BANGLADESH > HISTORY
European geographers located paradise at the mouth of the Ganges
and although this was overhopeful, Bengal was probably the wealthiest
part of the subcontinent up until the 16th century. The area's
early history featured a succession of Indian empires, internal
squabbling, and a tussle between Hinduism and Buddhism for dominance.
All of this was just a prelude to the unstoppable tide of Islam
which washed over northern India at the end of the 12th century.
Mohammed Bakhtiar, from Turkistan, captured Bengal in 1199 with
only 20 men thanks to an unexplained 'bold and clever strategy'.
Under the Moghul viceroys, art and literature flourished,
overland trade expanded and Bengal was opened to world maritime
trade - the latter marking the death knell of Moghul power
as Europeans began to establish themselves in the region.
The Portuguese arrived as early as the 15th century but were
ousted in 1633 by local opposition. The East India Company
negotiated terms to establish a fortified trading post in
Kolkata in 1690. The decline of Moghul power led to greater
provincial autonomy, heralding the rise of the independent
dynasty of the nawabs of Bengal. Humble East India Company
clerk Robert Clive ended up effectively ruling Bengal when
one of the impetuous nawabs attacked the thriving British
enclave in Kolkata and stuffed those unlucky enough not to
escape in an underground cellar. Clive retook Kolkata a year
later and the British Government replaced the East India Company
following the Indian Mutiny in 1857.
Brits established an organisational and social structure unparalleled
in Bengal, and Kolkata became one of the most important centres
for commerce, education and culture in the subcontinent. However,
many Bangladeshi historians blame the Brits' dictatorial agricultural
policies and promotion of the semi-feudal zamindar system
for draining the region of its wealth and damaging its social
fabric. The British presence was a relief to the minority
Hindus but a catastrophe for the Muslims. The Hindus cooperated
with the Brits, entering British educational institutions
and studying the English language, but the Muslims refused
to cooperate, and rioted whenever crops failed or another
local product was rendered unprofitable by government policy.
At the close of WWII it was clear that European colonialism
had run its course and Indian independence was inevitable.
Independence was attained in 1947 but the struggle was bitter
and divisive, especially in Bengal where the fight for self-government
was complicated by internal religious conflict. The British,
realising any agreement between the Muslims and Hindus was
impossible, decided to partition the subcontinent. That Bengal
and Punjab, the two overwhelmingly Muslim regions, lay on
opposite sides of India was only one stumbling block. The
situation was complicated in Bengal where the major cash crop,
jute, was produced in the Muslim-dominated east, but processed
and shipped from the Hindu-dominated city of Kolkata in the
Despite grumblings many and various, partition duly occurred
and East Bengal became the runt state of East Pakistan. It
was administered unfavourably from West Pakistan, with which
it shared few similarities apart from the Muslim faith. Inequalities
between the two regions soon stirred up a sense of Bengali
nationalism that had not been reckoned with during the push
for Muslim independence. When the Pakistan government declared
that 'Urdu and only Urdu' would be the national language,
the Bangla-speaking Bengalis decided it was time to assert
their cultural identity. The drive to reinstate the Bangla
language metamorphosed into a push for self-government and
when the Awami League, a nationalistic party, won a majority
in the 1971 national elections, the president of Pakistan,
faced with this unacceptable result, postponed opening the
National Assembly. Riots and strikes broke out in East Pakistan,
the independent state of Bangladesh was unilaterally announced,
and Pakistan sent troops to quell the rebellion. The ensuing
war was one of the shortest and bloodiest of modern times,
with the Pakistan army occupying all major towns, using napalm
against villages, and slaughtering and raping villagers. Bangladeshis
refer to Pakistan's brutal tactics as attempted genocide.
Border clashes between Pakistan and India increased as Indian-trained
guerrillas crossed the border. When the Pakistani air force
made a pre-emptive attack on Indian forces, open warfare ensued.
Indian troops crossed the border and the Pakistani army found
itself being attacked from the east by the Indian army, the
north and east by guerrillas and from all quarters by the
civilian population. In 11 days it was all over and Bangladesh,
the world's 139th country, officially came into existence.
Sheikh Mujib, one of the founders of the Awami League, became
the country's first prime minister in January 1972; he was
assassinated in 1975 during a period of crisis.
The ruined and decimated new country experienced famine in
1973-74, followed by martial law, successive military coups
and political assassinations. In 1979, Bangladesh began a
short-lived experiment with democracy led by the overwhelmingly
popular President Zia, who established good relationships
with the West and the oil-rich Islamic countries. His assassination
in 1981 ultimately returned the country to a military government
that periodically made vague announcements that elections
would be held 'soon'. While these announcements were rapturously
greeted by the local press as proof that Bangladesh was indeed
a democracy, nothing came of them until 1991. That year the
military dictator General Ershad was forced to resign by an
unprecedented popular movement led by the Bangladesh Nationalist
Party and the Awami League.
In 1991 democracy was re-established and Begum Khaleda Zia
became prime minister. The economy ticked along at a 4.5%
growth rate, and ties with the West were strengthened when
the government sent troops to assist in the Gulf War, the
US-led invasion of Haiti and the war in Bosnia. By 1994, however,
many Bangladeshis had become disenchanted with the Zia government.
Despite election promises, the 1974 Special Powers Act, allowing
detention without charge for 120 days, had never been repealed.
There were claims that the government had rigged by-elections,
and military and police repression of dissenters appeared
to be on the rise. Opposition parties called for mass general
strikes and the country's bureaucrats walked out.
A general election was held in February 1996, but a boycott
by opposition parties, 5% voter turnout, and claims of ballot
box stuffing and repression of anti-government protesters
raised serious questions about the legitimacy of the re-elected
Begum Khaleda Zia government. Opposition parties and activist
groups campaigned against the election, and on 30 March Zia
stood down and a caretaker government under Muhammad Habibur
Rahman was appointed. Elections, generally seen as free and
fair, were held in June and a coalition government headed
by Sheikh Hasina Wazed of the Awami League was voted in. In
October 2001, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party won the parliamentary
elections and Begum Khaleda Zia was sworn in as prime minister.