Ancient and classical Bengal
Ancient Bengal was settled by Austroasiatics, Tibeto-Burmans, Dravidians and Indo-Aryans in consecutive waves of migration. Major urban settlements formed during the Iron Age in the middle of the first millennium BCE, when the Northern Black Polished Ware culture developed in the Indian subcontinent. In 1879, Sir Alexander Cunningham identified the archaeological ruins of Mahasthangarh as the ancient city of Pundranagara, the capital of the Pundra Kingdom mentioned in the Rigveda. The Wari-Bateshwar ruins are regarded by archaeologists as the capital of an ancient janapada, one of the earliest city states in the subcontinent. An indigenous currency of silver punched marked coins dating between 600 BCE and 400 BCE has been found at the site. Excavations of glass beads suggest the city had trading links with Southeast Asia and the Roman world. Greek and Roman records of the ancient Gangaridai Kingdom, which according to legend deterred the invasion of Alexander the Great, are linked to the fort city in Wari-Bateshwar. The site is also identified with the prosperous trading center of Souanagoura mentioned in Ptolemy’s world map. Roman geographers noted the existence of a large and important seaport in southeastern Bengal, corresponding to the modern-day Chittagong region.
The legendary Vanga Kingdom is mentioned in the Indian epic Mahabharata covering the region of Bangladesh. It was described as a seafaring nation of South Asia. According to Sinhalese chronicles, the Bengali Prince Vijaya led an maritime expedition to Sri Lanka, conquering the island and establishing its first recorded kingdom. The Bengali people also embarked on overseas colonization in Southeast Asia, including in modern-day Malaysia and Indonesia.
Bengal was ruled by the Mauryan Empire in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. With their bastions in the Bengal and Bihar regions (collectively known as Magadha), the Mauryans built the first geographically extensive Iron Age empire in Ancient India. They promoted Jainism and Buddhism. The empire reached its peak under emperor Ashoka. They were eventually succeeded by the Gupta Empire in the 3rd century. According to historian H. C. Roychowdhury, the Gupta dynasty originated in the Varendra region in Bangladesh, corresponding to the modern-day Rajshahi and Rangpur divisions. The Gupta era saw the invention of chess, the concept of zero, the theory of Earth orbiting the Sun, the study of solar and lunar eclipses and the flourishing of Sanskrit literature and drama.
In classical antiquity, Bengal was divided between various kingdoms. The Pala Empire stood out as the largest Bengali state established in ancient history, with an empire covering most of the north Indian subcontinent at its height in the 9th century. The Palas were devout Mahayana Buddhists. They strongly patronized art, architecture and education, giving rise to the Pala School of Painting and Sculptural Art, the Somapura Mahavihara and the universities of Nalanda and Vikramshila. The proto-Bengali language emerged under Pala rule. In the 11th-century, the resurgent Hindu Sena dynasty gained power. The Senas were staunch promoters of Brahmanical Hinduism and laid the foundation of Bengali Hinduism. They patronized their own school of Hindu art taking inspiration from their predecessors. The Senas consolidated the caste system in Bengal.
Islam arrived on the shores of Bengal in the late first millennium, brought largely by missionaries, Sufis and merchants from Middle East. Some experts have suggested that early Muslims, including Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas (an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad), used Bengal as a transit point to travel to China on the Southern Silk Road. The excavation of Abbasid Caliphate coins in Bangladesh indicate a strong trade network during the House of Wisdom Era in Baghdad, when Arab scientists absorbed pre-Islamic Indian and Greek discoveries. This gave rise to the Indo Arabic numerals. Writing in 1154, Al-Idrisi noted a busy shipping route between Chittagong and Basra.
Subsequent Muslim conquest absorbed the culture and achievements of pre-Islamic Bengali civilization in the new Islamic polity. Muslims adopted indigenous customs and traditions, including in dress, food and way of life. This included the wearing of the sari, bindu and bangles by Muslim women; and art forms in music, dance and theater. Muslim rule reinforced the process of conversion through the construction of mosques, madrasas and Sufi Khanqahs.
The Islamic conquest of Bengal began when Bakhtiar Khilji of the Delhi Sultanate conquered northern and western Bengal in 1204. The Delhi Sultanate gradually annexed the whole of Bengal over the next century. By the 14th century, an independent Bengal Sultanate was established. The rulers of the Turkic Ilyas Shahi dynasty built the largest mosque in South Asia, and cultivated strong diplomatic and commercial ties with Ming China. Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah was the first Bengali convert on the throne. The Bengal Sultanate was noted for its cultural pluralism. Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists jointly formed its civil-military services. The Hussain Shahi sultans promoted the development of Bengali literature. It brought Arakan under its suzerainty for 100 years. The sultanate was visited by numerous world explorers, including Niccolò de’ Conti of Venice, Ibn Battuta of Morocco and Admiral Zheng He of China. However, by the 16th century, the Bengal Sultanate began to disintegrate. The Sur Empire overran Bengal in 1532 and built the Grand Trunk Road. Hindu Rajas and the Baro-Bhuyan zamindars gained control of large parts of the region, especially in the fertile Bhati zone. Isa Khan was the Rajput leader of the Baro-Bhuyans based in Sonargaon.
In the late 16th-century, the Mughal Empire led by Akbar the Great began conquering the Bengal delta after the Battle of Tukaroi, where he defeated the Bengal Sultanate’s last rulers, the Karrani dynasty. Dhaka was established as the Mughal provincial capital in 1608. The Mughals faced stiff resistance from the Baro-Bhuyans, Afghan warlords and zamindars, but were ultimately successful in conquering the whole of Bengal by 1666, when the Portuguese and Arakanese were expelled from Chittagong. Mughal rule ushered economic prosperity, agrarian reform and flourishing external trade, particularly in muslin and silk textiles. Mughal Viceroys promoted agricultural expansion and turned Bengal into the rice basket of the Indian subcontinent. The Sufis gained increasing prominence. The Baul movement, inspired by Sufism, also emerged under Mughal rule. The Bengali ethnic identity further crystallized during this period, and the region’s inhabitants were given sufficient autonomy to cultivate their own customs and literature. The entire region was brought under a stable-long lasting administration.
By the 18th century, Bengal was the wealthiest part of the subcontinent. It generated 50% of Mughal GDP. Its towns and cities were filled with Eurasian traders. The Nawabs of Bengal established an independent principality in 1717, with their headquarters in Murshidabad. The Nawabs granted increasing concessions to European trading powers. Matters reached a climax in 1757, when Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah captured the British base at Fort William, in an effort to stem the rising influence of the East India Company. Siraj-ud-Daulah was betrayed by his general Mir Jafar, who helped Robert Clive defeat the last independent Nawab at the Battle of Plassey on 23 June 1757.
The defeat of the last independent Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey ushered the rule of the British East India Company in 1757. The British displaced the ruling Muslim class of Bengal. The Bengal Presidency was established in 1765, with Calcutta as its capital. The Permanent Settlement created an oppressive feudal system. A number of deadly famines struck the region.
The Mutiny of 1857 was initiated in the Presidency of Bengal, with major revolts by the Bengal Army in Dacca, Calcutta and Chittagong. Eastern Bengal witnessed numerous native rebellions, including the Faraizi Movement by Haji Shariatullah, the activities of Titumir, the Chittagong armoury raid and revolutionary formations such as the Anushilan Samiti. The Bengal Renaissance flowered as a result of educational and cultural institutions being established across the region, especially in East Bengal and the imperial colonial capital Calcutta. The Presidency of Bengal became the cradle of modern South Asian political and artistic expression. It included the notable contributions of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Mir Mosharraf Hossain, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah, Rabindranath Tagore, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Kazi Nazrul Islam and Begum Rokeya. Gopal Krishna Gokhle, the mentor of Mahatma Gandhi, remarked that “what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow”.
During British rule, East Bengal developed a plantation economy centered on the jute trade and tea production. Its share in world jute supply peaked in the early 20th century, at over 80%. The Eastern Bengal Railway and the Assam Bengal Railway served as important trade routes, connecting the Port of Chittagong with a large hinterland.
As a result of growing demands for educational development in East Bengal, the British partitioned Bengal in 1905 and created the administrative division of Eastern Bengal and Assam. Based in Dacca, with Shillong as the summer capital and Chittagong as the chief port, the new province covered much of the northeastern subcontinent. The All India Muslim League was formed in Dacca in 1906 and emerged as the standard bearer of Muslims in British India. The partition of Bengal outraged nationalist Hindus and anti-British Muslims, leading to the Swadeshi movement by the Indian National Congress. The partition was annulled in 1911 after a long civil disobedience campaign by the Congress. The Indian Independence Movement enjoyed strong momentum in the Bengal region, including the constitutional struggle for the rights of Muslim minorities.
The Freedom of Intellect Movement thrived in the University of Dacca. By the 1930s, the Krishak Praja Party led by A. K. Fazlul Huq and the Swaraj Party led by C. R. Das came to represent the new Bengali middle class. Huq became the Prime Minister of Bengal in 1937. With the breakdown of Hindu–Muslim unity in the British Raj, Huq allied with the Muslim League to present the Lahore Resolution in 1940, which envisioned independent states in the eastern and northwestern subcontinent.
During the Second World War, the Japanese Air Force conducted air raids in Chittagong in 1942, displacing several thousand people. The war-induced Bengal famine of 1943 claimed the lives of over a million people. Allied forces were stationed in bases across East Bengal in support of the Burma Campaign. Axis-allied Subhash Chandra Bose also had a significant following in East Bengal.
The Muslim League formed a parliamentary government in Bengal in 1943, with Sir Khawaja Nazimuddin and later H. S. Suhrawardy as its premiers. At the Indian provincial elections, 1946, the decisive victory of the Bengal Muslim League set the course for the Partition of British India and the creation of the Dominion of Pakistan on 14 August 1947. Assam was partitioned in order to allow Bengali-speaking Sylhet to join East Bengal. There was also an unsuccessful attempt to form a United Bengal. The Radcliffe Line divided Bengal on religious grounds, ceding Hindu-majority districts to the Indian dominion, and making Muslim-majority districts the eastern wing of Pakistan.
East Bengal was the most populous province in the new Pakistani federation led by Governor General Muhammad Ali Jinnah in 1947, with Dacca as the provincial capital. While the state of Pakistan was created as a homeland for Muslims of the former British Raj, East Bengal was also Pakistan’s most cosmopolitan province, being home to peoples of different faiths, cultures and ethnic groups. In 1950, land reform was accomplished in East Bengal with the abolishment of the permanent settlement and the feudal zamindari system. The successful Bengali Language Movement in 1952 was the first sign of friction with West Pakistan. The One Unit scheme renamed the province as East Pakistan in 1955. The Awami League emerged as the political voice of the Bengali-speaking population, with its leader H. S. Suhrawardy becoming Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1956. He was ousted after only a year in office due to tensions with West Pakistan’s establishment and bureaucracy. The 1956 Constitution ended dominion status with Queen Elizabeth II as the last monarch of the country. Dissatisfaction with the central government increased over economic and cultural issues. The provincial government of A. K. Fazlul Huq was dismissed on charges of inciting secession. In 1957, the radical left-wing populist leader Maulana Bhashani warned that the eastern wing would bid farewell to Pakistan.
The first Pakistani military coup ushered the dictatorship of Ayub Khan. In 1962, Dacca was designated as the legislative capital of Pakistan in an appeasement of growing Bengali political nationalism. Khan’s government also constructed the Kaptai Dam which controversially displaced the Chakma population from their indigenous homeland in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. During the 1965 presidential election, Fatima Jinnah failed to defeat Field Marshal Ayub Khan despite strong support in East Pakistan.
According to senior international bureaucrats in the World Bank, Pakistan applied extensive economic discrimination against the eastern wing, including higher government spending on West Pakistan, financial transfers from East to West and the use of the East’s foreign exchange surpluses to finance the West’s imports. This was despite the fact that East Pakistan generated 70% of Pakistan’s export earnings with jute and tea. East Pakistani intellectuals crafted the Six Points which called for greater regional autonomy, free trade and economic independence. The Six Points were championed by Awami League President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1966, leading to his arrest by the government of President Field Marshal Ayub Khan on charges of treason. Rahman was released during the 1969 popular uprising which ousted President Khan from power.
Ethnic and linguistic discrimination was abound in Pakistan’s civil and military services, in which Bengalis were hugely under-represented. In Pakistan’s central government, only 15% of offices were occupied by East Pakistanis. They formed only 10% of the military. Cultural discrimination also prevailed, causing the eastern wing to forge a distinct political identity. Pakistan imposed bans on Bengali literature and music in state media, including the works of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. In 1970, a massive cyclone devastated the coast of East Pakistan killing up to half a million people. The central government was criticized for its poor response. The military junta governing the country organized the first democratic election in Pakistan’s history in December 1970. In 1971, Maulana Bhashani voiced the first calls for the independence of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh Liberation War
The anger of the Bengali population was compounded when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose Awami League had won a majority in Parliament in the 1970 elections, was blocked from taking office. A massive civil disobedience movement erupted across East Pakistan, with open calls for independence. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman addressed a huge pro-independence rally in Dacca on 7 March 1971. The Bangladeshi flag was hoisted for the first time on 23 March 1971, Pakistan’s Republic Day. On 26 March 1971, the Pakistani military junta led by Yahya Khan launched Operation Searchlight, a sustained military assault on East Pakistan, and detained the Prime Minister-elect under military custody. The Pakistan Army, with the help of supporting militias, massacred Bengali students, intellectuals, politicians, civil servants and military defectors during the 1971 Bangladesh genocide. Several million refugees fled to neighboring India. Estimates for those killed throughout the war range between 300,000 and 3 million. Global public opinion turned against Pakistan as news of atrocities spread, with the Bangladesh Movement gaining support from prominent political and cultural figures in the West, including Ted Kennedy, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Victoria Ocampo and Andre Malraux. The Concert for Bangla Desh was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City to raise funds for Bangladeshi refugees. It was the first major benefit concert in history and was organized by Beatles star George Harrison and Indian Bengali sitarist Ravi Shankar.
During the liberation war, Bengali nationalists announced a declaration of independence and formed the Mukti Bahini (the Bangladeshi National Liberation Army). The Provisional Government of Bangladesh operated in exile from Calcutta, India. Led by General M. A. G. Osmani and eleven Sector Commanders, the Mukti Bahini held the Bengali countryside during the war, and waged wide-scale guerrilla operations against Pakistani forces. Neighboring India and its leader Indira Gandhi, a longstanding nemesis of Pakistan, provided crucial support to the Bangladesh Forces and intervened in support of the provisional government on 3 December 1971. The Soviet Union and the United States dispatched naval forces to the Bay of Bengal amid a Cold War standoff during the Indo-Pakistani War. Lasting for nine months, the entire war ended with the surrender of Pakistan’s military to the Bangladesh-India Allied Forces on 16 December 1971. Under international pressure, Pakistan released Mujib from imprisonment on 8 January 1972, after which he was flown by the Royal Air Force to a million strong homecoming in Dhaka. Indian troops were withdrawn by 12 March 1972, three months after the war ended.
The cause of Bangladeshi self-determination was widely recognized around the world. By the time of its admission for UN membership in August 1972, the new state was recognized by 86 countries. Pakistan recognized Bangladesh in 1974 after pressure from most of the Muslim world.
After independence, Bangladesh became a secular democracy and a republic within the Commonwealth. The world’s 7th most populous nation at the time was ravaged by wartime devastation and widespread poverty, receiving massive international aid as a result. It joined the Non-Aligned Movement and the OIC in 1973, followed by the United Nations in 1974. The Mujib administration signed a 25-year friendship treaty with India and was courted by Western and Eastern bloc powers. Bangladesh expressed strong solidarity with Arab countries during the Arab-Israeli War in 1973, sending medical teams to Egypt and Syria. Mujib’s government faced growing political agitation from left-wing groups, especially the National Socialist Party. Chakma politician M. N. Larma protested the lack of recognition for indigenous Chittagong Hill Tracts minorities in the new constitution. Mujib briefly declared a state of emergency to maintain law and order.
India, Pakistan and Bangladesh signed tripartite agreement in 1973 calling for peace and stability in the subcontinent. A nationwide famine occurred in 1974. In early 1975, Mujib initiated one party socialist rule. On 15 August 1975, Mujib and most of his family members were assassinated by mid-level army officers during a military coup. Vice President Khandaker Mushtaq Ahmed was sworn in as President, with most of Mujib’s cabinet intact. The country was placed under martial law. Mushtaq interned four prominent associates of Mujib, including Bangladesh’s first prime minister Tajuddin Ahmad. Two Army uprisings on 3 and 7 November 1975 led to a reorganised structure of power. Between the two coups, the four interned Awami League leaders were assassinated by army men in Dhaka Central Jail. Mushtaq was replaced by Justice Abu Sayem as President, while the three chiefs of the armed services become martial law administrators. A technocrat cabinet was formed with Moudud Ahmed as Deputy Prime Minister. Bangladesh was one of the first countries to recognize the provisional revolutionary government of South Vietnam after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Lieutenant General Ziaur Rahman took over the presidency in 1977 when Justice Sayem resigned. In 1979, President Zia reinstated multi-party politics and restored civilian rule. He promoted free markets and founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Zia reoriented Bangladesh’s foreign policy, moving away from the Awami League’s strong ties with India and Soviet Union, and pursued closer relations with the West. He opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Domestically, Zia faced as many as 21 coup attempts. An insurgency began in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, due to demands by the region’s indigenous people for autonomy. The Bangladesh Army was accused of persecuting the area’s diverse ethnic minorities. Zia also advocated the idea of a South Asian regional community, inspired by the formation of ASEAN. A military crackdown on Rohingyas in neighboring Burma led to an exodus of several hundred thousand refugees into southeastern Bangladesh. Zia’s rule ended when he was assassinated by elements of the military in 1981. He was succeeded by Abdus Sattar, who served in office for less than a year.
Bangladesh’s next major ruler was Lieutenant General Hussain Muhammad Ershad. As President, Ershad pursued administrative reforms, including a devolution scheme which divided the country into 64 districts and 5 divisions. Ershad hosted the founding summit of SAARC in Dhaka in 1985, which brought together 7 South Asian countries, including India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bhutan and Bangladesh, into a landmark regional union. He also expanded the country’s road network and started important projects like the Jamuna Bridge. In 1986, Ershad restored civilian rule and founded the Jatiya Party. Elections were held in 1986 and 1988. Ershad sent Bangladeshi troops to join the US-led coalition in the Persian Gulf War after a request from King Fahd. Ershad faced a revolt by opposition parties and the public in 1990, which coupled with pressure from Western donors for democratic reforms, forced him to resign on 6 December that year. He handed over power to Justice Shahbuddin Ahmed. Ershad was later indicted and convicted on corruption charges.
In 1991, Bangladesh reverted to parliamentary democracy. Former first lady Khaleda Zia led the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to victory at the general election in 1991 and became the first female Prime Minister in Bangladeshi history. Zia’s finance minister Saifur Rahman launched a series of economic reforms aimed at liberalizing the Bangladeshi economy, mirroring similar initiatives by Manmohan Singh in India in 1991. Prime Minister Zia was forced to implement the caretaker government provision in the constitution in 1996 by the opposition. At the next election in 1996, the Awami League, headed by Sheikh Hasina, one of Mujib’s surviving daughters, returned to power after 21 years. Hasina ended the Chittagong Hill Tracts insurgency after a peace accord with PCJSS rebels. She also secured a treaty with India on sharing the water of the Ganges. Hasina held a trilateral economic summit between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1999 and helped establish the D8 grouping with Turkey. However, the economy took a downturn with a depletion of foreign exchange reserves. Hasina also refused to export Bangladesh’s natural gas, despite major investment offers from international oil companies. The Awami League lost again to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in the 2001 election. In her second term as Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia signed a Defence Cooperation Agreement with China. The economy picked up steam from 2003, with a GDP growth rate of 6% in spite of the 2005 floods. Zia faced criticism for her alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami, which was accused of war crimes in 1971, and accusations against her son Tarique Rahman of corruption. The Awami League waged a series of strikes against the government after an assassination attempt on former premier Sheikh Hasina. Widespread political unrest followed the end of the BNP’s tenure in late October 2006. A caretaker government led by the pro-BNP President Iajuddin Ahmed worked to bring the parties to election within the required ninety days, but was accused by opposition parties of being biased. At the last minute, the Awami League announced an election boycott. On 11 January 2007, the Bangladesh Armed Forces intervened to support both a state of emergency and a continuing but neutral caretaker government under a newly appointed Chief Advisor Fakhruddin Ahmed, the former governor of the Bangladesh Bank. Ahmed strengthened the Anti Corruption Commission and launched an anti-graft drive, detaining more than 160 people, including politicians, civil servants, businessmen and two sons of Khaleda Zia. The Awami League won a landslide majority in the 2008 general election. The BNP boycotted the general election in 2014 due to Sheikh Hasina’s cancellation of the caretaker government system.
Bangladesh has significantly reduced poverty since it gained independence, with the poverty rate coming down from 57% in 1990 to 25.6% in 2014. Per-capita incomes have more than doubled from 1975 levels. Bangladesh has also achieved successes in human development, including greater life expectancy than India and Pakistan. The country continues to face challenges of unstable politics, climate change, religious extremism and inequality.
The geography of Bangladesh is divided between three regions. Most of the country is dominated by the fertile Ganges-Brahmaputra delta. The northwest and central parts of the country are formed by the Madhupur and the Barind plateaus. The northeast and southeast are home to evergreen hill ranges. The Ganges delta is formed by the confluence of the Ganges (local name Padma or Pôdda), Brahmaputra (Jamuna or Jomuna), and Meghna rivers and their respective tributaries. The Ganges unites with the Jamuna (main channel of the Brahmaputra) and later joins the Meghna, finally flowing into the Bay of Bengal. The alluvial soil deposited by the rivers when they overflow their banks has created some of the most fertile plains in the world. Bangladesh has 57 trans-boundary rivers, making water issues politically complicated to resolve – in most cases as the lower riparian state to India.
The country is predominated by rich fertile flat land. Most parts of Bangladesh are less than 12 m (39.4 ft) above sea level, and it is estimated that about 10% of the land would be flooded if the sea level were to rise by 1 m (3.28 ft). 17% of the country is covered by forests and 12% is covered by hill systems. The country’s haor wetlands are of significant importance to global environmental science.
In southeastern Bangladesh, experiments have been done since the 1960s to ‘build with nature’. Construction of cross dams has induced a natural accretion of silt, creating new land. With Dutch funding, the Bangladeshi government began promoting the development of this new land in the late 1970s. The effort has become a multiagency endeavor, building roads, culverts, embankments, cyclone shelters, toilets and ponds, as well as distributing land to settlers. By fall 2010, the program will have allotted some 27,000 acres (10,927 ha) to 21,000 families. With an elevation of 1,064 m (3,491 ft), the highest peak of Bangladesh is Saka Haphong, on the border with Myanmar.