16 February 2023
This article, intended mainly for a international audience, was prompted by a recent YouTube video. Link of that video has been provided at the end of this article.
British rule in South Asia has much to answer for. But the partition of British India into India and Pakistan cannot be one of them. Muslim Indians of the time (or at least their leaders like Mohammad Ali Jinnah) wanted it and adamantly so. Of course, the British did pit Hindus and Muslims against each other during their 200 years long “adventure” there. But in the end, it was the Muslims who wanted their own country carved out of British India where Muslims had a greater population than Hindus.
Incidentally, that happened to be on two sides of the Indian Republic today. So after the British left the region, the world ended up with Muslim majority Pakistan containing two wings (East & West) with Hindu majority India in the middle. And that turned out to be an untenable situation, particularly for the East Pakistanis (now Bangladeshis) for reasons that would warrant an entire encyclopedia. So if not for partition, there would be no Bangladesh today.
But why did Muslim Indians want a separate country of their own? Prior to the arrival of the British in the mid 1700s, the huge area was ruled by Muslim Mughal Kings. Under their rule, and under that of prior Muslim invaders from Central Asia, Hindu Indians suffered from being second class citizens as peasants for over 600 years since Hindu Kings were routinely defeated during conquests and their Kingdoms usurped.
It was British rule that many Hindu Indians ironically found as their ladder to use to climb the social order. Many of them cooperated with the British rulers and willingly took on British education. Muslim Indians, on the other hand refused to cooperate with the British. The result was that after 200 years of British rule, the tides were turned. As the independence of India became a certainty, Muslim Indians (mostly peasants by then, particularly in the eastern part of British India) feared being ruled over by an educated and more powerful Hindu majority after the departure of the British. They were joined by a few elite anglophile Muslims in the western part of British India who shared the same concern.
The dividing up of British India into independent India and independent Pakistan in 1947, and the dismemberment of Pakistan (i.e independence of Bangladesh from being Pakistan’s eastern wing) in 1971, were both incredibly bloody events of history. While the Hindu-Muslim bloodshed of partition in and around 1947 is better known, many people around the world are still learning about the genocide, ethnic cleansing and rapes of women in 1971 that were conducted by the Pakistani army against Bengalis in the eastern wing who are now Bangladeshis. This was a heavy price for Bengalis to pay, for wanting a free country.
Unofficial figures: 3 million Bengalis were killed and nearly 200,000 Bengali women were systematically raped by the Pakistani army – the goal of the latter being to change the genetic code of future off-spring in East Pakistan as much as possible; i.e. to make them less Bengali (read Hindu like) and more Pakistani (read Muslim like). Religion was not the only factor here. Language was a big factor too as has been discussed later in this article. Bengalis spoke a Sankrit based language (Sanskrit being meshed with the heritage of Hinduism). Hence, Bengali Muslims couldn’t possibly be true Muslims in the eyes of the West Pakistani elites who spoke Urdu, a language developed by the Muslim Mughal Kings and which had Persian heritage.
It should be noted that Hindu Bengalis in the eastern half were disproportionately targeted for killing by the Pakistani army. They also formed the majority of those who fled to India during the 9 months period (some never returned).
Bangladesh will always remain grateful to India for hosting 1 million refugees (alluded to above) during our war of independence; but more so for intervening in December that year, joining forces with the Bengali paramilitary force called Mukti Bahini, our Freedom Fighters, that they trained. Together, they fought, died and defeated the Pakistani army in the eastern half to surrender 9 months after the latter began Operation Searchlight on the midnight of March 25 in Dhaka. Bangladesh came to being on 16 December the same year. Joy Bangla!
What has the Pakistani state been teaching its citizens since 1971 about this part of their history? It is literally as follows: “that Pakistan’s dismemberment was an Indian conspiracy and that Bengalis were traitors who went along with it. Brave Pakistani soldiers tried to stop this from happening. They tried to “protect” Muslim Bengalis from Hindu Indians but the Bengalis ended up killing many of the Pakistani soldiers instead!”. This is beyond the stuff of parody.
To summarize a so called encyclopedia into a few paragraphs, East Pakistan’s Bengali people’s thirst for independence grew in stages starting the year 1952, only 5 years after the same people were instrumental in carving the Pakistani state out of British India. 1952 is when Pakistan’s then government (based entirely in the western wing) attempted to impose the Urdu language on the Bengali people who lived mostly in the eastern wing and who spoke Bangla (also known as Bengali). The intention was to establish a lingua franca other than English among all of Pakistan’s different linguistic and ethnic groups and their administrations.
But the Bengali people were the largest linguistic and ethnic group in the entire Pakistani state and were defined by the rich cultural heritage and history of the Bangla language in the multi-lingual subcontinent. They thus refused to allow Urdu being imposed on to their lives, Urdu being a language used only by an elite few based in the western wing at that time. Bengalis demanded that Bangla must remain the official language at least in the eastern half of country. What followed was one of the first clashes between Bengali people and the security forces of the Pakistani state. A few Bengali students at Dhaka University were killed by the police. This episode cemented the earliest bout of resentment Bengalis in the east felt towards the elites in the west.
Ever since Pakistan’s creation, the western wing enriched itself by acquiring resources from the eastern one while undertaking negligible development in the latter. East Pakistan was therefore impoverishing further during this period (as if 200 years of impoverishment under the British prior to this, was not enough!). There was no meaningful political representation from the Bengali people in Pakistani government institutions either. Racism, cultural snobbery and Hindu phobia on the part of West Pakistani elites, and shown towards the much maligned starving (or fish & rice eating), scantily clothed, darker skinned, physically weaker and smaller Bengali peasants in East Pakistan, were some of the factors here.
Two events in 1970 gave the quest for independence its final vigour. Firstly, a severe cyclone in the eastern half which killed half a million people, was met by utter indifference from the authorities in the western wing where lay all power and money. Secondly, a national parliamentary election across both wings shortly after the cyclone saw today’s Bangladesh’s Father Of the Nation’s i.e. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s political party called Awami League win a majority. Since the result meant that the elites in the western wing would now have to deal with a National Leader and Members of Parliament from the eastern one (all Bengalis), the authorities in the western half simply refused to acknowledge the result.
This made Sheikh Mujibur Rahman rally the entire Bengali nation for full independence from the western wing. Meaningful autonomy were discussed and would have sufficed prior to the two events described above. But now, only full independence would do. Alas, his clarion call for such saw him arrested and imprisoned in the western half in March 1971. Immediately after putting Sheikh Mujibur in jail, Yahya Khan, the then dictator and national leader of both wings ordered the Pakistani army to enter the eastern one to begin Operation Searchlight (on midnight of the 25th). The goal was to kill as many students, Hindus and members of the general population as it takes to kill off the quest for independence. But India’s then Prime Minister Srimoti Indira Gandhi, her national army and the Mukti Bahini mentioned earlier turned that quest into a reality the same year, after all the bloodshed during the 9 months period.
It should be noted that once it became clear during the early days of December, that the Pakistani army would soon have to surrender to the joint forces of the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini, Pakistan army’s local collaborators in the eastern wing who were Muslim Bengalis that did not want Pakistan’s dismemberment (since that would allegedly damage Islam!), actively sought out the eastern wing’s most talented people in the field of culture, science and education. During the final days of our war of independence, the local collaborators, who belonged to militia groups called Al-Badr and Al-Shams, killed off our best brains by fetching them from their homes, taking them to a well known marshy place in Dhaka and then shooting at them point blank while the latter were totally unarmed. The intention was to minimize the possibility that a free Bangladesh might ever be able to stand on her own feet, her head held up high. Independent Bangladesh did indeed lack all the talent and resources she needed to rebuild a war ravaged country and many outsiders doubted her future viability.
Adding wound to injury, all Middle Eastern countries bar one were against Bangladesh’s creation. West Pakistani administration had all the Arab countries convinced of damage to the Islamic world should Pakistan’s dismemberment take place. Only Israel attempted to extend the hand of friendship to Bangladesh and her cause. But this was swiftly rebuffed by independent Bangladesh, in support of the Palestinian people and their struggle for their homeland. Bangladesh never established diplomatic relashionship with Israel and later moved much closer to the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). Communist China, being a close friend of Pakistan, did not establish diplomatic relations with Bangladesh until 1975.
The Cold War dimention to the events of 1971 cannot be ignored either. Since India by then had developed a socialist economy, the country became close to the former Soviet Union. West Pakistani elites on the other hand cosied up to the US for balance and the then American President Nixon found those elites a very useful bridge to cross and establish diplomatic ties with China which happened to be a close friend of Pakistan as I mentioned earlier.
As a result of being such a useful bridge, West Pakistan found Nixon and his then Secretary of State Henri Kissinger not only condoning what Yahya unleashed in East Pakistan, but also actively supporting it later on. So in return, India used its frienship with the Soviet Union to force the latter to support the quest for Bangladesh at the UN. Once exasperated Indira Gandhi sent the Indian army to quash the Pakistani one in what is now Bangladesh, the US and the Soviet Union nearly came to, I dare say, nuclear blows with each other in the Bay of Bengal. Thankfully the Pakistani army surrendered and conditions were created for a US aircraft carrier sent to the Bay to support the butchering army, and several Soviet submarines sent to the Bay to support the Indian one, to be sent back to their respective home.
Thanks to Indira Gandhi’s relentless pressure on Islamabad, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was unharmed in Pakistani prison. After Bangladesh’s birth, he (also known as simply Sheikh Mujib) was released. He returned to Dhaka to become the country’s first National Leader. Bangladesh’s journey since then can be the subject of a case study in political science and religion. Once one of the wealthiest parts of the world that attracted traders from all over the world (and incidentally some colonizers) had been reduced to one the poorest, when the journey began on 16th December 1971. It is suffice to say that after the terrible start to the journey, the initial couple of decades were very difficult indeed. Poverty, famine, political assassinations, military coup and natural disasters plagued the country.
Sheikh Mujib, along with most of his family, was assassinated in Dhaka in 1975 by overzealous officials of the Bangladesh Army. One of his surviving daughters, Sheikh Hasina, is now the longest serving Prime Minister of the nation. Shortly after the assassination of Sheilh Mujib, General Ziaur Rahman from the army emerged as a dictator turned politician who himself was assassinated by army officials in 1981. This was followed by nearly ten years of military rule by General Ershad who was overthrown by a mass uprising in 1991.
After that, Bangladesh entered the league of democracies where Ziaur Rahman’s widow Khaleda Zia became the democratically elected Prime Minister in 1991. Sheikh Hasina became the country’s following democratically elected Prime Minister in 1996. After that, Khaleda and Hasina and their political parties, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Awami League respectively, have alternated between power (Sheikh Hasina being in power constantly since 2009). These political developments were accompanied by switching from a socialist economy to a market based one which in time embraced globalization.
After 51 years of her existence as a free nation, Bangladesh can boast of significant social and economic development which has increased women’s empowerment, general nutrition, health, life expectancy and literacy to name just a few. The country’s birth rate has now reduced to near replacement levels while infant mortality rates have come down too. There is now far better preparedness for natural disasters like cyclones as well. Annual flooding of the delta around the monsoon season is a phenomenon the country has been adapting to live with, by minimizing its harm and leveraging its benefits for agriculture (major flooding once a decade however remains a challenge).
All of this has been achieved by numerous NGOs, foreign and local, large and small, working in tandem with Bangladeshi governments of all stripes since independence. OXFAM and USAID must get a special mention as international organizations, whereas BRAC and Grameen Bank were home grown but internationally renowned NGOs that protected the most vulnerable when it was most needed. International aid from many countries during the early days helped not only to stabilize the country at a very difficult time but also to prepare Bangladesh to qualify for loans from international financial institutions. Today, Bangladesh enjoys a good credit history with international lenders, since the country has never defaulted on any international foreign currency payments, not even during her worst moments.
Though the country’s domestic politics remains rotten, Bangladesh can boast of some free and fair, multi-party parliamentary elections (as I have alluded to already). Recent elections however have not been free and fair and the space for democratic politics has shrunk thanks to both major political parties acting in bad faith. The two Begums (i.e. the ladies leading their parties) have developed a acrimonious relationship with one another which has held the country hostage.
Sheikh Hasina’s life came under threat in 2004 when she was in opposition, allegedy by members of the BNP who threw granades at her stage where she was giving a speech. It should be noted that Hasina has always suspected Khaleda’s late husband Ziaur Rahman’s hand in her father’s assassination. She on the other hand has neutered the BNP (Khaleda and other activists alike by imprisoning them) after the latter held the country hostage twice by election related blockades and arson attacks while she has been in power. This neutering has had the effect of bringing political stability to the country at the expense of democratic politics.
It should be noted that BNP’s blockades and arsons were in protest to Hasina removing the constitutional provision of having a caretaker administration conducting general elections. Both Khaleda and Hasina came to power through caretaker administered elections. But Hasina wished to introduce the more widely practiced custom of conducting such elections under the auspices of the elected government of the day. This angered the BNP profoundly, leading to their devastating countrywide blockades and arsons, and it should come as no surprise that of the two elections held while Awami League has been in power this time around, the first one was non-participatory and the second one was rigged. A new election is due on January 2024 and it is anyone’s guess as to how that may turn out under the auspices of the sitting government. The only free and fair elections ever held in Bangladesh were under the auspices of a caretaker administration (bar one around 2006/7).
Islamic militancy which raised its ugly head during the past two decades however have been quashed by the current government (though belatedly and after a lot of damage to innocent lives, both local and foreign). But under successive governments since independence including this one, Bangladesh’s secular ethos (championed by the war of liberation and its aftermath) has been gradually diminishing. Remember the militia groups Al-Badr and Al-Shams? They fled the country after independence, only to have their members being courted back into the country by Ziaur Rahman mentioned earlier. These people formed a political party called Jamaat-e-Islami, heralding the start of religion based politics in the country. There was a constitutional bar for such until then.
But why did Ziaur Rahman do this? It was to solidify his power base. Introducing religion into politics and public life appealed to a large chunk of pious Muslims (despite the composition of the Jamaat). He thus secured the support of a large portion of the country’s population. As if this was not enough to change Bangladesh’s secular character, General Ershad mentioned earlier played further roughshod with the constitution and introduced Islam as the state religion (whereas previously there was none). Sixteen years after the country’s independence, non-Muslims were thus relegated to second class citizens and “faith traders” (who earned a living by preaching, teaching and leading prayers at Mosques) got a new lease of life to enter the public and private spheres of citizens through their “work” which often included politics.
When the BNP returned to power in 2001, they did so with a coalition agreement with Jamaat, the result being the Bangladeshi flag being hoisted on the ministerial cars belonging to Jamaat ministers. This did not go down well with the country’s surviving Freedom Fighters, aghast at the war criminals, who actively acted against the country’s independence, being accorded such honour. This was accompanied by further Islamization of the country that was first begun by Ziaur Rahman. During this period, Islamic terrorism against the state and corruption at all levels reached a new high as well.
Anger boiled up in the country demanding the trials of these war criminals. Sheikh Hasina, after returning to power in 2009, answered to this call and formed a special tribunal to have the main leaders of Jamaat prosecuted. During the trial process, a movement called the Shahbag Movement, comprising initially of students and online secular activists (bloggers), but later of people from all walks of life, acted to keep the pressure on for the trial. In time, several leaders of Jamaat and one from the BNP were convicted of war crimes in 1971 and given the death penalty.
Jamaat-e-Islami’s UK based affiliate happened to be the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), some members of whom once belonged to the Al-Badr and Al-Shams militias. MCB went on a community wide blitz poisoning the mind of young British Muslims (mostly of Bangladeshi and Pakistsni descent) that Sheikh Hasina was killing Muslim scholars in Bangladesh and thus killing Islam. Similar brainwashing was noticed by affiliate organizations in North America. Together, they were able to convince major human rights organizations like the Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International to exert pressure on the Bangladesh government to cancel the tribunal, not least by highlighting some initial inadequacies of the trial process.
They even went as far as hiring a British Barrister to defend Jamaat’s leaders in Bangladesh. But Toby Cadman had no license to practice law in Bangladesh and was denied entry by the authorities. The Bangladeshi diaspora (not the young British Muslims mentioned above), shocked by these developments, galvanized both online and offline to counter the propaganda of innocence of the war criminals, something also maintained by the likes of the MCB. The diaspora (including yours truly) gave spirited online and offline support to the Shahbag Movement and the government back home. It should not take a huge leap of imagination to state that some of the young brainwashed British Muslims mentioned earlier ended up in the Islamic State later on.
While the essence of Bangladesh’s independence and secularism was on full display through the Shahbag Movement (with free mixing of men and women till late night engaging in expressions of passion through singing, chanting patriotic slogans, drumming, drawing, painting, reading, reciting, and giving firey speeches at Dhaka’s Shahbag Square), a non-political ultra-religious group called Hefazat-e-Islam, concerned by what they saw as Islam being under threat by the secular goings on, marched into the capital in droves from Chattogram (Bangladesh’s second largest city), where they were based.
This unnerved the sitting government to the point where Sheikh Hasina compromised with Hefazat by a) not introducing a law meant for bringing women’s status up to that of men in all spheres of life b) introducing laws against hurting people’s “religious sentiments” and c) forming a non-political alliance with them, nurturing them, protecting them and not allowing them to be co-opted by the BNP which already had Jamaat (or whatever was left of it) in the bag.
The result was further erosion of secularism in Bangladesh’s politics and society. We witnessed school textbooks starting to omit contributions of Bengali Hindu literary people and add in more Islamic content. Hefazat at a later stage crumbled due to a) natural death of its main leader and b) some hypocrytically immoral behaviour of some of the other leaders. Even though they are less of a concern now for the country’s progressives, secularists, atheists, cultural academics, artists, spiritual folk performers, religious minorities and LGBTQIA+ people (a chunk of whom are unfortunately in exile after serial attacks against them by Islamic militants around 2015), Awami League’s earlier dalliance with them will have left some lasting damage. On the sidelines, the Shahbag Movement fizzled out after the trial process ended.
The current government (aided by the political stability obtained by neutering the BNP as described earlier) has undertaken massive infrastructure development projects which are starting to pay off. China, Japan, South Korea and India are the main partners for these projects which in turn are attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from various parts of the world. The well known ready-made garment industry (which has given vast numbers of women a lifeline and gone through life saving and environmemtal reforms after a major industrial accident) and foreign remittance sent back to the country by the Bangladeshi migrant labour force in the Middle East and Southeast Asia (poor working conditions nothwithstanding) have been changing the face of the country for a long time now.
Added to these in the present day are pharmaceuticals, ship building and the IT sector (comprising of both foreign outsourced work and local start up companies catering to the needs of the local population). Bangladesh went through a green revolution in agriculture quite a while ago where the country’s farmers were able to treble their annual output compared to before, and to diversify their crop base.
It is almost a matter of relief that despite the rotten domestic politics, corruption at all levels and environmental challenges, the country is poised to become a middle income country in a few years’ time. Economic management by the current government before, during and after the Covid pandemic has been better than many, and the global pressures caused by the Russian butchering of Ukraine have been dealt with prudent and unpopular domestic measures.
However, democratic governance, a corruption free and accountable administration, basic human rights for all (other than just food, clothes and shelter), security of life guaranteed by the state, freedom of speech for individuals and the media (currently severely curtailed), and most importantly proper rule of law applied equally to all citizens regardless of economic and political status – all remain aspirations. The judiciary remains at the behest of the executive, all state apparatuses get heavily politicized by whichever political party is in power, and the current government’s endeavour to digitize all government services, while noble, has been half baked till now.
But the social and economic indicators keep everyone looking ahead to better days. It is true that the people towards the lower end of the economy feel terribly squeezed from the effects of the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, due to uncomfortable price rises of all essentials including food, fuel and electricity. But new national highways, railroads, airport terminals, sea ports, city metro rail, a river tunnel and large bridges i.e. engineering marvels over Bangladesh’s mighty rivers (Jamuna, Padma and soon Meghna) promise a better future. Dedicated Export Processing Zones (EPZs) throughout the country hold promise to create scores of employment and boost the economy further.
I would like to end with the following note. The sea level isn’t about to rise 15 feet. It may however rise a couple of inches or may be just an inch more. That is enough to cause havoc to low lying Bangladesh, but only if the country lets it. There are mitigating steps, some of which we have learned from The Netherlands. These will be taken in a steady manner and the country and her population will adapt. It’s time for more reasoned commentary on the issue and less hyperbole on the part of the western media and its consumers.