Bangladesh is a new nation, having been created in 1971 after a bitter independence struggle against West Pakistan. From 1947 until 1971, the area comprising Bangladesh was known as the East wing of Pakistan. Pakistan was created in 1947 by the acrimonious division between Hindus and Muslims which accompanied India's Independence from Britain and consisted of two areas: a Western part, comprising the Punjab, and an Eastern section, comprising part of the province of Bengal. The creation of East Pakistan separated the Indian Province of Bengal into two parts: the Eastern part, home to Muslims, became part of Pakistan, the Western part of Bengal, home mostly to Hindus, becoming the Indian Province of West Bengal. The two areas of Pakistant were separated by 1000 miles, with India in between.
This area known as Bengal had been settled around 1000 BC by Dravidian speaking peoples known as the Bang, from which both Bengal and Bangladesh derive. The area remained a political backwater, not greatly affected by the Aryan invasions of India until the Mauryan Empire (320-180 BC) which conquered and integrated the area into its empire. Bengal became important to the empire because of its excellent seaports; from these ports, ships sailed through Southeast Asia, spreading Indian civilization along with trade goods. It was also from Bengal that the great Buddhist missionary, Mahinda, son of the Emperor, Asoka, brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Buddhism had become an important religion in much of Bengal during Asoka's reign and was to remain important during subsequent dynasties. With the collapse of the Mauryan Empire, Eastern Bengal became the independent kingdom of Samatata, which was a tributary state of the Gupta Empire which ruled India from the 4th to the 6th centuries. In the 7th century, the expanding Harsha Empire incorporated Samatata into its political structure. This empire did not last long and was replaced by the Pala dynasty in the middle of the 8th century. Under the Buddhist rulers of this dynasty, the area enjoyed stable rule and prosperity. Buddhism spread to a number of areas, including Tibet and Sumatra and the area became a center of Buddhist scholarship and monastic life. This Buddhist way of life was partly destroyed in the 12th century by the assumption of power by the orthodox and militant Hindu kingdom of the Senas. The destruction of Buddhism and the forced participation in Brahmanic Hinduism and the rigid caste system imposed by the Senas resulted in the conversion of many Bengalis, especially the lower castes, to Islam with the Turkish conquests in later centuries.
Early in the 13th century, the last Sena rulers were defeated by the armies of the descendants of Mahmud of Ghazni who incorporated Bengal in the Delhi sultanate, established in 1206. In 1341, Bengal became independent from Delhi and Dhaka became its capital for the first time. Bengal was conquered by the forces of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar the Great, in 1576 and remained a Mughal province until the destruction of the empire. While Bengal was part of the empire, it remained remote from the centers of power, and local governors exercised much independence. However, Bengal became an intellectual center in India and its poets and religious leaders were influential during Mughal times.
Economically, the area of Bengal prospered during the Mughal dynasty. The fertile land was drained and plowed and agriculture expanded until Bengal was known as the 'breadbasket of India". However, its rich resources were drained off to feed the armies and government of the Mughals; Bengal received little in return. The government didn't provide security or defense against Arakanese or Portuguese pirates or slave-traders. Instead, the Mughal government created the Zamindar system, importing civil and military officials from outside Bengal who were granted the rights to collect taxes on land from the peasants. This landlord and tax collecting class would create serious economic problems for the farmers of Bengal in the ensuing centuries.
While much of India had had direct or indirect relations with Europe through overland and maritime trade routes, Bengal had been largely isolated from this contact. This changed with the coming of first the Portuguese and then the British in the 16 and 17th centuries. While the Portuguese were content to "trade and raid," the British East India Company became much more involved in the Bengali economy and politics. In 1650, the Company established a factory (trade depot) on the Hooghly River in Bengal; in 1690, the Company founded the city of Calcutta (now in the Indian Province of West Bengal). While the Company's initial intent was trade, the insecurity provoked by the imminent collapse of the Mughal Empire, caused the British to become more politically and militarily involved in India. In 1757, the governor of Bengal, Siraj ud Daulah, attacked the British at Plassey; he was defeated by Robert Clive of the East India Company. Clive consolidated his victory in 1764 at the Battle of Buxar on the Ganges, in which he defeated the Mughal emperor. Thus, the Company was granted the title of "diwan" (collector of revenue) in Bengal and nearby provinces, making the Company the de facto ruler of Bengal. It was from Bengal that the company extended its rule throughout India; by 1815, Britain controlled the areas of present day India and Pakistan.
The rule of the British Raj was disastrous in several ways for Bengal. First, the British remodeled the Zamindar system on the British gentry class system, giving the Zamindars the status of landlords; the rights to collect revenue were auctioned off to the highest bidders whether or not they had any knowledge of, or connections to, the countryside. Thus absentee landlords became commonplace and agriculture was designed to benefit the British and the landlords, not the peasants. Second, Britain saw its colonies as suppliers of raw materials for British industry and as consumers of British manufactured goods. Thus, Bengal became a source of cheap cotton for British textile mills; Britain then dumped its machine made cloth back into India, destroying India's domestic textile industries. Eastern Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) was especially hard hit as muslin cloth was one of its chief exports and the industry was ruined by British machine made cloth. Third, Britain introduced Western religious and philosophical ideas, adopted a British legal code, and instituted a British secular education system with the intent of creating an educated Indian group imbued with British cultural values. This destroyed native religious education and was perceived as an attack on the Bengali religion and way of life.
The watershed of British rule in India was the uprising of 1857 in which Indian soldiers of the British Army, led by Muslim units from Bengal, mutinied at the Meerut cantonment near Delhi and unleashed a year-long insurrection against the British. The uprising reflected the growing impoverishment of the people, their discontent with the social changes introduced by the British, and their desire for independence from outside rule. While the uprising failed to drive out the British, it succeeded in replacing the rule of the East India Company with direct rule by a governor general appointed by the British government. This uprising, often referred to as a "mutiny" in the West, is called India's first "war of independence" by Bengalis.
British rule in India worked to promote Hindus over Muslims, and Muslims, because of their reluctance to participate in British education or to adopt British values, found themselves to be second class citizens, with Hindus assuming the lead in both government and industry. Bengali commentator, Mansur Ali described Hindu dominance over the Muslims in Bengal as follows:
"In Bengal, the landlord is Hindu, the peasant Muslim. The money lender is Hindu, the client is Muslim. The jailer is Hindu, the Prisoner is Muslim. The magistrate is Hindu, the accused is Muslim" (Library of Congress Country Studies).
By the end of the 19th century, a few Muslim leaders were realizing the problems a Muslim minority was having in the Hindu dominated, British run state; several leaders advocated that Muslims enter the British educational system and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, a Muslim noble and writer, founded the Muhammadan-Anglo Oriental College (renamed the Muslim University of Aligarh in 1921), which combined British university courses and programs with Islamic culture and religious instruction. A number of Muslim leaders warned of potential problems and the possibility of violence between the religious communities of India.
The nations of Pakistan and Bangladesh were created out of the partition of India that accompanied Independence from Britain in 1947. While both Hindus and Muslims had worked for Independence, it was the Muslims who pushed for partition and for a separate homeland. Partition was a bloody and violent affair; estimates are that over 12 million people moved from Hindu India to Muslim Pakistan and vice versa; the communal riots accompanying this vast migration resulted in the deaths of an estimated 2 million people. The borders of Pakistan were drawn in haste and with little regard for the economic or political viability of the new nation. The two parts of Pakistan: West Pakistan created from the Indian area known as the Punjab, and East Pakistan, created from a part of the province of Bengal, were separated by 1000 miles, with India in between. The East part of Pakistan (which became Bangladesh), was especially disadvantaged. The first capital of Pakistan, Karachi, was in the West, and much of the East's economy, industry and banking were controlled by West Pakistanis. In addition, many Hindu Bengalis left the East for Calcutta after partition, leaving a gap in educated people to fill government, industrial and educational posts; these spots were filled by the more educated West Pakistanis.
There were a number of issues which divided Pakistanis, one of which was deciding what the official language should be. Urdu was made the official language and for several years, riots were common in East Pakistan as students and others agitated for equal status for Bangla. Eventually, in 1954, Bengali student agitation forced the National Assembly to bestow official status on Bangla. Other issues included the concentration of money and power in the West, the incompetence and veniality of the governors of the East, the increasing chaos of Pakistani administration and the strong sense among East Pakistanis that the West was exploiting them and that they lacked equal status in the country. This led to an independence movement in East Pakistan, a desire to separate from Pakistan and create a new country.
The Independence movement officially began during a 1966 Lahore conference of the Awami League in which Sheikh Mujibar Rahman, known as Mujib, leader of East Pakistan's main political party and an advocate of independence since 1956, announced a political and economic program for East Pakistani provincial autonomy. This was followed by several years of agitation and discontent as the economic gap between the two parts of Pakistan grew, foreign aid and investment remained in the West, and a numbers of riots occurred. Bengali discontent with remaining in Pakistan was demonstrated in 1970 when the Awami league won 160 of East Pakistan's 162 seats in the National Assembly. Mujib then suggested that he become prime minister of East Pakistan, while Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People's Party, and winner of only 81 seats in the National Assembly, become prime minister of West Pakistan. This call was rejected and Mujib called for a general strike in East Pakistan; this resulted in the West sending over 60,000 troops into the East. Mujib responded by declaring March 23, 1971 as "Resistance Day". On March 26, the military crackdown on East Pakistan began. The war for Independence which followed was short but bloody, with an estimated 1 million Bengalis dying at the hands of the Pakistan Army. As the civil war progressed, India became involved; unable to mediate, on December 4, 1971, the Indian government sent an army to East Pakistan; in 12 days, this well equipped army, aided by East Pakistan's "Liberation force" defeated the Pakistani army. Before the army was defeated, on December 6, 1971, India became the first state to recognize the "independent, sovereign republic of Bangladesh" which Mujib had declared on April 17, 1971.
Bangladesh began as a nation with a number of strikes against it. There was little experience or understanding of democratic government and Bengali politics were factional and local. The economy was in dire straits, the educational level of the people was low, there were few trained professionals of any kind and the military held much of the real power. Thus, it is not surprising that the first few years were fraught with anti-democratic trends. Mujib himself, soon rejected republican principles and tried to implement a one-party, authoritarian government. This resulted in a military revolt and his assassination in 1975. Military leader Ziaur Rahman (Zia) implemented martial law in 1976, organized his own political party, and manipulated the elections so that he became president in 1978. President Zia in turn was assassinated in 1981, and army chief of staff General Hussain Muhammad Ershad assumed power in a relatively peaceful coup. Ershad created his own political party, packed Parliament with his supporters and won the 1986 election for President. Thus, while Bangldesh was officially a Republic with an elected government, in fact Ershad's National Party dominated. However, a wide range of opposition parties formed and organized demonstrations and strikes throughout the country. This resulted in Ershad allowing local elections, giving real power to local elites and thus giving them a stake in the electoral system. Ershad attempted on several occasions to hold elections to confirm himself as President but the opposition parties refused to participate in the elections, claiming they were rigged. By mid-1990 opposition to Ershad's rule had reached the point where the country was disrupted by massive general strikes, public rallies, campus protests and a general disintegration of law and order. In face of the increasing chaos, Ershad resigned in December, 1990.
The elections of 1991 brought to power the Nationalist party headed by Begum Kheleda Zia, widow of the former president Ziaur Rahman, which allied with the Islamic fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami to form a coalition government. Parliament then elected Abdur Rahman Biswas as President. (Under Bangldesh's constitution, the President oversees elections, calls and dissolves Parlament, but otherwise has a largely symbolic role; real power is in the hands of the Prime Minister). While progress was made in economic and political reform, opposition continued. Begum Zia was replaced as Prime Minister in 1996 by Sheikh Hasina Wazed, leader of the Awami League, which won the elections. This regime was marked by opposition boycott of parliament and attempts to force early elections. The elections held in 2001 returned Begum Khaleda Zia to power as Prime Minister, although the Awami League claimed that the elections were rigged.
Economically, some progress has been made although Bangladesh continues to survive on massive aid handouts. The war damage had left much of the country's already poor infrastructure destroyed; early governments had good success in restoring transportation and communication facilities and setting up the administrative system needed to run the country. However, Bangaldesh's chief exports: jute and textiles, continued to decline on the international market. As well, the country had few mineral resources, little industry and a mostly unskilled labor force. This resulted in Bangladesh relying on imports for even basic necessities of a modern nation. While the government had begun with socialist economic policies, including the establishment of nationalized industries, it soon changed tactics and by the 1980's was encouraging private initiatives which received massive support from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The 1980's and the 1990's saw the reestablishment of textile and handicraft industries, and the creation of export oriented industries such as seafood processing, which took advantage of Bangladesh's traditional economy. In addition, such modern industries as the manufacture of electronic components were established. However, Bangladesh remains primarily an agricultural economy with 60% of the population engaged in agriculture; the export of jute and textiles remain important to the country's economy. Despite successes in agriculture and industry, Bangladesh continues to rely heavily on International aid. Yearly disasters such as cyclones and flooding, resulting in mass death and destruction, continue to plague the country and to lessen economic gains.
However, Bangladeshis are optimistic about their future and the country is home to one of the most successful self-help economic aid initiatives in the world: the Grameen Bank. This bank, established by a Bangladeshi economist, Muhammad Yunus, operates on the principles of micro-credit and self help. It provides mini loans, with no collateral, to the poorest of the poor in rural Bangladesh and today has over 3 million borrowers. Yunus' goal is the total eradication of poverty and his program has caused a radical re-thinking of the function and role of aid to the poor.
For more information on the Grameen bank, please click on the following site:
For more details on the history, and other aspects of Bangladeshi life, please visit the Library of Congress Country Study