Bangladesh, born in war, celebrates 50 years of independence

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) – Shafiqul Islam was studying business at Dhaka College in 1971 when a bloody and brutal war for independence devastated Bangladesh. After receiving guerrilla training in India, he returned to fight Pakistani soldiers.

“It was a time of total destruction,” he said. “Our bridges and roads were destroyed, our women were raped, cities were besieged. Thousands of houses and shops were burned. “

Nine months after its start, the war culminated in the country’s independence.

Fifty years later, 67-year-old Islam presides over Arrival Fashion Ltd., a next-generation garment factory spread over 2.5 acres and surrounded by lush rice paddies on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka. The factory employs nearly 3,000 workers who make jeans for export to Europe and North America.

The history of Islam reflects in many ways the rise of Bangladesh, home to 160 million people.

On the eve of half a century of independence this week, Bangladesh has been hailed as a success story for a young nation born of conflict and turmoil. Although it has fought hunger, poverty, military coups and political violence, it has also been celebrated for what experts say is remarkable progress in improving the lives of its young population.

Millions have been lifted out of poverty as the country has unexpectedly become one of the fastest growing economies in Asia thanks to sectors like the garment industry, which saw millions of people around the world.

But some fear his success masks a darker twist, including concerns about his most recent elections in 2018, when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won a fourth term after winning 266 of 300 seats in Parliament. It was a tainted election, as human rights groups condemned the violence against opponents who claimed to rig and rig the vote.

“The most worrying thing in Bangladesh is the destruction of the electoral system,” said Ali Riaz, a South Asian expert who teaches political science at Illinois State University.

But it was another fateful election, spearheaded by Hasina’s father, that spurred independence for Bangladesh, which dates back to 1947, when the Indian subcontinent gained independence from British colonial rule. The land was divided into separate states, and the Muslim-majority regions became East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and West Pakistan, now simply Pakistan. But from the beginning, a strong nationalist movement emerged as language became a point of tension; Bengali was widely spoken in the East, while the Urdu-speaking Western elite rose to power.

A watershed moment occurred in 1970 amid strikes and escalating hostilities, when the Awami League of East Pakistan, led by Bengali politician Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, swept the polls in a national election. The government rejected the results, sparking a civil disobedience movement. On March 26, 1971, Bangladesh declared its independence, sparking the nine-month war.

Pakistan launched a military operation to halt the advance towards independence, while India joined the side of what is now Bangladesh. Pakistani forces surrendered on December 16, 1971.

Bangladesh says 3 million Bengalis died. Millions also fled to India, and historians have said that hundreds of thousands of Bengali women were raped.

Another casualty of the war was the economy: GDP was just $ 6.2 billion in 1972. This figure has skyrocketed since then, reaching $ 305 billion in 2019. Some forecasts expect it to double in size by 2030.

For some of the country’s successes is its garment industry, the second largest in the world after China, which raises more than $ 35 billion a year from exports. It employs four million people and the triumph has been felt mainly by women, who make up the majority of factory workers. A job at the Islam factory helps Nasima Akhter and her two brothers earn around $ 411 a month, which supports her and her family.

When she was a teenager, her parents struggled to provide three meals a day. Now 28, Akhter works eight hours a day, sewing hundreds of jeans. “We are doing well now,” he said.

Per capita income has nearly tripled under Hasina, who first came to power in 1996 and was then re-elected in 2008. Experts say the country over the years has invested heavily in the lives of women and girls. Currently, 98% of children have finished primary school, with more girls in secondary school than boys. Life expectancy in Bangladesh is 72 years compared to 67 in Pakistan, and it has also surpassed the richest India in the fight against child malnutrition and reproductive health, according to World Bank data.

“It has been a fascinating journey,” said leading economist Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad. “It is a development model for others in the region.”

But Bangladesh is also very vulnerable to the growing effects of climate change, with a third of its population at risk of displacement due to rising sea levels. Experts have long warned that a densely populated delta country like Bangladesh, struggling with severe and frequent floods, will be one of the hardest hit by climate change. Surprisingly, Bangladesh accounts for just 0.35% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the IMF.

More immediately, the coronavirus pandemic poses challenges in Bangladesh. The COVID-19 cases caused a lockdown across the country, and major industries and small businesses came to a standstill. The country has reported more than 560,000 confirmed cases and around 8,600 deaths so far. Although experts say that the total number of victims may be underreported, Bangladesh remains less affected than many other countries.

Still, the garment sector has shown signs of recovery. and other economic drivers – remittances, agriculture and the service sector – are also doing well, said Ahmad, the economist.

But not everyone is part of the country’s breakneck growth, added Riaz, the professor, citing data that job growth remains low despite high GDP figures.

“Poor people’s share of wealth, their income and opportunities are shrinking. The country is not creating more jobs for young people, ”Riaz said.

Most worryingly, observers say the government’s focus on development may be wiping out its democratic beginnings. Human rights groups and non-profit organizations have raised the alarm about the ruling Awami League. The US-based Freedom House said the party had “consolidated political power through sustained harassment of the opposition and those perceived as allies with it,” in its 2020 annual report on democracy..

Experts also highlight a controversial digital security law, which they say can be misused to silence free speech. In February, protesters stormed an intersection in Dhaka over the death in prison of a commentator who was charged under the law for statements critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Bangladesh is witnessing a democratic setback in its electoral system, attempts to quell political opposition and threats to freedom of expression, Riaz said.

“It was founded on the promise of an inclusive system, but it may be moving away from these fundamental promises,” he added.

Meanwhile, Hasina has set ambitious goals, including elevating Bangladesh to an upper-middle-income country by 2031 and a developed one by 2041. In February, the United Nations Development Policy Committee recommended that Bangladesh be promoted to a country in development, by -developed.

Islam, the director of the garment factory that fought in the war, said he has done his part, but the country has much more to achieve.

“In 1971, we came together and never looked back because we knew that independence had to come. Otherwise, this nation will not survive, ”he said. But that was not the end. We still have a long way to go, but our heart is always with the country ”.


Pathi reported from New Delhi.


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