visiting a refugee camp with Mian Iftikharuddin, the Minister for the Rehabilitation of Refugees in the Punjab, a shaken Jinnah confessed, ‘I had no idea it would be like this.’ What he had really wanted was a smaller version of India with Muslims as the dominant community, a utopia that was never to be, though a sizable section of Bengali Hindus stayed on in East Pakistan. A few did so in Sind as well. But these were exceptions. The Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province had been through a brutal process of ethnic cleansing.

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The peasants had also been forbidden by government order to manufacture gur, a form of crude unrefined sugar, for their own use. The government was determined that the mill owners make as much profit as possible from their enterprise and gur stood in the way of this. As the peasant could not afford the exorbitant prices demanded for sugar, they continued to manufacture their own. Police seized the implements used to manufacture gur and the peasants surrounded the police stations in the area, recaptured their implements and brought them back.

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The December upsurge in East Pakistan brought the masses of both parts of the country together and united them in a common struggle. It was the first time that both wings of the country had acted in unison, and it must have frightened the regime considerably. Ayub tried to concede to the students a few of their university demands, but it was too late. The student movement had penetrated the political structure of the country too deeply for it to be fobbed off.

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A revolutionary uprising that spreads over a number of days can develop victoriously only in case it ascends step by step, and scores one success after another. A pause in its growth is dangerous; a prolonged marking of time, fatal. But even successes by themselves are not enough; the masses must know about them in time, and have time to understand their value. It is possible to let slip a victory at the very moment when it is within arm’s reach. This has happened in history.

Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution

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The government thought that by arresting the leftist student leaders of Karachi they would be able to control the upsurge. In fact, exactly the opposite happened. Enraged by the arrest of their spokesmen, the workers and students fought even more violently. In one area of Karachi over a thousand students marched on the house of a prominent member of Ayub’s Muslim League who, seeing the crowd approaching, shot and critically wounded a student. The next day ten thousand students marched on the mansion. An army unit was station outside with a young officer in command. He asked the students what they had come to do, and they told him that they had come to set fire to the mansion. After they had explained their reasons, the army officer was suddenly observed to order his unit to another area. The mansion was burned to the ground.

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In Lahore on 26 January, a large fire was seen burning near the building which houses the Supreme Court of Pakistan; it seems almost as though it had been lit to highlight the servile role played by the majority of Supreme Court judges during the ten years of Ayub raj. In Lahore, Karachi and Rawalpindi students stopped cars carrying leading civil servants, pulled them out and forced them to shout anti-Ayub slogans. Not a single bureaucrat refused, much to the amusement of student onlookers. In Lahore, the most senior police official was stripped of his uniform and forced to march at the head of a large student demonstration.

By now some professional people were beginning to follow the example of the students. Journalists, teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, architects and prostitutes participated in demonstrating throughout West Pakistan. The Times wrote editorials implying and hoping that the worst was over and showed no signs of receding.

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The students of East Pakistan have left the entrenched opposition parties behind both in their programme and action. They have taken upon themselves the most challenging task of leading a political movement. By their actions and determined movement, the student community have been able to infuse unbounded courage among the common place. While the political parties are busy modifying their points and counterpoints, the students have inspired all sections of the people to come out in the streets under their own banner of the eleven-point programme. The demand charter placed by them exceeds the imagination of the orderly political parties. What the students are agitating for can very well form the basis of an anti-feudal, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist democratic movement. Their programme and leadership have largely been accepted by the people of the country.

Holiday, 28 January 1969.

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The Bengali soldiers accused together with Mujibur Rahman of conspiracy in the Agarthala Case, died from bullet wounds. The prison authorities claimed that he had been trying to escape, but the other prisoners denied this and said that he had been shot down in cold blood. Whatever the facts about his death, the killing of Zahurul Haq had an explosive effect on the people of Dhaka. Students clashed with the police many times and Maulana Bashani called a funeral meeting on Sunday, 16 February 1969. It was at this meeting that the eighty-six-year-old peasant leader ended his oration with the call, ‘Bangla jago, agun jalo’ (Bengalis awake, and light the fires). No sooner had the Maulana said these words than smoke was seen rising from the city center. It was pure coincidence, but the dramatic effect heightened the already tense atmosphere in the city. The building which had been set on fire was the new headquarters of the Ayub Muslim League, still under construction, but nonetheless considered worth burning. Later the house of Nawab Hasan Askari, one of Ayub’s Dhaka supporters and a provincial minister, was also set on fire, as was the house of the Central Information Minister, Khawaja Shahabuddin. The masses, too, were enraged by the killing of Zahurul Haq. Government property and official cars were set on fire, and the army had to be called out once again to ‘restore order’. A day later the stat of emergency was withdrawn and Bhutto, Wali Khan and other political prisoners were released. Again on 17 February there were violent demonstrations in Dhaka, and the army imposed a curfew.

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I wrote in a report: ‘By a strange coincidence, I arrived in Pakistan on the morning of February 21st, 1969. That same evening Ayub was scheduled to broadcast to the nation. He had been unable to meet the needs of a mass movement which had been active since November 1968. He had offered too little too late and political activists waited anxiously for his broadcast. The atmosphere was reminiscent of Paris last June with students and workers waiting for de Gaulle to appear on the small screen. In the evening he announced his ‘irrevocable’ decision to retire from politics. His voice was distraught. He spoke in simple Urdu of his deep love for Pakistan (cynics speculated as to which of his two favorite civil servants – Gauhar or Q. Shahab – could have written the speech. A few private bets were placed.) Ayub is down, but he is out? Excitement ran high in the streets of the main cities. Crowds danced with pleasure. Few ponder about the future. The present is more important. The struggle has been victorious.’

Cf. Blake Dwarf, 18 April 1969

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The peasants’ revolt disturbed the gentry’s sweet dreams. When the news from the countryside reached the cities it caused immediate uproar among the gentry… from the middle social-strata upwards to the Kuomintang right-wingers, there was not a single person who did not sum up the whole business in the phrase, ‘It’s terrible’. Under the impact of the views of the ‘It is terrible’ school then flooding the city, even quite revolutionary minded people became downhearted as they pictured the events in the countryside in their mind’s eye; and they were unable to deny the word ‘terrible’… but as already mentioned, the fact is that the great peasant masses have risen to fulfill their historic mission and that the forces of rural democracy have risen to overthrow the forces of rural feudalism… It’s fine. It is not ‘terrible’ at all. It is anything but terrible. No revolutionary comrade should echo this nonsense.

Mao Zedong, Selected Works (Beijing, 1949), vol.1, pp.26-7.

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Now the peasants surrounded the bureaucrat’s office and demanded their money back – the bribe money only. In every case where the money was refused the office was burned down. In North Bengal the peasants stopped all payments due to the government and some villages elected people’s courts to try the local ‘evil gentry’. About a dozen revenue officers, bureaucrats and basic democrats were tried and executed.

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But the conspiracy theory of historical development, despite its petty bourgeois attractions, is usually false. The army had quite clearly made up its mind to ‘save the nation’ once again. While they obviously used some of Bhashani’s statements to scare the West Pakistani middle class, in their minds the matter was settled. It was only a question of preparing the prologue, and the fact that the upsurge seemed to be tailing off did not suit the plans of the generals. Their aim was to put forward a picture of a country on the verge of destruction, and themselves as the saviors. Ayub had used the same method in 1958.

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The staunchest defender of feudal property relations, apart from the feudal political parties, is the Pakistan army. Since 1947 the Pakistan army and its leadership have rested in the hands of the feudal and lumpen-feudal elements. The officer class has had strong links with the countryside, and many landlords have traditionally sent their younger sons into the army. Even more important nowadays, the army’s influence ensures that retired army officers are given preference, along-with former bureaucrats, whenever there are auctions of state-owned land; as a result, ex-army officers and ex-bureaucrats are a significant proportion of middle landlords in West Pakistan, and the ties between the army and civil service are very close. The army has grown to over five times its since 1958, and there has been an influx of non-feudal officers, but it will be some time before they can gain positions of power.

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In 1968, as we mentioned earlier, the Chief Economist of the Pakistan Planning Commission revealed during the course of a speech that twenty leading industrialist families controlled 66% of the industrial assets of the country, 70% of insurance and 80% of banking interests. At the same time over 25% of the labor force was unemployed (including seasonal unemployment) and the Pakistani worker one of the worst paid in the world. The disparities were becoming sharper every day, but the DAS (Development Advisory Service) could only note in its annual review for 1967-8: ‘Although the President’s illness created a period of uncertainty, progress in economic policy and performance was excellent.’

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However, the rapid pace of industrialization has not resulted in an increase in the standard of living of the Pakistani worker. On the contrary, industrialization has taken place under the direction of the givers of foreign loans, and the tax exemptions, tariff protections, export bonus schemes and so on that they have provided have benefited few but the Pakistani capitalist, who also enjoys the right to charge the highest possible price for the goods he manufactures. Even Gunnar Myrdal was forced to acknowledge the truth of this situation, and though he continued to see Ayub as the best alternative, he nevertheless described in Volume 1 of his Asia Drama the growth of Pakistani capitalism:

“Large amounts allotted for development projects benefitted financial backers of ruling parties. Inflation was countenanced while the Rupee’s high international rate was maintained, distorting priorities and encouraging less essential types of consumption. Large investments took place in residential construction for the upper classes; fortunes were accumulated by building shoddy hotels, running cinemas, money-lending and dealing in import or export licenses. Evasion of taxes was rewarded by government subsidies to defaulters. Smuggling, black-marking, auction of licenses and permits for replenishing party funds, bribery and corruption were rampant…”

Myrdal is describing the situation on the eve Ayub’s martial law, but it is beyond all doubt that it became ten times worse during the ‘decade of development’. The workers in the towns, the urban equivalent of the rural proletarians, are paid subsistence wages; they live in hovels, their children die for lack of food and medical aid, and they themselves cannot afford to be ill. Some are unemployed for years at a stretch.

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This does not exist as an economic force because East Pakistan has not been allowed to be produce its own indigenous capitalist class. The big industrialists established in East Pakistan are all non-Bengalis, and there is not a single Bengali family among the infamous twenty families which control the country’s economy. Bengali politics – in East Bengal at any rate – have traditionally been dominated by the upper petty bourgeoisie. In the absence of a Muslim feudal or capitalist class it was the Muslim petty bourgeois who led the struggle for Pakistan in Eastern Bengal; in their eyes, it was a way of getting rid of the hated Hindu entrepreneur who dominated Bengali finance and exercised political power in league with the landlords.

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In East Bengal the establishment of Pakistan has simply resulted in non-Bengalis, mainly from West Pakistan, filling the place of the departed Hindus. The industrialists used the foreign-exchange jute earnings of East Pakistan to industrialize West Pakistan, and this exploitation was bound to provoke a nationalist response.

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Although the population of East Pakistan is larger than that of the West, the geographical area is much smaller, and the high population density puts continual pressure on the land. (The total surveyed area in West Pakistan is just over 104 million acres and in East Pakistan it is just above 21 million acres.) Most of the feudal landlords in East Bengal were Hindus, and in an attempt to deprive them of their land the East Pakistan government passed in 1950 the East Pakistan Acquisition and Tenancy Act, which forbade holdings of over 33 acres and abolished the agency of the middlemen who used to collect rent from the peasants on behalf of the landlords. As a result of this measure most of the Hindu landlords left East Bengal for India, and their land was either given to the peasants who were working on it or redistributed. Feudalism, therefore, does not exist in East Pakistan.

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The spring 1969 issue of Pakistan Left Review documented some interesting figures in this connection. It reported that the average monthly income of a working-class family in East Pakistan was Rs.78 per family or an average monthly income per head of Rs.17. In West Pakistan the situation was only marginally better, with an average monthly income per head of Rs.17.4. The problems faced by the proletariat in both parts of the country are therefore essentially the same. A greater degree of industrialization would not increase the average wage of the Bengali proletarian by more than a few paisas.