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Category: South Asia

A new airline for a new nation

While reading through six-decade-old issues of The Lockheed Star, the fortnightly newspaper of the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, for a research project, I came across an article that had nothing to do with my topic of research, but I found it intriguing and got distracted reading it. (This is an occupational hazard for historians.)

The article, which appeared on the front page of the February 4, 1954 issue, is about the official handover of the first Lockheed Super Constellation airliner to Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), the national airline of Pakistan. The handover ceremony took place at Lockheed Air Terminal (now Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California). On hand to receive the Super Constellation—a sleek, attractive airliner produced by Lockheed at its Burbank factory—was Ambassador Syed Amjad Ali.

A Pakistan International Airlines Lockheed Super Constellation at London-Heathrow. (Source: RuthAS on Wikimedia Commons.)

A Pakistan International Airlines Lockheed Super Constellation at London-Heathrow. (Source: RuthAS on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.)

The Pakistani ambassador was greeted by the daughter of a Lockheed design engineer, attired in a Shirley Temple-esque stewardess (flight attendant) outfit. The Lockheed Star reported: “Six-and-one-half year-old Sharon Owen—who is exactly the same age as Pakistan, born on Aug. 14, 1947—was on hand to dramatize what a young country the dominion is.” (A picture of little Sharon shaking hands with the ambassador appears on the PIA history webpage.)

The article goes on to note that Pakistan International Airlines would start service around mid-April 1954.

In fact, at this point, Pakistan International Airlines did not exist just yet. The airline was officially established by the Pakistani government on January 10, 1955, eleven months after the handover of the first Super Constellation. On its establishment, PIA absorbed Orient Airways, a quasi-national private airline that had been founded in 1946.

National airlines played an important, if largely symbolic, role in nation-building for many countries that gained independence in the decade or two after World War II. As Jeffrey Engel notes in his book Cold War at 30,000 Feet (2007):

It is little exaggeration to say that countries established during this period [the early Cold War] required three things before they could claim true sovereignty: an army, a flag, and an airline.

Pakistan certainly needed to prove itself in the early years after independence. A nation in two parts, with the enemy India in between, Pakistan looked to its new national airline as a way to link the two wings of the country and promote connections with friendly nations in the West. PIA’s first international destination was London, by way of Cairo and Rome. The Lockheed Constellations, of course, were from the United States—a country that also began supporting the Pakistani armed forces with large amounts of military aid at this time.

The Lockheed Star reported that the deputy general manager of PIA claimed that flexible seating arrangements in the Super Constellation cabin would allow the airline to offer low-cost coach class for the country’s masses. But air travel—international or domestic—remained out of the reach of the majority of Pakistani citizens. PIA was a luxury enjoyed by the prosperous, educated, English-speaking elite. The airline’s official name is “Pakistan International Airlines” in English. The logo is simply “P-I-A” spelled out in Perso-Arabic script.

By the way, just as Pakistan established an airline after independence, Bangladesh wasted no time in setting up its own national airline after seceding from Pakistan in 1971. Biman Bangladesh Airlines began operating less than three months after independence.

The Birth of Bangladesh

When Pakistan gained independence from the British Empire in 1947, it consisted of two dissimilar and discontiguous Muslim-majority territories, separated by a thousand miles of Hindu-dominated India. West Pakistan, made up of Sindh, Baluchistan, western Punjab, the Northwest Frontier Provinces, and part of the disputed region of Kashmir, dominated Pakistani politics. East Pakistan was much smaller but had a larger population than the West; it consisted of the Muslim-majority districts of Bengal, as well as the Assamese district of Sylhet. The two “wings” of Pakistan were united as one country solely on the basis of religion. By all other considerations—linguistic, ethnic, cultural—East and West Pakistan were separate nations.

The West Pakistanis maintained control of their country by curtailing popular sovereignty; the government in Rawalpindi refused to hold popular elections for twenty-three years. In 1970, the first fully democratic elections in Pakistan favored the East Pakistani Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Pakistani president Yahya Khan rejected the election results, jailed Mujib, and took full control of the government.

Mujib’s imprisonment set off a revolt in East Pakistan. Yahya Khan sent West Pakistani troops to the eastern wing to crush the revolt. These troops and the local police forces carried out a systematic extermination of any suspected rebels. Over the course of 1971, hundreds of thousands or possibly even millions of Bengalis died in this genocide. To escape the killings, millions of refugees poured into the Indian states of West Bengal and Assam.

The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, hoped to detach East Pakistan as an independent state, Bangladesh (Land of Bengal), thereby weakening Pakistan. In border regions, the Indian government secretly trained and equipped a Bengali insurgent army, the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army). India waited for Pakistan to make its first military move, which it did on December 3, 1971, launching preemptive attacks on Indian airfields. Using this as a pretense for intervening in East Pakistan, the Indian Army moved into Bengal. Ignoring United Nations ceasefire arbitration, the Indians overwhelmed the West Pakistani troops. On December 16, Lieutenant-General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi surrendered the West Pakistan army forces in Dacca1 to the Indian Army. When the Indian forces under Lieutenant-General Jagjit Singh Aurora entered Dacca on that same day, the local Bengali population cheered and offered flowers and embraces to the soldiers.

The most important outcome of the 1971 conflicts was birth of Bangladesh, which as a nation celebrates forty years of independence this month. In the past forty years, Bangladesh has made strides toward modernization and development, but the country still struggles to overcome poverty, disease, high infant mortality, and other problems common to the postcolonial world. The Indo-Pakistani War also had strategic implications for South Asia. Just nine years after its humiliating defeat by the Chinese, India’s decisive victory over Pakistan established India as the major military power of the region.

The effects of the Indo-Pakistani War were felt as far away as the United States. Throughout the conflict, the President Richard Nixon staunchly supported the United States’ strategic ally, Pakistan. At the same time, the American public grew steadily more alarmed by the genocide in East Pakistan and the refugee problem in India. This was a demonstration of the increasingly visible divergence between public will and government action in American politics. Watergate and Nixon’s resignation were yet to come, but by the end of 1971, the era of the “perception gap” in American politics had already begun.

  1. Then the capital of East Pakistan; now Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. []

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