Bangladesh at 50: a nation created in violence and still scarred from a troubled childbirth
Bangladeshi children at the Independence Day celebrations in Dhaka in 2012. AP Photo / Pavel Rahman March 26 marks 50 years since the start of Bangladesh’s liberation war, a bloody nine-month campaign that culminated in the independence of the nation on December 16, 1971. a violent birth, with some of its roots in the partition of India in 1947, when Pakistan was created as a separate nation. When the British Empire left the subcontinent, an estimated 200,000 to 1.5 million people died in the sectarian violence associated with partition and 10 to 15 million were forcibly displaced. Newly independent Pakistan comprised two separate geographic areas separated by more than a thousand miles of Indian terrain. While both regions included significant Muslim populations, western Pakistan was largely made up of Punjabi, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Baluchis, and other smaller ethnic groups. In contrast, the population of eastern Pakistan, which became present-day Bangladesh, was predominantly ethnically Bengali, as the territory was formerly part of the Indian region of Bengal. As a student of conflict, I argue that each of these factors, particularly language differences and political and economic inequalities, laid the foundation for Bangladesh’s struggle for independence. This story continues to have an impact today. Deepening the fault lines From the beginning, the language question was difficult. In 1948, the founding leader of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, emphasized that only Urdu, spoken by Muslims in the north and northwest of British India, should be the state language of the country. Bengali, spoken overwhelmingly by eastern Pakistanis, was viewed by the leaders of that country as a “non-Muslim” language. The Urdu-only policy aimed to create a unique identity from two culturally distinct regions united by a common religion: Islam. More generally, their aim was to consolidate the national identity of newly independent Pakistan. In East Pakistan, the declaration was followed by a ban on Bengali books, songs and poetry by Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. The Bengali language was also banned as a medium of education and a primary mode of instruction. All currency and official documents, including postage stamps and train tickets, were printed in Urdu. The language ban deepened the tensions that had already arisen between East and West Pakistan. One of the main reasons for this was the significant economic disparities between the two regions. West Pakistan controlled the country’s industry and commerce, while East Pakistan was predominantly the supplier of raw materials, creating a situation of unequal exchange. In 1959-60, per capita income in West Pakistan was 32% higher than in East Pakistan. By 1969-70, it was 81% higher in West Pakistan. Investment policies, including education infrastructure, consistently favored West Pakistan. Eastern Pakistanis had little access to the central government, which was located in the western Pakistani city of Islamabad. They were very underrepresented in politics. The political leadership of West Pakistan did not see Bengalis as “real” Muslims. Both in political and social circles, Bengali cultural practices were considered to be of lower social status. Mass Uprising Efforts to “Islamize” eastern Pakistanis through Urdu and “purify” Bengali culture of “Hindu influences” resulted in mass non-violent demonstrations and strikes. On February 21, 1952, students and other activists launched a language movement called “Bhasha Andolon”, which demanded that Bengali be recognized as the state language of eastern Pakistan. Thousands of students from schools and universities protested, defying Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prohibited the gathering of five or more people and the holding of public meetings. The repression that followed claimed several lives. From 1950 to 1969 he also fueled a growing movement for autonomy in East Pakistan. A mass uprising in 1969 was brutally suppressed by the police and led to the imposition of martial law. In 1970, a devastating cyclone called “Bhola” in eastern Pakistan claimed between 300,000 and 500,000 lives. The indifferent response of the West Pakistani government further fueled tensions. A major turning point came the same year that the only major political party in East Pakistan, led by Bengali politician Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won a landslide victory in the national elections. The Pakistani leadership was reluctant to accept the results because it did not want a political party from East Pakistan to head the federal government. This resulted in the start of a civil disobedience movement in East Pakistan. As demand for Bengali autonomy grew, the Pakistani government launched Operation Searchlight, “a military operation to crush the emerging movement. According to journalist Robert Payne, he killed at least 7,000 Bengali civilians, both Hindu and Muslim, in a single night. On March 26, Bangladesh was declared independent and the liberation war began. The violent birth of Bangladesh The liberation war was fought mainly by civilians: men and women, Muslims, Hindus and indigenous non-Bengalis. Bangladesh’s fight for independence took place in the broader context of the Cold War, which meant the involvement of external actors in the conflict. During the Cold War, India allied with the Soviet Union, while the United States allied with Pakistan to counter Soviet influence in South Asia and protect its geostrategic interests against Afghanistan and China. When the Pakistani military stepped up its campaign to quell the independence movement, it did so with the knowledge and support of the Nixon administration. The Pakistani military and its local collaborators specifically targeted the Hindus, who in the 1961 census represented 18% of East Pakistan’s population of 50 million. An estimated 10 million Bengalis became refugees in India. Another 20 million were internally displaced. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 Bengali women were systematically raped. Independent investigations estimate that between 500,000 and 1 million people died in the genocidal campaign. The government of Bangladesh maintains that 3 million Bengalis died in the war. On December 3, India officially entered the war on the side of Bangladesh. Ten days later, in one of the latest military operations, more than 300 Bengali academics, doctors, engineers, journalists, artists and teachers, both Hindu and Muslim, were massacred by Pakistani soldiers and their local collaborators. On December 16, 1971, the Pakistani Army surrendered to the Indian Army, marking it as Bangladesh Victory Day. Today’s Challenges Shortly after its independence, at a meeting between officials of the US Agency for International Development and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Bangladesh was called a “basket case.” Years of economic inequality, the cyclone of 1970 and the war had left more than 70% of its population living below the poverty line. However, in the 50 years since its independence, Bangladesh has made some important strides. It has aggressively addressed infant mortality, gender inequality, and economic development. Today, with a booming economy, it is on its way to move from least developed country status to the United Nations. However, Bangladesh still faces enormous challenges. Violence against women and girls, corruption and lack of freedom of the press remain causes of great concern. Founded on the principles of secularism, the country today faces an increase in Islamists. The divide between those who participated in the independence struggle and those who collaborated with the Pakistani military continues to shape the political landscape of Bangladesh today. , a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Tazreena Sajjad, American University School of International Service. Read more: Coronavirus reaches out to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh’s cramped and unprepared camps I visited Rohingya refugee camps and this is what Bangladesh is doing right Tazreena Sajjad does not work for, consult, own shares or receive funds from no company or organization that would benefit from this article and has not disclosed relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.