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date: 21 April 2019

Modern Bangladesh

Summary and Keywords

Bangladesh is a relatively young state with an agile political heart. Its emergence in 1971 as an independent state accompanied the familiar elements of modern polities, as reflected in the major principles of its first constitution: nationalism, secularism, democracy, and socialism (in the sense of social justice). Yet a prehistory and posthistory of the birth of Bangladesh are replete with contestations, tensions, and quests for new meanings for these categories, providing intriguing windows to the challenges and opportunities facing governance, ideologies, and public life in the country.

In the modern period, between the transition to British colonial rule and present times, Bangladesh (part of Bengal until 1947 and East Pakistan until 1971) has been shaped and reshaped by several interrelated historical developments. The idea of nationhood was not a linear one thriving on a certain space, religion, or ethnicity at a given moment, the constant thread of collective national imagination being the desire for economic emancipation from a British colonial system and protracted military rule in Pakistan. But the poverty and deprivation that continued after the independence raised questions about the perception of the postcolonial state as the sole liberator. Since the 1990s, although inequality and poverty have remained constant, Bangladesh has seen remarkable economic growth and a relatively better human-development index, making it a potent partner in the recent spell of Asian economic growth. Democracy and citizenship, however, have remained the weakest link, occasionally leading to military rule or dictated democracy. Amid all visible ups and downs in its political, economic, and social life, Bangladesh remains a vibrant nation-space in the increasingly interconnected modern world.

Keywords: authoritarianism, Bangla language, citizenship, colonialism, democracy, nationalism, economy, diaspora, globalization

Modern Bangladesh

Locating Bangladesh in the modern era entails multiple entry points. Although anticolonial resistance among the peasantry started immediately following the British takeover, modern forms of national awakening around certain territories were noticeable not earlier than the turn of the 20th century. Political activism within these spatial configurations would later find expressions in the political parties that would shape, particularly after the first elections of the late 1930s, the nature of democratic aspirations as well as their adversaries in the successive phases of colonial, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi histories. In terms of economy, the Bangladesh region had exposure to early-modern global commercial advances around the Indian Ocean, but organized policies and planning of economic development—beyond mercantilism, random industrial processing of raw materials, and agrarian revenue management—came much later. Social and cultural changes as well as local and global mobility of Bengali people took place within these temporally disjointed developments of politics, governance, and economy. This article provides an outline of these issues keeping in mind that the Bangladesh described here is not necessarily a fully modern entity, but a part of a tangled tale of an evolving “modern” world.

The Nation and its Spaces

Bangladesh’s current area of 56,977 square miles represents a fragment of the territories that formed part of different geopolitical configurations since colonial times. Following several experiments, British viceroy George Curzon created the province of Eastern Bengal and Assam in 1905 through partitioning the Bengal province. With its capital in Dhaka and comprising about 111,570 square miles, including the territories of what is today’s most of northeastern region of India and Bangladesh, the province represented new spatial strategies directed toward securing an outreach to mainland Southeast Asia and China as well as the Bay of Bengal seaboard. Although informed by imperial economic planning and a desire to contain Kolkata-centric emerging Bengali nationalism, this new province promised a multi-ethnic and multireligious space and raised hope for economic revival of this hitherto neglected region.1 Such promise, however, came to be seen as an assault on another, more visible, form of nationalism that argued in favor of an all-Bengali exclusive national space. In the face of strong protests with epicenter in Kolkata, the new province was dismantled in 1912, and Bangla-speaking people were placed back under one single province, when Kolkata ceased to be India’s capital and Dhaka slipped back to be a drowsy provincial town.

Four decades later, at decolonization and partition of India in 1947, a section of Bengali politicians supported the idea of an independent “Sovereign Socialist Bengal” alongside India and Pakistan. For these leaders, including Hussain Shahid Suhrawardy, Abul Hashim, Sarat Chandra Bose, and Kiran Shankar Roy, the rationale for a united Bengal was the cultural and ethnic integrity of the Bengali people and economic sustainability of the new state that could be ensured by the continued connection between Kolkata as a trading and commercial hub and Eastern Bengal as an agrarian production base. Such an idea could not materialize because of widespread desire for the Muslim state of Pakistan, on the one hand, and the fear among the Hindu leadership of majoritarian politics in a Muslim-majority Bengal, on the other.2

With the failure in securing an independent united Bengal, Muslim majority Eastern Bengal was included in Pakistan and was left with a strange geopolitical arrangement, being part of a state whose other half lay more than a thousand miles away in the form of West Pakistan. If in 1905 the majority Bengalis in Eastern Bengal welcomed a culturally plural and economically promising territorial arrangement in the form of Eastern Bengal and Assam, in 1947 they submitted to a new political space filled with a sense of religious fraternity, forming the largest Muslim majority state of the time. The border that had delimited East Pakistan in 1947 became Bangladesh’s national border on independence, significantly crippling its historically larger spatial reach. While in the course of half a century, Hindu political elite took a u-turn from its resistance to the partition of Bengal in 1905 to the vocal demand for the same in 1947, the Bengali Muslims struggled with various spatial configurations of a nation, as varied as Eastern Bengal and Assam, a united Bengal or a geographically scattered Pakistan, and finally Bangladesh.

The transregional flow of the Bengali people and products that defined and defied different historical boundaries continue to have reverberation across the current map of Bangladesh. The Bengali-speaking people, claimed to be originating in what is today’s Bangladesh, are spotted in Odisha, West Bengal, and northeastern India, as well as southwestern Myanmar. With India’s new outreach to the northeastern region and mainland southeastern Asia via Bangladesh, such mobility of people and products is evoking the revival of the spatial arrangement of 1905. This historical mobility beyond the postcolonial territorial divide suggests that Bangladesh’s current border has never been a fixed container of all its territorial or national experiences, while its demographic and economic dynamics within the current boundary seem to be “bursting at the seams.”3

Within these unstable territorial experiences, nationalism took many routes and shapes for Bangladesh. The first remarkable resistance with direct involvement of peasantry came in the early 19th century when the adverse impact of a colonial revenue arrangement known as the Permanent Settlement (introduced in 1793) was fully felt. But this resistance, including that of Titu Meer, a Muslim spiritual leader and a peasant activist who organized about 15,000 destitute peasants, was brutally crushed by the mercenary of the East India Company. The failure of the first phase of resistance and an increasingly stronger colonial grip led to the emergence of a new form of agrarian movement by the Faraizis, a reformist peasant group predominant in the riverine tracts of Eastern and central Bengal.4 Rather than directly confronting the colonial state, the Faraizis resisted the colonial agencies that exploited agrarian production bases, including the indigo cultivators and landlords bent on collecting extra and illegal taxes. The Faraizi movement developed two apparently contradictory but strategically intelligent moves in which Islamic signs and ethos were employed to rally the Muslim majority peasantry, and at the same time, they extended a political support base for the Hindu peasantry against the common threats posed by landlords and indigo planters. Within this contradiction, a clear class consciousness emerged that has been even termed “Marxist.”5 The peasantry behind this movement were rational enough to appreciate the threat to primary agrarian interest and moral enough to unite as a class to confront these threats.

The agrarian rational-moral economy that took shape in the course of the 19th century, however, was not the only author of the nationalism that eventually led to the birth of Pakistan. Pakistan had promised to be a “utopia” for the Muslim peasants without the oppression of the colonial system; a liberal and plural public space as envisioned by the Bengali Muslim intellectuals and a fair ground of democratic practices as hoped by politicians.6 But an early dampener to such aspirations came from a somewhat unexpected avenue. The decision of the first postcolonial government of the new state apparatus of Pakistan, whose decision to impose Urdu as the state language of Pakistan ignoring Bangla, led to a series of protests leading to the death of half a dozen young men by police bullets on February 21, 1952. The movement for Bangla language was accompanied by the revival of cultural imageries of a “golden Bengal,” and the national imagination received an ethnic edge.

In the course of the late 1960s, cultural politics of nationalism around language was replaced by a clearly articulated economic agenda that was reflected in the six-point charter (choi dofa dabi) that demanded greater provincial autonomy, separate provincial treasury, and a fiscal policy that would protect East Pakistan from the exploitation by political and military elite in West Pakistan. This was a predictable demand from the Awami League, the first major postcolonial Bengali political party, in the context of a relatively higher contribution of this region to Pakistan’s overall economy.7 The cultural and economic ingredients of Bengali nationalism paved the way for a political claim to power in Pakistan as reflected in the landslide victory of the Awami League in the elections of 1970 under the charismatic leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The Awami League was prepared to accept the popular mandate to lead the entirety of Pakistan, yet again reflecting Bengali Muslim’s tryst with a history that complicates the modern notion of territoriality and nationalism. But such a prospect was not to be entertained by Pakistan’s ruling elite, which was partly driven by a notion of racial superiority, feudo-military social complex, and the geo-strategic calculations of Cold War politics. Rather than transferring power to the Awami League, they sought to contain the Bengali democratic aspirations by force. The nine-month-long war that followed saw genocidal brutality, colossal fatality, and one of modern history’s largest refugee movements, orchestrated by the Pakistani military and their local collaborators.8 But a combination of factors made sure the war was relatively short-lived and independence finally achieved on 16 December 1971: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman remained a key inspiration despite being confined in West Pakistan; committed guerilla tactics from Mukti Bahini (Liberation Forces) comprising Bengali armed forces and civilians from all walks of life; favorable world opinion; and direct involvement of India at the later stage of the war.

The instance of the emergence of Bangladesh beyond the India and Pakistan state framework relegated the two-nation theory to a grey political zone where neither religion nor secularism would reign supreme. A secular polity immediately after the birth of Bangladesh appeared politically correct vis-à-vis Pakistan’s Islamist polity from which it had just achieved its independence, but Islam returned soon to the public space. The first head of state, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, sought to assure Bangladesh’s majority Muslim population as well as the greater Muslim world of their commitment to Islam, as reflected in his bid to the membership of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and the establishment of the learned body of the Islamic Foundation. Following the death of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in a bloody military coup, the military rulers sought legitimacy by using Islamic idioms and symbols throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. In 2011 the Awami League government amended the constitution to reflect the original 1972 secular constitution, yet the two major Islamic credentials of the constitution remained intact. One was the retention of the phrase bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim (meaning “In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful”—the phrase that begins each chapter of the Quran) as the starting point of the constitution, and the other was the retention of Islam as the state religion. The ideologies of religion and secularism and multiple spatial imaginations have always been malleable ingredients of nationalism in modern Bangladesh.

Authoritarianism and Democracy

The introduction of the India Act of 1935 in colonial India opened the door for party-based electoral politics while it also generated new sets of language and strategies that politicians could employ to garner public support. The first round of provincial elections was held in 1937, taking Abul Kashem Fazlul Huq to the office of the chief minister of Bengal, a position he retained until 1943. Huq’s Krishak Praja (Peasant-Tenant) Party had contested the election with the promise of serving the interests of the landless, sharecroppers, and indebted peasants, but his cabinet was dominated by landlords, yielding no significant land and economic reforms, despite his desire to institute land reforms, as reflected in the formation of a Land Revenue Commission. Huq eventually tossed his support in favor of the Muslim League. Among two other prominent Bengali politicians who joined in the crucible of a new state of Pakistan were Khawja Nazimuddin and Hussain Shahid Suhrwardy, who went on to become chief ministers of undivided Bengal. The gathering mass of support from the Bengali Muslims for the Muslim League was reflected in the victory of the latter in the provincial elections of 1946 over the Congress in Bengal. Without substantial support from the Bengalis, the Muslim League could not have the hold of a critical bargain chip for the creation of Pakistan.

In postcolonial Pakistan, the Bengali political forces regrouped through the formation of the Awami Muslim League (later named the Awami League), by Fazlul Huq, Suhrawardy, and Maolana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani, a Muslim spiritual leader whose constituency lay with the subaltern population, earning him the title of “Red Maolana.” In the election of the Provincial Legislative Assembly of 1954, the United Front of the Awami League and smaller allies had a landslide against the Muslim League and were able to form a coalition government. Although the government lasted for only a few months in the face of the Muslim League machinations, it showed the strength of electoral politics in venting public aspirations and a bold outline for political autonomy within the Pakistan state. This was reflected in the Front’s twenty-one-point election manifesto, which included demands for making Bangla as the state language, separation of the judiciary from the executive, reforms and expansion of education sector, and nationalization of jute sector, as well as reforms and redistribution of land among the landless. Excepting the issue of Bangla language, which was made a state language in 1956, none of the demands was fulfilled, and with the arrival of military rule of Ayub Khan in October 1958, democratic aspirations were dealt a severe blow.

Within the postcolonial global political conditions, the military was an expected guest in Pakistan. Either inspired by the Soviet model or as an effect of American deterrence to Soviet influence, most of the postcolonial world was under some sort of military or authoritarian rule at any given period between 1960s and 1980s. The excuses and languages of intervention were similar: instability, inability to govern, and lack of development. Ayub Khan’s quest for legitimacy came with the crafty idea of “basic democracy” that would perpetuate his power through putting a limit to the electoral franchise and withholding some basic political rights. However, the unassailable ride of Ayub Khan for a decade in Pakistan was made partly possible by the factional politics in East Pakistan, which, one way or the other, aligned with American policy of containing Indo-Soviet influence. A pro-Western stance of the Awami League was reflected in the removal of one of its founders, the left-leaning Bhasani, from the party. The ousting of Bhasani was followed by the six-point movement by the Awami League now showing a visible shift from the class component of the twenty-one points of the United Front, which had emphasized socialist ideals like equitable land reforms for the benefit of landless and landpoor.

The Awami League government in independent Bangladesh was marked by an uneasy compromise between liberal democracy and socialist ideals, eventually leading toward one-party rule under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who revoked the first democratic constitution and replaced the Awami League with a new party called BAKSHAL (Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League), banning all others. The brutal assassination of Sheik Mujibur Rahman in a military coup followed shortly in August 1975. In the ensuing muddy turf of political ambitions among the army factions, General Ziaur Rahman emerged as the next contender to power. Although apparently Ziaur Rahman’s entry into Bangladesh politics was cast against the Awami League regime, he seemed to have flushed out at least three of the early policies undertaken by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Mujibur Rahman’s outreach to the Muslim world was advanced through active engagement with major Muslim states. His general amnesty to the war-time collaborators of the Pakistan Army set the tone for Ziaur Rahman to restore them in Bangladesh politics. Both the Rahmans met the threat of the radical left with unflinching hardline. But Ziaur Rahman had made his own mark in a number of measures: by allowing all political parties to operate in the post-BAKSHAL era, he led the way to the return of Sheikh Hasina, one of the two surviving daughters of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who revived the Awami League in the coming years. Ziaur Rahman himself attempted to take on a civilian face and established his own political party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which soon emerged as a major political force. He also started the early phase of denationalization of economy. In terms of foreign policy, he clearly moved away from the Awami League’s foreign policy, by looking beyond India and proposing South Asia’s regional organization of SAARC, which he hoped would create a multilateral platform for cooperation and stability in the region.

The circumstances leading to Ziaur Rahman’s assassination in 1981 preceding the takeover by his deputy, General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, is still shrouded in mystery. Ershad held several controlled elections and formed an electoral alliance with Islamist parties and declared Islam as the state religion—to gain legitimacy and perpetuate military rule. His fall in 1990 followed massive resistance from student community as well as an unprecedented unity among political factions and coincided with the end of the Cold War era. In retrospect, the period between 1958, when Ayub Khan took over, and 1990, when Hussain Muhammad Ershad fell, was a history of continuity of military rule or authoritarian populism—a temporal gift from the global struggle for hegemony between the socialist and capitalist blocs. The War of 1971 against Pakistan was a splendid interregnum aptly termed behat biplab, a lost revolution, which had showed a momentary spark of both a praxis and poetics of liberation.9

The national elections following Ershad’s fall under an interim caretaker government brought Khaleda Zia, Ziaur Rahman’s widow, into the office of the prime minister. The following two national elections of 1996 and 2001 were held under the caretaker government, which brought Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, respectively, to power. The 1990s proved to be a formative period for Bangladeshi democratic experiences. During Khaleda Zia’s first term, the interim caretaker government system was constitutionally enshrined. Sheikh Hasina’s first term saw the signing of a peace treaty with the insurgent groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, ending long military dominance on the indigenous population. There was a certain aura of inclusiveness and forward-looking attitude among the political elite. When the general elections of 2006 approached, the Awami League did not consider the preceding chief justice, entitled to be the head of the coming caretaker government, neutral enough, leading to the consideration of a series of constitutionally possible alternatives. As BNP continued to hold on to power on the plea of constitutional continuity, the Awami League stepped up street agitations leading to widespread violence and deaths, prompting the military to extend its support to the caretaker government. The new army-backed caretaker government ignored the constitutional provision of holding the election within ninety days and put major political party members, including Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, under house arrest amid emergency rule. The constitutionally illegal caretaker government spent almost two years before yielding to pressure from home and abroad, including India, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations, for holding elections. The election held in 2009 brought Sheikh Hasina back to power, who subsequently condoned the army-backed caretaker government and scrapped the caretaker system altogether, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling for maintaining the system for at least the following two general elections.10

The interim caretaker government system could not succeed for a number of reasons. Rather than being an innovative mechanism in the democratic process, the system was at the very outset a reflection of mutual mistrust among political parties seeking an alternative form of neutrality. Rather than agreeing to institutionalize democratic practices, including the strengthening of the Election Commission, political parties were more interested in the instrumentality of the electoral process. Another stakeholder of the caretaker system was a section of civil society that, reeling from the military government in the past decades, found an opportunity to taste governance and to nurture political ambitions through the caretaker government on the plea of corruption and unrest bred by the political parties. But without a grassroots support base, such ambition on a longer scale could be materialized only through the support of the army, a circumstance that arrived for them in 2007. Such an unpopular marriage between the civil society and the army did not last long, as another spell of resistance especially among the students compelled it to give in.

The demise of the caretaker government meant a renewed interest in the Election Commission itself. But the failure to strengthen the institutional capacity of and restore autonomy to this vital state organ at the fall of Ershad in 1990, when the political environment was conducive, proved too expensive. The first post-caretaker election held under the incumbent government of the Awami League in January 2014 was boycotted by all political parties, barring a few invented contestants, 154 of 300 parliamentary seats remaining uncontested. The scrapping of the caretaker system and growing crisis of legitimacy left the Awami League government to return to the only option of making the Election Commission appear legitimate ahead of the next elections in 2019. A new set of members of the Election Commission came into being in early 2017 through a search committee formed by the president of the republic. The new Election Commission has received a mixed response, with the main opposition party BNP remaining skeptic. The future of democratic practice in Bangladesh is up for many new turns and twists. In the meantime, the void that has been created due of the decline of the neutral “caretaker” government and the absence of a fully autonomous Election Commission is reminiscence of a colonial state bent on empowering the executive organ of the state, leading to the propensity to influence the judiciary and significant corrosion of individual rights and liberty, including of the minorities and other vulnerable citizens.11 A political order that ensures a mutually constitutive relationship among the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary is only possible when actual democratic representations are secured through a free and fair electoral process—something that Bangladeshis have been awaiting for years.

Economies, Developments, and (In)equities

Recent revisionist historiography of early modern South Asia suggests that the Bangladesh region, rather than being a chaotic hinterland under a weakening Mughal government, was in the process of shaping its own regional trade regime and fiscal autonomy by the turn of the 18th century. Largely relying on the Indian Ocean trade network since the 17th century, the textile industry received great impetus through European, in particular the Dutch, imports. A vibrant commerical environment prompted the Bengal rulers to maximize income for the state through strict regulations of trade and taxes, while the local merchant communities sought liberalization of the market for European traders with whom they saw profitable trading opportunities. In the resultant conflict between Bengal administration and the East India Company and its local allies, the last independent ruler, Nabab Shirajuddowla, was defeated, providing the East India Company a free ride into Bengal economy.

The arrival of the British at the disconnect between the Bengal government and the local mercantile community ruined any chance of capital accumulation out of Bengal’s early modern global connections. From the late 18th century, the region started a phase of unstoppable “peasantization.” The decline of the textile industry and excessive tax demands left the skilled craftsmen and peasantry vulnerable to the slightest economic downturn, making them the main victims of the famine of 1770. By the 1840s agrarian economy stabilized and got reconnected to the world economy through the export of jute and rice. By now, the company administration appreciated the worth of the land resources that lay outside the contractual bound of the permanently settled revenue system, such as the reclaimable forest tracts of the Sundarbans and lands formed out of alluvial processes, both inland and in the coastal regions of the Bay of Bengal. The colonial administration saw merits in contracting these lands directly with actual cultivators by way of generating a fresh revenue base, which in effect led to the growth of a middle-ranking peasantry. By the turn of the 20th century, however, the colonial government moved away from the pro-peasant policy to a new policy of appeasing the urban forces of anticolonial resistance, leading to the transfer of relatively better ecologically productive agrarian bases to non-cultivating groups. This period saw the growth of the jute industry and some job opportunities around Kolkata while the East Bengal region experienced none of these, although this region produced bulk of the raw jute. The resultant landlessness and land poverty, low wage, low productivity, and lack of nutrition and prevalence of malaria led to the emergence of a vulnerable group who suffered most in the famine of 1943.

After decolonization, the Pakistan government abolished the Permanent Settlement and attempted to create an industrial base for processing raw jute, leading to the establishment of world’s largest jute mill, around Dhaka, called Adamjee. The mill, starting production from 1951, employed about 26,000 workers at its peak. A few other industrial units began to emerge, but in the years between 1959–1960 and 1969–1970, per capita GDP growth for East Pakistan stood at 17 percent against 48 percent in West Pakistan. Although East Pakistan saw the development of a number of institutions that provided a base for measuring inequality between the two wings, by all macroeconomic measures, East Pakistan was treated unfairly until the last days of united Pakistan, including in terms of development expenditure and private-sector investment.12

With the creation of Bangladesh ended the contestations between two macroeconomic units within a single state structure, but the economic situation worsened dramatically. The damage to the infrastructure during the war was a significant reason for economic downturn, but the abrupt decision to nationalize proved unsustainable. The war created a void between political ambition for an independent state and proper planning for running the economy, and this void was filled by self-seeking officials and politicians. Mismanagement of food mobility across the country, skyrocketing inflation, and a host of other internal and external factors led to the devastating famine in 1974–1975, which killed about 1.5 million people.13

The policy of denationalization and efforts to restore infrastructure initiated by the governments of Ziaur Rahman and Ershad got the economy moving a little. It was in the first government of the BNP following the fall of military rule that a full-scale liberalization started, continued under the succeeding Awami League government, whose impact was felt rather early as, by the end of the 1990s, the country was able to reduce substantially the dependence on foreign aid in managing its economy. Between financial years 1974–1975 and 1990–1991, the size of the budget increased tenfold, and between 1991–1992 and 2014–2015, it increased exponentially, from BDT 155.84 billion to BDT 2505.06 billion.14 The industrial sector (28.9 percent) surged ahead of the traditionally dominant agricultural sector (17.2 percent) in the first decade of the 21st century. The country ranks second, after China, in readymade-garments production, which is the main catalyst for the economy, but other sources of national income include remittances by migrant workers, mostly from the Gulf countries, North America, and Southeast Asia. Bangladesh is the eighth-largest remittance-recipient country globally. For the first time a Sovereign Fund of $10 billion has been created. The country’s GDP (PPP), at $620 billion in 2016, makes it the thirty-third-largest economy, which, at the current growth rate, is expected to surpass Malaysia to become the twenty-eighth-largest economy in 2030.15

How does Bangladesh make the most of the macroeconomic feats that have accompanied economic liberalization since early 1990s? If financial governance is a yardstick to address the question, there are issues that point to many vulnerabilities. Two major stock-market crashes, in 1996 and 2011, left more than 3 million people financially ruined as BDT 50 billion ($667 million) melted away in the crash in 2011 alone. In another single incident of a secret-loan scam, BDT 50 billion were siphoned off a premier government bank—which is only one of the many similar incidents that have been taking place in the financial sector. On the top of these and other similar examples of financial irregularities, between 2001 and 2010, the amount of “black money” increased from $864 to $2367 million, most of which was transferred abroad.16 With around $10 billion of annual flight of its wealth abroad, Bangladesh is the twenty-sixth on the list of countries that lose most out of illicit money flows.17 These add up to the country’s external debt reaching an all-time high of $26.96 billion in 2016.

Despite the drains and dents of national wealth, Bangladesh state is still capable of brandishing a robust development expenditure, which has increased substantially over the past three decades. Some of the government efforts have translated into securing Bangladesh a positive place on the Human Development Index, such as life expectancy at birth and mean years of schooling (especially of girls), yet overall human-development indicators have remained unsatisfactory and do not speak proportionately to the GDP growth rate and a relatively healthy macroeconomy. The country remains at number 142 of the Human Development Indicators. Workers’ wages, including for more than 4 million garments workers, are the lowest in the world. About 50 percent of the population, almost 75 million, are multi-dimensionally poor, and an additional 18.8 percent, about 28 million people, live near multi-dimensional poverty. Inequality in income has been the highest in South Asia, 10 percent more than the South Asian average.18 If macroeconomic growth and inequities are a mutually constitutive phenomenon within modern nation-states, Bangladesh appears to be a representative example.

Modern Thoughts and Institutions

Modern intellectual history in Bengal is traced back to the widely studied Bengal Renaissance that spanned the thoughts and works of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Rabindranath Tagore, for more than a century from around 1800 ce. Although patronized and inspired by colonial administration and modern European thoughts, the initial forms of liberalism of the Bengal Renaissance was not totally disconnected from the precolonial experiences. The successful campaign for the abolition of the sati system by Ram Mohan Roy came in the wake of similar attempts by Mughal emperors Akbar and Aurangzeb. The flourishing of Bengali literature and a plural cultural synthesis were reminiscent of the Hussain Shahi regime in the early 16th century. The Brahma ideals of monotheism and an egalitarian society were drawn from many premodern sources including Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. However, what made these intellectual trends and efforts modern were the institutional developments associated with them. Ram Mohan Roy and his institution, the Brahma Samaj, could be considered the harbinger of what came to be known as “civil society” in the context of modern Bengal. In the period between the establishment of the Brahma Samaj and the formal inauguration of the Visva Bharati in early 1920s, there was an explosion of creativity in art and literature and thoughts on social reforms and in the emergence of many civil-society organizations. In retrospect what prevailed was the renaissance’s self-refining cultural ethos, which became predominantly Sanskritized, rather than its institutional quest for reform of social and communal inequity. Partly for the cultural limits to the universal aspirations of the renaissance and partly in response to their self-awareness, the Bengali Muslim intelligentsia started carving out an alternate longing for liberation from the mid-19th century onward. Over the time, if historical turns and corresponding intellectual responses in modern conditions are taken into consideration, the Bengali Muslim mind developed a longing for social justice and economic well-being with a sympathetic call to the Islamic universal ideals with local rootedness and a cautious engagement with global forces while resisting regional hegemony. An earlier expression with a specific focus on women’s rights and dignity was seen in the writings and activism by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Rokeya was keen to translate her thoughts into reality through establishing institutions like girls’ schools and social organizations. The socially rooted and bottom-up institutional approaches toward women’s empowerment were later taken up by a number of organizations including Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (1970) under the leadership of Begum Sufia Kamal and Naripokkho (1983).

A broader call to new intellectual thoughts and social reforms came in earnest in the 1920s and 1930s through the movement for “Uncaging the Intellect” (Buddhir Mukti Andolan) that premised itself on forms of rational humanism. The birth of the University of Dhaka in 1921 greatly enhanced the environment for such intellectual awakening. Terming it as a “model university” in India, the first vice chancellor, Philip Hartog, believed that this university in the historic city of Dhaka would be the catalyst for the revival of “old idea of Liberty and Justice” and “unite the science and culture of the East and of the West [and] achieving new things by a new synthesis.”19 The works of Kazi Nazrul Islam, Kazi Abdul Wadud, Abul Hussain, and Muhammad Shahidullah, among others, were symptomatic of these changes. In the intervening years between the emergence of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh, there developed an intellectual trend that distanced itself from the West Bengali elite cultural milieu and West Pakistani religious excesses, seeking to rehabilitate the mainstream Bengali Muslim mind in the postcolonial thoughtscape. Abul Monsur Ahmed and Ahmed Sofa’s works remain as powerful expressions of this trend.

By the 1980s Bangladesh was no longer offering any critical edge in innovative and critical interventions in social sciences or liberal arts like, for example, that of the Kolkata-centric intellectuals who brought watershed contributions in postcolonial studies through Subaltern studies. However, Bangladesh in these decades was more successful in developing a realistic framework for social development. Rather than being embroiled in the theoretical world of identity politics and resistance, Bangladesh during this period saw the development of major institutions that would make practical efforts to eradicate poverty and promote gender equity, among other social issues. The Grameen Bank and BRAC remain two leading examples. Despite criticism of the majority of microcredit-based non-government organizations for being front-runners of global finance capital in an era of neoliberalism, it seems that Bangladeshi policy elite and civil society came to a consensus to make use of these institutions in order to promote public well-being.

The rise and decline of the University of Dhaka as a site of reproduction of new and socially relevant knowledge took place in quick succession, between 1920s and 1950s. By then, however, a new generation of universities began to emerge. Comprehensive universities included the Universities of Rajshahi (1953), Chittagong (1966), and Jahangirnagar (1970). Specialist tertiary institutions included Agricultural University (1961), University of Engineering and Technology (1962), Institute of Postgraduate Medical Research (1965, later renamed as Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University), and the Institute of Business Administration under the University of Dhaka (1966). At present, Bangladesh has more than forty public universities. The liberalization of the economy since the early 1990s coincided with the emergence of privately owned universities, currently numbering close to a hundred, including the most promising ones American International University-Bangladesh, BRAC University, East West University, Independent University, North South University, and University of Liberal Arts.

Governed by a set of rules and regulations under the auspices of the University Grants Commission, universities in Bangladesh make one of the largest tertiary sectors, projected to enroll 3 million students by 2022. These universities have been catering to the need of higher education of the country including that of an expanding middle class and preventing the outflow of a considerable amount of national resources. In terms of regional and global competitiveness in learning and research output, these universities have, however, lagged behind. The absence of a healthy academic environment in the public universities are a result of politicization of recruitment of teachers and administrators, lack of clear vision, and misplacing of resources. Private universities are mostly run on the tuition fees from students and remain largely teaching institutions. Without the government’s permission to offer full-fledged graduate studies and a reasonable teaching load for faculty members, research remains one of the weakest links in the private universities.

Despite the mismatch between quality and quantity in higher education, Bangladesh has a potentially strong base for a knowledge society. In terms of publication output, as registered in the Scimago journals in the period between 1996 and 2016, Bangladesh is placed at number sixty-one on the global country ranking with 35,538 documents and 303,079 citations. Bangladesh ranks third after India and Pakistan in the South Asia region, but publications from Bangladesh have a relatively higher citation rate, 8.53 percent per document compared to India’s 8.32 and Pakistan’s 6.99 percent, respectively. It is noteworthy that the globally citable research output in Bangladesh, largely in the field of medical and natural sciences, are mostly published in journals associated with learned and professional bodies rather than universities. If the intellectual and financial resources of the universities are put together, Bangladesh can find a respectable place in the global knowledge society.20 It is hoped that the University Grants Commission’s recent initiatives on Higher Education Quality Enhancement Project leave a positive contribution to such a possibility.

Environmental Changes and Challenges

A vast area of fertile plains with large rivers and one of world’s largest mangrove forest systems, the Sundarbans, a UNESCO heritage site, has had a formative influence on the society and economy for the better part of the Bangladesh’s history. By the late 19th century, problems associated with remarkable population growth and a number other factors led the decline of the formative forces of the water regime of the region. Practices that might previously have been “innocent” became predatory or unsustainable in the course of time. Eastern parts of the Sundarbans were reclaimed up to the sea and lost the position as a “belt” between the settled land and tidal waves and cyclones.21 The impact of the construction of the railways came to be fully felt toward the 20th century. By 1920s C. A. Bentley, director of public health in Bengal, pointed out that due to the “blind” method of building roads and railway embankments without adequate culverts, the country had become divided into “innumerable compartments,” and it was extremely difficult for rainwater to flow from one compartment to another. Every year the floods increased in severity, and he warned that unless remedial measures were adopted, Eastern Bengal would cease to exist as the richest rice-producing area in India.22 The last colonial decades actually saw further deterioration in flooding and deforestation, a legacy that continued in the Pakistan period. During the Pakistan era, excepting the formation of the Water Development Board, little of significance was achieved in terms of controlling the deforestation, while it continued unabated in the Sundarbans. The causality of about half a million people in the 1970 cyclone could be related to historical reclamation up of the Sundarbans to the sea, leaving part of human habitat unprotected.

In more recent times, on average 3.48 million people are affected every year by flooding in the country, securing second position after India, where 4.84 million people are affected. Bangladesh has the highest percentage of GDP affected by flooding in the Asia Pacific region.23 In addition to the ecologically insensitive construction of railways and highways on the embankment in a deltaic plain that often ran against the natural north–south flow of the drainage of the river, a second set of issues relates to deforestation in the higher regions outside of Bangladesh, such as in northeastern India and Nepal, leading to flash floods. A third set of issues is linked to the construction to barrages, including Farakka in India in 1975, which withdraws water during the lean season and opens the sluice gates during monsoon season, causing both drought and flooding in Bangladesh. There are also cases of death during the embanking or raising of beds of the rivers of Bangladesh. When a combination of high precipitation and these factors act together, a major flood may take place within a few years. The devastating flood of 1987 and 1988 led to the drafting of a Flood Action Plan, but little was gained from this plan, as reflected in the fact that in 1988, 52 percent of Bangladesh’s land was inundated, and during the flooding of 1998, the extent of land inundated was 68 percent. The melting of Himalayan glaciers and the rising of the sea level is going to leave further adverse impact on the flooding situation in the country.

Loss of land by riverbank erosion is a major factor in the displacement and destitution of a huge part of Bangladesh population. In the last four decades, during 1973–2013, a total of 153,438 ha of lands have been eroded along the Padma and Jamuna Rivers.It is estimated that about 1,30,000 people are displaced annually due to river bank erosion.24 283 locations, 85 towns, along with 1,490 square miles along the river in Bangladesh are vulnerable to erosion.25 Annual economic losses are estimated at BDT 10 billion.26 Such severity of erosion is considered caused by both natural process especially during the late monsoon period and the impact of draining of rivers for construction of bridges over large rivers. The progressive salinization of coastal regions in Bangladesh has affected both human health and agriculture as well as fish habitat and the Sundarbans ecosystems. The salinization process in coastal Bangladesh started as early as the 1960s with the postcolonial development planning of the coastal regions that included the construction of polder. Another major human-induced factor for salinity, not only in coastal regions but also in the northern and southwestern Bangladesh, is the sluggish water current due to barrages and other water-management structures put upstream on the Indian side on many rivers that flow to Bangladesh. The Farakka Barrage on the Ganges across the border in India has seriously impeded the force of current allowing the ocean water to penetrate the land.27 The lack of afforestation that continued in the following decades resulted in the death of almost half a million people in 1970.28 According to ADB report of 2016, Bangladesh ranks the third country in Asia with lowest proportion of forests (11 percent). Since 1991, when about 150,000 people perished, there has been remarkable decrease in cyclone-related death and injuries. In the most severe cyclone in recent years, in 2007, death tolls reached 4234, showing 100-fold reduction from the death toll of the 1970 cyclone.29 But the devastation of the households, livelihood, and property continues in such cases.

Ecological problems across the country have led to displacement, and disaster-affected people have thronged in the urban spaces, making the ongoing urbanization process a challenging one. Dhaka, for example, occupies 1 percent of Bangladesh’s territory but shelters one-tenth, about 17 million, of the country’s population. With more than 1,500 new migrants settling in daily, it is set to be the fourth-largest megacity by 2030, overtaking Shanghai, New York, and Karachi. The resultant vulnerability of the urban life is already visible through lack of safe drinking water, increasing temperature, alarming level of air pollution, extreme traffic congestion, and inevitable cost of social wellness and human rights as seen in the inferior life of millions of slum and street dwellers. Dhaka’s proximity to the Bay of Bengal makes it all the more vulnerable to the impact of climate changes. Dhaka produces about 40 percent of the national GDP, so if the city fails as a megacity in the long run, the country itself braces for an uncertain future. It is hoped that policy makers in Bangladesh aim at creating a long-term vision that would negotiate human well-being and economic development within a sustainable urban environment.

A Global Itinerary

Any study of Bangladesh in modern times must also locate it at the crossroads of global connectivity. With the British taking over Bengal in the mid-18th century, the region emerged as a bridgehead for the British between a slipping American colony and an expanding Asian empire.30 Britain could now save the American silver that it had been spending to buy products in India. These savings were in addition to the initial revenue and private income from Bengal that was transferred to London, including the remittances from the British expats, which in the early 19th century stood at around 1 million pounds a year.31 If major innovations, urban growth, and a congenial investment environment propelled industrial development in Britain in the late 18th century, then the British bridgehead of Bengal may have had some role in it.

The ships that were carrying the purse and products of Bengal to Britain were also carrying skilled crew from the region, known as lascars, who created the foundation of Bangladeshi-British community.32 From Britain a number of Bengalis spread out to continental Europe and across the Atlantic. One of the most visible Bengali presences in the public life in the Western world has been in the food services. Although Sheikh Dean Mohamed, a Bihar-born Bengali, ended up being a therapeutic consultant to the English royal family and the elite, he pioneered Indian cuisine in Britain, now a four-billion-pound curry industry.33 In interwar Berlin, for example, London-based Bengalis from Sylhet, Dhaka, and Chittagong established an Indian restaurant that became a meeting point of Germans, East Europeans (including Bulgarians, Hungarians, and Romanians), and visitors and students from India. In the United States and Canada, most Indian restaurants such as “The Passage to India” or “Gandhi” are actually owned and run by Bangladeshis; this is the case with about 90 percent of all Indian restaurants in New York.34 Over the years, there have been other areas in which Bengalis have made marks. Several Bangladeshi-British have recently been elected MPs, while some of them found themselves among the richest British Asians. One Bangladesh-descent politician became a U.S. congressman. The Willis Tower in Chicago, the tallest building in the world until 1998, was designed by Dhaka-born architect Fazlur Rahman, considered the “father of tubular designs” for high-rise structures.

Within Asia, the Bengalis have made their marks mostly on the Indian Ocean rim since premodern times, from Chittagong to Canton in the east and to the Gulf region in the west. Over the course of the 19th century, Myanmar became a major Bengali hub. The official number of the Bengalis, scattered around Arakan, Rangoon, Pegu, Hanthawady, Basin, and Mandalay, increased from 204,003 in 1901 to 301,039 in 1921. Of the Bengalis a majority were from the district of Chittagong, followed by those from Noakhali and Comilla, some of whom settled and married local women including Burmese and Kachins.35 Many Chittagonians dealt with milk products and groceries in Burmese towns, while there were major business firms dealing with wood, rice, and sawmills that created several millionaires.36 Preexisting cultural dynamics and regular communication with Bengal helped the emergence of a considerable Bengali public space, involving the political and cultural extension of Bengal with vibrant diasporic experiences. Thailand saw a relatively lower number of Bengali settlers, but in the late 19th century, many Bengalis settled in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, where a majority worked in tailoring and business firms, one of them becoming a royal tailor.37

In the Malay world, Bengali mobility from premodern times increased greatly during the British imperial era. At the turn of the 20th century, many of the Qazis or religious officials performing social and marriage ceremonies were of Bengali origin. In the last imperial decades, the Bengali community in Malaya played significant role in the religious and social life as reflected, for example, in their joining the Arabs, Malays, and other Indians in raising funds to donate to the earthquake victims in Turkey or in forming the Bengal Muslim Association of Singapore to feed destitute peoples.38 In Malaysia today there are more than 2.1 million registered and about 4 million nonregistered Bangladeshi workers and expatriates in Malaysia, followed by a visibly increasing number in Singapore and Brunei Darussalam. In the western Indian Ocean region, by the late 19th century, roughly 130,000 pilgrims per year from Indonesia, India, and Central Asia went to the Hajj, of which a substantial number may have been the Bengalis.39 Today Bangladesh alone sends more than 100,000 pilgrims annually, and the number is increasing. This number is on the top of several millions of workers in the Gulf region shaping the skyline in Doha and Dubai, among other cities in the region. Because of long historical relations and geographical proximity with India, Bangladeshi presence there is most remarkable. A majority are the descendants from pre-1947 era, and the rest are migrants, often claimed as illegal by India, from post-1971 Bangladesh. The growing presence of Bangladeshis in India, albeit temporarily, is reflected in the fact that in 2016, Bangladeshis surpassed Americans to form the largest annual tourist group in India, 1.4 million.40

Beyond the diasporic representation, Bangladesh has been a source of contribution in global cultural arenas. The fateful event of February 21, 1952, not only secured Bangla as the state language, but also in the long run had Dhaka outplace Kolkata as the cultural capital of Bangla-speaking people, with an explosion of literary production especially around the month-long book fair in February commemorating the occasion. Currently, in more than a hundred universities in thirty countries in four continents, Bangla language is being studied and researched.41 Bangla is an “honorable state language” in Sierra Leone. In 1999, UNESCO declared February 21 as the International Mother Language Day for annual celebration, to “promote unity in diversity and international understanding, through multilingualism and multiculturalism.” These developments as well as the fact that Bangla is the sixth most widely spoken language have encouraged the Bangladesh government to explore the possibility of having it declared as a United Nations official language.

In the field of international peacekeeping under the United Nations, Bangladesh has taken a leading role along with India, Pakistan, and Ethiopia in employing police and troops in many troubled areas. In the field of international development, Dhaka-based organizations have established a considerable presence. BRAC, the largest NGO in the world, has operations in Afghanistan, Liberia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, South Sudan, Sierra Leon, Tanzania, and Uganda. In some of these African countries, BRAC has overtaken long-serving British charities with both nonprofit and for-profit microcredit initiatives.42 The Grameen bank model of micro-credit based entrepreneurship has been emulated in more than twenty seven countries in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, South America and the USA and reaches three hundred million people as of 2017.43 In a circulatory flow of global thoughts and practice, often in a neoliberal garb, a developing country like Bangladesh is finding a small scope to share its experiences of dealing with poverty and its aspirations for a better future.

Discussion of the Literature

Literature on modern Bangladesh reflects a continuously productive interest in the country. An important set of work emerging since the 1960s focused on the perceived “transition” in Bengal during and following the British takeover.44 Issues relating to the complex tenure systems, agrarian institutional arrangements, and the relationship between the landlord and the peasants that colonial regulations helped to define—all have been examined for clues to the understanding of stagnation of rural economy and society in the colonial period.45 But the questioning of the formal, elitist, and “structural” analysis of colonial agrarian society necessitated a shift of focus toward the “return of the peasant” in South Asian historiography, yielding a good range of literature.46 There are a few statistically informed works focusing on the material conditions and economic context for the peasants and their vulnerability,47 while more recent works focused on Bengal in a comparative and long-term context, as an agrarian region within South Asia.48 Labor-movement studies diversified in the late 20th century into studies on subsectors of industries as well as agencies like women workers in the mine fields. More literature on industrial labor came in the domain of Subaltern studies, focusing on the jute and other sectors, some of which departed from the classic Marxist analysis of production relations to the use of caste and consciousness and an array of intra-labor networks.49 The strength of the field of colonial Bengal lies in the vast colonial archives, statistical data, and multiple political and ideological moorings and methodological novelty.

For the Pakistan period, beginning in the late 1960s, most of the focus was on the economic disparity between the west and east wings and the failure in integration.50 The language movement has been the subject of a significant number of works, some of which are based on oral histories.51 Although the Pakistan period has attained the status of a political other of the Bangladeshi nation-state, in recent times there have been works that take a critical view of the period, looking at the late colonial period and early Pakistan era as providing space for a new, culturally plural identity formation of the Bengali Muslims, beyond the West Pakistan Urdu culture and West Bengal cultural milieu.52

The topic that has received the most attention and productivity in the field of Bangladesh studies is the Liberation War of 1971. Of the two broader sets of literature in this field, the most productive one has been the narratives of the event as the inevitable fulfilment of the collective national quest for an independent nation-state, reflected in as diverse genres as autobiography, novels, historical research, and audiovisual materials, including songs and films.53 The second set of literature examines 1971 as a product of the Cold War politics of the superpower and their regional allies in South Asia.54

Throughout the 1980s, political scientists debated the contexts and connotations of the post-1971 political turmoil characterized by coups, counter-coups, assassinations of heads of state, and military interventions. These issues continue to animate current political debates.55 In independent Bangladesh there was also the violence of hunger and deprivation, including the devastating famine in 1974, which has received scant scholarly attention. The national encyclopedia, Banglapedia, is a commendable work by the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh. There are a few useful textbooks on modern Bangladesh for undergraduate-level students, most of which are edited volumes and encyclopedic in nature.56 These have been complemented by two recent single-authored books that have offered a synthetic picture of Bangladesh history and contemporary public space.57 There are still very few studies of the chemistry of postcolonial party politics that contributed little to change the nature of the state, which remains politically cruel and economically iniquitous.

Primary Sources

For primary sources on colonial period, the best place is still the British Library in London, which contains a vast collection of official records as well as materials written in vernacular Bengali. The National Archives of Bangladesh in Dhaka provides an excellent window to primary materials of more local and regional nature from early colonial times. Libraries of the University of Dhaka and Bangla Academy in Dhaka hold useful printed materials including books, periodicals, and newspapers. The West Bengal State Archives and Alipore National Library in Kolkata hold significant archival and printed primary materials including Bengali vernacular tracts. The Library of Congress and the National Archives of the United Kingdom as well as Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi hold a useful range of government correspondences and diplomatic sources, on events running up to 1971 and beyond.58

Digital Materials

Heidelberg University Library: Periodicals and newspapers from Bengal.

Bengali intellectuals in the age of decolonization: repository of oral interviews of Bengali intellectuals.

Further Reading

Ahmed, A. F. Salahuddin. Social Ideas and Social Change in Bengal, 1818–1835. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1965.Find this resource:

Bose, Neilesh. Recasting the Region: Language, Culture and Islam in Colonial Bengal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Chatterji, Joya: Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932–1947. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Hashmi, Taj ul-Islam. Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia: The Com-munalization of Class Politics in East Bengal, 1920–1947. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1992.Find this resource:

Iqbal, Iftekhar. “State of Bangladesh Studies: An Exploration in Historical Literature,” South Asia Chronicle 4 (2014), 5–28.Find this resource:

Islam, Sirajul. Banglapedia: National Encyclopedia of Bangladesh. Dhaka: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 2003, 2012.Find this resource:

Islam, Sirajul, ed. History of Bangladesh. 3 vols. Dhaka: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 1992.Find this resource:

Kamal, Ahmed. State Against the Nation. The Decline of the Muslim League in Pre-independence Bangladesh. Dhaka: University Press Limited, 2009.Find this resource:

Lewis, David. Bangladesh: Politics, Economy and Civil Society. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Mascarenhas, Anthony. Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986.Find this resource:

Maniruzzaman, Talukder. The Bangladesh Revolution and its Aftermath. Dhaka: University Press Limited, 1980.Find this resource:

Raghavan, Srinath. 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Reaz, Ali, and Mohammad Sajjadur Rahman. Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Bangladesh. Oxford: Routledge, 2016.Find this resource:

Saikia, Yasmin. Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh. Durhum, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Thakurta, Meghna Guha, and Willem van Schendel. The Bangladesh Reader: History, Culture and Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Umar, Badruddin. Purba Banglar Bhasa Andolan-o-Tatkalin Rajniti. Dhaka: Agamee Prakashani, 1979.Find this resource:

van Schendel, Willem. A History of Bangladesh. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.Find this resource:


(1.) David Ludden, “Spatial Inequity and National Territory: Remapping 1905 in Bengal and Assam,” Modern Asian Studies 46.3 (2012), 483–525; and Iftekhar Iqbal, “The Space between the Nation and the Empire,” Journal of Asian Studies 74.1 (2015), 69–84.

(2.) Joya Chatterji, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition 1932–47 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

(3.) Willem van Schendel, A History of Bangladesh (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press), 232–250.

(4.) Iftekhar Iqbal, The Bengal Delta. Ecology, State and Social Change 1840–1943 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 67–92.

(5.) Narahari Kaviraj, Wahabi and Farazi Rebels of Bengal (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1982).

(6.) Taj ul-Islam Hashmi, Pakistan as a Peasant Utopia: The Communalization of Class Politics in East Bengal, 1920–1947 (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1992).

(7.) For example, in the year 1959–1960, West Pakistan’s only port Karachi handled 4 million tons of products, whereas East Pakistan’s Chittagong and Chalna ports handled 4.9 million tons. See S. Steinberg, ed., The Statesman’s Year-Book 1965–66: The One-Volume Encyclopedia of All Nations (London: Macmillan, 1965), 448.

(8.) Without a broad-based contemporary survey, estimates on death tolls during the liberation war of 1971 vary widely, ranging from an extremely conservative estimate of the Pakistan government to 3 million by Bangladesh government. Independent researchers put it between 1 to 1.7 million. A relatively reliable source would be the note submitted to the World Bank and the British Prime Minister around June 1971 by Rehman Sobhan, renowned economist, close aide to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and a representative of the interim war-time government of Bangladesh in 1971. The note suggested that the death toll until the end of May 1971 was 200,000, which offers another range of guesstimate of the causality until the end of the war in December 1971. See “Bangladesh: Situation And Options”, Kew Gardens, London: National Archives. FCO 37/874.

(9.) Salimullah Khan, ed., Behat Biplab (Dhaka: Agami Prokashoni, 2007).

(10.) Ashutosh Sarkar, “Caretaker System Declared Illegal,” The Daily Star, May 11, 2011.

(11.) For a discussion of the colonial and postcolonial context of human rights and citizenship in Bangladesh, see Imtiaz Ahmed, ed., Human Rights in Bangladesh: Past, Present and Futures (Dhaka: University Press Limited, 2014).

(12.) Raunaq Jahan, Pakistan: Failure in National Integration (New York: Columbia University Press, 1972).

(13.) Although the death toll of the year-long famine was officially estimated at 26,000, independent researchers including Mohiuddin Alamgir put the figure at around 1.5 million, excluding the urban deaths outside of public kitchens. Renowned scholar of famine Amartya Sen, who did not contest this latter estimate, suggested that death tolls could have been higher without the government and non-government relief efforts. For debates on causes and impact of famine of 1974–1975, see Mohiuddin Alamgir, Famine, 1974: Political Economy of Mass Starvation in Bangladesh: a Statistical Annexe (Dacca: Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies); Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), 131–153. More recently Dutch scholar Willem van Schendel also put the figure of excess famine death at around 1.5 million. See his A History of Bangladesh (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009), xxii.

(14.) “Chronology of Budget Since 1972,” Prothom Alo, June 4, 1915.

(16.) Faaria Tasin, “The Influence of Black Money on Economy,” The Daily Star, June 2, 2013.

(17.) According to a recent report, between 2004 and 2013, Bangladesh was the source of illicit outflow of $5,588 million, which secured it the twenty-sixth place globally and second in South Asia, after India.

(18.) UNDP, Human Development Report (New York: UNDP, 2015).

(19.) Iftekhar Iqbal, “A History of the Future,” in University of Dhaka: Making Unmaking Ramaking, eds. Imtiaz Ahmed and Iftekhar Iqbal (Dhaka: Prothoma, 2016), 313–328.

(21.) G. E. Gastrell, Geographical and Statistical Report of the Districts of Jessore, Fureedpore and Backergunge (Calcutta: Office of Superintendent of Government Printing, 1868), 25.

(22.) The Times, October, 13, 1922, 11.

(24.) Tanjinul Hoque Mollah and Jannatul Ferdaush, “Riverbank Erosion, Population Migration and Rural Vulnerability in Bangladesh (A Case Study on Kazipur Upazila at Sirajgonj District),” Environment and Ecology Research 3.5 (2015): 125–131, here 125.

(25.) Mollah and Ferdaush, “Riverbank Erosion,” 125.

(26.) FAO, “Eroding Rivers, Eroding Livelihoods in Bangladesh: Environmental Contexts”, in On Solid Ground, Addressing Land Tenure Issues Following Natural Disasters.

(27.) S. Rahman and M. A. Rahman, “Climate Extremes and Challenges to Infrastructure Development in Coastal Cities in Bangladesh,” Weather and Climate Extremes 7 (2015): 99.

(29.) Ubydul Haque et al., “Reduced Death Rates from Cyclones in Bangladesh: What More Needs To Be Done?,” Bulletin of the World Health Organization 90.2 (2012).

(30.) The term is aptly used in Peter Marshall’s Bengal: The British Bridgehead 1740–1828 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

(31.) Marshall, Bengal, 106.

(32.) G. Balachandran, “South Asian Seafarers and their Worlds: c. 1870–1930s”; The “Dacca Street” in the dockland areas of eastern London in Greenwich is reminiscent of the hub that the Bengali lascars created on this junction of the Thames and the Ocean.

(33.) It is estimated that with 12,000 restaurants, the British Bangladeshi own about 80 percent of the 3.8-billion-pound curry industry in the United Kingdom.

(34.) Barbara Crossett, “The Star of Bangladesh; In New York Don’t Take the Indian Food too Literally,” The New York Times, April 7, 2000. See also Francis Lam, “The Mysteries of Manhattan’s Curry Row,” The New York Times April 29, 2015.

(35.) Gyanendra Mohon Das, Banger Bahire Bangali[The Bengalis outside of Bengal] (Calcutta: Indian Publishing House, 1931), 425.

(36.) Das, Banger Bahire Bangali, 471, 476.

(37.) Andrew D. W. Forbes and Sachchidanand Sahai, The Muslims of Thailand, vol. 1 (Gaya, India: Centre for South East Asian Studies, 1988), 102. Das, Banglar Bahire Bangali, 439.

(38.) “Penang Muslims Aid Turkish Sufferes,” The Straits Times, February 12, 1940, p. 11. The Straits Times, March 10, 1950, p. 80.

(39.) Michael N. Pearson, The Indian Ocean (London: Taylor & Francis, 2003), 243.

(44.) K. M. Mohsin, A Bengal District in Transition: Murshidabad, 1765–1793 (Dhaka: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 1973); and Sushil Chaudhury, From Prosperity to Decline: 18th Century Bengal (Delhi: Manohar, 1999).

(45.) Ranajit Guha, A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1982); and Sirajul Islam, Permanent Settlement in Bengal: A Study of Its Operation, 1770–1819 (Dhaka: Bangla Academy, 1979).

(46.) Sugata Bose, Peasant Labour and Colonial Capital. Rural Bengal Since 1770 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993); and Partha Chatterjee, The Present History of West Bengal: Essays in Political Criticism (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997).

(47.) Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), especially the chapters on the Bengal famine of 1943 and the Bangladesh famine of 1974.

(48.) David Ludden, An Agrarian History of South Asia (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

(49.) Dipesh Chakrabarty, Rethinking Working Class History: Bengal 1890–1940 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

(50.) Jahan, Failure in National Integration; Kabir Uddin Ahmad, Break-up of Pakistan; Background and Prospects of Bangladesh (London: Social Science Publishers, 1972).

(51.) Badruddin Umar, Purba Banglar Bhasa Andolan-o-Tatkalin Rajniti (Dhaka: Agamee Prakashani, 1979).

(52.) Neilesh Bose, Recasting the Region. Language, Culture and Islam in Colonial Bengal (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014).

(53.) Wikipedia has an entry listing some publications on 1971; For a brief assessment of the literature see Iftekhar Iqbal, “State of Bangladesh Studies,” South Asia Chronicle 4 (2014): 17–19.

(54.) Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

(55.) Anthony Mascarenhas, Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1986); Mohiuddin Ahmod, Jasoder Utthan Poton (Dhaka: Prothoma, 2014).

(56.) A. M. Chowdhury and Fakrul Alam, eds., Bangladesh: On the Threshold of the Twenty-First Century (Dhaka: Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 2012); and A. F. Salahuddin Ahmed and Bazlul Mobin Chowdhury, eds., National Cultures and Heritage: An Introductory Reader (Dhaka: Independent University of Bangladesh, 2004).

(57.) Willem van Schendel, A History of Bangladesh; David Lewis, Bangladesh: Politics, Economy and Civil Society (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

(58.) A major collection of documents on the Liberation War of 1971 is Hasan Hafizur Rahman, ed., History of Bangladesh War of Independence: Documents, vols. 1–15 (Dhaka: Ministry of Information, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 1982–1985).