On Nov 12, 1970, a storm of such diabolical force hit the coastline of East Pakistan, present-day Bangladesh, that the World Meteorological Organisation would later declare it the world’s deadliest tropical cyclone.
The devastation that ensued triggered a civil war and ultimately led to external military intervention and the final metamorphosis of East Pakistan into Bangladesh. It was a dramatic example of the ways in which shock mobility can lead to profound political and social disruption and change the course of history.
Cyclone Bhola caused an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 fatalities, mostly the result of a huge storm surge overwhelming the low-lying islands and tidal flats along the shores of the Bay of Bengal.
Millions overnight became the victims of shock mobility and scholars have documented that ineffective relief efforts fanned the flames of dissatisfaction with extreme political impact – social unrest, civil war and secession.
Experts say it was one of the deadliest natural disasters on record, and “the 20th century’s worst natural disaster”.
Just prior to the storm’s landfall, the radio repeatedly issued a warning of “Red 4, Red 4” without explanation. The victims were used to cyclones but had no specific idea that Red 4 meant “Red Alert. Catastrophic destruction imminent. Seek high ground immediately.” They were used to the previous 10-point warning system denoting the intensity of a storm.
The Pakistani government under General Yahya Khan in West Pakistan (today’s Pakistan) claimed that about 191,951 bodies were found and some 150,000 were missing. Their figures did not include the tens of thousands who were washed out to sea, buried in the mud or died in outlying and remote islands never to be found.
Many offshore islands were devastated. Villages were wiped out and crops were destroyed. In the most severely affected upazila (administrative division) Tazumuddin, over 45 percent of the population of 167,000 died.
The hapless victims clung to trees for survival but the strong winds plucked them and the unusually high tide took their bodies out to the sea. Subsequently, the corpses were left strewn on the beaches.
East Pakistani political leadership was infuriated by the indifference shown to the ecologically vulnerable landscape and the hazard-prone coastal belt. There was also the concern about inadequate machinery for relief work.
Analysts have argued that “one should credit the 1970 cyclone for the political turbulence and the secession that followed”. They say Bhola “accelerated the status quo” of the prevailing socio-political and economic tensions in East Pakistan.
While the cyclone of 1970 did not alter the political configuration of East Pakistan, it reinforced pre-disaster arguments and boosted East Pakistan’s demand for autonomy.
Bhola put the political legitimacy of the then-Pakistani government on the line in East Pakistan. The leader of the National Awami Party Maulana Abdul Hamid Bhashani said the callousness of the federal administration was evident by their indifference towards the much-needed measures for saving the lives of millions of people in the coastal region.
Bhasani was the first political leader to arrive in the storm-devastated areas after undertaking a gruelling journey. During morning prayer he called for a jihad in the flattened district of Noakhali. There ought to be a struggle against this injustice and they should have an independent East Pakistan, he said.
Following Bhasani’s political trail, Awami League leader Sheikh Mujib inherited the mandate to stand up for the hapless victims of Cyclone Bhola. The natural disaster was politicised. Pakistan’s national election in 1971 gave Mujib a landslide victory. The verdict clearly projected him as the prime ministerial candidate but that was not to be.
After the elections, more than 500 candidates withdrew from the East Pakistan Provincial Assembly elections to be held on Dec 17, 1970, while several eminent leaders who had held top positions in previous regimes decided to retire from political life.
To the West Pakistani military, it was an outcome for which they were not ready at all. Consequently, the government refused to respect the electoral mandate secured by Sheikh Mujib. This led to the Pakistani civil war.
Cyclone Bhola expedited the cry for East Pakistan’s autonomy if not complete independence. The Yahya Khan government was not ready to accept the allegations of negligence in relief operations and charged the local political leadership for exaggerating the impact of the devastation.
But world media soon exposed their incompetence in handling such a crisis.
For the entire political leadership of then East Pakistan, the Bhola cyclone provided a much-needed spark to the already advantageous political position they had for the ensuing election.
This spark ultimately ignited a civil war. A strong national liberation movement by the Bengali ethnic political community shook the very foundation of the geographically complex structure of Pakistan.
That finally led to external military intervention and the transformation of East Pakistan into Bangladesh. This violent change is a stark reminder of the profound societal and political disruptions that can arise from natural disasters.