BANGLADESH NAMES AND IDENTITY
The people of Bangladesh are called Bangladeshis. The majority of them are Bengalis, which are defined as speakers of the Bengali (Bangla) language. They live in the Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent, which is divided between India and Bangladesh. Bangladeshi can be both an adjective and a noun. The country was formerly known as East Pakistan between 1947 and 1971. Before 1947 it was part of British India.
Bangladesh means "Bengal Nation" or “homeland of the Bengal people.” The official name of the country is People's Republic of Bangladesh (Gana-Prajatantri Bangladesh). Bangladesh is often called “Sonar Bangla” ("Golden Bengal"). It is reference to the golden color of the landscape when the rice fields are ready for harvesting.
The creation of Bangladesh represents a victory of ethnic and cultural politics and identity. The region has been part of a number of important political entities, including Indian empires, Buddhist kingdoms, the Moghul empire, the British empire and the Pakistani nation. It was the first territory colonized by the British, who ruled over the Indian subcontinent for more than two centuries. [Source: “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]
Bangladesh is the world's third-most-populous Muslim country after Indonesia and Pakistan and the eighth most populous nation in the world. It occupies much of the huge delta region formed at the confluence of the Ganges and Brahmaputra River systems. It was a loosely incorporated outpost of various empires centered on the Gangetic plain for much of the first millennium A.D. Muslim conversions and settlement in the region began in the 10th century, primarily from Arab and Persian traders and preachers. Europeans established trading posts in the area in the 16th century. Eventually the area known as Bengal, primarily Hindu in the western section and mostly Muslim in the eastern half, became part of British India. Partition in 1947 resulted in an eastern wing of Pakistan in the Muslim-majority area, which became East Pakistan. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
The capital and ruling government of West and East Pakistan was in West Pakistan. The people of East Pakistan didn’t like this nor did they like the way their Bangla culture was compromised and the way they were treated by the militaristic-bureaucratic West Pakistan elite. Calls for greater autonomy and animosity between the eastern and western wings of Pakistan led to a Bengali independence movement that demanded secession in 1970. That movement, led by the Awami League (AL) and supported by India, won the independence war for Bangladesh in 1971. The separate, autonomous state of Bangladesh was established in 1972.
West Bengal, a state in eastern India and home of 75 million people and Calcutta, and the country of Bangladesh form Bengal. The Bengal region consists largely of a vast alluvial, deltaic plain built up by the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. The total Bengal region covers 233,000 square kilometers. Of this 89,000 square kilometers (38 percent) is in India and 144,00 square kilometers (62 percent) is in Bangladesh. The monsoon season lasts longer here than other in other parts of South Asia. It can extend from April to mid-November.
West Bengal and Bangladesh were divided up chiefly on religious grounds with: 1) Hindus making up 77 percent and Muslims making up 22 percent of the population of the of West Bengal; and 2) Hindus making up 14 percent and Muslims making up 85 percent of the population of Bangladesh. About three quarters of the population of West Bengal lives in rural areas. Many of the urban residents live in Calcutta.
Bengal has fertile soil, abundant water, a climate favorable for agriculture and lush landscape covered with banyans, palm trees, rice paddies and sugar cane fields. The roads are full of potholes, bullock carts, bicycles, pedestrians and trucks. The villages features thatch- and metal-roofed huts organized around mosques or two- or three-story pagoda-like towers with curved eaves. Outside the villages are images of horses or men. Cows, bullocks and water buffalo are everywhere.
For many centuries Bengal was a cash cow for whoever ruled it. The Moguls grew rich on Bengali taxes; the British established their empire here and also became rich. At when India was created and partitioned after World War II Bengal was divided into West Bengal, an Indian state, and East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh. West Bengal has traditionally been a stronghold of the Communist Party.
Emergence of Bangladesh
The East Wing of Pakistan, emerged as the independent nation of Bangladesh in December 1971. The exclamation on the occasion — "Joi Bangla! Joi Bangla!" (Victory to Bengal! Victory to Bengal!) was a collective and plaintive cry following a particularly bitter and bloody struggle for freedom. The new state was set up to be a culturally and linguistically cohesive unit. Pakistan itself had been created on August 15, 1947, largely the result of communal passions pitting Hindus against Muslims. Pakistan was divided into two wings, separated by 1,600 kilometers of Indian territory, with Islam only a tenuous link between the two wings. Of paramount importance to East Pakistanis was the Bangla (before 1971 usually referred to as Bengali) language and culture, a consideration not appreciated by the West Wing of Pakistan until it was too late. [Source: James Heitzman and Robert Worden, Library of Congress, 1989 *]
When Bangladesh joined the community of nations, it was at first recognized by only India and Bhutan. With its fragile and underdeveloped economic infrastructure under extreme duress, its law and order situation challenged by numerous well-armed contingents of unemployed former freedom fighters, its impoverished population agitated by the unfulfilled promise of rising expectations, Bangladesh was, in international circles, given the unfortunate label of "international basket case."
The first national leader of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib), or the Bangabandhu, the "Beloved of Bangladesh", helped draft the 1972 Constitution based on nationalism, socialism, secularism, and democracy. In 1975 Mujib, by then discredited for presiding over a bankrupt and corrupt regime, was assassinated along with most of his family. In the ensuing years, a number of regimes rose and fell in the violent legacy of Bangladeshi politics. Authoritarian and military rule has dominated the short history of Bangladesh. But Bengali society is known for its mercurial politics, and popular demands for a more open government in Bangladesh, while under control in the late 1980s, continued unabated.
1500 B.C. Hinduism, the system of beliefs, practices, and socio-religious institutions of the Hindus, is introduced in the Indian subcontinent. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, The Gale Group Inc., 2002]
10th century B.C.: The region occupied by BangladeshIt was mentioned in Mahabharata, an ancient epic of India sometime during the ninth or tenth century B.C.
“800s A.D. The first Muslim Arabs appear in the north of the Indian subcontinent, and the first Muslim trading communities are established in various parts of the region.
“1192. Muhammad of Ghur wins the battles of Taraori, which leads to the establishment of the Delhi sultanate, principal Muslim sultanate in North India from the 13th to the 16th century.
“1341. Most of Bengal becomes independent of Delhi.
“1498. Vasco da Gama, Portuguese traveler and adventurer, lands at Calcutta.
“1576. Akbar, the great Mogul emperor, conquers the territory of modern Bangladesh.
“1608. Dhaka becomes the Mogul's capital of Bengal province.
“1757. The nawab (ruler) of Bengal is defeated by Robert Clive's British force at Plassey.
“1765. The British East India Company establishes control over the administration of the territory of Bengal.
“1857. Indian Sepoys (soldiers) in the Bengal army of the British East India Company rebel against British rule in India (known as the Sepoy Rebellion).
“1858. The East India Company is abolished, and the British crown assumes direct control over British India.
“1885. The Indian National Congress is founded.
“1905. The British colonial administration introduces division into West Bengal and East Bengal, with East Bengal being more or less within the territory of modern Bangladesh, although the partition is withdrawn in 1911.
“1947. Bangladesh becomes independent as a part of Pakistan under the name "East Pakistan."
“1970. In November, a powerful cyclone hits Bangladesh, causing great damage and more than 500,000 deaths, one of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century.
“1970. In December, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (popularly known as Sheikh Mujib) and his political party, Awami League (AL), win both national and provincial elections and demand greater autonomy for East Pakistan.
“1970. The AL declares its intention to achieve independence from West Pakistan.
“1971. With the help of Indian forces, the Bangladeshi pro-independence movement wins independence.
“1974. A state of emergency is declared in Bangladesh.
“1975. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman becomes president and assumes absolute power.
“1975. President Sheikh Mujib is assassinated in a military coup in August.
“1975. Abusadat Muhammad Sayem becomes president but resigns 2 years later.
“1978. General Ziaur Rahman wins the presidential election.
“1981. President General Ziaur Rahman is assassinated in a military coup.
“1981. Abdus Sattar wins the presidential election in November.
“1982. General Hossain Ershad takes power in a military coup.
“1985. General Hossain Ershad wins the presidential election and bans all active political opposition.
“1988. Devastating floods hit three-quarters of the country, leaving 30 million people homeless and causing food shortages.
“1990. General Hossain Ershad resigns.
“1991. The first free and fair election is held in Bangladesh. Begum Khaleda Zia (widow of General Ziaur Rahman) and her party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), win the election.
“1991. A powerful cyclone hits Bangladesh, causing the deaths of more than 120,000 people and great damage to the economy.
“1996. Begum Khaleda Zia wins the April parliamentary election, which is accompanied by violence and a low turnout, but is forced to resign shortly after.
“1996. Hasina Wajed, daughter of Sheikh Mujib, and her Awami League (AL) win the June parliamentary election.
“1996. An important 30-year agreement is reached with India on the sharing of the Ganges River's water.
“1997. A peace treaty is signed between the government and Chakma rebels, ending a 20-year uprising.
“1998. Another powerful cyclone hits the country, causing extensive damage to the national economy.
“2001. Indian and Bangladeshi forces clash on the border between their 2 countries.
The history of Bangladesh is related to that of the larger area of Bengal. Bengal is mentioned as a distinct region in some of the earliest Hindu texts. Throughout the A.D. 1st millennium, it was ruled by a succession of Buddhist and Hindu rulers. Islamic armies arrived in the region on late 12th and early 13th and began a gradual campaign of conquest that culminated with Mogul rule, starting in 1586, during which time large numbers of people converted to Islam.
Calcutta, which is situated in Bengal, was an important center of the British East India Company opium trade. The beginning of British administration of India is usually dated with East India Company’s takeover of the government of Bengal, in 1757. English education had a profound influence on the region. Hindu tooks advantage of opportunities offered by the British earlier and faster. The Westernized elite was comprised mostly of Hindus.
Bengal was divided into the predominately Muslim eastern and predominately Hindu western provinces in 1905, but after a period of anarchy and violence, it was reunited in 1911 at the request of Hindus. Muslims were angered by this.
Bengali intellectuals were at the forefront of the independence movement. Hindus were very active in the Indian National Congress. Muslims were involved with the Muslim League, which was instrumental in the creation of Pakistan.
In 1947, when India and Pakistan were separated, Bengal was divided into primarily Hindu West Bengal and primarily Muslim East Pakistan. During the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971, hundreds of thousands of hungry refugees poured into Calcutta, West Bengal, Assam and other eastern India.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Bangladesh Tourism Board, Bangladesh National Portal (www.bangladesh.gov.bd), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022