For much of history, the state that today we call Bangladesh was known only as Bengal; what happened elsewhere on the Indian subcontinent affected this region, too. Dominated at different periods of history by Buddists, Hindus, the Mughals and the East India Company, modern Bangladesh is a product of imperial Britain's Partition of India – a majority-Muslim nation initially joined to Pakistan, and finally born as an independent nation in 1971 after a bloody liberation war.
Strange though it may now seem in such an overwhelmingly Muslim country, Buddhism has been no small player in the nation’s history and culture. Nationwide, less than 1% of people are Buddhists, but in certain areas, such as Chittagong Division, Buddhists make up 12% of the population.
The distance from Bodhgaya (in present-day India, where the Buddha reached enlightenment) to Bengal is not far, and the region has played a huge part in the development of the faith, including the creation of 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 skirmishes, 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.
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 Somapuri 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, though, 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 that look to Myanmar (Burma) for religious inspiration, plus 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 Muslim Period
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.
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 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. The British brought infrastructure, law and government, but they also introduced dictatorial agricultural policies and the establishment of the zamindar (feudal landowner) system, which many people consider responsible for draining Bengal of its wealth, along with the devastation wreaked upon Bengal's economically important fabric industry by cheap British factory imports.
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, not least when in 1905 the British split the region into majority-Hindu West Bengal (centred on Calcutta) and Muslim-majority East Bengal (centred on Dhaka).
Partition & Pakistan
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. West Bengal remained with India, while East Bengal became a physically isolated part of Pakistan.
Though support for the creation of Pakistan was based on Islamic solidarity, the two halves of the new state (East and West Pakistan) had little else in common. Bengali (Bangla) was denied status as an official language of the new country, immediately alienating its Bengali-speaking population. Furthermore, the country was administered from West Pakistan, which tended to favour its own citizens 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 Pakistan, but faced with this unacceptable result, President Khan postponed the opening of the National Assembly.
The War of Liberation
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. Bangladeshi authorities say that napalm was used against villages, and that rape was both widespread and systematic.
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. The cost was enormous – according to Bangladeshi authorities, around three million people were killed in the nine-month war, 200,000 women were raped and 10 million people were forced from their homes.
Forty years later, the country would open an internal war-crimes trial, which would see several contemporary political leaders face accusations of crimes against humanity.
The Early Years of Independence
The People’s Republic of Bangladesh was born into chaos – it was shattered by war, and 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. In the ensuing election, the Awami League won a majority 33% of the vote. But with more seats to its name, the BNP still won the election and 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 eventually brought down the BNP government in June 1996, and the Awami League took power.
A Brighter Future
Since the 1990s, the BNP and Awami League seemed to swap power with almost metronomic regularity, with boycotts becoming an increasingly important card to play at election time. Khaleda Zia’s Nationalist Party and its three coalition partners won the 2001 elections. Arguing that the elections were rigged, the Awami League began parliamentary boycotts. When two Awami League politicians were murdered, it triggered a spate of hartals (strikes), and in 2004 a series of general strikes attempted to force the government from power.
In 2007, a state of emergency resulted in a military-backed caretaker government taking control. Elections were held in late 2008 that saw Sheikh Hasina return to power in a landslide. A year later, an attempted army mutiny resulted in the massacre of over 70 people. Although Bangladesh's economic forecast improved, the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in 2013, which killed more than 1100, shone light on the troubled path to development for the world's eighth-most populous nation.