Virtual Bangladesh : History : Overview
The area which
is now Bangladesh has a rich historical and cultural past, the product
of the repeated influx of varied peoples, bringing with them the Dravidian,
Indo-Aryan, Mongol-Mughul, Arab, Persian, Turkic, and European cultures.
About 1200 A.D., Muslim invaders under Sufi influence, supplanted Hindu
and Buddhist dynasties, and converted most of the population of the eastern
areas of Bengal to Islam. Since then, Islam has played a crucial role
in the region's history and politics. In the 16th century, Bengal was
absorbed into the Mughul Empire.
Portuguese traders and missionaries reached Bengal in the latter part
of the 15th century. They were followed by representatives of the Dutch,
the French, and the British East India Companies. During the 18th and
19th centuries, especially after the defeat of the French in 1757, the
British gradually extended their commercial contacts and administrative
control beyond Calcutta into the remainder of Bengal and northwesterly
up the Ganges River valley. In 1859, the British Crown replaced the East
India Company, extending British dominion from Bengal in the east to the
Indus River in the west.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Muslim and Hindu leaders began
to press for a greater degree of independence. At the movement's forefront
was the largely Hindu Indian National Congress. Growing concern about
Hindu domination of the movement led Muslim leaders to form the All-India
Muslim League in 1906. In 1913, the League formally adopted the same goal
as the Indian National Congress: self-government for India within the
British Empire. The Congress and the League were unable, however, to agree
on a formula to ensure the protection of Muslim religious, economic, and
political rights. Over the next 2 decades, mounting tension between Hindus
and Muslims led to a series of bitter intercommunal conflicts.
The idea of a separate Muslim state emerged in the 1930s. It gained popularity
among Indian Muslims after 1936, when the Muslim League suffered a decisive
electoral defeat in the first elections under the 1935 constitution. On
March 23, 1940, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, publicly
endorsed the "Pakistan Resolution" that called for the creation
of an independent state in regions where Muslims were a majority.
At the end of World War II, the United Kingdom, under considerable international
pressure to reduce the size of its overseas empire, moved with increasing
urgency to grant India independence. The Congress Party and the Muslim
League could not, however, agree on the terms for drafting a constitution
or establishing an interim government. In June 1947, the UK declared it
would grant full dominion status to two successor states--India and Pakistan.
Pakistan would consist of the contiguous Muslim-majority districts of
western British India, plus parts of Bengal. The various princely states
could freely join either India or Pakistan. These arrangements resulted
in a bifurcated Muslim nation separated by more than 1,600 kilometers
(1,000 mi.) of Indian territory. West Pakistan comprised four provinces
and the capital, Lahore. East Pakistan was formed of a single province.
Each province had a legislature. The capital of federal Pakistan was at
Pakistan's history for the next 26 years was marked by political instability
and economic difficulties. Dominion status was rejected in 1956 in favor
of an "Islamic Republic within the Commonwealth." Attempts at
civilian political rule failed, and the government imposed martial law
between 1958 and 1962 and 1969 and 1972. The government was dominated
by Military and Oligarchies all rooted in the West. Significant amount
of national revenues went towards developing the West at the expense of
the East. The people of the Eastern wing began to feel increasingly dominated
and exploited by the West. Frictions between West and East Pakistan culminated
in a 1971 army crackdown against the East Pakistan dissident movement
led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose Awami League (AL) Party had won 167
seats out of 313 National Assembly seats on a platform of greater autonomy
for the eastern province.
Mujibur Rahman was arrested
and his party banned. Many of his aides and more than 10 million Bengali
refugees fled to India, where they established a provisional government.
India and Pakistan went to war in late November 1971. The combined Indian-Bengali
forces soon overwhelmed Pakistan's army contingent in the East. By the
time Pakistan's forces surrendered on December 16, 1971, India had taken
numerous prisoners and gained control of a large area of East Pakistan,
which is now Bangladesh.
Post Independence Era
Mujibur Rahman came to office with immense personal popularity but had
difficulty quickly transforming this support into political legitimacy.
The 1972 constitution created a strong prime ministership, an independent
judiciary, and a unicameral legislature on a modified British model. More
importantly, it enunciated as state policy the Awami League's four basic
principles--nationalism, secularism, socialism, and democracy.
The Awami League won a massive majority in the first parliamentary elections
in March 1973. It continued as a mass movement, espousing the cause that
brought Bangladesh into being and representing disparate and often incoherent
elements under the banner of Bangla nationalism. No other political party
in Bangladesh's early years was able to duplicate or challenge its broad-based
appeal, membership, or organizational strength.
The new government focused on relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction
of the country's war-ravaged economy and society. Economic conditions
remained tenuous, however, and food and health difficulties continued
to be endemic. In 1974, Mujib proclaimed a state of emergency and amended
the constitution to limit the powers of the legislative and judicial branches,
establish an executive presidency, and institute a one-party system. Calling
these changes the "Second Revolution," Mujib assumed the presidency.
All political parties were dissolved except for a single new party, the
Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL), which all members of
parliament were obliged to join.
Implementation of promised
political reforms was slow, and Mujib increasingly was criticized. In
August 1975, he was assassinated by mid-level army officers, and a new
government, headed by a former associate, Khandakar Moshtaque, was formed.
Successive military coups occurred on November 3 and 7, resulting in the
emergence of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ziaur Rahman (Zia), as strongman.
He pledged the army's support to the civilian government headed by the
president, Chief Justice Sayem. Acting at Zia's behest, Sayem then promulgated
martial law, naming himself Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA).
Ziaur Rahman was elected for a 5-year term as president in 1978.
His government removed the remaining restrictions on political parties
and encouraged opposition parties to participate in the pending parliamentary
elections. More than 30 parties vied in the parliamentary elections of
February 1979, but Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won 207 of
the 300 elected seats.
In 1981, Zia was assassinated by dissident elements of the military.
Vice President Justice Abdus Sattar was constitutionally sworn in as acting
president. He declared a new national emergency and called for elections
within 6 months. Sattar was elected president and won. Sattar was ineffective,
however, and Army Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. H.M. Ershad assumed power in
a bloodless coup in March 1982.
Like his predecessors, Ershad dissolved parliament, declared martial
law, assumed the position of CMLA, suspended the constitution, and banned
political activity. Ershad reaffirmed Bangladesh's moderate, non-aligned
In December 1983, he assumed the presidency. Over the ensuing months,
Ershad sought a formula for elections while dealing with potential threats
to public order.
In January 1, 1986, full political rights, including the right to hold
large public rallies, were restored. At the same time, the Jatiyo (People's)
Party (JP), designed as Ershad's political vehicle for the transition
from martial law, was established. Ershad resigned as chief of army staff,
retired from military service, and was elected president in October 1986.
(Both the BNP and the AL refused to put up an opposing candidate.)
In July 1987, the opposition parties united for the first time in opposition
to government policies. Ershad declared a state of emergency in November,
dissolved parliament in December, and scheduled new parliamentary elections
for March 1988.
All major opposition parties refused to participate. Ershad's party won
251 of the 300 seats; three other political parties which did participate,
as well as a number of independent candidates, shared the remaining seats.
This parliament passed a large number of legislative bills, including
a controversial amendment making Islam the state religion.
By mid-1990, opposition to Ershad's rule had escalated. November and
December 1990 were marked by general strikes, increased campus protests,
public rallies, and a general disintegration of law and order. Ershad
resigned in December 1990.
On February 27, 1991, an interim government oversaw what may be one of
the most free and fair elections in the nation's history. The center-right
Bangladesh Nationalist Party won a plurality of seats and formed a coalition
government with the Islamic fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).
The new Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, was the
widow of the assassinated former president Ziaur Rahman. Before the death
of her husband in 1981, her participation in politics was minimal. She
joined the BNP in 1982 and became chairman of the party in 1984.
In September 1991, the electorate approved changes to the constitution,
formally creating a parliamentary system and returning governing power
to the office of the prime minister, as in Bangladesh's original constitution.
In October 1991, members of parliament elected a new head of state, President
Abdur Rahman Biswas.
Opposition legislators resigned en masse in December 1994, trying to
force Khaleda to step down and allow early elections under a neutral caretaker
administration. She refused and the opposition staged a series of strikes
and shutdowns which economists say have slowed reforms and the pace of
economic recovery. President Abdur Rahman Biswas dissolved parliament
in November 1995 and called new elections for February 1996. He asked
Khaleda Zia to stay in office until a successor was chosen. The opposition
parties vowed to not to take part in the elections while Khaleda remained
in office and boycotted the elections They said the elections had been
rigged to ensure the BNP a landslide victory. They staged a series of
crippling strikes and transport blockades, trying to force Khaleda to
annul the election and transfer power to a neutral caretaker government.
The new parliament bowed to opposition demands and passed a law March
26 allowing the president to form a caretaker government, Former chief
justice Habibur Rahman was asked to head a caretaker government and parliament
Elections were completed June 23, 1996 with the Awami League garnering the highest
number of seats. The leader of the Awami League, Sheikh Hasina Wazed,
was sworn in as the new Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Justice Shahabuddin
Ahmed was elected unopposed to replace Biswas as the next president of
The latter part of Awami League's tenure was marked by opposition boycott
of the parliament and increasingly violent attempts at forcing early elections.
However, Awami League completed its five year tenure and became the first
govenment to complete its tenure in Bangladesh. New elections were held
on October 1, 2001 under the aegis of a caretaker government as enshrined
in the constitution of Bangladesh. These elections were won by a coalition
of the BNP and three other parties led by Khaleda Zia. Begum Zia was subsequently
sworn in as the Prime Minister. Political stability still appears to be
a remote dream, since the Awami League alleges widespread rigging and
vote manipulation and stayed away from the parliament. Independent and
international observers have however termed the 2001 elections as free
The end of BNP's five year stint was also marked by a repeat (this time
by the AL) of opposition boycott of the parliament and increasingly violent
attempts at forcing early elections. There was severe lack of consensus
between the government and the opposition regarding the head of the interim
caretaker administration. Under Bangladesh's unique system, when an administration
comes to the end of its term it hands over to an unelected interim government
which has 90 days to organise elections. Violent protests broke out after
the opposition objected to the nomination of ex-Chief Justice KM Hasan
to head the interim administration as per the constitution. As a member
of the BNP in his early days, his nomination was not palatable to them.
On Saturday Mr Hasan pulled out just before he was due to be sworn in.
The president urged parties to find a replacement by Sunday afternoon.
Mr Iajuddin Ahmed then held separate talks with party leaders, but failed
to reach agreement on a compromise candidate. Finally, President Iajuddin
Ahmed has been sworn in as head of an interim government after the main
political parties failed to agree on a candidate. His decision to take
the job without opposition backing is the last constitutional option available.
After increasingly violent clashes between political parties, a new caretaker
government was sworn in with the backing of the armed forces. Erstwhile
Bangadesh Bank governor Dr. Fakruddin Ahmed was sworn in as the Chief
Adviser. An emergency was declared and the government suspended certain fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution and detained a large number of politicians and others on suspicion of involvement in corruption and other crimes. The government announced elections would occur in late 2008.
On December 29, 2008 Bangladesh went to the polls and the nation elected the Grand Alliance which was led by Sheikh Hasina's Awami League and backed by Hussain Mohammed Ershad's Jatiya Party. The Awami League won an absolute majority on its own accrod. Khaleda Zia's BNP-led Four Party Alliance suffered a resounding defeat. Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister and formed the government.