For much of history, the state that we today call Bangladesh has been a part of a greater India and was known only as Bengal; what happened elsewhere on the subcontinent affected Bengal. The history of the modern state of Bangladesh has been short and, rarely, sweet. Born in a war that some call genocide, the nation’s history has been filled with an almost unnaturally large guest list of villains, tyrants, soldiers and politicians, as well as one or two ever so rare heroes.
Prior to the creation of Bangladesh, the history of Bengal was one that seemed to involve the constant meddling of foreign powers – sometimes this resulted in the glow of cultural splendour, but more often than not it descended into the tears of war.
Strange though it may now seem in such an overwhelmingly Muslim country, Buddhism in Bangladesh is no small player in the nation’s history and culture. Countrywide it’s the third major religion but in certain areas, such as Chittagong division, Buddhists make up an impressive 12% of the population.
It’s not mere numbers though that makes Bangladesh important in the Buddhist world, but history. It’s not far from Bodhgaya (in present-day India, where the Buddha reached enlightenment) to Bengal, and the region has played a huge part in the development of Buddhism, including the creation of the mystical Tantric Buddhism.
By the reign of the great Indian Buddhist emperor Ashoka (304–232 BC), Buddhism was firmly entrenched as the number one religion of Bengal and, aside from a few minor blemishes, it continued to thrive in the region until the 12th century AD, making Bengal the last stronghold of Buddhism in an increasingly Hindu and Muslim dominated subcontinent.
In the 6th century, Sasanaka, a powerful Buddhist king, founded the Gauda Empire in Bengal, which was eventually overthrown by the warrior king Sri Harsa, who ruled the Bengal area until the 8th century.
Gopala, a Kshatriya tribal chief from Varendra, became the founding figure of the Buddhist Pala dynasty (8th to 11th centuries). He was succeeded by his son Dharmapala, who established the gigantic Somapura Vihara in Varendra, known today as Paharpur.
In the 12th century, Hindu senas (armies) came to rule Bengal, and crushed Buddhism. Surviving Buddhists retreated to the Chittagong area. In less than a century the senas were swamped by the tide of Islam.
Though somewhat beaten, Buddhism never totally died out in Bangladesh and in the Chittagong Hill Tracts there are several monasteries which lean to Myanmar (Burma) for religious inspiration and a number of schools in which children learn to read Burmese and Pali (an ancient Buddhist language). As in neighbouring Myanmar, many Buddhist men in this region spend a part of their lives as monks. The large number of Burmese refugees who have fled the terror of their country have brought their religion with them and this has had a profound effect on Bangladeshi Buddhism. The Ministry of Religious Affairs helps to maintain Buddhist religious sites.
They took some time to arrive, but when they did they left a legacy that continues to define the country to this very day. The arrival of the Muslims began with the trickle of a few Sufi (Muslim mystic) missionaries in the 12th century and the construction of the odd mosque on the fringes of Bengal. Then came Mohammed bin Bakhtiar (a Khilji from Turkistan) who, with only 20 men under his command, made short work of capturing Bengal and bringing the area under the rule of the sultanate of Delhi, the centre of Muslim power in India.
Under the Muslims, Bengal entered a new era. Cities developed; palaces, forts, mosques, mausoleums and gardens sprang up; roads and bridges were constructed; and new trade routes brought prosperity and a new cultural life. In 1576 Bengal became a province of the mighty Mughal Empire, which ushered in another golden age in India. Mughal power extended over most of Bengal except the far southeast around Chittagong, and it was during this period that a small town named Dhaka emerged from obscurity to become the Mughal capital of Bengal.
For decades the Portuguese, Dutch, British and French tussled for influence over the subcontinent, but it was the British East India Company that prevailed.
It was during the reign of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1618–1707) that a Bengali nawab (Muslim prince) sold three local villages to the British East India Company. Today one of those villages is a mega-city that goes by the name of Kolkata (Calcutta). From here the British gradually extended their influence to take in all of Bengal and finally all of the subcontinent, but the going was far from easy.
It has been said that the British Raj ushered Bengal into a period of growth and development, but historians hotly dispute this. To quote Monty Python, ‘What have the Romans actually done for us?’ The answer is that the British brought a great many positive changes to India, particularly in regard to infrastructure, law and government. Conversely, they also brought a great many bad things, including dictatorial agricultural policies and the establishment of the zamindar (feudal landowner) system, which many people consider responsible for draining Bengal of its wealth, damaging its social fabric and directly contributing to today’s desperate conditions in Bangladesh.
Most Hindus cooperated with the British, entering British educational institutions and studying the English language. The majority of Muslims, on the other hand, refused to cooperate, preferring to remain landlords and farmers. This religious dichotomy formed a significant basis for future conflict.
Though the British Raj has long since been relegated to the history books, the truth remains that the British adventure in South Asia remains one of the most significant events in the history of both Bangladesh and Britain. Today trade ties are strong between both nations and a large proportion of Britain’s Asian community hails from Bangladesh. Whereas once upon a time it was Britain exporting its culture and industry to India, recent years have seen something of a reversal, especially in regards to culture with Indian art, food, film and philosophy being exported to Britain.
At the close of WWII it was clear that European colonialism had run its course. The Indian National Congress continued to press for Indian self-rule and the British began to map out a path to independence.
With the Muslim population of India worried about living in an overwhelmingly Hindu-governed nation, the Muslim League was formed. It pushed for two separate Muslim states in South Asia. Lord Mountbatten, Viceroy of British India, realising the impossibility of the situation and, quite possibly looking for a quick British escape, decided to act on these desires and partition the subcontinent.
Though support for the creation of Pakistan was based on Islamic solidarity, the two halves of the new state had little else in common. Furthermore, the country was administered from West Pakistan, which tended to favour itself in the distribution of revenues.
The Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, emerged as the national political party in East Pakistan, with the Language Movement as its ideological underpinning. The 1971 national elections saw the Awami League win with a clear majority; in East Pakistan it won all seats but one. Constitutionally, the Awami League should have formed the government of all Pakistan but faced with this unacceptable result, President Khan postponed the opening of the National Assembly.
At the racecourse rally of 7 March 1971 in Dhaka (at what is now Ramna Park), Sheikh Mujibur (Mujib) stopped short of declaring East Pakistan independent. In reality, however, Bangladesh (land of the Bangla speakers) was born that day. Sheikh Mujib was jailed in West Pakistan, igniting smouldering rebellion in East Pakistan.
When the Mukti Bahini (Bangladesh Freedom Fighters) captured the Chittagong radio station on 26 March 1971, Ziaur Rahman, the leader of the Mukti Bahini, announced the birth of the new country and called upon its people to resist the Pakistani army. President Khan sent more troops to quell the rebellion.
General Tikka Khan, known to Bangladeshis as the ‘Butcher of Balochistan’, began the systematic slaughter of Sheikh Mujib’s supporters. Tanks began firing into the halls of Dhaka University. Hindu neighbourhoods were shelled and intellectuals, business people and other ‘subversives’ were hauled outside the city and shot.
By June the struggle had become a guerrilla war. More and more civilians joined the Mukti Bahini as the Pakistani army’s tactics became more brutal. As documented in media reports at the time, and in several book-length studies since, napalm was used against villages, and rape was both widespread and systematic, although the actual number of women affected remains disputed.
By November 1971 the whole country was suffering the burden of the occupying army. During the nine months from the end of March 1971, 10 million people fled to refugee camps in India.
With border clashes between Pakistan and India becoming more frequent, the Pakistani air force made a pre-emptive attack on Indian forces on 3 December 1971, precipitating a quick end. Indian troops crossed the border, liberated Jessore on 7 December and prepared to take Dhaka. The Pakistani army was attacked from the west by the Indian army, from the north and east by the Mukti Bahini and from all quarters by the civilian population.
By 14 December the Indian victory was complete and West Pakistan had been defeated, but at what cost? According to Bangladeshi sources around three million people were killed in the nine month war, 200, 000 women raped and 10 million people forced from their homes. Pakistani sources claim that 26, 000 deaths occurred, whilst the international community quote anything from 200, 000 to three million deaths.
The People’s Republic of Bangladesh was born into chaos – it was shattered by war, had a ruined economy and a totally disrupted communications system. Henry Kissinger once described the newly independent Bangladesh as an ‘international basket case’. As if to reinforce this point, famine struck between 1973 and 1974 and set the war-ravaged country back even further.
After a couple of years of tumultuous power struggles, General Ziaur Rahman, now the head of the army, took over as martial-law administrator and assumed the presidency in late 1976.
The overwhelming victory of President Zia (as Ziaur Rahman was popularly known) in the 1978 presidential poll was consolidated when his party, the newly formed Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), won two-thirds of the seats in the parliamentary elections of 1979. Martial law was lifted and democracy returned to Bangladesh. Zia proved to be a competent politician and statesman. Assistance began pouring in and over the next five years the economy went from strength to strength.
Though the country progressed economically during the late 1980s, in early 1990 the economy began to unravel and massive rallies and hartals (strikes) were held. During this period Zia’s wife, Begum Khaleda Zia, who had no political experience, became head of the BNP and, in the ensuing election, the Awami League won about 33% of the vote compared to the BNP’s 31% – but the BNP won about 35 more seats in parliament. Begum Khaleda Zia became prime minister in 1991.
Never fully accepting the election result, the Awami League, headed by Sheikh Hasina, began to agitate against the BNP. A long and economically ruinous period of hartals (strikes) eventually brought down the BNP government in June 1996, and the Awami League took power.
The past eight or nine years have seen no respite in the political twisting and turning. Khaleda Zia’s Nationalist Party and its three coalition partners won the 2001 elections. Arguing that the elections were rigged, the now-opposition Awami League began parliamentary boycotts. In August 2003, two opposition Awami League politicians were murdered, triggering a spate of hartals. In February 2004, the opposition called a series of general strikes in a failed attempt to force the government from power.
The Bangladeshi constitution states that at the end of its tenure the government must hand power over to an unelected, neutral caretaker government who must organise elections within 90 days. In January 2007, with elections due and neither side able to agree on a suitable caretaker government, and street protests over the stalemate becoming increasingly large and violent, a military-backed caretaker government under the leadership of Fakhruddin Ahmed took over. One of its first acts was to declare emergency rule, postpone the elections to late 2008 and ban all political activity. In the meantime they promised to stamp out the corruption that in recent years had seen Bangladesh rated the world’s second most corrupt nation after Nigeria. For much of 2007 the caretaker government was genuinely popular with many Bangladeshis, but by August of that year a curfew was imposed on many Bangladeshi cities after students took to the streets demanding an end to the emergency.
The country has suffered from a series of low-key bomb attacks by local Islamic militant groups, but in general Islamic militancy hasn’t taken root here in the way many feared it might. Other good news can be found in the economy, which, in recent years, has been steadily growing at around 5% to 6% per annum, fuelled primarily by the country’s burgeoning textile industry. Though still one of the world’s poorest and least developed nations, Bangladesh normally manages to feed itself and the future of the country looks brighter than it has done for years - the ‘basket case’ metaphor can be safely laid to rest.