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Remembering Bhola: The Cyclone That Broke Pakistan’s Back

Posted on August 16, 2010
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Disasters, Environment, Society
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Adil Najam

It wiped out villages. Destroyed crops. Over 3.6 million people were directly affected. Nearly 85% of the area was destroyed. Three months after the catastrophe some 75% of the population was receiving food from relief workers (more here).

It happened in Pakistan. Yet few Pakistanis even know of it by name. Fewer still remember that it eventually contributed to Pakistan’s break-up.

The 1970 Bhola cyclone hit then East Pakistan on November 12, 1970. It brought with it winds of an unbelievable 185 km/hr. It left in its wake a half million Pakistanis dead.

Meteorologists remember it as being one of the most deadly natural disasters in human history – sources suggest that it left between 300,000 to 1 million Pakistanis dead in its wake; most estimates suggest around 500,000 Pakistanis died.

Historians tend to agree that although there were many other forces at work, the devastation caused by the cyclone and the widespread view that the government had mis-managed the relief efforts and West Pakistan had generally shown an attitude of neglect, contributed to high levels of anti-West Pakistan feeling, a sweeping victory for the Awami League, and eventually the breakup of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.

Such, then, are the forces of nature. And such are the forces of history.



As we hear newspaper headlines proclaiming the historic magnitude and devastation wrought by the floods on our plains, it is worth remembering that 40 years ago The New York Times was describing another calamity in Pakistan as the “Worst Catastrophe of the Century.” Much more importantly, we should pay close attention to the lessons of history, and the lessons of nature.

The lesson of how policy mismanagement led to public dissatisfaction and eventually contributed to national dismemberment is a stark reminder. It may not be an entirely applicable parallel since so much more had already happened and gone wrong in the East Pakistan case (and the cyclone was a contributor to, not the cause, of how history unfolded) but it is a lesson that should not be lost on the politicians, policy-makers and people of Pakistan.

There is a reason why disasters require national solidarity. Without it, they can become even more disastrous and deeply buried fissures in the social fabric can burst forth in volcanic anger. As we look around at the political, policy and citizen response to the current floods, one sees too many who wish to turn disaster into a political opportunity. Those who do would be well advised to remember Bhola. Indeed, we would all be well advised to remember Bhola.

I write these lines with some trepidation and with great caution. History is not a predictive science. And I do not believe that there is a real parallel between the two situations.

But I do believe that there are important lessons to learn from our own mistakes. For the sake of our present, if not of our past, let us resolve not to make the same mistakes again. Let us not forget what is the real lesson of Bhola in 1970, as of so many other tragedies: dissatisfaction in times of crisis can be a force of agony, and political catastrophe can sometimes grow from seeds sown in natural disaster.

34 Comments on “Remembering Bhola: The Cyclone That Broke Pakistan’s Back”

  1. Durrani says:
    August 17th, 2010 12:17 am

    Wow. Just Wow.
    I am ashamed to say I did not even know of this. How ignorant we are and how ignorant we are kept.

  2. Humaira says:
    August 17th, 2010 12:22 am

    Amazing. I am still digesting the eerie relevance of this.

    But this I have to say. Thank you Prof. Najam, for ATP. ATP is a daily Teach-In for Pakistan. You are doing a national service here. Giving us the education we never got!

  3. Lateef says:
    August 17th, 2010 12:34 am

    Adil, you have raised a very pertinent lesson of history. Some of us are old enough to remember this. The Bengalis saw the apathy from West Pakistan as another signal and that made the AL much more popular. But it was really the bad way that the relief was handled that made the East lose all hope in the government in the West. I guess, the Bengalis felt no different about the government then than many feel about the government today.

  4. Anita says:
    August 17th, 2010 2:59 am

    Yes ATP is doing a very good job.
    Regarding this present situation we dont know how to make the officials and esp.political leaders realize the actual magnitude of anger and frustration of the awam upon their ignorance and lethargy in helping the affectees.

  5. Raheel says:
    August 17th, 2010 3:06 am

    Thank you for this informative post.
    Is it because, Bangla Desh is no more Pakistan; no one in Pakistan speaks of this devastation?

  6. andaleeb says:
    August 17th, 2010 3:42 am

    perhaps this is a revolution in making… desperation for food, shelter and death of loved ones have left people in devastation…and god forbid such gloomy situation can lead to bloodshed and more chaos.

  7. Vinnie says:
    August 17th, 2010 3:56 am

    I also didn’t know about it. You are doing a good Job.

    natural calamities can cause the greatest disasters and we are helpless before these.

  8. Watan Aziz says:
    August 17th, 2010 4:30 am

    “Bhola bolta hay!” (I had not known it by name)

    Actually, even fewer may know this, that Pakistanis were for a long time, and knowing how it works, I am sure still, paying for Bhola as a part of federal tax.

    But back to here and now, I will present this current “Nuh’s Floods” as an opportunity; perhaps even as a blessing. Only if we see it. Only if we seize it. Only if we size it. Only if sear it. Only if we soar from it. Only if we “swar” from it. Only if we “smaaJ” from it.

    You see, the corrupt Pakistani system of the 3 jinns (I-Slammed-Everyone-Else-Abad, Karachi and Lahore, who demand three goats and if not goats, three goat-heads. (Google elsewhere at ATP to get the idea.)) have hogged (no pun intended) the nation’s resources and stolen the wealth through the years. They have shown no interest in the sharing with equity and justice.

    First, regardless of the current year’s crop, as someone pointed out, the next seven will be the best. The nature has contributed to the best fertilizer all over.

    Second, with entire villages wiped out, it gives a chance to build anew. A clean slate. A fresh start. We do not need to make it too complicated. Let us take the design of Harappa and Mohenjendaro, tweak it here and there, and setup model villages and towns all over Pakistan.

    With straight roads, cobblestone pathways, water and sanitation provisions and yes, villages lit with LED power. Low consumption and updated wiring can light up village after village with such little costs. It will amaze the people on how advanced our ancient ancestors were. And how much better living can be achieved with simple self sustaining efforts.

    Schools, parks, center shops, you name it. The best design is already there for thousands of years. We just need to reclaim from our glorious past. And the Internet to it.

    And yes, my personal priority, courts and police stations that serve the people. Now is the chance to add the 10,000 lower court judges.

    And Pakistanis can do this by themselves. No outside help is needed. It will increase employment in every category, every industry.

    Third, this has highlighted the most important issue. The thieves of Pakistan are no Robin Hood. It is an exceptional set of circumstances, that Pakistan has wound up with thieves as “leaders”.

    And these thieves have stolen Pakistan’s wealth. Parked it outside the country. And our friends are not stupid. They know exactly who owns how much and where. And they know who has what kind of money stashed away in what bank account. And they know who lives what kind of life in these three cities. And they, like a good mortgage lender, want to know how much equity you are going to put into your house before money will be handed to you.

    And along with the thieves, are the three jinns. So, if you live in Karachi, Lahore or I-Slammed-Everyone-Else-Abad, do not change your life style, want to enjoy your cars, airplanes, et al and expect that someone will believe you with your ‘hai-hai’, then you have still not seen the light. No one is buying your “gitter-mitter” (as the illustrious Madam put it)

    Pay heed, the thieves and the three jinns of Pakistan. Change your ways. Work for equity and justice. Share your resources, as limited as they may be. Sell your official cars, helicopters, planes, boats. Get the “gernale” back in their jeeps. Turn off your air-conditioners. Take a bus or share a car ride instead of one-person-one-car (and I mean this for the secretaries of the departments and directorates.)

    Revive the august spirit of 1947 in August of 2010.

    Jinnah was the selfless leader. “Khadar” was the silk cloth. Tin roof was the top. People opened their homes. Pencils were the pens. Plain paper was the letterhead.

    At independence, the only factories were the few ginning mills. The only thing flammable Pakistan made were matchboxes. The rail cars that came to Pakistan’s share were broken. There was no State Bank, no currency, no money.

    Pakistanis are honest, decent, hard working and most importantly, giving people. If you do not believe it, spend an hour with Maulana Edhi.

    Stop this public wailing. It is conduct unbecoming.

    Get back to your roots of selflessness and self help.

    These are the terms of grand rebuild of Pakistan. The long promised dream of Iqbal and Jinnah.

    Pakistani people are lucky, they have exceptionally placed friends. Pakistanis have just been hard at luck on not knowing how to work with friends and make things work properly for them.

    But, now the luck can change. Only if we see it. Only if we seize it. Only if we size it. Only if sear it. Only if we soar from it. Only if we “swar” from it. Only if we “smaaJ” from it.

    And the world will rush in with the USD 200 Billion that is needed for the “grandest” Marshall Plan for Pakistan. They will be happy to chip in their share for Pakistan.

    Only if we see it!

  9. msb1606, India says:
    August 17th, 2010 5:18 am

    Thanks, our generation saw the war, but this background event was not known to us.
    Eerily, yes, you all are commiting the same blunder in Sindh today, there has been too much favortism & media attention for Punjab and in time of floods to Khyber Pakthunawa and neglect of poor in Sindh and Balochistan.
    Also the greatest blunder of breaking of western canals on Taunsa, Guddu barrage instead of dry eastern banks, your officials have needlessly flooded the more fertile and populated parts of Sindh and caused more misery.
    Well the only factor that may not make Sindh breakaway is the lack of political leadership that East Bengal had that time.

  10. Yawar says:
    August 17th, 2010 9:37 am

    This is a very sobering story. Both for our misplaced understanding of how Bangladesh happened, and for what is happening to the floods now.

  11. Qaiser says:
    August 17th, 2010 9:39 am

    I have been looking at all the hatred for Zardari that is being spewed and how even good Pakistanis are giving anti-Pakistan and demoralizing messages to Pakistan and the world. I fear it will have the very same effect and without even knowing these people who are so consumed in their hatred for PPP will only damage the lives of flood affectees.

  12. August 17th, 2010 9:55 am

    It is hard for me to be sympathetic to Pakistan, in spite of the bad flooding that has affected many people.

    For years, the Pakistani government wasted tens of millions of dollars building a nuclear arsenal just so it could claim it was on a par with India. That money should’ve been used for flood control measures, infrastructure and a reserve for contingencies.

    I suggest that the U S government offer to buy Pakistan’s nukes at the fair market value, maybe $10 million each. The Pakistani government could then use the money for flood relief.

  13. Imtiaz says:
    August 17th, 2010 10:20 am

    Gary, if you cannot be sympathetic. Don’t.
    Enjoy stewing in your own hatred.
    Hatred and inhumaity like yours has no cure

  14. Amarnath says:
    August 17th, 2010 10:20 am

    I agree with Gary. Pakistanis deserve this. Maybe there is justice after all.

    Good they are dying, the world will be better with fewer Pakistanis in it.

  15. Owais Mughal says:
    August 17th, 2010 11:05 am

    Dear Amarnath. Is this the best you can say?

  16. Aliya says:
    August 17th, 2010 11:36 am

    I really hope no one will take Gary and Amarnath’s bait. Please ignore them. They deserve to be ignored and their message of hate deserves to be ignored.

  17. Pasha says:
    August 17th, 2010 11:47 am

    History always has many lessons, unfortunately we never learn from them

  18. Darweesh says:
    August 17th, 2010 12:03 pm

    But this time Pakistan is not going to break up,rather corrupt,inefficient and dirty politicians be drowned in flood waters thanks to vocal media and strong judiciary PLUS Armed Forces immense relief operations in devastated areas.

  19. SJH says:
    August 17th, 2010 12:07 pm

    History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. In the midst of this devastation and human tragedy it is difficult to stay analytical and possible difficult to be positive. However, I am hopeful that this shared pain reminds all Pakistanis regardless of their province, geography or political party that there is a shared destiny. What happens in the north has horrible consequences for the rest of the country as water does not respect provincial or linguistic boundaries nor does it differentiate between the more or less pious. What binds nations together is in fact the knowledge of a common destiny, and these floods are a very tragic way to remind people of that. Payvata reh shajar se, umeed-e-bahar rakh is not a simple line from a poem but is in fact the reality of the nation. Imagine the even more chaotic response were there no national platform to respond but only provincial responses that ended at provincial borders.
    I am also hopeful that out of this disaster’s response the average Pakistani realizes the importance of participatory democracy, and since the scale of the flood is so massive, it is unlikely to be forgotten at the next federal and provincial election cycle. Better for parties to compete on providing humanitarian assistance and for the government to provide the basic necessities, than for parties to compete in the more corrupting ways.
    In sadness and in hope.

  20. SajS says:
    August 17th, 2010 1:21 pm

    YA Allah reham kar. Sab raham mangeen please.

  21. Truth Seeker says:
    August 17th, 2010 3:55 pm

    God is really merciful that is why She (or is it a He) blesses mankind with all this destruction in which mostly the poor people or small children are killed ruthlessly.

    Wait a minute, that dint make sense. Let me stop thinking logically, as that is my only way out of this.

  22. HarOON says:
    August 17th, 2010 4:40 pm

    Thank you for highlighting this. It is a sobering story and one that we have forgotten. I think those who are fostering hate for govt in light of this tragedy should take note that we can keep our opposition for Mr. Zardari different from our support for the Pakistan govt in its efforts to provide relief. Those are two different things.

    P.S… Yes, lets just ignore the hate mongers, they cannot be argued with.

  23. Abid Shah says:
    August 17th, 2010 6:45 pm

    i hope we learn from history but i do not believe it will happen.
    We are govern by bunch of thug , currupt dishoneSt people.
    All leaders have bank account , palAces abroad and sutuation get worse they will bail out and live there. They are asking world FOR HELP and what about they stole from pakistan. Why they do not bring back and give to Pakistan.

    May ALLAH help up AMEEN

  24. Meengla says:
    August 17th, 2010 8:53 pm

    Isn’t there a (Chinese?) saying that ‘there is an opportunity in every crisis’? As @WatanAziz says, this crisis–indeed of historic proportion (perhaps no other modern natural disaster has affected so many people?)–gives opportunity to rebuild in a better way.

    I had my doubts about Kalabagh Dam. I still do. I had my doubts about India’s role in the management of Kashmir’s water flowing into Pakistan. I still do. But I also think that Pakistan can make a better use of the water she already gets every year before looking at Indian role.

    Will our ‘suo motto’ Judiciary take some initiative about this? Will our armed forces, who have directly ruled Pakistan for half its history–and have done precious little about water management– put something into the ears of the ‘corrupt’ politicians? Will our blogspace move away from Zardari’s ‘shoe’ incident to talk about the water management problems? I know, there is an almost reflexive criticism of ‘democracy’ and ‘politicians’ but their footprint on the Pakistani political-soil are not as strong as the jackboots of the Khakis.

  25. readinglord says:
    August 17th, 2010 9:52 pm

    Adil Najam

    You have touched a very sore point in Paky consciousness. It is time indeed to rethink the very basis of our nationality. The flood in erstwhile East Pakistan enabled Mujib’s Awami League to represent the will of the people of East Pakistan (and so of Pakistan) but the minority constituting four provinces of the West Pakistan opposed their demand of ‘Six Points’. What happened is a history.

    In Pakistan today it is the demand of the will of the people of Punjab representing the majority of the Paky nation to build Kala Bagh dam which is being opposed by the three provinces representing only the minority of the Paky nation who are unaniimous only on one point that the KBD is beneficial to Punjab. But they are not prepared to think how much loss has occurred to Pakistan as a whole by floods which could have been averted and put to better use by building dams.

    The problem is the will of the people has not yet found a dedicated leader like Mujib to fight for their demand which is in fact a matter of life and death for Punjab and for the whole of Pakistan for that matter.

  26. ASAD says:
    August 17th, 2010 10:40 pm

    I was very glad to see that the Express Tribune picked up your post and printed it today.
    http://tribune.com.pk/story/40218/the-cyclone-that-broke-pakistan’s-back/

  27. Brian says:
    August 17th, 2010 10:58 pm

    The floods are heartbreaking indeed. I am stunned that the world and us in America have not done more. I hope this will change soon.

  28. Watan Aziz says:
    August 17th, 2010 11:02 pm

    And yes, the run-away water has given us the pathway for water management just as well.

    With satellite images, it is easy to see where the water broke and in what directions.

    And then to construct new canals, dredging of existing canals, barrages (read hundreds of small “damlets”). And all of this can be done with Pakistani resources, technology and capabilities.

    This can create massive local employment opportunities and growth potentials all over Pakistan. The electric power can be harnessed for local use and with better line management, the loss of power and theft can be managed. LEDs do not need much power. The world of LEDs awaits Pakistan.

    And BTW, this is a huge opportunity for Armed Forces to deploy engineers and thousands of troops who can now do what could not have been done in 1947; we never had resources then.

    Bottom line, the era of major dams is over. Today, large scale dams have only one purpose, huge bribes!

    And the era of large bribes is over also. Not with these many Pakistanis screaming all over.

    The question remains, will they see it?

    Pakistan, it is 1947 all over again. Will you do it?

  29. Wasim says:
    August 17th, 2010 11:17 pm

    Unfortunately, no lessons have been learnt.

    good Pakistanis are still finding excuses by blaming Zardari. As if he caused the floods. And in doing so they are sending wrong signals to the international community. There is no national solidarity, in fact all Zardari haters are using this opportunity to break Pakistan apart again. Even have Pakistanis tweeting to international friends that they should NOT support Pakistan govt efforts for relief… so who should they support? Indian govt?

  30. ASWIN says:
    August 19th, 2010 2:16 am

    i think regardless of political hostility the Pakistan government should have accepted the help from India . I dont understand how a government can reject the help when millions are suffering if they really do care care for the people . Moreover they are giving senseless reasons for that. I wonder how they find such excuses ?

  31. Adnan says:
    August 19th, 2010 11:31 am

    To our e-jiyala Wasim,Pakistanis are doing right by tweeting outer world not to donate their money to Zardari and his family who are quite infamous to suck up money.

    In another event,Karachi’s business community refused to give cash money to Bakhtawar Relief fund which shows the worth of Pakistani govt(irrespective of who is heading it)

  32. AMINPANAAWALA says:
    September 30th, 2011 1:38 am

    adil bhai,lesson is there,but our corrupt leaders are crazy for dollars.Today I read in news paper that agle sailab ke collection ke 8 arab banko may pre hay jis ka sood govt ko milta hay aur is sailab ke collection may se bhi aik paisa bhi release nahi kiya log intezar may preshan halt may hay yeh state bank ke sources kehte hay ab logo ko khud kam krna chahiye.aur ayenda ke lie france jese precautionary work kr lena chahiye.aur sb se pehle ye so called democracy ko khatam kr ke in gaddaro ko ghar bhejna chahiye.pakistan ka allah hami aur nasir hay. aameen pakistan paindabad.

  33. Hamza says:
    September 30th, 2011 1:40 am

    Bhola wasn’t the storm the broke Pakistan’s back, it was the storm that freed a nation from apartheid and racial tyrrany. For too long, light-skinned West Pakistanis whispered against and demeaned Bengali Muslims in East Pakistan. It was through Bhola that Bengalis, the true catalyst for the original making of Pakistan, broke off to become a true Muslim country, and the pagan-rich ways of West Pakistan were left to fend for themselves in a brave, new, *fair* world.

  34. AMIN GANI says:
    September 30th, 2011 1:54 am

    our country is gift of allah and amanat of sohadas.IT REQUIRE SINCERE PEOPLE TO GOVERN ,UNFORTUNATELY FROM THE VERY BEGINNING POWER WAS GRABBED BY AGENTS OF BRITISHERS ,THEY,THE PAKISTAN MOVEMENT LEADERS ONLY GIVE US SLOGAN OF ISLAM[LOLIPOP]AND TILL NOW OUR OUR SO CALLED LOVERS OF PEOPLE AND PAKISTAN ARE USING IT.NOW PEOPLE SHOULD AWAKE LIKE BENGALI MUSLIMS AND REMOVE THE SO CALLED DEMOCRACY AND CORRUPT LEADERS ,FROM GOVERNING US.ALLAH PAKISTAN KA HAMI AUR NASIR HAY,PAKISTAN PAINDABAD.

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