“”Scholars, journalists, activists, and others have an almost knee-jerk tendency to praise Bangladesh's beginnings as a secular nation and trace its slide into Islamist domination from the 1975 assassination of its founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. That praise is warranted - but only to a limited extent, for secularism and any semblance of democratic ideals were in their death throes long before Sheikh Mujib was.
|—Richard L. Benkin, US human rights activist.|
The People's Republic of Bangladesh (a.k.a. The Artist Formerly Known As East Pakistan) is a densely populated country in the Indian subcontinent that is surrounded by India on most sides. The word "Bangladesh" means "Country of Bengal," but Bangladesh only occupies the eastern part of the Bengal region. The reasons behind this are complicated. Bangladesh’s capital and largest city is Dhaka.
The country is predominantly populated by the Bengali ethnic group, and 90% of its people are Muslims. Most of the remaining 10% are Hindu. Despite theoretically being founded as a secular nation, Bangladesh legally declares Islam as its state religion, and that law was upheld by its High Court in 2016. Religious minorities often face harassment, discrimination, and even murder.
Bangladesh occupies most of India's Bengal region, dense with rivers, and has historically been known for its relatively high population and valuable trade goods. For this reason, Bengal was prime real estate in the Indian subcontinent, being ruled by various states and empires. Islam entered the region through trade with the Abbasid Caliphate, and Bengal was later conquered by the Muslim Delhi Sultanate. After Delhi's collapse, Bengal became its own Sultanate before being absorbed into the Mughal Empire in 1576. The Mughal Empire underwent a golden era of culture and prosperity, but it declined in the 1700s and lost control of Bengal. In 1757, the British Empire conquered most of the Bengal region after the Battle of Plassey, and Bengal became an integral part of the British Raj.
Colonial exploitation and economic mismanagement led to multiple crises in Bengal, most notably the Great Bengal famine of 1770, the Indian Uprising of 1857, and the Great Bengal Famine of 1943. In 1947, Bengal became independent alongside the rest of British India. The region was partitioned along religious lines between India and Pakistan; the "East Pakistan" region was an exclave. Despite being of the majority Muslim religion in Pakistan, the Bengalis faced ethnic and linguistic discrimination. Things got bad enough that they decided to rise up against Pakistani rule in 1971 because the Bengalis were just about fed up with the uncaring imperialist rule. After a brief but brutal independence war, Bangladesh became its own nation.
Although a growing economy, Bangladesh struggles with various issues, including violent weather, impacts of climate change, political corruption, and the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis from neighboring Burma.
Archaeological evidence indicates that humans have populated Bangladesh for at least 20,000 years. Societal advancement was rapid here, and rice cultivation combined with river transport meant that the region's population grew very quickly. By the 1st millennium BCE, Bengal had major urban settlements. The Ancient Greeks and the Roman Empire knew Bengal as a trade and shipping hub.
Despite Bengal's economic importance, it was a political backwater for most of its early history. The first major political event here was its conquest by the Mauryan Empire around 300 BCE; the emperor Asoka Maurya and his son Mahinda converted to Buddhism and helped spread the religion throughout the Indian subcontinent. During this time, Bengal became further linked in trade with places like Sri Lanka and elsewhere in India.
After the Mauryan Empire collapsed, Bengal went back and forth between various native states and other empires, including the Gupta Empire and the Pala Empire. The Palas were responsible for building the Somapura Mahavihara, one of the region's most important early Buddhist sites. Around 1150 CE, the Sena Empire rose to power in Bengal. The Senas were militant and orthodox Hindus. While spreading their religion, they angered many common people by imposing their rigid interpretation of the Hindu caste system. Those people who were angriest about the caste-based oppression became ripe for conversion to a fancy new religion that was coming their way: Islam.
Turkic incursions into India began around 1202, beginning during the rule of Mahmud of Ghazni, who makes a bigger appearance in our Afghanistan article. In 1206, those Turkic invaders established their own empire: the Delhi Sultanate. Although theoretically a conquered state, the Bengalis were too powerful to be ruled with a heavy hand; local Turkic rulers established themselves as almost independent, eventually known as the Sultanate of Bengal.
Conversion of the Bengali population to Islam began quickly, but the process continued for a long time. Even before Islamic rule, though, Bengal had been exposed to Islam through trade with the Abbasid Caliphate and possibly would have converted without Islamic conquest like much of southeast Asia. The Bengali Sultanate was influenced greatly by Persian culture, a lasting influence that continued during Mughal rule.
The Delhi Sultanate collapsed in 1526, which was inevitable due to the state's persecution of Hindus and its tolerance for a powerful and semi-independent Muslim noble class. The Bengali Sultanate persisted as its own state, and it remained a rich and prestigious country. Bengal exported various goods, including grains, salt, and precious metals; Europeans considered it one of the most desirable trading partners.
Bengali independence ended in 1576 after its conquest by Emperor Akbar of the Persian-cultured Mughal dynasty. Once again, despite being conquered, Bengal was too much of a handful to be ruled directly. It was too remote from the Mughal capital in Delhi, and local administrators could often ignore imperial orders with no consequence. However, that didn't stop Bengal from being perhaps the Mughals' most crucial province.
Bengal grew most of the Mughal Empire's food, and Dhaka became the hub of South Asia's textile trade. Unfortunately, Bengal's prosperity made it a target for pirates from the Burma region and raiders from Portugal.
Over time, though, the Mughal Empire began to stagnate. Emperor Aurangzeb put the empire on its deathbed by revoking his predecessor's religious tolerance policies and going back to persecuting Hindus; he died in 1707, leaving behind a realm fractured by succession problems and religious wars. RationalWiki cannot stress this enough: religious intolerance is a stupid policy. After that, the Mughal Empire went from one of the foremost states in the whole world to be a corpse pecked at by European vultures. Speaking of those European vultures...
British Company rule
While the Mughals were going through their heyday, European colonial powers started showing up to get a piece of the action. The British East India Company became the most significant player, renting land to build factories in Bengal by 1650 and establishing the entire city of Calcutta in 1690. Although the British initially had to play by the Mughals' rules, the empire's collapse created a power vacuum that the Brits were too happy to exploit. They started playing local rulers off each other and used a complicated scheme of bribery and threats. The French did something similar, and the two trade companies became hateful economic rivals. By the 1750s, this culminated in the Carnatic Wars between the British East India Company and the French East India Company, pitting the two corporations and their Indian allies against each other to decide which European power would have trading privileges in the region. The ruler of Bengal sided with the French, and the British smashed his armies at the 1757 Battle of Plassey and moved on to conquer Calcutta. The British beat the French and decided to keep Bengal as a bonus prize.
The British East India Company's rule in India was characterized by greed and a general lack of concern for the Bengali people's wellbeing. The Company decided that there ought to be a ruling class of landlords, and they auctioned off the rights to be a landlord to the highest bidders. Like so many rich assholes before and after them, these high bidders had more cents than sense. Absentee landlordship became commonplace, and agricultural development stagnated. During the British Industrial Revolution, the British used their colonies as a place to sell their crafted goods. The resulting oversaturation of manufactured goods destroyed Bengal's economy; once sought by the whole world, Bengali textiles were rendered obsolete by cheap British-made knockoffs. A tale as old as time.
Bengal, which had entered a proto-industrialized state under the Mughal rule, saw these gains reversed due to British plunder and the destruction of their economy. To add insult to injury, the British used the profits and plundered wealth from Bengal to further their own industrialization.
One of the first great examples of just how few shits the British gave about their colonial subjects came in 1770. Previous famines in the region were met with rapid response by local authorities. When the monsoon rains failed in 1770, the British Company administrators decided to continue forcibly extracting rice from Bengali farmers and raising taxes to make up for budget shortfalls. This shocking lack of human fucking empathy led to about 10 million deaths from starvation. Holy shit.
It happened again in 1783, 1866, and 1873 during East India Company rule. Again, holy shit.
British imperial rule
After a prolonged period where the East India Company ruled India like a bunch of raging assholes, things finally came to a head in 1857 when the British use of pig fat in rifle cartridges managed to piss off both Hindus and Muslims. The resulting anti-colonial uprising was exceptionally bloody and saw the British completely destroy the cities of Delhi and Lucknow.
In response to the rebellion and the total failures in governance that prompted it, the British government liquidated the East India Company and placed the British Raj under direct Crown administration. While that solved many problems, it caused a whole bunch more. The British accelerated their policies of Westernizing India's culture, and Hindus adapted to this a lot better than the Muslims did. As a result, the British favored the Hindus while the Muslims became little more than second-class citizens. Hindus benefited from British-led industrialization and got wealthier, while Muslims isolated themselves into their own impoverished communities. Around 1900, though, this situation started to reverse. Educated Hindus became increasingly nationalistic and anti-imperialist while the British rulers turned to the Muslim population for support.
Muslims also started to fear that an independent India would leave them stranded inside a Hindu-majority country. In 1906 the All-India Muslim League (Muslim League) met in Dhaka for the first time and voiced its loyalty to the British Crown. It did, however, focus its efforts on lobbying the British to protect the rights of Muslims. While originally rivals of the Indian National Congress, the two organizations eventually reached an agreement based on the idea that India should become independent and then have quotas to ensure that Muslims would have a say in its legislature. The aftermath of World War I saw more alienation between the Muslim League and the British. The Muslims were angry that the British dismantled the Ottoman Empire and interfered with many of Islam's holy sites.
As if those problems weren't enough, Bengal was hit by another great famine in 1943 during World War II. During wartime, the British authorities had failed to prepare for famine, and they deliberately diverted food away from starving civilians to ensure that soldiers were well fed. Winston Churchill gave zero shits about this, saying, "Famine or no famine, Indians will breed like rabbits." When the Delhi Government protested to him that, no, millions of people were starving to death, Churchill glibly responded with, "Then why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?"
So that was another three to four million people dead.
Before and during the Bengal famine, relations between the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress broke down again. Sir Muhammad Iqbal, an Islamic philosopher, started arguing in the 1930s that India was just too diverse to be governed as a single entity and should instead be partitioned into one or more pieces. Cambridge academic Chaudhari Rahmat Ali built on that idea by creating the concept of "Pakistan": a nation that would represent Muslims living in India. It was an acronym made by taking the P from Punjab, A from Afghani, K from Kashmir, S from Sind, and Tan from Baluchistan (in Urdu, Pakistan has no letter i). You'll notice that these highbrow thinkers completely forgot about Bengal.
In July 1945, the Labour Party came to power with a vast majority in the British Parliament. Unlike Churchill's Tories, they were pragmatic enough to realize that British rule in India was just about done. British politician Sir Cyril Radcliffe was ordered by his superiors to find a way to divide British India into two pieces between Muslims and Hindus; even at the time, Radcliffe seemed to know that drawing those borders so hastily would result in massive violence. Local authorities in the British Indian province of East Bengal also made clear with a legislative vote that they preferred to join Pakistan rather than remain with India. The result of all of this was a hasty drawing of borders that are still disputed and which resulted in massive riots by police and armed forces, and millions of people were displaced from their homes and forced to move into their preferred country.
East Bengal, later called East Pakistan, was at the outset the most populous province of Pakistan and also by far its most diverse and cosmopolitan. However, these advantages didn't help much since the main part of Pakistan decided to focus on its own development at East Bengal's expense. Banks and businesses were all based out of western Pakistan, and Bengalis found themselves excluded from financial dealings and business matters. High-level government and administrative posts in East Pakistan also tended to be filled by western Pakistanis.
Most divisive of all, Pakistan's government decided that Urdu would be its sole official language, a decision that sparked violence among Bengalis. The government didn't cave; Pakistan's leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared that "without one state language, no nation can remain solidly together and function". Bengalis didn't appreciate that argument, and more rioting in 1952 was met with police bullets. Pakistan finally caved on the issue a few years later.
As time went on, though, the governor of East Pakistan clashed more and more against the national leadership over how much autonomy he should be allowed. Meanwhile, political problems in western Pakistan prompted its leader Iskander Mirza to ban all political parties and put the whole country under martial law in 1958. That was a bit of an oopsie since that gave General Ayub Khan the opportunity he needed to put Mirza under arrest and turn Pakistan into a military dictatorship. Under Ayub Khan's watch, Pakistan got a new constitution in 1962. The new constitution was even worse for East Pakistan because it centralized rule under Pakistan's central government and took away much of East Pakistan's autonomy.
The uppity Bengali nationalist Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, also known as "Mujib", became the foremost political figure in East Pakistan. He started raising the issue that East Pakistan was being marginalized and neglected. During the 1960s, West Pakistan went through one of its most prosperous decades while East Bengalis experienced economic depression and abysmal living standards.
Pakistan's government then made things worse by arresting Mujib on trumped-up charges, sparking rioting in 1969 that forced the government to release him and caused the political downfall of Ayub Khan. His successor, Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, put Pakistan under martial law again, but the 1970 elections went forward and saw Mujib's party win a plurality in Pakistan's parliament. Yahya Khan freaked the fuck out at this, canceled the swearing-in of the new parliament, and started sending troops into East Pakistan. When negotiations between Khan and Mujib fell apart, Khan decided that the best solution was a military crackdown.
The war began in March 1971 when Pakistan's army began a massive state terror campaign targeted at civilians in Dhaka, killing hundreds of Bengalis and capturing Mujib. Pakistan detained foreign journalists and then expelled them from Pakistani soil to hide their atrocities. Some reporters evaded the censorship net and estimated that between 300,000 to 1,000,000 Bengalis died in 1971.
Pakistan's conduct during this war was ruthless and arguably genocidal. Yahya Khan is quoted as saying, "Kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hands." In the first phase of the slaughter, Pakistan targeted young men, academics, and Hindus. Later, Pakistani forces went after women. Modern historians estimate that at least 200,000 women were raped by the Pakistani troops, many in "rape camps". The Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal heard testimony from a woman who claimed she saw her parents, her two sisters, and her two-year-old brother killed in front of her before she was gang-raped by 12 soldiers.
As almost always happens in wartime atrocity situations, many refugees started heading for safer ground. That meant India, which was on terrible terms with Pakistan and was likely to be at least sympathetic to Pakistan's enemies. India ended up being more than sympathetic; in December 1971, India used the refugee crisis as an excuse to intervene militarily in its enemy's time of distraction. Pakistan basically lost the war at that point since India had a larger and better-equipped army. It also helped that Bangladesh was separated from the rest of Pakistan and surrounded on three sides by India. Pakistan surrendered and conceded Bangladesh's independence less than a month later.
Despite being united in war, Bangladesh still had troubled internal politics after it. Its constitution was ratified in 1972, establishing it as a secular representative democracy that was sort of but not really socialist; its prime minister Sheikh Mujib nationalized most of its industries during the earliest months of his rule. Despite a promising beginning, the government was threatened by unrest resulting from a 1974 famine that the war-torn country could not deal with.
Mujib assembled the Bangladesh Worker-Peasant's People's League and rewrote the constitution to turn Bangladesh into a one-party socialist state in response to this unrest. This lasted until 1975, when Mujib and most of his family were assassinated by the Bengali military. A few months later, the assassins were assassinated. Then Bangladesh bounced from parliamentary democracy to military dictatorship and then back to parliamentary democracy and then to a parliamentary democracy that was actually the puppet of a dictatorship. Damn.
Mass protests in 1990 finally put this crazy cycle to an end, and Bangladesh's High Court finally restored parliamentary democracy for good. Begum Khaleda Zia became Bangladesh's first female prime minister in 1991, and she ordered her finance minister to begin liberalizing the Bengali economy. The country's current PM is also a woman, but that doesn't make her a nice person. Human rights under Sheikh Hasina haven't been great, and her victory in 2018 with 96% of the vote was marred by allegations of extensive vote-rigging because duh.
“”The ruling party has cracked down relentlessly and repeatedly, and often violently, on the political opposition. This is a country on a dangerous path to becoming a one-party state, unless it manages to change course.
|—Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center.|
The freedom and fairness of elections have long been a problem in Bangladesh's current parliamentary system, and the problem seems to be getting worse. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) says that it routinely sees its members arrested and harassed during election season. The ruling Awami League (AL) seems to benefit from elections fraud, especially when the absurd results came back during the 2018 election cycle. Khaleda Zia, the leader of the BNP and previously Bangladesh's first female prime minister, is now in jail on presumably trumped-up corruption charges, and she is now banned from running for office.
The Elections Commission also seems to be biased in favor of the ruling party. In the run-up to the 2018 polls, the Commission disqualified 141 BNP candidates for various violations, but only 3 from the AL. The Commission also refused to implement basic election security measures.
Freedom of expression and association
The Awami League uses a variety of laws to pressure journalists into self-censorship. The Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018, imposes heavy penalties against criticism of the government. According to the law, speaking out against "the liberation war, the spirit of the liberation war, the father of the nation, national anthem, or national flag" is punishable by up to life in prison. Publishing content that "hurts religious sentiments or religious values" or "destroys communal harmony, or creates unrest or disorder" is punishable with up to 10 years in prison.
With increasing Bengalis on the internet, the government has cracked down harder and harder there. In 2019, Bangladesh caused an international stir by blanketly blocking 20,000 websites, ostensibly to ban pornography but in reality, shutting down many popular opposition websites. Bangladesh also blocked access to Al Jazeera's website shortly after the news outlet published an article reporting on allegations that some of the country's government officials are involved in disappearing opposition figures.
Violence, extrajudicial executions, and disappearances
Police crackdowns are common in Bangladesh, and police use lethal weapons and tactics during these bursts of violence. During worker strikes in early 2019, police forces injured more than 50 people and killed one person. In 2019, more than 388 people were killed by the security forces in alleged extrajudicial executions, some of them during torture. Some of those victims also "disappeared" for months before turning up dead.
The rights of workers in Bangladesh are notoriously awful. 80% of Bangladesh's economy is based around the garment industry, which employs 3.5 million workers, many of them children, who work in cramped spaces for 18 hours a day in dilapidated sweatshops where factory fires, sexual harassment, and the spread of disease are all massive threats, all for only $35 a month. Another notorious industry is the shipbreaking yard at Chittagong, which is one of the most dangerous jobs imaginable; workers are constantly exposed to falling steel, explosions, and toxic waste such as asbestos, mercury, and oil residue, with things like safety standards and labor unions nowhere to be seen. Accidents occur daily, and deaths occur roughly once a week, with the average life expectancy of these workers being only 40 years, and like sweatshops, child labor is common. The situation in Bangladesh is a good example of why labor rights and regulations, which some people feel are unnecessary, are essential to have.
Assassinations of atheists and secularists
Atheists and secularists in Bangladesh have been the most obvious targets of assassination since 2013 because there is a de facto public hit list of 84 bloggers accused of blasphemy. The campaign likely also includes assassinations of Shiite Muslims, Hindus, and non-Muslim foreigners. Authors have been killed for writing books promoting atheism, freethought, rationalism, skepticism, scientific viewpoint, and anything deemed "anti-Islamic propaganda".
On February 27, 2015, two machete-wielding Islamists hacked atheist writer Avijit Roy was hacked to death in Dhaka. Roy was "the second Bangladeshi blogger to have been murdered in two years and the fourth writer to have been attacked since 2004." The government reacted to the murder by arresting some atheist bloggers.
Roy was one of 4 atheist bloggers who have been assassinated since 2013, and there appears to be a pattern to the murders, which all have the same modus operandi. The group "Hefajat-e-Islam, published a list of 84 bloggers whom they accused of blasphemy and demanded they be punished."
On March 30, 2015, blogger Washiqur Rahman Babu was murdered by 3 men with meat cleavers. Two of the 3 men were captured by bystanders. The men said they were students of Islamic schools and were ordered to commit the attack.
On May 12, 2015, atheist activist and science magazine editor Ananta Bijoy Das was murdered. Al Qaeda on the Indian subcontinent claimed responsibility.
On August 7, 2015, atheist blogger Niloy Neel was hacked to death in Dhaka by suspected Islamist militants.
On October 31, 2015, secular book publisher Faisal Arefin Deepan was hacked to death. Ansar al-Islam claimed responsibility.
On April 23, 2016, Rezaul Karim Siddique, an English professor at the University of Rajshahi, was slain by two men with machetes. The Islamic State claimed responsibility, alleging that the professor was "calling to atheism". The Islamic State recently endorsed the Jama’atul Mujahideen Bangladesh, which may have been responsible.
On April 24, 2016, five or six assailants hacked to death a leading gay rights activist, Julhas Mannan (also transcribed as Xulhas and Zhulhas), the editor of Rupban, Bangladesh's first magazine for the LGBT community. They attacked him and a friend with sharp weapons.
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