Located between the foothills of the eastern Himalayas and the northern shores of the Bay of Bengal, the Bengal Delta has been for more than a millennium a major frontier region of the subcontinent, a gateway to the Indian Ocean and an evolving cultural hub. Because of its frontier location, the region has experienced the interplay of domination and independence from northern Indian imperial powers. Its location also allowed it to connect with the western Indian Ocean as well as the Southeast Asian and South China maritime spaces, making it a long-term player in international trade. These spatially induced political and economic experiences and a remarkable mobility of people and ideas from and into the region shaped a culture that was regionally rooted yet open to cosmopolitan ethos. It was not until the arrival of late colonial national imaginations when the Bengal Delta’s regional integration was put to the test, which resulted in its splitting into two parts: West Bengal of India and Bangladesh.
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.
Michael H. Fisher
Founded in 1526, the Mughal Empire expanded during the late 16th and 17th centuries across almost the entire Indian subcontinent (except for the southern peninsular tip). At its peak, the empire contained roughly 1.24 million square miles and about 150 million people (half of western Europe in size but double its population). The imperial dynasty was originally Turco-Mongol. But, especially under Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605), the dynasty established the Mughal Empire by incorporating Hindu and other Indian cultures and mobilizing India’s human and natural resources more effectively than any previous state there. Nonetheless, emperors almost constantly faced rebellions and revolts by rival members of the dynasty, imperial administrators, army commanders, regional rulers, and popular movements. By the early 18th century, the empire fragmented into successor states, but the dynasty remained on the throne until 1858 when the British Empire finally displaced it.
Throughout, the imperial court patronized extensive histories and literature (in Persian and a range of Indian languages) and works of architecture and representational arts. The imperial administration compiled detailed records, including about the court, army, and the lands it ruled. Historians, from the time of the empire onward, have used these diverse source materials in their own analyses.