Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 April 2020
Between March and May 1954, an election and two riots took place in East Pakistan, with far-reaching implications. On 30 May, the prime minister of Pakistan, in a bellicose tone, declared that ‘enemy agents’ and ‘disruptive forces’ were at work and imposed governor's rule for the first time in East Pakistan. The autocratic and high-handed attitude of the Central government in Karachi over the seemingly wayward East Wing was to become a portent of future conflicts between the province and the state, eventually leading to the unmaking of Pakistan in 1971. What precipitated the 1954 crisis? Who were the enemy agents and disruptive forces that the prime minister had alluded to? The reference was to the Bengali labourers in East Pakistan—the main protagonists of the 1954 Karnaphuli Paper Mill and Adamjee Jute Mill riots. These were the most violent industrial riots in the history of United Pakistan, if not the subcontinent. Using sensitive materials obtained from multiple archives, this article dismantles the conventional thesis that these riots were ‘Bengali–Bihari riots’, fanned by the flames of Bengali provincialism at the political level, or events instigated by the Centre to derail the democratic hopes of the Bengali population of Pakistan. A microhistory of the events demonstrates a more complex picture of postcolonial labour formations and solidarities; the relationship between state-led industrialization and refugee rehabilitation, and conflicting visions of sovereignty. This is a story of estrangement between employers and workers over the question of who were the real sovereigns of labour, capital, and Pakistan itself.
I am heavily indebted to Richard Williams and Matt Birkinshaw for their support throughout the entire process of writing and revising this article. Thanks are also due to the following for their excellent feedback and suggestions during earlier presentations and drafts: Sarah Ansari, Anish Vanaik, Sumeet Mhaskar, Aditya Sarkar, Anna Sailer, Lotte Hoek, Delwar Hussain, Ravi Ahuja, Kamran Asdar Ali, and attendees of the Labour History workshops in Warwick, Berlin, and Göttingen. I am very grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their careful reading and critical engagement with the article. Needless to say, any mistakes are my own.
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9 Various shouts were heard during the day; the prominent ones have been mentioned. High Court, Dacca, 29 August 1957, Appeal no. 201 of 1956 (Chittagong Hill Tracts), Criminal Appellate Jurisdiction, pp. 74–75 (hereafter High Court, Dacca, 29 August 1957).
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12 Ibid. On 14 May, Bengali workers killed a Bihari durwan, allegedly on the grounds that smoke from his cooking fire had wafted over to the Bengali housing colony, he refused to stop when asked, and was thus attacked. The durwan died from the injuries sustained.
13 Ibid. Biharis was a generic term used for the non-Bengali, largely Urdu-speaking refugee population in East Bengal. They came from different states in India such as Bihar, Orissa, Tripura, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, and so on. I will speak in detail later on the formation of Bihari identity.
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50 Ibid., p. 144. The Judge S. M. Hasan described the men killed as those who were suspected to be ‘supporters and associates’ of Khurshid Ali.
52 ‘Memo from Office of the Superintendent of Police, Chittagong Hill Tracts’, 2 April 1954, in Government of East Bengal (1957), Chandraghona Files.
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