Bangladesh is a country which is blessed in many ways. Abundant natural resources, fertile plains, plentiful arable land, thick forests, homogenous society and a single language that is spoken by around 98% of the country’s population. The country’s history is unified and the culture is not so divided on communal lines if compared with its South Asian neighbors. But like many countries in the world that suffer despite being blessed with abundant natural resources, Bangladesh too is both fortunate and unfortunate at the same time…
A young country that came into existence in 1971 after years of colonial repression, Bangladesh has struggled to come out from the vicious quagmire of poverty, mismanagement and political violence. The very political leadership that brought the country into existence paid a heavy price for its efforts and saw a tragic demise. If the country’s socio-economic traditions gives the nation a unique chance to unite under a single banner, political schism and clash of egos polarize the masses and rob their self-esteem and collective conscious.
The recent peaceful democratic process in the country offers a fresh start to a nation battered by countless social, political, economic and environmental ills. Political analysts are of the view that Bangladesh has got a lifetime opportunity to turn a new leaf in the country’s history and address the problems it is facing on an unprecedented scale. Following is a photo story of Bangladesh that explains the tale of a blessed yet unfortunate nation.
Bangladesh, formerly known as East Pakistan, got independence from British India on 14 August, 1947. As India was partitioned on communal lines, thousands of Muslims living in Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal migrated to East Pakistan. The migration on the eastern front was reasonably peaceful if compared to the riots and genocide of thousands of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs on the western front, especially in Punjab.
Since the very creation of Pakistan in 1947, the Bengali-speaking majority in East Pakistan decried injustice and systematic marginalization by the hands of their West Pakistani rulers. Eleven years of military rule under Gen. Ayub Khan widened the gulf of mistrust between both the wings, paving the way for Bengali separatist movement. Among many grievances, Bengalis complained Pakistan Army was being dominated by Punjabis, the majority group in West Pakistan.
A view of Dhaka in 1960s. The city remained the administrative headquarter of the eastern wing till December, 1971. East Pakistan’s infrastructure remained derelict and its cities failed to witness substantial growth. Bengali leaders accused Pakistani rulers of developing the western wing at the expense of East Pakistan’s resources, including world famous jute.
The growing East-West divide reached its zenith when 1970 election results showed Awami League’s landslide win over its West Pakistani rival, the People’s Party. Following Pakistani military’s refusal to handover power to East Pakistan’s Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rehman (right), a separatist movement began in the eastern wing demanding independence from Islamabad. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was imprisoned on charges of treason and sedition.
Thousands of Bengalis took arms and formed ‘Mukti Bahini’ (Liberation Army) to free what was known as East Pakistan from the clutches of military-dominated Pakistani government. Headed by a retired Pakistan Army serviceman, Col. M.A.G. Osmani, thousands of ethnic Bengalis deserted the army and joined the guerrilla ranks. Armed and aided by India, the movement waged a fierce guerrilla war that enjoyed overwhelming support from Bengalis living in East Pakistan.
The Pakistani Army launched a military operation in late March, 1971. Lasting for several months, the purge claimed the lives of more than 100,000 civilians, most of them killed on suspicion of aiding the guerrillas. Millions of people fled their homes and took refuge in neighboring India. Local Awami League rivals and several religious militias supported the Pakistani military operations, carrying out widespread human rights violations and genocide.
Badly demoralised by a combined Mukti Bahini-Indian Army assault, more than 90,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendered on 16 December, 1971. Pakistani General A.K. Niazi (right) signing the official surrender document in front of Indian Lt. General J.S. Aurora (left).
After initial hesitation, Pakistan’s new leader Zulfiqar Bhutto (right) accepted the sovereignty of newly created Bangladesh in 1972. Released from West Pakistan soon after the end of the war, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman (left) became the first President of the country and later became the prime minister after declaring Bangladesh as a parliamentary democracy. Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was known for his socialist leanings.
Sheikh Mujibur Rehman along with his family in a photo taken before his assassination on 15 August, 1975. His eldest daughter Sheikh Hasina Wajed (far right) and youngest daughter Sheikh Rehana (2nd from the left) survived the plot as they were on a visit to West Germany. The coup d’état headed by disgruntled Awami League leaders and military personnel ended the budding democracy in Bangladesh and replaced it with a martial law.
Bangladesh underwent series of countercoups and political violence until General Ziaur Rehman seized power on 19 November, 1976 after proclaiming himself as Chief Martial Law Administrator. He later became the President on 21 April, 1977, steering the country away from socialism and replacing it with free market reforms and religious laws. Gen. Ziaur Rehman was also assassinated in a military coup on 30 May, 1981 by a group of army officers and his bodyguards.
Following political ramblings after the assassination of Gen. Ziaur Rehman, Gen. Hussein Mohammed Ershad seized power in a bloodless coup on 24 March, 1982 and later became the president on 11 December, 1983. Apart from bringing discipline to the Bangladesh Army, his 8 years long rule was termed as autocratic by his opponents. A massive opposition movement led by all-time arch-rivals Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Begum Khaleda Zia toppled him on 6 December, 1990 and sent him to jail.
General Ziaur Rehman’s widow, Begum Khaleda Zia, won the democratic elections held in 1991 with a clear majority. Being in power for five years, Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader lost the 1996 elections to rival Sheikh Hasina of Awami (People’s) League. However, she returned to power in 2001 and ruled Bangladesh for another five years. Amidst allegations of corruption and mismanagement, Begum Khaleda Zia handed over the government to a caretaker administration in October 2006.
Sheikh Hasina Wajed of Awami League became the prime minister for the first time in 1996. During her five year rule, she signed a peace treaty with India that gave Bangladesh more rights on river water coming from India. She also signed a power sharing peace deal with Chakma tribal rebels. However, her rule came under intense criticism after Bangladesh was named as the most corrupt country by Transparency International in 2001. Political violence also marred the nation during her tenure.
Constant interference by the military in Bangladesh’s politics has seen numerous coups taking place since its creation in 1971. Initially respected as a neutral institution, the military lost its public support in the wake of political scandals involving military figures. This iconic photograph taken in August 2007 was regarded as a symbol of public discontentment over the role of army in the politics. However, Bangladeshi military retaliated by arresting thousands of students and beating them in public.
Political agitation by opposition parties has dogged the country throughout the last two decades. Bangladesh’s main rivals Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party have staged violent strikes while being in opposition during recent years to cripple the government of their rivals. As a result, growth stagnated and Bangladesh’s export-based economy suffered heavy blows. Hundreds of people also lost their lives in the cyclic violence.
Among various other socio-political issues, the presence of country’s Bihari ethnic minority has remained as a thorny issue. The ethnic group that speaks Urdu and migrated from India in 1947 supported West Pakistan during the separatist movement in 1971. After its independence, Bangladesh asked for the repatriation of thousands of Biharis living in refugee camps in Dhaka and other cities to Pakistan. Islamabad refused to accept them as its citizens. As a result, thousands of people live in squalid camps and have no civil rights.
Although Bangladesh is an agricultural country, 75% of the country’s revenue is generated by textile exports. The country’s cheap but skilled labor and low setup costs has attracted massive foreign investment in the garment industry. The industry has also benefitted from micro-credit schemes initiated by banks and other financial institutions. More than 3.5 million people are employed by hundreds of textile mills and garment factories across the country.
Bangladesh’s geographic location makes it prone to natural calamities like floods, tropical cyclones and tidal bores. Every year, monsoon rains bring flooding to the rivers and streams that are spread across the country’s flat terrain. With the absence of an early warning system and sophisticated infrastructure, hundreds of lives are lost and damages worth billions of dollars are caused by floods and tropical cyclones every year.
Though Bangladesh has benefitted by recent economic growth and socio-economic indicators have improved to an extent, the divide between the rich and the poor is rapidly increasing. Thousands of people live in slums in Dhaka and other Bangladeshi cities where household incomes are less than a dollar per day. Political strife, corruption, mismanagement and natural calamities have fuelled more poverty during the last decade.
An army-backed political administration took the reigns of power in January 2007. Being in power for almost two years, the caretaker government tried to purge the influence of political heavyweights like Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia and rid the system from corruption. The administration also held a peaceful election on 29 December, 2008 which Awami League won by a landslide. The elections saw a record turnout and were the most peaceful elections in the country’s 37-year-old history.
Sheikh Hasina Wajed taking the oath from President Iajuddin Ahmed as Bangladesh’s Prime Minister in Dhaka on 6 January, 2009. After gaining a landslide victory over rivals BNP, the Awami League leader promised a politics of change and reconciliation and vowed to bury the differences. “I feel in the parliamentary system we can work together. I am ready to work with everyone,” she said following her victory.
After years of checkered political administrations and a bumpy democratic process, Bangladeshis now look forward to a future that promises stability, growth, prosperity and security to boost the country’s ailing system. Torn apart on social, political and economic fronts, a majority of the people have reposed their trust in democracy for another time. Now it’s the turn of politicians, the military, and the bureaucracy to work together and emerge as a strong nation. The mood of the masses is jubilant at the moment and the proposition of another failure is not on the mind for the time being…