The 1970 Bhola Cyclone, Nationalist Politics and the Subsistence Crisis Contract in Bangladesh
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The Bhola cyclone, one of the deadliest tropical cyclones the world has ever recorded, struck the Bay of Bengal in what was then the eastern wing of Pakistan in November 1970. At least a quarter and possibly up to half a million East Pakistanis perished, and livelihoods and landscape were decimated.
The response by the Pakistan military government was widely deemed inadequate. The cyclone struck three weeks before the first democratic elections in the country, and campaigning on the back of the callousness of the ruling Pakistani elite, the Awami League won a landslide victory in its home province of East Pakistan, which should have placed their leader Sheikh Mujib in power. But the Pakistani elite had no intention of allowing this, forcing the Awami League into a declaration of independence. Pakistan responded with a vicious attack of genocidal intensity and intent, and within nine months, after a guerrilla war and an Indian intervention, Bangladesh was born.
This paper starts by analysing the political effects of disasters: a social contract against crises of subsistence and survival. The paper then studies the storm itself, and the politics of disaster management. It examines the impacts on Pakistani political legitimacy and the world's reaction to the events in Bangladesh. The conclusion analyses the subsistence crisis mandate of the Bangladeshi state.