People's Republic of Bangladesh
|Government||Unitary state and parliamentary democracy|
|- President||Zillur Rahman|
|- Prime Minister||Sheikh Hasina|
|- Speaker||Abdul Hamid|
|- Chief Justice||Md. Muzammel Hossain|
|- Declared||March 26, 1971|
|- Victory Day||December 16, 1971|
|- Total||147,570 km² (94th)
56,977 sq mi
|- Water (%)||6.9|
|- 2011 estimate||142.3 million
|GDP (PPP)||2010 estimate|
|- Total||$258.608 billion|
|- Per capita||$1,572|
|GDP (nominal)||2010 estimate|
|- Total||$104.919 billion|
|- Per capita||$638|
|HDI (2007)||0.543 (medium)|
|Time zone||BST (UTC+6)|
The People's Republic of Bangladesh lies in a corner of South Asia and in the eastern part of the ancient region of Bengal. The nation's name literally means "The Country of Bengal." Lying north of the Bay of Bengal, where the world's largest river delta meets the sea, it borders India to the west, north, and east and Myanmar to the southeast. Its population, which is approaching 150 million, is seventh highest in the world but is packed into an area the size of Iowa.
Bangladesh's rank among the most densely populated countries in the world is largely attributable to the fertile Ganges Delta and the monsoon rains that are the nation's lifeline. However, overpopulation and poverty have historically plagued Bangladesh, along with regular flooding, in part due to deforestation in the Himalayas and possibly also to global warming.
Floods and cyclones have helped make Bangladeshis a tolerant and resilient people, who also have a large diaspora in Europe and North America, for whom what is called the "myth of return" never quite dies. Whether Hindu or Muslim, Bangladeshis revere their green and beautiful country, which has been called a land of rivers and canals.
Bangladesh could serve as a model, especially for its neighbors, for how people can live closely together and remain congenial. Though it is largely Muslim, the country has a sizable number of Hindus and other minorities. But one rarely hears of sectarian strife in Bangladesh. The country even takes in thousands of foreign refugees on its already crowded soil and the world never hears of any problems or complaints with the situation.
The creation of Bangladesh, in contrast to that of Pakistan from which it seceded, coalesced around language and culture rather than religion. Bangladeshis of Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and animist faith struggled together in the liberation war. The movement for a free Bangladesh (motivated by feelings of exploitation by West Pakistan) brought Bengalis together in a truly remarkable cross-faith endeavor around what in large measure is a common culture. It is a culture in which religious beliefs play a central role but tend towards a more universal worldview, as we see in the work and lives of some of the most revered Bengali poets.
Bangladesh consists mostly of a low-lying river delta located on the Indian subcontinent with a largely marshy jungle coastline on the Bay of Bengal known as the Sundarbans, home to the royal Bengal tiger and one of the largest mangrove forests in the world. Bangladesh is situated in the geographic region named the Ganges Delta (also known as the Ganges-Brahmaputra River Delta). Having densely vegetated lands, Bangladesh is often called the "Green Delta." The densely populated delta is formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna rivers and their tributaries as they flow down from the Himalayas, creating the largest river delta in the world. Bangladesh's alluvial soil is highly fertile but vulnerable to both flood and drought. Hills rise above the plain only in the far southeast and the northeast.
The country straddles the Tropic of Cancer, giving it a tropical climate with a mild winter from October to March; a hot, humid summer from March to June; and a humid, warm rainy monsoon from June to October. Natural calamities, such as floods, tropical cyclones, tornadoes, and tidal bores affect Bangladesh almost every year, combined with the effects of deforestation, soil degradation, and erosion. Dhaka is the country's capital and largest city. Other major cities include Rajshahi, Khulna, and the main seaport of Chittagong. Cox's Bazar, south of Chittagong, has a natural sea beach that stretches uninterrupted over 120 km, which makes it arguably the longest such beach in the world.
Advanced civilization in what is now Bangladesh, once the eastern part of a greater region called Bengal, is believed to date back to the first millennium B.C.E. One of the earliest known historical references is to a land named Gangaridai by the Greeks around 100 B.C.E. The word is thought to have come from Gangahrd (land with the Ganges at its heart), referring to an area in present-day Bangladesh. However, more concrete proof of a political entity in Bengal starts with the Hindu king Shashanka in the seventh century C.E. This was eventually followed by the Buddhist Pala dynasty (750-1120) and the Hindu Sena dynasty from approximately 1120 until the beginning of Muslim rule. Troops led by Ikhtiar Uddin Muhammad bin Bakhtiar Khilji invaded the Bengal area in the early thirteenth century, though Islam had evangelized much of the region beforehand.
After the conversion of much of Bengal to Islam, the region developed by the sixteenth century into a wealthy center of trade and industry under the Mughal Empire. European traders had arrived in the late fifteenth century and eventually the British East India Company controlled the region by the late eighteenth century. Subsequent to this conquest, the British gradually extended their rule over the entire subcontinent. When Indian independence was achieved in 1947, political motivations brought about the country's partition into the independent states of Pakistan and India, based on the loose delineation into separate geographic areas of the Hindu and Muslim populations.
The partition of India resulted in Bengal being divided between the two new countries. The Muslim-dominated eastern part, called East Bengal, became known as East Pakistan, an integral part of Pakistan though nearly 2,000 km from West Pakistan, which had a larger landmass but a smaller population. The Hindu-majority, western part remained in India as the state of West Bengal (also called Bangla). Both halves of Bengal continued to share a common culture, and substantial Hindu or Muslim minorities remained on both sides of the new border.
In hindsight, the naming of Pakistan illuminates the impending difficulties of keeping East Bengal a part of the newborn nation. The name is acronymic: P for Punjab, A for Afghan, KI for Kashmir, S for Sindh, and TAN for Baluchistan, the western areas that comprised the new state. No B for Bengal was included in the new name, whether out of neglect or misgiving that East Bengal would ever agree to join in forging a new state uniting the subcontinent's Muslims.
Neglect and domination by the Pakistani government were the experience and perception of East Bengalis during their near quarter-century of East Pakistan's existence. Despite the fact that the east earned the greater share of the national income, especially through the export of jute, most of national development spending occurred in the west. The Pakistan Army was also mostly dominated by western officers. Tensions peaked in 1971, following election results that the national government found unfavorable. Under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who became known as Bongobondhu (friend or father of the nation), East Pakistan's struggle for independence began.
The onset of the war coincided with horrific attacks by the national army on the civilian population. The effectiveness of Pakistani press censorship kept the casualties long unknown and still in dispute; the numbers range generally between one and three million, with 50,000 deaths in the first few days. Large numbers of the emerging nation's intelligentsia were annihilated. More than 10 million Bengalis fled to neighboring India, which backed the liberation war, with support from the Soviet Union.
Before Sheikh Rahman's arrest by the Pakistani government, he made a formal and official declaration of independence of the People's Republic of Bangladesh in March 1971. With help of Bengali officers in the army, the support of civilians, and military as well as humanitarian aid from India, Bangladesh quickly formed a regular army along with a guerrilla force, in which Christians and Hindus fought alongside Muslims. The war lasted nine months.
The Indian army invaded in December 1971, and within two weeks the Pakistani army formally surrendered. Rahman, who had been incarcerated in West Pakistan since March, returned triumphantly as the first prime minister of the new nation. India withdrew its troops from Bangladesh within three months of the war's end.
Rahman later became the president of Bangladesh, but he and most of his family were massacred by a group of disgruntled army officers in 1975. The exact reason for the coup remains unclear, though Rahman's tight grasp on the reins of power alarmed many. Bangladesh's political history then became one of coup following coup. During General Ziaur Rahman's presidency (1977-1981), multi-party democracy was briefly restored. But coups returned to Bangladesh until General Hossain Mohammad Ershad became president (1983-1990) and provided stability if not democracy. Since a popular uprising forced Ershad from power, Bangladesh has been ruled by three democratically elected governments. Using one available criterion for determining the stability of a democracy (at least two peaceful changes of power), Bangladesh qualifies as a democratic state.
Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, founded by her late husband, Ziaur Rahman, is the current prime minister of Bangladesh and served formerly in the same position (1994-1996). The present leader of the opposition Awami League is President Mujibur Rahman's daughter, Sheikh Hasina, who was also a former head of the government (1996-2001).
Bengalis were among the first in British India to benefit from English education and soon provided their overseers with many civil servants and lawyers. They were also among the first politicians to demand "fair play" from the British, the right to participate in government. It has been argued that Bengalis are especially willing to submit to authoritarian rule when the ruler is charismatic. Leadership is thought to be inherent, even derivative, in individuals rather than conferred by election. Thus, both Zia and Hasina gain recognition by virtue of their dynastic links.
A tension, or ambiguity, is said to exist among Bengalis between a passion for political participation and a willingness to submit to charismatic leadership. The country's founder, Sheikh Mujibar, is seen as having possessed all the right qualities, which earned him almost universal support, but when he assumed too much power, it was ironically the passion for participation that brought his violent death. This understanding of leadership impacts on the role of a "loyal opposition," since the idea of having an influential check on power is largely alien in Bangladesh. As a result, it is not uncommon in recent years for the opposition to boycott Parliament and for important national issues to go unaddressed while political leaders vie as rivals first rather than peers. The norm has become for Bengalis to rise up almost regularly against oppressive rule, and return to authoritarianism after being unable to deal with the resultant disorder.
Bangladesh is host to approximately 250,000 Muslim refugees from neighboring Myanmar, where they face persecution. The camps, situated along the southeast coast, are run by the United Nations. In addition, about 250,000 to 300,000 Bihari Muslims displaced from India live in several camps across the country.
Just as this refugee problem is little known outside Bangladesh, so is the country's participation in the U.N.'s peacekeeping activities. Having provided 51,000 "soldiers" in 26 countries, Bangladesh is one of the U.N.'s top peacekeepers for the world, with at least 70 having died in the line of duty.
Despite sustained domestic and international efforts to improve economic and demographic prospects, Bangladesh remains an underdeveloped, overpopulated, and ill-governed nation. This is not only attributable to corruption; climate and geography are also obstacles the country faces in its development.
Although more than half of the GDP is generated through the service sector, nearly two-thirds of the workforce is employed in agriculture, with rice the single most important product.
Jute, a natural fiber used to make cloth, rope, and bags, is Bangladesh's major cash crop in foreign-exchange earnings. The country produces about 80 percent of the world's jute. World-class tea is grown on hilly slopes in the northeast.
However, the largest portion of Bangladesh's export earnings (about 80 percent) comes from the garment industry, which boomed during the 1980s. The industry, which attracted foreign investors with the country's very low cost of labor, employs about 20 million people, 80 percent of whom are women. The garments sector has developed a comprehensive network of businesses in Bangladesh, including yarn, labels, accessories, fabrics, and ready-made garments, and employs almost 40 percent of the country's female population.
As in many parts of the Third World, Bangladeshis retain many of the old skills such as tailoring and shoemaking, and almost any item can be repaired by people working along the roadside. Handicrafts include items made from jute and from wood as well as hand-woven garments.
Major impediments to growth include frequent cyclones and floods, inefficient state-owned enterprises, mismanaged port facilities, a rapidly growing labor force that has not been absorbed by agriculture, inefficient use of energy resources (such as natural gas), insufficient power supplies, and slow implementation of economic reforms, caused by political infighting and corruption.
In recent years, heavy flooding has damaged Bangladesh, killed hundreds of people, and covered about 60 percent of the country in water. Damaged crops put millions of people in need of food aid.
People with land can usually survive through subsistence farming and fish cultivation (in small ponds). However, floods wash away fish stocks as well as ruin crops. Poverty results in a bitter cycle, since cash-strapped farmers mortgage their crops to money lenders, who claim them as payment. Farmers then lack the means to buy seed, leaving arable land barren.
In 2005, an eight-story shopping mall (the largest in South Asia) opened in Dhaka. The large influx of shoppers belies the notion that Bangladesh's economy is stagnant and also reveals the growth of the country's middle class. Observers have credited an expansion in the textile and garment trade for bringing some prosperity to the country.
Although once described as a "basket case" by international experts, Bangladesh has established some very effective private agencies of its own, in addition to the many overseas aid and development agencies that continue to work there. Many of the homegrown agencies work with women and the very poor, providing fair-trade mechanisms to sell cottage-industry-produced handicraft and provide education, training, health care, and a range of other services. Among the many successful Bangladeshi NGOs, one of the most well-known is Grameen Bank , which pioneered micro-credit. Among other initiatives, it holds the national monopoly on cell phones. Other significant NGOs are BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Commission) , which works to alleviate poverty and empower the poor, and Proshika, one of the world's largest NGOs (founded in 1976), whose name stands for training, education, and action .
Apart from very small countries or city-states such as Singapore, Bangladesh is the most crowded country in the world. The nation's population density, at 1,055 people per km², has often been likened to that of Indonesia's island of Java.
Bangladesh is ethnically homogenous, with Bengalis comprising 98 percent of the population. The vast majority speak Bangla, or Bengali, an Indo-Aryan language written in Bengali script. It is the official language, though English is also used for official matters and in higher education. The remainder is mostly made up of non-Bengali tribal people, living in the north and southeast, who are often colloquially referred to as aborigines. A small number of people, mostly non-Bengali Muslims from India, speak Urdu. Almost all the country's non-Bengalis speak Bangla as a second language.
Bangladesh's population has a high growth rate. In the mid-1980s, the government began promoting birth control to slow population growth, but with limited success. Substantial numbers are landless or forced to inhabit hazardous floodplains where they face the consequence of rampant water-borne diseases. However, there has been considerable success in preventing the spread of many childhood diseases through an effective nationwide immunization policy.
Most Bangladeshis (about 83 percent) are Muslims, but Hindus constitute a sizable (16 percent) minority. There are also a small number of Buddhists (0.5 percent), especially in the area bordering Myanmar; Christians (0.3 percent); and animists (0.2 percent). The country's Buddhist monasteries may be among the oldest in the world.
Islam arrived in the area with Muslim merchants and Sufi missionaries as early as the twelfth century, about 100 years before Muslim forces conquered the region and Islamic rule began. The Sufis taught a version of Islam that meshed with the pre-existing Buddhist and Hindu devotional traditions, stressing piety and devotion, and a form of worship having much in common with bhakti (Hindu devotion and love-mysticism). Sufi shrines soon became holy places, and flowers are still offered there, much as Buddhist shrines are dedicated with flowers. Early sheikhs resembled gurus, and like gurus they were thought to put their followers in touch with the divine. Islam attracted Hindus in Bengal both as converts and as Sufi devotees who remained Hindu. The Bengali love of poetry and music led to a devotional tradition that some Muslims in the west regarded as a corrupted, Hinduized form of Islam. Before the war of liberation, this attitude was common in West Pakistan, and the imposition of the Urdu language on the east was part of a deliberate policy of Islamization.
When Bangladesh gained independence, the original constitution was secular since culture, not religion, was the state's raison d'etre, while Pakistan's had been religion. It also recognized the contribution of non-Muslims to the liberation struggle. While the slogan "Islam is in danger" had rallied support for Pakistan's founding in 1947, the liberation cry of the Begalis was "joy bangla" (victory to the Bengalis). However, Bangladesh was placed under some pressure from oil-rich Muslim donor states to assert its Islamic identity. In 1988, Islam was declared the religion of the state. There were some protests at the time, but little changed in terms of the generally good relations among the different faiths.
Following the Hindu attack on the Babri Masjid (Mosque) in Ayodhia (India) in 1992, a backlash occurred against Hindus in Bangladesh. This was denounced by feminist writer Taslima Nasrin in her 1994 novel, Lajja (Shame), resulting in death threats from Muslim fundamentalists and her subsequent exile. Between 2002 and 2005, a number of terrorist atrocities were committed in Bangladesh by a group calling for the establishment of a genuine Islamic state. Analysts remain skeptical, however, that Islamist parties will gain enough electoral support to significantly change Bangladesh's largely Western-style legal and parliamentary systems.
The country has a rich cultural heritage that unites Bangladeshis across religious and ethnic divides in pride over their language, poetry, and drama. Though officially a Muslim country, the national anthem was written by a Hindu, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature. (Tagore also penned India's national anthem.) Most of Bangladesh's iconic figures sought unity rather than division, preferring to regard humanity as one, not fragmented.
Early Bangladeshi literature, which dates back over a thousand years, was in the form of song and poetry followed by translations of popular Hindu scriptures. In the medieval period, Muslim patronage of the arts enabled a cultural flourishing. Under British rule, what has been called the Bengali renaissance occurred in the nineteenth century. This was mainly led by Tagore, whose music and songs remain hugely popular among all sectors and faiths of the Bangladeshi population. In Bangla he is referred to as a bishakobi,, or "universal poet," and in Hindu circles, where Tagore is regarded as a leading reformer, he is described as a "universalist."
Alongside Tagore, the Muslim poet and writer, Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) or the bidrohikobi (rebel poet) is renowned for his patriotic poetry that inspired the freedom fighters of the war of independence. Islam was given a state funeral as Bangladesh's poet laureate; though a Muslim, he loved Hindu literature and his poetry embraced all people.
Another popular, almost iconic, literary figure in Bangladesh is the Christian writer, Michael Madhusudan Datta (1824-1873), a poet, novelist, and playwright, who believed in the ability of literature to bridge religious differences. It is not insignificant that Bangladeshis' poets of choice championed universal values and human brotherhood, ideas much in tune with the Bengali ethos and the Sufi tradition, which often stresses the essential truth of all religions.
Because Bangla is closely related to Hindi, many Bangladeshis watch Hindi films, produced in what was once a thriving, Calcutta-centered Bengali film industry. Bengal's first silent-era feature film was made in 1917. Satyajit Ray (1921-1992) was the first Indian filmmaker to gain global critical acclaim. Many of Ray's films, like his masterpiece, Charulata (1964), were based on Tagore stories.
The films of Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976) were deeply influenced by the tragedies of Bengal's partition and by the miseries of millions of displaced people. Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960) is generally considered his greatest work. Competition from Mumbai's huge film industry, including the renowned "Bollywood," has resulted in declining production of contemporary Bengali films.
Although Bangladesh is not a major sporting power in any sense, Bangladeshi athletes and sportsmen have brought the country many laurels. Kabadi is the national game of Bangladesh, but is played mainly in rural areas and involves tagging opponents and holding one's breath rather than a ball. Cricket is popular in the cities, and there have been recent successes in international competition. The same is true for shooting and chess.
In Europe, "Indian" restaurants are very popular, but most are actually run by Bangladeshis serving a clientele that is largely unaware that the chef is not Indian. It's not surprising that the national cuisine in Bangladesh itself, with a huge delta and a large ocean to draw upon, leans heavily on fish. The most popular food in Bangladesh is illish, or hilsa fish, caught throughout the Ganges Delta.
As for the grayer side of life in Bangladesh, the country has been ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, if not claiming the very top position. The problem, like elsewhere, lies in officials being poorly paid and finding the huge amounts of aid money they handle too tempting to resist. Despite the festering sore that such levels of corruption represent, it is worth noting that the nation's annual growth rate has been holding at a steady 5 percent for several years and has not changed markedly whether the government in power was elected or the result of a coup.
The first university in what is present-day Bangladesh was founded as a result of a political concession. The British had divided Bengal for administrative purposes in 1905, causing a near-rebellion to erupt. That partition, which had made Dhaka a provincial capital, was revoked in 1911; a decade later, as compensation for losing its status as capital, Dhaka was awarded a university.
Education in Bangladesh is highly subsidized by the national government, which operates many schools and colleges at several levels as well as many of the country's 22 public universities. Churches also run schools, including several boarding schools, and the Roman Catholic missionary order of the Holy Cross operates two colleges. Bangladesh's first private, non-religiously affiliated university is Dhaka's North-South University, founded in 1993 and increasingly popular with the upper-middle classes.
To promote literacy among women, education is free up to the higher secondary level for female students. English instruction was neglected for many years in the school system but this is changing. Government-sponsored adult literacy programs also work collaboratively with the NGO section.
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