The history of Bangladesh is related to that of the larger area of Bengal, which became independent of Delhi by 1341. After a succession of Muslim rulers, it was conquered by Akbar, the great Mughal emperor in 1576. By the beginning of the 18th cent., the governor of the province was virtually independent, but he lost control to the British East India Company, which after 1775 was the effective ruler of the vast area, which also included the Indian states of West Bengal, Orissa, Jharkhand, and Bihar.
Bengal was divided by the British in 1905 into West Bengal and East Bengal, with East Bengal being more or less coterminous with modern Bangladesh. Since the new province had a majority Muslim population, the partition was welcomed by Muslims, but it was fiercely resented by Indian nationalist leaders who saw it as an attempt to drive a wedge between Muslims and Hindus. The partition was withdrawn in 1911, but it had pointed the way to the events of 1947, when British India was partitioned into the states of India and Pakistan.
Pakistan consisted of two "wings," one to the west of India, and the other to the east. The eastern section was constituted from the eastern portion of Bengal and the former Sylhet district of Assam and was known until 1955 as East Bengal and then as East Pakistan. Pakistan's two provinces, which differed considerably in natural setting, economy, and historical background, were separated from each other by more than 1,000 mi (1,610 km) of India. The East Pakistanis, who comprised 56% of the total population of Pakistan, were discontented under a government centered in West Pakistan; the disparity in government investments and development funds given to each province also added to the resentment. Efforts over the years to secure increased economic benefits and political reforms proved unsuccessful, and serious riots broke out in 1968 and 1969. In Nov., 1970, an extremely deadly cyclone devastated Chittagong and many coastal villages and killed some 300,000 people.
The movement for greater autonomy gained momentum when, in the Dec., 1970, general elections, the Awami League under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (generally known as Sheikh Mujib) won practically all of East Pakistan's seats and thus achieved a majority in the Pakistan National Assembly. President Muhammad Agha Yahya Khan, hoping to avert a political confrontation between East and West Pakistan, twice postponed the opening session of the national assembly.
The government's attempts to forestall the autonomy bid led to general strikes and nonpayment of taxes in East Pakistan and finally to civil war on Mar. 25, 1971. On the following day the Awami League's leaders proclaimed the independence of Bangladesh. During the months of conflict an estimated one million Bengalis were killed in East Pakistan and another 10 million fled into exile in India. Fighting raged in Dhaka, Chittagong, Comilla, Sylhet, Jessore, Barisal, Rangpur, and Khulna. Finally India allied itself with Bangladesh, which it had recognized on Dec. 6, and during a two-week war (Dec. 3–16) defeated the Pakistani forces in the east. Sheikh Mujib, who had been chosen president while in prison in West Pakistan, was released, and in Jan., 1972, he set up a government and assumed the premiership; Abu Sayeed Choudhury became president.
Rejecting Pakistan's call for a reunited country, Sheikh Mujib began to rehabilitate an economy devastated by the war. Relations with Pakistan were hostile; Pakistan withheld recognition from Bangladesh, and Bangladesh and India refused to repatriate more than 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war who had surrendered at the end of the conflict. Armed Bengali "freedom fighters" fought Bihari civilians in Bangladesh, particularly after Indian troops withdrew from Bangladesh in Mar., 1972.
Tensions were eased in July, 1972, when President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan (who assumed power after the fall of the Yahya Khan government) and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India agreed to peacefully settle the differences between their countries. Pakistan officially recognized Bangladesh in Feb., 1974. Subsequently, India and Pakistan reached consensus on the release of Pakistani prisoners of war and the exchange of hostage populations.
Bangladesh was gradually recognized by most of the world's nations. It joined the Commonwealth of Nations in 1972 and was admitted to the United Nations in 1974. In 1972 the country's major industries, banks, and shipping and insurance firms were nationalized. Despite Mujib's popularity as the founder of independent Bangladesh, high rates of inflation and a severe famine (1974) resulted in a governmental crisis. In 1975, after becoming president under a new constitutional system, he was assassinated in a military coup; after two additional coups later in the year, Maj. Gen. Zia ur-Rahman emerged as ruler, beginning a period of military control that lasted into the 1990s.
In 1981, Zia was himself assassinated in a failed coup attempt; his successor was replaced (1982) in a bloodless coup by Lt. Gen. Hussain Mohammad Ershad, who assumed the presidency. In an effort to gain legitimacy, Ershad later resigned his military office and won a disputed presidential election. He was forced to resign in Dec., 1990, amid charges of corruption, for which he was jailed (1990–96, 2000–2001); he was convicted on additional charges in 2006 but sentenced to time already served.
Elections held in Feb., 1991, brought the Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) to power, and Khaleda Zia ur-Rahman, the widow of Zia ur-Rahman, became prime minister. An extremely strong cyclone in April, 1991, killed more than 138,000 and devastated coastal areas, especially in the southeast. In 1994, nearly all opposition members of parliament denounced Zia's government as corrupt and resigned their seats. After a series of general strikes called by the opposition, parliament was dissolved in Nov., 1995; major opposition parties also boycotted the ensuing Feb., 1996, elections. Zia was returned to power, but the opposition mounted protests; she resigned and an interim government headed by Habibur Rahman was installed.
New elections held in June, 1996, resulted in a victory for the opposition Awami League, led by Hasina Wazed, daughter of Bangladesh's first prime minister. As she struggled with the country's ongoing economic problems, a series of opposition-led strikes, beginning in 1998, once again paralyzed the country. In July, 2001, a caretaker government headed by Latifur Rahman was appointed in advance of parliamentary elections in October. Zia and the BNP won a landslide victory in the voting, and she again became prime minister. In 2003 the Awami League began a series of rallies and occasional strikes to mobilize opposition to the government. Deadly attacks on rallies in Aug., 2004, and Jan., 2005, provoked a series of nationwide and local strikes and protests by the League, which accused the government of trying to assassinate Hasina Wazed.
Some 200 minor bomb attacks occurred in 60 cities and towns on Aug. 17, 2005. The attacks appeared to be the work of militants who favor the establishment of Islamic rule in Bangladesh; two militant groups had been banned in Feb., 2005. In the months following the attacks the government moved to arrest members of the groups, and Islamic extremist mounted additional attacks, including ones involving suicide bombers. Awami League efforts to undermine the government in 2006 included a "blockade" of Dhaka in June that resulted in clashes with the police, and led to a 36-hour general strike. Meanwhile, in May and June, there were protests and rioting by garment workers over working conditions; a number of factories were burned, and hundreds were vandalized.
Zia's government resigned in October in preparation for the Jan., 2007, elections. The issue of who should head the caretaker government in the intervening months became a contentious one in the weeks proceeding the resignation, and the BNP, Awami League, and other parties failed to reach an agreement, leading to violent clashes between the parties' supporters. In the end, President Iajuddin Ahmed appointed himself chief adviser to the interim administration. Continuing disagreements over the handling of the elections led to sometimes violent demonstrations and transportation blockades by the Awami League and its allies, and in Jan., 2007, that 14-party alliance announced that it would boycott the elections.
After the United Nations and European Union withdrew their support for the election, the president declared a state of emergency, resigned as chief adviser and appointed Fakhruddin Ahmed, an economist and former central bank governor, to the post, and postponed the elections. The Awami League and its allies halted their protests as Fakhruddin Ahmed formed a cabinet. The new government, which was backed by the military, subsequently moved to clean up the electoral rolls and attack political corruption. A number of prominent political and business figures were arrested on corruption charges, and Hasina Wazed and other political leaders were charged with murder in connection with political violence. The government moved in April, 2007, to exile Wazed and Khaleda Zia, but then reversed itself. Wazed and then Zia were subsequently charged with corruption.
The president's term ended in Sept., 2007, but Ahmed remained in office in the absence of a functioning parliament. During July–Sept., 2007, Bangladesh experienced two spells of extensive and devastating flooding due to monsoon rains, and in November a cyclone caused extensive damage in the southwest, killing more than 3,000. There was a brief maritime standoff in the Bay of Bengal between Bangladesh and Myanmar in November when Bangladeshi naval vessels confronted Myanmarese oil-and-gas exploration ships in disputed waters.
In Dec., 2008, the government finally ended the state of emergency two weeks before new parliamentary elections; both former prime ministers subsequently campaigned. The Awami League won the vote in a landslide, and in Jan., 2009, Sheikh Hasina Wazed became prime minister, ending interim rule. Zia and the BNP asserted the election was rigged, but foreign observers called the contest credible. Paramilitary border guards mutinied in Feb., 2009; the uprising was centered at the Bangladesh Rifles headquarters in Dhaka. More than 70 persons were killed, most of them regular army officers assigned to the forces who were murdered by mutineers; nearly 6,000 were ultimately convicted of involvement in the mutiny.
In June, 2010, the BNP mounted a protest strike against the government, and there also were protests by textile workers over low wages. Wage protests recurred in late July, marked then by riots; in August a number of labor leaders were arrested on charges of inciting violence. A new series of opposition-sponsored protests and strikes began in June, 2011.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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