Bangladesh , officially the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, is a country in South Asia. It stradlles the fertile Ganges-Brahmaputra delta and forms part of the ancient and historic region of Bengal. The name Bangladesh means “Country of Bengal” in the official Bengali language. To its south lies the Bay of Bengal, while it is bordered by the Republic of India on the north, west and east, and Burma (Myanmar) to the southeast. It is separated from Nepal and Bhutan by India’s narrow Siliguri corridor and is situated in geographical proximity to China. With a population of over 160 million people, Bangladesh is the world’s eighth most populous country as well as one of the world’s most densely populated countries. It is the third most populous nation in the Muslim world. The present-day borders of the country were established during the partition of the British Indian Empire in 1947, when eastern Bengal became part of the newly formed nation of Pakistan. However, it was separated from West Pakistan by nearly 1,500 km (about 900 mi) of Indian territory. Due to political exclusion, ethnic and linguistic discrimination and economic neglect by the politically dominant western wing, popular agitation and civil disobedience lead to the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. After independence, the new state endured poverty, famine, political turmoil and military coups. The restoration of democracy in 1991 has been followed by relative calm and economic progress. Founded as a secular democracy in 1971, Bangladesh is a unitary multiparty parliamentary republic with an elected national assembly called the Jatiyo Sangshad. It is a member of the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the OIC, NAM, the Developing 8 Countries and BIMSTEC. A long-standing proponent of regional engagement in South Asia, Bangladesh pioneered the creation of SAARC. Its armed forces are among of the world’s largest contributors of United Nations peacekeeping forces. Bangladesh continues to face a number of major challenges, including poverty, corruption, political instability, overpopulation and vulnerability to climate change. However, it has been praised by the international community for its significant progress on the Human Development Index. Through various acclaimed Bangladeshi public and NGO-led social programs, the country is improving living standards and life expectancy, promoting education and women empowerment, stemming population growth, achieving self-sufficiency in food production and building healthcare infrastructure. The country is also undergoing rapid industrialization, with globally competitive industries in textiles, shipbuilding and pharmaceuticals. Dhaka and Chittagong, the country’s two largest cities, have been the driving force behind much of the recent growth. Bangladesh has been identified as a Next Eleven emerging economy.
Civilization in the greater Bengal region dates back over four thousand years, when the region was settled by ancient Dravidian, Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman and Austroasiatic peoples. The exact origin of the word “Bangla” or “Bengal” is unclear, though it is believed to be derived from Bang/Vanga, the Dravidian-speaking tribe that settled in the area around the year 1000 BCE.
The Sixty Dome Mosque, part of the medieval Mosque City of Bagerhat, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The region was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans as Gangaridai, or “Nation of Ganges”. Early history featured the rise of Vedic states and a succession of Buddhist and Hindu dynasties. During the first millennium BCE, it was home to several janapadas including Vanga, Samatata and Pundravardhana. Bengal was conquered by the Mauryans in the 2nd century BCE, and absorbed into a succession of Magadha empires. Following the collapse of the Magadha, a local ruler named Shashanka rose to power and founded an impresseive short-lived kingdom. After a period of anarchy, the Bengali Buddhist Pala dynasty ruled the region for four hundred years, followed by the shorter reign of the Hindu Sena Dynasty.
Islam was introduced to Bengal in the 8th century by Arab Muslim merchants and Sufi missionaries. Subsequent Muslim rule reinforced the process of conversion through the establishment of mint towns, mosques, madrasas and Sufi khanqahs. Muslim conquest came in 1204, when Bakhtiar Khilji of the Delhi Sultanate defeated Lakshman Sen of the Sena Dynasty. In 1338, Fakhruddin Mubarak Shah declared independence from the Delhi Sultans in Sonargaon and a few years later Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah established the Sultanate of Bengal at Gaur in 1342. The Sultans ruled for over two centuries, with their influence spanning from present-day Bihar to Arakan. The powerful Baro-Bhuyan landlords also exercised considerable autonomous authority in different regions. By the 16th century, the Mughal Empire controlled Bengal and Dhaka became a major administrative and economic center of the empire. Under the Mughals, the region enjoyed a flourishing economy brought on by agrarian reforms and increased foreign trade. It earned the reputation of “Golden Bengal” for its prosperity and wealth, and was described by the Mughal emperors as the Paradise of Nations.
Akbar celebrating the Mughal conquest of Bengal
Medieval European geographers also located paradise at the mouth of the Ganges and although this was overhopeful, Bengal was probably the wealthiest part of the subcontinent until the 17th century. From 1517 onwards, Portuguese traders were traversing the sea-route to Bengal. Only in 1537, were they allowed to settle and open customs houses at Chittagong. In 1577, Mughal emperor Akbar permitted the Portuguese to build permanent settlements and churches in Bengal.The influence of European traders grew until the British East India Company gained control of Bengal following the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The bloody rebellion of 1857—known as the Sepoy Mutiny—resulted in transfer of authority to the crown with a British viceroy running the administration. During colonial rule, famine racked South Asia many times, including the war-induced Great Bengal famine of 1943 that claimed 3 million lives.
The Maratha Empire, a Hindu empire which overran the Mughals in the 18th century, also devastated the territories controlled by the Nawab of Bengal between 1742 and 1751. In a series of raids on Bengal and Bihar, then ruled by the Nawab, Maratha demolished much of the Bengali economy, which was unable to withstand the continuous onslaught of Maratha for long. Nawab Ali Vardi Khan made peace with Maratha by ceding the whole of Orissa and parts of Western Bengal to the empire. In addition, this a tax – the Chauth, amounting to a quarter of total revenue – was imposed on other parts of Bengal and Bihar. This tax amounted to twenty lakhs (of rupees?) for Bengal and 12 lakhs for Bihar per year. After Maratha’s defeat in Panipat by a coalition of Muslim forces, the empire returned under the Maratha general Madhoji Sindhia and raided Bengal again. The British Empire stopped payment of the Chauth, invading the territory of Bengal in 1760s. The raids continued until Maratha was finally defeated by the British over the course of three Anglo-Maratha Wars, lasting from 1777 to 1818.
Poets Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam. Bengali culture is renowned for its literature, poetry, music and art.
Dhaka University students during the Bengali Language Movement.
Between 1905 and 1911, an abortive attempt was made to divide the province of Bengal into two zones, with Dhaka being the capital of the eastern zone. With the exit of the British Empire in 1947, Bengal was partitioned along religious lines, with the western part going to newly created India and the eastern part (Muslim majority) joining Pakistan as a province called East Bengal (later renamed East Pakistan), with its capital at Dhaka. In 1950, land reform was accomplished in East Bengal with the abolishment of the feudal zamindari system. Despite the economic and demographic weight of the east, however, Pakistan’s government and military were largely dominated by the upper classes from the west. The Bengali Language Movement of 1952 was the first sign of friction between the two wings of Pakistan. Dissatisfaction with the central government over economic and cultural issues continued to rise through the next decade, during which the Awami League emerged as the political voice of the Bengali-speaking population. It agitated for autonomy in the 1960s, and in 1966, its president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib), was jailed; he was released in 1969 after an unprecedented popular uprising. In 1970, a massive cyclone devastated the coast of East Pakistan, killing up to half a million people, and the central government responded poorly. The Bengali population’s anger was compounded when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose Awami League won a majority in Parliament in the 1970 elections, was blocked from taking office.
Independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Civil society leader Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.
After staging compromise talks with Mujib, President Yahya Khan and military officials launched Operation Searchlight, a sustained military assault on East Pakistan and arrested him in the early hours of 26 March 1971. Yahya’s methods were extremely bloody, and the violence of the war resulted in many civilian deaths. Chief targets included intellectuals and Hindus, and about one million refugees fled to neighbouring India Estimates of those massacred throughout the war range from thirty thousand to 3,000,000. Mujibur Rahman was ultimately released on 8 January 1972, due to direct US intervention.
Awami League leaders set up a government-in-exile in Calcutta, India. The exile government formally took oath at Meherpur, in Kustia district of East Pakistan on 17 April 1971, with Tajuddin Ahmad as the first Prime Minister and Syed Nazrul Islam as the Acting President. The Bangladesh Liberation War lasted for nine months. The Bangladesh Forces formed within 11 sectors led by General M.A.G. Osmani consisting of Bengali Regular forces conducted a massive guerilla war against the Pakistan Forces with support from the Mukti Bahinis consisting of Kaderia Bahni, Hemayet Bahini, and others financed and equipped by Indian Armed Forces Maj. Gen. Sujat Singh Uban. The Indian Army, assisted by Bangladeshi forces, negotiated a cease-fire and surrounded the Dhaka Area. The Indian Army remained in Bangladesh until 19 March 1972.
After its independence, Bangladesh was governed by an Awami League government, with Mujib as the Prime Minister, without holding any elections. In the 1973 parliamentary elections, the Awami League gained an absolute majority. A nationwide famine occurred during 1973 and 1974 In early 1975, Mujib initiated a one-party socialist rule with his newly formed BAKSAL. On 15 August 1975, Mujib and most of his family members were assassinated by mid-level military officers. Vice President Khandaker Mushtaq Ahmed was sworn in as President with most of Mujib’s cabinet intact. Army uprisings on 3 November and the other on 7 November 1975 led to the reorganised structure of power. An emergency was declared to restore order and calm, and Mushtaq resigned. The military placed the country under temporary martial law, with three service chiefs serving as deputies to the new president, Justice Abu Sayem, who also became the Chief Martial Law Administrator.
In 1977, after the resignation of Justice Sayem, Lieutenant General Ziaur Rahman took over the presidency. He reinstated multi-party politics, introduced free markets, and founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Zia’s rule ended when he was assassinated by elements of the military in 1981.
Lieutenant General Hussain Mohammad Ershad gained power in a coup on 24 March 1982, and ruled until 6 December 1990. He resigned after a revolt of all major political parties and the public, along with pressure from Western donors (which was a major shift in international policy after the fall of the Soviet Union). Since then, Bangladesh has reverted to a parliamentary democracy. Zia’s widow, Khaleda Zia, led the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to parliamentary victory at the general election in 1991, when she became the first female Prime Minister in Bangladeshi history.
The Awami League, headed by Sheikh Hasina, one of Mujib’s surviving daughters, won the next election in 1996. After holding power about five years, it lost to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in 2001.
On 11 January 2007, following widespread political unrest, the Bangladesh civil and military establishment supported establishing a neutral caretaker government. The caretaker government was appointed to administer the next general election. The country had suffered from extensive corruption, disorder and political violence. The caretaker government worked to root out corruption from all levels of government. Many notable politicians and officials, along with large numbers of lesser officials and party members, were arrested on corruption charges. The caretaker government held what it described as a largely free and fair election on 29 December 2008. The Awami League’s Sheikh Hasina won with a two-thirds landslide in the elections; she took the oath of Prime Minister on 6 January 2009.
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