History of Bangladesh

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History of Pakistan
History of Bangladesh


This is the history of Bangladesh. See also the history of South Asia, history of Asia, and history of present-day nations and states.

The area which is now Bangladesh has a rich historical and cultural past, combining Dravidian, Indo-Aryan, Mongol/Mughul, Arab, Persian, Turkic, and West European cultures. Residents of Bangladesh, about 98% of whom are ethnic Bengali and speak Bangla, are called Bangladeshis. Urdu-speaking non-Bengali Muslims, and various tribal groups, mostly in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, comprise the remainder.

Most Bangladeshis (about 88%) are Muslims, but Hindus constitute a sizable (11%) minority. There also are a small number of Buddhists, Christians, and animists. English is used for higher education and official business.


Ancient Times


Middle ages


Arrival of Islam

Sufi religious teachers succeeded in converting many Bengalis to Islam, even before the arrival of Muslim armies from the west. From 1200-1500 AD, Muslim invaders established political control over the Bengal region. This political control also encouraged conversion to Islam. Since then, Islam has played a crucial role in the region's history and politics, with a Muslim majority emerging.

The Mughal Period

Bengal was absorbed into the Mughal Empire in the 16th century, and Dhaka, the seat of a nawab (the representative of the emperor), and the Mughul priesthood gained some importance as a provincial center. But it remained remote and thus a difficult to govern region--especially the section east of the Brahmaputra River--outside the mainstream of Mughal politics.

Arrival of Europeans and colonisation

Portuguese traders and missionaries were the first Europeans to reach Bengal in the latter part of the 15th century. They were followed by representatives of the Dutch, the French, and the British East India Companies. By the end of the 17th century, the British presence on the Indian subcontinent was centered in Calcutta. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the British gradually extended their commercial contacts and administrative control beyond Calcutta to Bengal. In 1858, the British Crown replaced the East India Company, extending British dominion from Bengal, which became a region of India, in the east to the Indus River in the west.


The rise of nationalism throughout British-controlled India in the late 19th century resulted in mounting animosity between the Hindu and Muslim communities. In 1885, the Indian National Congress was founded with Indian and British membership. Muslims seeking an organization of their own founded the All-India Muslim League in 1906.

Although both the League and the Congress supported the goal of Indian self-government within the British Empire, the two parties were unable to agree on a way to ensure the protection of Muslim political, social, and economic rights. The subsequent history of the nationalist movement was characterized by periods of Hindu-Muslim cooperation, as well as by communal antagonism. The idea of a separate Muslim state gained increasing popularity among Indian Muslims after 1936, when the Muslim League suffered a decisive defeat in the first elections under India's 1935 constitution. In 1940, the Muslim League called for an independent state in regions where Muslims were in the majority. Campaigning on that platform in provincial elections in 1946, the League won the majority of the Muslim seats contested in Bengal. Widespread communal violence followed, especially in Calcutta.

Creation of Pakistan

When British India was partitioned and the independent dominions of India and Pakistan were created in 1947, the region of Bengal was divided along religious lines, echoing a short-lived division into two provinces in 1905-1912 which had provoked violent nationalist opposition.

The predominantly Muslim eastern half was designated East Pakistan - and made part of the newly independent Pakistan - while the predominantly Hindu western part became the Indian state of West Bengal.

Pakistan's history from 1947 to 1971 was marked by political instability and economic difficulties. In 1956 a constitution was at last adopted, making the country an "Islamic republic within the Commonwealth". Attempts at civilian political rule foundered in the face of military intervention from October 1958, and the government imposed martial law between 1958 and 1962, and again between 1969 and 1972.

Almost from the advent of independent Pakistan in 1947, frictions developed between East and West Pakistan, which were separated by more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory. East Pakistanis felt exploited by the West Pakistan-dominated central government. Linguistic, cultural, and ethnic differences also contributed to the estrangement of East from West Pakistan.

When Mohammad Ali Jinnah died in September 1948, Khwaja Nazimuddin (http://banglapedia.search.com.bd/HT/N_0148.HTM) became the Governor General of Pakistan while Nurul Amin was appointed the Chief Minister of East Bengal. Nurul Amin continued as the Chief Minister of East Bengal until 2 April 1954. The abolition of the Zamindari system in East Bengal (1950) and the Language Movement were two most important events during his tenure.

The Language Movement

The Language Movement began in 1948 and reached its climax in the killings of 21 February 1952, and ended in the adoption of Bangla as one of the state languages of Pakistan. The question as to what would be the state language of Pakistan was raised immediately after its creation.

The central leaders and the Urdu-speaking intellectuals of Pakistan declared that Urdu would be the state language of Pakistan, just as Hindi was the state language of India. Bengalis strongly resisted attempts to impose Urdu as the sole official language of Pakistan. The students and intellectuals of East Pakistan, however, demanded that Bangla be made one of the state languages.

After a lot of controversy over the language issue, the final demand from East Pakistan was that Bangla must be the official language and the medium of instruction in East Pakistan and for the central government it would be one of the state languages along with Urdu. The first movement on this issue was mobilised by Tamaddun Majlish headed by Professor Abul Kashem. Gradually many other non-communal and progressive organisations joined the movement, which finally turned into a mass movement.

Politics: 1954 - 1970

The first election for East Bengal Provincial Assembly was held between 8 and 12 March 1954. The Awami Muslim League, krishak sramik party and nezam-e-islam formed the United Front (http://banglapedia.search.com.bd/HT/U_0022.HTM), on the basis of 21-points agenda.

Notable pledges contained in the 21-points were:

  • making Bangla one of the state languages
  • autonomy for the province
  • reforms in education
  • independence of the judiciary
  • making the legislative assembly effective, etc.

The United Front bagged 215 out of 237 Muslim seats in the election. The ruling Muslim League got only 9 seats. Khilafat-E-Rabbani Party (http://banglapedia.search.com.bd/HT/K_0237.HTM) got 1, while the independents got 12 seats. Later, 7 independent members joined the United Front while 1 joined the Muslim League.

There were numerous reasons for the debacle of the Muslim League. Above all, the Muslim League regime angered all sections of the people of Bengal by opposing the demand for recognition of Bangla as one of the state languages and by ordering the massacre of 1952.

The United Front got the opportunity to form the provincial government after winning absolute majority in the 1954 election. Of the 222 United Front seats, the Awami Muslim League had won 142, Krishak-Sramik Party (http://banglapedia.search.com.bd/HT/K_0298.HTM) 48, Nezam-i-Islam (http://banglapedia.search.com.bd/HT/N_0170.HTM) 19 and Ganatantri Dal 13.

The major leaders of the United Front were Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani (http://banglapedia.search.com.bd/HT/B_0464.HTM) of Awami Muslim League and AK Fazlul Huq (http://banglapedia.search.com.bd/HT/H_0197.HTM) of Krishak-Sramik Party. Suhrawardy and Bhasani did not take part in the election and Fazlul Huq was invited to form the government. But a rift surfaced at the very outset on the question of formation of the cabinet. The unity and solidarity among the component parties of the United Front soon evaporated. Finally, on 15 May, Fazlul Huq arrived at an understanding with the Awami Muslim League and formed a 14-member cabinet with 5 members from that party.

But this cabinet lasted for only 14 days. The Muslim League could not concede defeat in the elections in good grace. So, they resorted to conspiracies to dismiss the United Front government. In the third week of May, there were bloody riots between Bengali and non-Bengali workers in different mills and factories of East Bengal. The United Front government was blamed for failing to control the law and order situation in the province.

Fazlul Huq was then quoted in an interview taken by the New York Times correspondent John P Callaghan and published in a distorted form that he wanted the independence of East Bengal. Finally, on 29 May 1954, the United Front government was dismissed by the central government and Governor's rule was imposed in the province, which lasted till 2 June 1955.

Curiously enough within two months of his sacking, Fazlul Huq was appointed the central Home Minister. As Home Minister, Fazlul Huq utilised his influence to bring his party to power in East Bengal. Naturally, the United Front broke up. The Muslim members of the United Front split into two groups. In 1955 the Awami Muslim League (http://banglapedia.search.com.bd/HT/A_0371.HTM) adopted the path of secularism and non-communalism, erased the word 'Muslim' from its nomenclature and adopted the name of Awami League. (Source: Banglapedia.)


After the Awami League won all the East Pakistan seats of the Pakistan's National Assembly in the 1970-71 elections, West Pakistan opened talks with the East on constitutional questions about the division of power between the central government and the provinces, as well as the formation of a national government headed by the Awami League.

The talks proved unsuccessful, however, and on March 1, 1971, Pakistani President Yahya Khan indefinitely postponed the pending national assembly session, precipitating massive civil disobedience in East Pakistan. Mujib was arrested again; his party was banned, and most of his aides fled to India, where they organized a provisional government.

After the military crackdown by the Pakistan army since the night of March 25 1971 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested and the political leaders dispersed. The people were at a loss. At this crucial moment when the political leadership failed to give any direction, the Eighth East Bengal Regiment under the leadership of Major Ziaur Rahman revolted against the Pakistan Army and took up the Bangladesh flag as its mainstay on the night between March 26 and 27 1971. Then he took up the momentous decision of declaring an independent People's Republic of Bangladesh. (Ref. Banglapedia) Ziaur Rahman and his troops were in the forefront of the War of Independence. Major Zia and the armed forces under his command kept the Chittagong and Noakhali areas under control for a few days and went across the border for further preparations.

As fighting grew between the army and the Bengali Mukti Bahini ("freedom fighters"), an estimated 10 million Bengalis, mainly Hindus, sought refuge in the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal.

The crisis in East Pakistan produced new strains in Pakistan's troubled relations with India. The two nations had fought a war in 1965, mainly in the west, but the refugee pressure in India in the fall of 1971 produced new tensions in the east. Indian sympathies lay with East Pakistan, and on December 3 1971, India intervened on the side of the Bangladeshis. On December 16 1971, Pakistani forces surrendered, and Bangladesh ("Bengal nation") was finally established the following day. The new country changed its name to Bangladesh on January 11, 1972 and became a parliamentary democracy under a constitution. Shortly thereafter on March 19 Bangladesh signed a friendship treaty with India.


In January 1975 economic and political difficulties led to Sheikh Mujib's assumption of the presidencey with greatly increased powers. On August 15, he was killed in a military coup.

Following two further coups (November 3 and 6), Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman emerged as de facto ruler, assuming the presidency in April 1977. In May 1981, Zia in turn fell victim to a failed coup attempt; ten months later Lt. Gen. Hossain Mohammad Ershad took power, holding office until his resignation (December 6, 1990) amid corruption allegations.

Democracy was restored in 1991. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of Khaleda Zia, Gen. Zia's widow, won power in the elections held in February 1991. The next election in June 1996 was won by the rival Awami League under Mujib's daughter Sheikh Hasina. In 2001, a four-party alliance including BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami, returned to power after a landslide victory in the polls.


  • Much of the material in this article comes from the CIA World Factbook 2000 and the 2003 U.S. Department of State website, as well as from Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh.

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