Fifty years ago, the streets around Dhaka University were littered with the bodies of students and intellectuals killed by Pakistani forces looking for Bengali nationalists in the dormitories. Dhaka was the main city of East Pakistan, at the time still part of Pakistan, a nation united by religion and divided by language and separated by 1,300 miles of Indian territory, from which Pakistan was forcibly separated in 1947. The world's deadliest tropical cyclone The record had devastated East Pakistan in 1970 and fueled resentment in the province that had been neglected for years and sought greater economic, cultural and political autonomy within the Pakistani Federation.
In the national elections in Pakistan in December 1970, the Awami Autonomous League won all but two of the 162 seats in East Pakistan. West Pakistan – which is now Pakistan – sent 138 members to the federal assembly in Karachi, which meant that the Awami League had gained an absolute majority over the United Country and its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, should have been invited to form a civilian government. But the generals who ruled Pakistan felt differently. They were extremely suspicious of civilians and unsure of the Bengali loyalty to Pakistan. They dragged Awami League politicians into long, irritating negotiations. On March 7th, Rahman gave a rousing speech in which he almost declared independence. East Pakistani have stopped working with the German government; There were daily marches and protests. The dock workers stopped working in Chittagong Harbor.
On March 25, the Pakistani army began Operation Searchlight – a brutal suppression of protests, arrests of leading Awami League leaders and mass murders of people suspected of supporting Bengali separatism. Archer Blood, a senior US diplomat in what was then Dacca, wired the State Department and warned of genocide in Pakistan. The White House, under then-President Richard Nixon, had other priorities, however: in the great game of building ties with Mao Zedong's China, Pakistan was a willing accomplice, a mediator that helped cut the secret visit by US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to facilitate China. Both Nixon and Kissinger liked Pakistani leader Yahya Khan, who showed determination.
The Pakistani military spared no one – Muslims, Hindus, Christians – when it systematically tried to re-establish authority in East Pakistan. Many young Bengali men and boys rushed across the border into India, where some joined a rebel force called the Mukti Bahini, which India tacitly and explicitly supported. Almost 10 million refugees – around two thirds of them Hindus, the rest Muslims – crossed the border into India, expanding the capacity of its more populous but equally poor neighbor. The massacres continued in East Pakistan and hundreds of thousands of civilians died in the months that followed. Pakistani soldiers raped thousands of women, some repeatedly in camps, and abducted, captured and tortured young men who they suspected were part of the rebel army. In December 1971, the Pakistani Air Force attacked airfields in India and gave India legal justification to officially enter the war. (India's motives were not entirely humanitarian or selfless as an independent East Pakistan critically weakened its eternal rival.) India did a quick job, and Pakistani troops in East Pakistan surrendered to India within two weeks.
A new nation, Bangladesh, was born, but expectations couldn't have been lower. The country was immediately dismissed as an "international basket case" by Ural Alexis Johnson, then US Secretary of State for Political Affairs, during a meeting in December 1971. Kissinger agreed and replied: "But not necessarily our basket case."
Fifty years later, after enormous economic and social advances against many adversities, it is the Bangladeshis who have the last laugh. Of course, Bangladesh faced a drought shortly after independence, and cyclones were a recurring bane for the flood-prone river country. His politics were divisive too, with coups and counter-coups in which Rahman, first prime minister and later president, was assassinated in 1975 and President Ziaur Rahman in 1981. There have also been attempts to strain the life of the current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Mujibur Rahman. The dislike between Hasina and her rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia (the widow of Ziaur Rahman), is intense and personal. Both accuse each other of allowing political violence, promoting corruption and trying to cripple the economy through repeated strikes. But Hasina was elected in 2009 and has been re-elected twice since then, decimating the opposition in elections that many observers have found profoundly flawed.
Despite this governance, Bangladesh has performed amazingly on various indicators of social development. Life expectancy is 72.6 years, a quantum leap from 46.6 years if you are independent. According to the World Bank, nearly all Bangladeshi children finish elementary school, a remarkable improvement over the 1980s when only about a third did so. At 72 percent, the literacy rate of women in Bangladesh is higher than in India (66 percent) and considerably higher than in Pakistan (46 percent). With 26 deaths per 1,000 births, child mortality rates are lower than in India (28) and Pakistan (67). In 1971, when Johnson and Kissinger saw a basket fall, the child mortality rate was 158. At 36 percent, the employment rate of women in Bangladesh is low by international standards, but is over 21.9 percent in Pakistan and 21.5 percent in India. And at 2.04 births per woman, the birth rate in Bangladesh has fallen below the 2.22 in India. In a generation the high population growth that accompanies poverty will no longer exist.
A great merit for this social progress goes to civil society in Bangladesh. Zafrullah Chowdhury was instrumental in pushing for drug policies in the 1980s to make drugs available at low prices, even at the expense of the big pharma anger. His non-profit organization continues to do an excellent job in the public health field. Fazle Hasan Abed founded a non-profit organization called BRAC that focuses on improving the health of children and is now one of the world's largest development organizations. Muhammad Yunus's Grameen Bank provided small-scale loans to poor Bangladeshis and turned them into entrepreneurs instead of relying on unsafe government or development agencies to support them. In 2006 Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize for his innovation.
Today, Bangladesh is one of the world's leading exporters of clothing and only benefits from its low labor costs, as it hardly grows cotton and has to import textile machinery. The country supplies clothing to top brands around the world and the majority of the 4.4 million workers in the sector are women, a phenomenon that is immense in a country where other jobs are scarce. Around 80 percent of foreign exchange in Bangladesh is generated by the industry. Around 10 million Bangladeshis working overseas send back $ 15 billion in remittances annually, another significant part of national income. In October last year, the International Monetary Fund forecast that Bangladesh's GDP per capita would exceed India's in 2020. There's a joke in Dhaka that the infiltration-proof fence India is trying to build along its border to keep Bangladeshis out will soon be necessary to keep jobs. Search for Indians from Bangladesh.
This is extraordinary progress given the damage caused by his bloody birth, natural disasters, and political instability in the early years. In late February, the United Nations said Bangladesh had qualified to graduate from its Least Developed Country status. This is an accomplishment the country – and its hardworking citizens in particular – should rightly be proud of.
While Islamism is growing in predominantly Muslim Bangladesh – one Islamist political party is allied with the opposition Nationalist Party of Bangladesh, while other Islamist organizations routinely demand the introduction of Islamic laws – many Bangladeshis advocate secularism. Dictatorships between 1975 and the early 1990s increasingly introduced Islamic laws. Hasina's party, the nominally secular Awami League, amended the constitution to restore secularism and religious freedom while maintaining Islam as the state religion.
The demands of fundamentalist groups continue to pose a serious challenge to the government, and attacks on religious minorities have been regular. Most recently, on March 28, members of a persistent Islamist group attacked Hindu temples and protested the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to participate in the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh.
But even when the Hasina government tried to fend off religious fundamentalist attacks, its support for secular, liberal public figures has been weak. When fundamentalists attacked free-thinking, atheist, and rationalist bloggers, writers, and publishers (at least 11 were killed between 2013 and 2018), they were told to be careful about what they write and realize that it is not right to commit crime cause. Several Bangladeshi writers and bloggers are now living in exile abroad.
The government has cracked down on dissidents, most recently passing the infamous digital security bill, supposedly passed in 2018 to curb radicalism and pornography. However, this gives the authorities a free hand to jail anyone who publishes something that is classified as "aggressive or scary" online. In 2018, acclaimed photographer and writer Shahidul Alam was arrested under the provisions of the Information and Communication Technology Act, tortured in prison, and released on bail after 107 days in detention. Disappearances are rampant – Shafiqul Islam Kajol, a photojournalist, disappeared for 53 days in 2020 and continues to be charged. Mushtaq Ahmed, a writer, was arrested for social media posts and turned down six times on bail. He died in custody under circumstances that were never fully explained. Ahmed Kabir Kishore, a well-known cartoonist, was also arrested. Recently released on bail, he has alleged that he was tortured in custody.
According to the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, the Bangladesh government arrested at least 138 people in 2020 for criticizing the prime minister, her family, official corruption and more. Critical editors can face endless lawsuits for sedition and defamation. This may be one reason why the Bangladeshi media were unwilling to pursue a controversial Al Jazeera documentary earlier this year alleging that the chief of the Bangladeshi army, Aziz Ahmed, who is close to Hasina, is linked to various abuses is brought. Following the documentary, Human Rights Watch raised concerns.
Bangladesh under Hasina seeks international recognition for its social progress and economic achievement. The government deserves some credit, and grassroots organizations deserve more. However, the country's record on democracy and human rights has deteriorated significantly, and its authoritarian turn could ultimately jeopardize development gains. Bangladesh should well recognize that political repression will neither facilitate economic progress nor hinder greater civil rights, as the Indian Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has shown. Those who oppress their societies in the name of economic development – whether Soviets, Chinese or Singaporeans – do so because they seek power as an end rather than a means to something else.
At the Rayer Bazaar in Dhaka there is a memorial honoring the intellectuals who were killed in December 1971 by the defeated, dividing Pakistani forces – a particularly gruesome act of eliminating the people who could have helped build the new nation. Inscribed on the memorial is a poem by the Bangladeshi writer Asad Chowdhury, which asks a question to those killed: Does Bangladesh say today what you wanted it to say? At 50, the judgment is mixed. Those who died in 1971 envisioned an inclusive, democratic nation where the lives of the poor would improve and rights would be respected. Chowdhury's poem is a reminder that Bangladesh will have a while before it will live up to those dreams.