Bangladesh - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Bangladesh: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Bangladesh, in full, People’s Republic of Bangladesh, republic of southern Asia, in the northeastern portion of the Indian subcontinent, bordered on the west, north, and east by India, on the southeast by Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), and on the south by the Bay of Bengal. The area of the country is 147,570 sq km (56,977 sq mi). The capital and largest city of Bangladesh is Dhaka.

Geographically, historically, and culturally, Bangladesh forms the larger and more populous part of Bengal, the remainder of which constitutes the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal. From 1947 to 1971 the area of Bangladesh was a province of Pakistan. As such, its official designation was changed from East Bengal to East Pakistan in 1955. On March 26, 1971, leaders of East Pakistan declared the province independent as Bangladesh (Bengali for “land of the Bengalis”), and its independence was assured on December 16, 1971, when Pakistani troops in the region surrendered to a joint force of Bangladeshi and Indian troops.


Bangladesh, a low-lying country traversed by numerous rivers, has a coastline of about 580 km (360 mi) along the Bay of Bengal.

Natural Regions in Bangladesh

Most of Bangladesh lies within the broad delta formed by the Ganges (Ganga), Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers and is subject to annual flooding. Much fertile, alluvial soil is deposited by the floodwaters. Most of the land is exceedingly flat and low-lying. The only significant area of hilly terrain, constituting less than one-tenth of the country’s territory, is the Chittagong Hill Tracts District in the narrow southeastern panhandle of the country. There, on the border with Myanmar, is Mowdok Mual (1,003 m/3,291 ft), the country’s highest point. Small, scattered hills lie along or near the eastern and northern borders with India. These areas, which receive among the heaviest rainfall in the world, provide the headwaters of the Meghna and its tributaries. The eroded remnants of two old alluvial terraces—the Madhupur Tract, in the north central part of the country, and the Barind, straddling the northwestern boundary with India—attain elevations of about 30 m (100 ft). The soil here is much less fertile than the annually replenished alluvium of the surrounding floodplain.

A huge tract of mangrove swamp, the Sundarbans (Sunderbans), lies along the coast of Bangladesh and West Bengal between the estuaries of the Meghna and Hugli (Hooghly) rivers. The Sundarbans extends about 274 km (170 mi) along the Bay of Bengal and about 100 km (62 mi) inland. It contains a vast number of tidal rivers and innumerable islands, but very little development or agriculture.

Rivers of Bangladesh

Rivers are a prominent and important feature of the landscape in Bangladesh. The country includes about 200 navigable rivers. Two of South Asia’s largest rivers, the Ganges and Brahmaputra (locally known as the Jamuna), flow into Bangladesh, where they join to form the Padma. The Padma merges with the Meghna southeast of Dhaka; the combined rivers then empty into the Bay of Bengal. In the dry season other deltaic distributaries that lace the terrain to the west of the Meghna may be several kilometers wide as they near the Bay of Bengal, whereas at the height of the summer monsoon season they coalesce into an extremely broad expanse of silt-laden water. In much of the delta, therefore, homes must be constructed on earthen platforms or embankments high enough to remain above the level of all but the highest floods. In nonmonsoon months the exposed ground is pocked with water-filled borrow pits, or tanks, from which the mud for the embankments was excavated. These tanks are a chief source of water for drinking, bathing, and small-scale irrigation.

Climate in Bangladesh

The climate of Bangladesh is of the tropical monsoon variety. In all areas about 80 percent of the annual rainfall typically occurs in the monsoon period, which lasts from late May to mid-October. Average annual precipitation ranges from about 1,400 mm (55 in) along the country’s east central border to more than 5,080 mm (200 in) in the far northeast. In addition to the normal monsoonal rainfall, Bangladesh is subject to devastating cyclones, originating over the Bay of Bengal, in the periods of April to May and September to November. Often accompanied by surging waves, these storms can cause great damage and loss of life. The cyclone of November 1970, in which about 500,000 lives were lost in Bangladesh, was one of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century. Tornadoes, which also accompany the monsoon season, can cause devastation as well.

Bangladesh has warm temperatures throughout the year, with relatively little variation from month to month. January tends to be the coolest month and May the warmest. In Dhaka the average January temperature is about 19°C (about 66°F), and the average May temperature is about 29°C (about 84°F).

Plant and Animal Life in Bangladesh

With the exception of the Chittagong Hill Tracts District, portions of the Madhupur Tract, and the Sundarbans, few extensive forests remain in Bangladesh. The forested and wooded area amounts to about one-eighth of the country’s total land area. Broadleaf evergreen species characterize the hilly regions, and deciduous trees, such as acacia and banyan, are common in the drier plains areas. Commercially valuable trees in Bangladesh include sundari (a type of mangrove for which the Sundarbans is probably named), gewa, sal (mainly growing in the Madhupur Tract), and garyan (in the Chittagong Hill Tracts District). Village groves abound in fruit trees (mango and jackfruit, for instance) and date and areca (betel) palms. The country also has many varieties of bamboo.

Bangladesh is rich in fauna, including 109 indigenous species of mammals, 295 types of birds, 119 kinds of reptiles, 19 different amphibians, and 200 varieties of marine and freshwater fish. The rhesus monkey is common, and gibbons and lemurs are also found. The Sundarbans area is one of the principal remaining domains of the endangered Bengal tiger; although the tiger is officially protected, illegal poaching is known to occur. Herds of elephants and many leopards inhabit the Chittagong Hill Tracts District. Other animals living in Bangladesh include mongoose, jackal, Bengal fox, wild boar, parakeet, kingfisher, vulture, and swamp crocodile.

Natural Resources of Bangladesh

With the exception of natural gas, the mineral endowment of Bangladesh is meager. Vast reserves of natural gas—both onshore and offshore in the Bay of Bengal—have been discovered in Bangladesh since the mid-1990s. Total proven reserves amount to 142 trillion cu m (5 trillion cu ft), but actual reserves may be much greater. Natural gas is the principal energy resource in Bangladesh and an important ingredient in the manufacture of nitrogenous fertilizers. Other natural resources include a coalfield in the northwest and large peat beds that underlie most of the delta. Limestone and pottery clays are found in the northeast.

Environmental Issues in Bangladesh

Waterborne diseases such as cholera are a serious threat to public health in Bangladesh. Until the 1970s, many of Bangladesh’s people became sick from drinking polluted water drawn from surface rivers. Aid agencies such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) built shallow wells throughout the country to help provide a safe source of drinking water to Bangladesh’s poor. In the 1990s, however, it was discovered that many of these wells were contaminated by arsenic, a poison that occurs naturally in Bangladesh’s alluvial soils. In 1998 the World Bank granted Bangladesh a $32.4 million credit to identify contaminated wells and develop alternative sources of safe drinking water. UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), and other international agencies joined efforts with the government to address the problem. About 30 percent of the wells tested have been contaminated to some degree by arsenic. The health problems associated with arsenic poisoning are compounded by the lack of access to health care in many rural communities.


The estimated population of Bangladesh (2009) is 156,050,883, making Bangladesh one of the ten most populous countries in the world. The population growth rate is 1.3 percent. The overall density, 1,165 persons per sq km (3,018 persons per sq mi) in 2009, is much higher than that of other countries except for microstates such as Singapore. The distribution of the population is relatively even, except in the sparsely populated Chittagong Hill Tracts District and the almost totally uninhabited Sundarbans. Bangladesh supports a large rural population, with only 25 percent of the Bangladeshi people classified as urban in 2005. Most of the people are relatively young, nearly 60 percent being under the age of 25 and only 4 percent being 65 or older. Life expectancy at birth is 60 years.

Principal Cities of Bangladesh

Among the major cities of Bangladesh are Dhaka, the capital, with 5,378,023 inhabitants (2006); Chittagong, the leading port, with 1,360,000 inhabitants; Khulna, a rapidly growing center for small-scale industry, with 546,000 inhabitants; Nārāyanganj, the inland port for Dhaka, with 268,952 inhabitants; and Rājshāhi, located in a silk-producing area, with 324,532 inhabitants.

Ethnic Groups in Bangladesh

More than 98 percent of Bangladesh’s inhabitants are Bengalis, who are largely descended from Indo-Aryans (speakers of the parent language of the Indo-European languages). The Indo-Aryans began to migrate into the Bengal region from the west thousands of years ago and mixed within Bengal with various indigenous groups. The remainder of the population includes Bihāris, non-Bengali Muslims who migrated from India (principally from the state of Bihār) after the 1947 partition, and various indigenous ethnic groups (locally known as tribal groups). Although Bihāris constitute the largest minority group, a large proportion of their original population repatriated to Pakistan after 1971. The Chakmas, who live in the southeastern Chittagong Hill Tracts District, constitute the largest tribal group in Bangladesh. Other tribal groups include the Marmas and Tripuras, who also live in the Chittagong region; the Garos and Khasis, whose populations in northeastern Bangladesh are the southernmost extensions of tribal groups living in adjacent Indian states; and the Santals, who also live in northeastern Bangladesh and form, with Santals living elsewhere, South Asia’s largest tribal group.

Languages in Bangladesh

The official language is Bengali, also known as Bangla. It belongs to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family and is, along with Assamese, the most eastern of these languages. Its script is derived from the Devanagari script of Sanskrit. The cultural and national identity of ethnic Bengalis is closely associated with their language. Bengali has two distinct variants—a formal written form that developed during the 16th century, and a more casual spoken form that became an accepted literary form in the 20th century.

Although the vast majority of Bangladeshis speak Bengali, other languages are spoken in the country as well. Urdu, an Indo-Iranian language, is spoken by the Bihāris; Sino-Tibetan languages are spoken by the Garo and Santal peoples, among others; and Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken by the Chakmas, Marmas, and Tripuras in the Chittagong Hill Tracts District. English is widely used in higher education and government.

Religion in Bangladesh

Islam, the state religion, is the faith of 88 percent of the population. Almost all of the country’s Muslims adhere to the Sunni branch; however, there are also a small number of Shia Muslims, including members of the Ismaili sect. Hindus make up most of the remainder of the population, but the country also includes small communities of Buddhists, Christians, and animists.

Education in Bangladesh

Public education in Bangladesh generally follows the model established by the British prior to 1947. The government provides free schooling for the first eight years, including five years of primary education, which is compulsory and begins at age six. While most children are enrolled in primary schools, only 47 percent go on to secondary schools. Poor school attendance contributes to a literacy rate of only 53 percent for Bangladeshis aged 15 and older. Bangladesh lacks sufficient numbers of schools, even though facilities have increased substantially since the 1970s.

Bangladesh has several universities, the largest of which is the University of Dhaka (1921). Others include Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (1962) and Jahangirnagar University (1970), both in Dhaka; Bangladesh Agricultural University (1961) in Mymensingh; the University of Chittagong (1966); and the University of Rājshāhi (1953). Colleges include Bangladesh College of Textile Technology (1950) in Dhaka, and Chittagong Polytechnic Institute (1962). The country’s colleges and universities together enroll more than 500,000 students.

Culture of Bangladesh

Bangladeshi culture is, in many respects, inseparable from that of greater Bengal. Beginning in the early 19th century a majority of the most widely read and admired Bengali writers and artists, Hindu as well as Muslim, worked for a time in the Indian metropolis of Calcutta (now Kolkata). Thus began the Bengal Renaissance, a cultural movement among Bengalis in Calcutta that reached its height in the early 20th century. After the capital of British India was moved from Calcutta to New Delhi in 1911, Calcutta continued to be a center of Bengali culture.

The writers of the Bengal Renaissance were the pioneers of modern Bengali literature. Poet Michael Madhusudan Datta broke with established tradition to write Bengali poetry in the blank verse style, and the novelist and essayist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee wrote what is considered the first Bengali novel, Durgeshnandini (1865). The Hindu writer, artist, and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (in Bengali, Ravīndranātha Thākura) earned distinction as the first non-European writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1913 for his volume of poems Gitanjali (Song Offerings, 1910). Several contemporaries of Tagore also gained recognition for their works. Most notably, Kazi Nazrul Islam became the first widely acclaimed Muslim Bengali writer. Today he is revered in Bangladesh as the voice of Bengali independence and nationalism. Common themes in many Bengali works include rural life, class conflict, and human struggle. See also Indian Literature.

Painting, sculpture, and architecture were strongly influenced by Muslim rule in the region during the 16th and 17th centuries (see Islamic Art and Architecture). Modern painting was pioneered by Zainul Abedin, Kamrul Hassan, and S. M. Sultan, among others. Their abstract and realist paintings achieved international renown, including Abedin’s black-and-white sketches of the Calcutta famine of 1943. Many of their works are part of the permanent collection of the Bangladesh National Museum.

Classical, light-classical, devotional, and popular music enjoy a wide following in Bangladesh. Classical forms include Hindustani devotional songs (see Indian Music). The principal schools of classical Indian dance, including bharata natyam and kathakali, are performed by professional dance troupes of Bangladesh (see Indian Dance). The manipuri is a traditional and widely popular devotional dance that has both classical and folk forms. Bengali folk dances are commonly performed during festivals and other special occasions. Folk music styles include baul, devotional songs that often combine Hindu and Muslim themes and are performed by wandering mystics. Traditional musical instruments of Bangladesh include the banshi (bamboo flute), dhole (wooden drums), and dotara (a two-stringed instrument).

Libraries and Museums in Bangladesh

Cultural institutions are concentrated in Dhaka, which is the site of the Bangla Academy (1972), devoted to the promotion and development of the Bengali language and literature. The country’s largest library is part of the University of Dhaka, and the Bangladesh National Museum, also in Dhaka, is noted for its art and archaeology collections. The Varendra Research Museum, controlled by the University of Rājshāhi, is an important center for archaeological, anthropological, and historical research.


First as part of British India and then of Pakistan, the area now constituting Bangladesh suffered from chronic economic neglect. The region produced large quantities of agricultural goods, including most of the world’s jute, but received little investment in such basic items as transportation facilities and industrial plants. Much of the industrial investment, particularly in jute manufacturing, was made by West Pakistani-owned firms. After Bangladesh gained independence, the government took over most of the assets owned by West Pakistanis. Today most of these firms remain government-owned; a program to privatize them has made little progress.

Bangladesh’s vast reserves of natural gas, many just recently discovered, hold great potential for the country’s future economic development. However, the government’s reluctance to sanction gas exports to India and its reputation for rampant corruption have tended to discourage foreign investment. Foreign direct investment in Bangladesh has been minor relative to most other countries in Asia.

Bangladesh’s gross domestic product (GDP) was estimated at $68.4 billion in 2007. Agriculture contributed 19 percent of the GDP, industry (including manufacturing) contributed 28 percent, and services contributed 52 percent. In 2007 Bangladesh’s budget included $6.92 billion in expenditures and $7.03 billion in revenues.

Labor in Bangladesh

The civilian labor force of Bangladesh was estimated in 2007 to include 74.3 million people. Agriculture (including fishing) employs 52 percent of the workers, while 14 percent worked in industry and 35 percent in services. Unemployment and underemployment are significant problems in the country.

Agriculture of Bangladesh

Agriculture in Bangladesh consists mostly of subsistence farming on small farms. Per-capita output tends to be low. Rice, of which two or three crops can be grown each year, is the leading food crop in all areas and accounts for most of the cultivated area. Some 44 million metric tons were harvested in 2007, placing Bangladesh among the world’s leading producers of rice. High-yielding varieties of rice are cultivated as part of a government initiative to increase the country’s self-sufficiency in food grains. Other cereal crops, notably wheat, have grown in importance since the 1980s, and the area of land under wheat cultivation continues to increase. Pulses, an important source of protein in most Bangladeshi diets, are also cultivated. Other crops include various oilseeds (mainly for cooking oil), potatoes, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, bananas, mangoes, and pineapples.

The principal cash, or export, crop is jute (a plant used to make burlap and twine), grown throughout the annually flooded portions of the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta; the amount of jute harvested in 2007 was about 800,000 metric tons. Tea, also a valuable cash crop, is grown almost exclusively in the northeast, around Sylhet. Cattle and buffalo are numerous, raised for dung (a source of fuel), hides (for leather), and meat.

Fishing, Forestry, and Mining in Bangladesh

Aquatic animals provide a major source of animal protein in the Bangladeshi diet. Hilsa (a kind of herring) and prawns are among the principal commercial species. The amount of fish caught in 2007 was 2.3 million metric tons, mostly consisting of freshwater varieties. Most freshwater fish are raised in farm ponds throughout the country. The leading commercial types of trees are wild sundari, gewa, and teak. Bamboo is also an important forest product.

Natural gas production is the primary mining activity in Bangladesh. Extensive development began in the 1990s after vast reserves were discovered both onshore and offshore in the Bay of Bengal. Apart from natural gas production, mining and quarrying are of negligible importance in Bangladesh.

Manufacturing in Bangladesh

The manufacturing sector is made up principally of small-scale enterprises. The chief manufactures of the country are jute products (such as cordage and sacks), textiles, garments, processed food, beverages, tobacco items, and goods made of wood, cane, or bamboo. Large-scale factories process jute and sugarcane. Much of the nation’s heavy industry, including a small steel mill, is in the port of Chittagong.

Energy in Bangladesh

The greatest share of Bangladesh’s electricity, 94 percent in 2006, is generated in thermal plants using either coal, natural gas, or petroleum products. Most of the rest is produced by hydroelectric facilities, including a large installation on the Karnaphuli River. In 2003 Bangladesh consumed 16.2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity.

Transportation in Bangladesh

The numerous rivers of Bangladesh and the marked seasonal fluctuation in their width and depth, as well as their frequent changes of course, greatly inhibit the development of an integrated road and rail transport system. Bridging the major channels is often not feasible economically, and reliance on ferry connections makes most long-distance overland travel exceedingly slow. However, the Brahmaputra was bridged in 1998, allowing more rapid road and rail transport from Dhaka to the western part of the country. Bangladesh has 239,226 km (148,648 mi) of roads, of which 10 percent are paved; the road network may be severely damaged by monsoon flooding. In 1999 there was only 1 vehicle in use for every 1,000 residents. The country is served by 2,855 km (1,774 mi) of operated railroad track.

Much of the country’s domestic freight and passenger traffic is carried on inland waterways. Commercially operated navigable routes in the rainy season total at least 8,000 km (5,000 mi), but shrink to some 4,000 km (2,500 mi) in the dry season. Small boats can navigate an additional 18,000 km (11,000 mi) in wet months. International freight traffic is handled at the ports of Chittagong and Chālna; the former leads in imports and overall value and the latter leads in exports.

Government-owned Bangladesh Airlines (Biman) provides international and domestic air service. The main international airport is at Dhaka.

Communications in Bangladesh

In 2004, 20 daily newspapers, including both Bengali- and English-language dailies, were published in Bangladesh, chiefly in Dhaka. The country also has many weekly and monthly periodicals. Radio Bangladesh and Bangladesh Television are under government direction. In 1997 the country had 50 radio receivers and 7 televisions sets for every 1,000 residents. In 2005 there were 8 telephone mainlines for every 1,000 people.

Currency and Banking of Bangladesh

The principal unit of currency in Bangladesh is the taka (68.90 taka equal U.S.$1; 2007 average); the taka is divided into 100 paisa. The government-run Bangladesh Bank handles central-banking operations. Some banks are government-owned, but there are many privately owned banks, as well as branches of foreign banks.

The Grameen (Village) Bank has pioneered innovative approaches to providing credit to the rural poor in Bangladesh. The bank’s successful approach has been used as a model in many other developing countries. Because the bank does not require collateral, it can extend credit to individuals who traditionally were excluded from the banking system. Borrowers, the majority of whom are women, use the credit to improve their standard of living through small-scale enterprises such as pottery, basket making, and textile weaving. The bank was founded in 1983 by university economics professor Muhammad Yunus, who was awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. By 2006 the bank had more than 2,000 branches nationwide and had made loans to more than 6.5 million people, helping them break out of poverty.

Commerce and Foreign Trade in Bangladesh

The per-capita volume of Bangladeshi internal and foreign trade is low. Domestic trade in rural areas is conducted largely through thousands of periodic markets called hats. Since independence in 1971 the value of Bangladesh’s annual imports has usually been at least twice that of exports; in 2007 imports cost $18.5 billion, and exports earned $12.4 billion. The principal exports are jute products and raw jute; clothing, seafood, tea, and hides and leather goods are the other important exports. Imports include foodstuffs, basic manufactures, mineral fuels, machinery, and transportation equipment. Exports go mainly to European countries (especially Germany and Italy), the United States, Hong Kong, and Japan; imports come chiefly from India, European countries, China, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, and the United States. Only a relatively insignificant number of tourists visit Bangladesh each year.


Since the nation’s formation in 1971, the government of Bangladesh has undergone many changes. A democratic, parliamentary form of government was established by the 1972 constitution, but constitutional amendments in 1975 set up a presidential form of government. Bangladesh again became a parliamentary democracy in 1991 after voters approved new amendments to the 1972 constitution to abolish the near-absolute powers of the presidency.

Bangladesh has an unusual electoral setup. Prior to parliamentary elections, the prime minister and his or her government must resign so that a neutral caretaker government can take over. The caretaker government assumes responsibility for running a fair and impartial election. Citizens aged 18 and older may vote.

Executive and Legislature of Bangladesh

The president, elected by parliament to a renewable five-year term, is head of state. The prime minister, or head of government, is appointed by the president following parliamentary elections, based on a majority nomination of parliament. Bangladesh has a unicameral (single-chamber) parliament, the Jatiya Sangsad, with 300 members. All members are directly elected by voters to serve five-year terms.

Judiciary in Bangladesh

The highest tribunal in Bangladesh is the Supreme Court, which is divided into a high court and an appellate division. The chief justice and the other justices of the Supreme Court are appointed by the president.

Local Government of Bangladesh

For administrative purposes, Bangladesh is divided into six divisions—Barisāl, Chittagong, Dhaka, Khulna, Rājshāhi, and Sylhet. Each division includes a number of districts, or zillas, which are the largest and most important units of local government in the country. The country’s 64 zillas are comprised of upazillas (subdistricts), which in turn are made up of unions, or groups of villages with popularly elected councils.

Political Parties of Bangladesh

The principal political parties in Bangladesh are the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which favors centrist policies and a free-enterprise economic system; the Awami League, which advocates a secular state and limited socialist economic policies; the Jatiya Party, similar to the BNP in its platform; and the Jamaat-e-Islami Party, an Islamic party advocating a greater role for Islam in public life.

Social Services in Bangladesh

Health and welfare services in Bangladesh are limited. In 2004 the country had one physician for every 3,889 residents and one hospital bed for every 3,333 inhabitants. Much of the welfare work in the country is administered by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and Bangladesh is a major recipient of assistance from abroad.

Defense of Bangladesh

Military service in Bangladesh is voluntary. In 2006 the nation had an army of 110,000 members, a navy of 10,000 members, and an air force of 6,500 members. There are also paramilitary forces, including the 40,000-member Bangladesh Rifles that serves as a border patrol unit. Bangladesh has been a frequent contributor to international peacekeeping forces. The country has served as a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

International Organizations in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations and was admitted to the United Nations and its affiliated organizations in 1974. It also belongs to the Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic and Social Development, headquartered in Sri Lanka. It is a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which was formed in 1985 largely at the initiative of Bangladeshi president Ziaur Rahman to provide a forum for regional issues, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which promotes solidarity among nations where Islam is an important religion.


For the history of present-day Bangladesh prior to the partition of British India in 1947, see India.

In 1947 British India was partitioned to form two new independent states: India, comprising the predominantly Hindu areas of the former British colony, and Pakistan, comprising the predominantly Muslim areas. Pakistan was divided into an east wing (present-day Bangladesh) and a west wing (present-day Pakistan). The two wings were separated by 1,600 km (1,000 mi) of Indian territory. Differences between the two wings of Pakistan soon developed, in part because their distance made governing difficult, but also due to substantial cultural differences. Chief among these was language. The West Pakistan-dominated government insisted that Urdu be the sole national language. Bengalis insisted that Bengali (Bangla) be accorded the same status. Riots ensued, one resulting in the death of a number of students in Dhaka. In 1954 the national legislature agreed that both Urdu and Bengali would be national languages. In 1949 Bengali leaders founded the Awami League to fight for the autonomy of East Pakistan.

The 1956 constitution of Pakistan decreed that each wing would have the same number of representatives in the parliament, even though East Pakistan had a larger population and was thus underrepresented. East Pakistan accepted this arrangement on the assumption that other inequalities would be remedied. These included underrepresentation in the civil and military services and the much lower rate of new economic investment in East Pakistan. Although the east wing earned a greater amount of foreign exchange than the west, largely as the result of its exports of jute and other products, the bulk of the foreign exchange was expended in the west. In addition, the central government and military were based in West Pakistan.

In 1966 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (“Mujib”), leader of the Awami League, set forth a political and economic program that aimed to redress these inequities. The six points of his program were intended to secure the autonomy of East Pakistan. The main demands were for a parliamentary government elected by universal adult suffrage, with legislative representation on the basis of population; a federal government with responsibilities limited mainly to foreign affairs and defense; and provincial autonomy in fiscal affairs and domestic policing. To the central government, the most dangerous of the six points was the one that provided for taxes to be collected only at the provincial level, as this would have forced the central government to operate under subsidies from the provinces.

In 1969 President Ayub Khan of Pakistan was replaced by General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan. Yahya announced that a parliamentary election would be held in 1970 and decreed that the equal representation of the two wings would end. Instead, parliamentary seats would be determined by the population of each of Pakistan’s five provinces, giving East Pakistan, the largest province, 162 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly. In the elections, Mujib and the Awami League ran on the platform of the six points and won 160 seats.

The Awami League’s overwhelming victory surprised Yahya and his advisers, who had underestimated the support for the Awami League. Yahya had expected no single party to win a majority, an outcome that would have given him more power over the parliament.

Mujib claimed the prime ministership and asserted that the six points would be enacted as the basis of a new constitution. Leaders in the west, headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, objected to these assertions. Demonstrations in the east were followed by a military crackdown. Mujib and other leaders were arrested; many were killed. A civil war ensued. Large numbers of Bengalis were massacred by the Pakistani military, and some 10 million Bengalis fled to the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal.

In early December 1971 the Indian military intervened in support of Bengali forces in East Pakistan. India’s intervention was brief and decisive. The Pakistani military surrendered in mid-December. On December 16 of that year East Pakistan became the sovereign nation of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh was soon recognized by most other nations, although Pakistan withheld diplomatic recognition until 1974 and China did not recognize the nation until 1976. The United Nations admitted Bangladesh in 1974.

Independent Republic

Bangladesh’s initial government was formed in January 1972 under the leadership of Mujib, who became prime minister. His immediate tasks were to rebuild the war-ravaged nation, reestablish law and order, and reintegrate the numerous Bengali war refugees returning from India and those repatriated from Pakistan. A longer-range goal was to foster economic growth in order to raise the very low living standards of the densely populated nation. In the first years of independence Bangladesh received much aid from abroad, and Mujib nationalized major industries as part of his program of developing the country along the lines of democratic socialism. He had little success, however, in improving the economy, and lawlessness prevailed.

In mid-1974 the country was devastated by floods that destroyed much of the grain crop and led to widespread famine. At the same time, political disorder was increasing, and in late 1974 the government declared a national state of emergency. In early 1975 Mujib became president under a remodeled constitution that granted him virtually dictatorial power. He immediately implemented a one-party system that allowed only his newly formed party, the Bangladesh Krishak-Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL), to participate in government. He was unable to stabilize the political situation, however, and was killed in a military coup d’état on August 15, 1975. (In 1998 15 former army officers were convicted of his assassination and sentenced to death.)

In November military leaders ousted Mujib’s successor, Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed, who had initiated martial law, and installed Abusadat Muhammad Sayem as president. General Ziaur Rahman (“Zia”) assumed the presidency when Sayem resigned in 1977. Martial law was lifted in 1979, following parliamentary elections in which a party that formed to support Zia, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), gained a majority. Despite a continuing food shortage, the nation made considerable economic progress in 1980 and 1981.

President Zia was assassinated in May 1981 as part of an abortive military coup. He was succeeded by Vice President Abdus Sattar, who won election to the presidency in his own right in November. However, a military coup in March 1982 brought Lieutenant General Hossain Mohammad Ershad to power.

Ershad Regime

Ershad immediately proclaimed martial law, suspending the constitution and prohibiting all political activities. Ershad ruled under a figurehead president until December 1983, when he assumed the presidency. Although martial law remained in effect, Ershad allowed limited political activities to resume, and his supporters formed the Jatiya Dal Party. Two major opposition alliances formed under the leadership of the Awami League, represented by Sheikh Hasina Wajid, the eldest daughter of Mujib, and the BNP, headed by Begum Khaleda Zia, the widow of President Zia. Although rivals, the two parties joined forces to lead a broader opposition front, the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy. The movement demanded an end to martial law, restoration of civil rights, release of political prisoners, and parliamentary elections.

In March 1986 Ershad eased martial law restrictions in order to satisfy some of the demands of the opposition. Parliamentary elections were finally held in May. While the BNP-led alliance boycotted the elections, the Awami League chose to participate. The Jatiya Dal won a comfortable parliamentary majority, and Ershad proceeded with plans for a presidential election in October. Opposition parties, including the Awami League, boycotted the election, declaring it a sham as long as martial law remained in effect. Ershad won a five-year term with more than 80 percent of the vote.

In November a parliamentary session boycotted by the Awami League passed legislation protecting Ershad’s military regime from reprisals. Ershad then lifted martial law and reinstated the constitution. Subsequently, the Awami League withdrew from parliament and rejoined the BNP and other opposition parties in staging general strikes and public demonstrations. In response, Ershad declared a state of emergency and dissolved the parliament. New elections were held in March 1988 with both the BNP and the Awami League boycotting. In consequence, the Jatiya Party (formerly the Jatiya Dal) won a landslide victory. In September of that year, devastating floods inundated about three-fourths of the country and left an estimated 30 million people homeless.

In concert with activist student organizations, the BNP and the Awami League continued to work together to demand free and fair elections in Bangladesh. Faced with a massive wave of strikes and violent demonstrations, Ershad was forced to resign in December 1990. He was subsequently convicted and imprisoned on charges of corruption and illegal weapons possession.

Tumultuous Politics

General elections were held in February 1991 under a caretaker government headed by a chief justice. The BNP won a plurality of the seats and managed to form a government with the support of another former opposition party, the Jamaat-e-Islami. BNP leader Zia became prime minister. An amendment to the constitution made the prime minister head of government, and the president of Bangladesh became chief of state with largely ceremonial duties.

In May 1994 opposition parties began a series of boycotts of parliament, amid a deepening personal feud between Prime Minister Zia and Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina. The Awami League-led opposition demanded that future elections be held under a neutral caretaker government. In December opposition members in parliament resigned en masse to force new elections. They organized a series of violent strikes in January 1995. The parliament was dissolved in November to make way for a general election; however, opposition parties refused to participate without the appointment of a neutral caretaker government. The general election went ahead in February 1996, but the opposition boycott, low voter turnout, and violent incidents undermined the landslide victory of the ruling BNP.

The opposition parties refused to recognize the election results and called a general strike, which strained Bangladesh’s economy. With strikes and violent demonstrations threatening the stability of the country, Zia bowed to opposition demands. After pushing through a constitutional amendment to provide for a neutral caretaker government, she resigned in March.

New elections, held in June 1996 under the supervision of the caretaker government, brought a shift in power to Bangladesh. The Awami League won the most seats and, forming a coalition with the Jatiya Party, gained a majority in parliament. Sheikh Hasina was named prime minister. The BNP, winning slightly more than one-third of parliamentary seats, formed the official opposition. Despite the BNP’s active opposition tactics, Sheikh Hasina became the first prime minister of Bangladesh to complete a full five-year term in office.

Before the 2001 elections, the Jatiya Party split into three factions, with one joining the BNP-led four-party alliance. Ershad, who had been released from prison in January 1997 and continued to lead the Jatiya Party, was not permitted to be a candidate due to his former conviction. In the October elections the Awami League was soundly defeated as the BNP-led coalition won more than two-thirds of the parliamentary seats. Zia became prime minister a second time.

In November 2001 the BNP-led parliament elected Badruddoza Chowdhury, a former foreign minister and the founding member of the BNP, as the president of Bangladesh. He resigned abruptly in June 2002 after protests from the BNP over his failure to pay his respects at the tomb of former president Ziaur Rahman on the anniversary of his assassination. The ruling coalition then chose Iajuddin Ahmed, a former university professor, as the country’s president.

Under the constitution of Bangladesh, the prime minister and the government must step down 90 days prior to parliamentary elections so that a neutral caretaker government can take over to ensure free and fair elections. Accordingly, Prime Minister Zia and her BNP government resigned in October 2006. However, the Awami League claimed that the proposed head of the caretaker government, a former Supreme Court chief justice, was biased in favor of the BNP. Opposition parties led by the Awami League staged nationwide protests, which turned violent as rival sets of supporters clashed in the streets. President Ahmed then appointed himself as interim leader of the caretaker government. The opposition alliance demanded reforms ahead of elections, including updated voter registration lists and a reorganization of the election commission.

The elections were scheduled for January 22, 2007, but the opposition alliance announced it would boycott the polls. The opposition staged a blockade that paralyzed the country, and violent protests continued. On January 11 President Ahmed declared a state of emergency, to be enforced by military troops. He stepped down as interim leader and appointed Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former central bank governor, to head a new military-backed caretaker government. President Ahmed announced that elections would be postponed until the caretaker government had successfully rooted out corruption, promising the achievement of that goal by the end of 2008.

Subsequently, more than 150 politicians, businesspeople, and civil servants were arrested on corruption charges. Among those arrested were former prime ministers Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina; both were detained without bail and faced trial. In September 2007 the caretaker government announced that President Ahmed would continue in his post, although his term was set to expire that month, due to the absence of an elected government that would normally appoint a president. Meanwhile, the suspension of basic rights such as freedom of assembly continued to be enforced under the state of emergency.

The caretaker government ended with elections in December 2008, which were won by the Awami League. Sheikh Hasina became the prime minister again as the league increased its seats by 62, winning a total of 230 seats in the 300-member parliament. The BNP was punished severely in the elections, dropping from 193 seats to about 27. The radical Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, fell from 17 to 2. Political observers speculated that the lopsided victory was likely to mean that the Awami League would not extend any cabinet positions to the BNP, though Sheikh Hasina had indicated she might do this during the campaign. The same observers also wondered whether Sheikh Hasina’s jail experience would move Bangladesh away from a pattern of governmental corruption.

Other Developments

Bangladesh contended with some of the worst natural disasters in its history in the 1990s. In 1991 more than 120,000 people were killed and millions left homeless when a powerful cyclone struck the coastal areas in the Ganges River delta. In 1998 the country experienced the worst monsoonal flooding in a decade. Seasonal flooding continues to be a recurring problem in Bangladesh, an exceptionally low-lying country. Floods regularly cause loss of life as well as extensive infrastructural and agricultural damage. Rising sea levels attributed to global warming threaten to intensify flooding in the country.

In the early 1990s Bangladesh’s already devastated economy was further strained by an influx of an estimated 270,000 refugees from the Arakan province of Myanmar (formerly Burma). The refugees were Rohingya Muslims, an ethnic minority in Arakan, who claimed to be fleeing political persecution under the new military regime of Myanmar. Many of the refugees were subsequently repatriated to Myanmar, but some returned to Bangladesh in the late 1990s.

In 1996 Bangladesh and its most powerful regional neighbor, India, reached an agreement on the sharing of the waters of the Ganges. Relations had been strained since 1975, when the Indian diversion barrage at Farakka, just inside the Indian border, began to route water from the Ganges into the Hugli (Hooghly) in order to alleviate a siltation and salinization problem at Kolkata. During the low-flow months of April and May, the diversion of water created a problem for irrigation systems in southwestern Bangladesh. The treaty, designed to facilitate more equitable water sharing, thus addressed one of Bangladesh’s most prolonged and troublesome foreign relations issues.

In 1997 the government took steps to resolve a longstanding insurgency in the eastern Chittagong Hill Tracts District. Some minority ethnic (or tribal) groups, primarily Buddhist Chakmas, had demanded autonomy in the region since the 1970s, often resorting to guerrilla warfare. In the early 1990s the insurgency resulted in a flood of Chakma refugees into India. Most returned to Bangladesh after a 1997 peace agreement guaranteed the tribal groups in the Chittagong region greater powers of self-governance.

Bangladesh’s continuing economic problems, combined with its status as one of the world’s most populated countries, poses one of its biggest challenges in the years ahead. Widespread poverty has remained a pervasive problem in Bangladesh, as successive governments have generally failed to attend to the welfare of the people. Although the economy has grown regularly since the late 1970s, the benefits of that growth have not filtered down to the average person. Bangladesh remains at or near the bottom of almost all international lists measuring economic and social development, while being placed at the top of lists for corruption in government. Meanwhile, Bangladesh has received only minor foreign direct investment in comparison to other Asian countries.

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