Bangladesh - the waterland

Bangladesh  is a country in South Asia, located on the fertile Bengal delta. It is bordered by the Republic of India to its north, west and east, by the Union of Myanmar (Burma) to its south-east and by the Bay of Bengal to its south. It is separated from the Democratic Republic of Nepal and the Kingdom of Bhutan by the narrow Indian Siliguri Corridor. Together with the neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal, it makes up the ethno-linguistic region of Bengal. The name Bangladesh means "Country of Bengal" in the official Bengali language.

The borders of modern Bangladesh took shape during the Partition of Bengal and British India in 1947, when the region became the eastern wing of the newly formed state of Pakistan. Following years of political exclusion, ethnic and linguistic discrimination, and economic neglect by the politically dominant western wing, a surge of popular agitation, nationalism and civil disobedience led in 1971 to the Bangladesh Liberation War, resulting in the separation of the region from Pakistan and the formation of an independent Bangladesh. After independence, the new state proclaimed a secular multiparty democracy. The country then endured decades of poverty, famine, political turmoil and numerous military coups. Since the restoration of democracy in 1991, the country has experienced relative calm and economic progress, though its main political parties remain polarized.

Bangladesh is a parliamentary republic with an elected parliament called the Jatiyo Sangshad. With a population of more than 160 million people in a territory of 56,977 sq mi, Bangladesh is the world's eighth most populous country, as well as one of the world's most densely populated countries. The Bengalis form the country's predominant ethnic group, whereas the indigenous peoples in northern and southeastern districts form a significant and diverse ethnic minority. The Bengal delta region has a rich and diverse cultural heritage. The four largest religions in the country are Islam (89%), Hinduism (9%), Buddhism (1%) and Christianity (0.5%).

 

Remnants of civilization in the greater Bengal region date back four thousand years to when the region was settled by ancient Dravidian, Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman and Austroasiatic peoples. The exact origin of the word "Bangla" or "Bengal" is unclear, though it is believed to be derived from Bang/Vanga, the Dravidian-speaking tribe that settled in the area around the year 1000 BC.

The region was known to the ancient Greek and Roman world as Gangaridai, meaning "Nation of Ganges". Though still largely unclear, the early history of Bengal featured a succession of city states, maritime kingdoms and pan-Indian empires, as well as a tussle between Hinduism and Buddhism for dominance. The ancient political units of the region consisted of Vanga, Samatata, Harikela and Pundravardhana. The Mauryan Empire led by Ashoka conquered Bengal in the second century BC. After the collapse of the Gupta Empire, a local ruler named Shashanka rose to power and founded the impressive Gauda kingdom. After a period of anarchy, the Bengali Buddhist Pala dynasty ruled the region for four hundred years, followed by the Hindu Sena Dynasty.

 

Islam was introduced to the Bengal region during the 7th century by Arab Muslim traders and Sufi missionaries, and the subsequent Muslim conquest of Bengal in the 12th century lead to the rooting of Islam across the region. Bakhtiar Khilji, a Turkic general, defeated Lakshman Sen of the Sena dynasty and conquered large parts of Bengal in the year 1204. The region was ruled by the Sultanate of Bengal and the Baro-Bhuiyan confederacy for the next few hundred years. By the 16th century, the Mughal Empire controlled Bengal, and Dhaka became an important provincial centre of Mughal administration.

Medieval European geographers located paradise at the mouth of the Ganges, and although this was overhopeful, Bengal was probably the wealthiest part of the subcontinent until the 16th century. From 1517 onwards, Portuguese traders from Goa were traversing the sea route to Bengal. Only in 1537 were they allowed to settle and open customs houses at Chittagong. In 1577, the Mughal emperor Akbar permitted the Portuguese to build permanent settlements and churches in Bengal. The influence of European traders grew until the British East India Company gained control of Bengal following the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The bloody rebellion of 1857—known as the Sepoy Mutiny—resulted in a transfer of authority to the crown with a British viceroy running the administration. During colonial rule, famine racked South Asia many times, including the war-induced Great Bengal famine of 1943 that claimed 3 million lives.

The Maratha Empire, a Hindu empire which overran the Mughals in the 18th century, devastated the territories controlled by the Nawab of Bengal between 1742 and 1751. In a series of raids on Bengal and Bihar, then ruled by the Nawab, Maratha demolished much of the Bengali economy, which was unable to withstand the continuous onslaught of Maratha for long. Nawab Ali Vardi Khan made peace with Maratha by ceding the whole of Orissa and parts of Western Bengal to the empire. In addition, a tax – the Chauth, amounting to a quarter of total revenue – was imposed on other parts of Bengal and Bihar. This tax amounted to twenty lakhs for Bengal and 12 lakhs for Bihar per year. After Maratha's defeat in Panipat by a coalition of Muslim forces, the empire returned under the Maratha general Madhoji Sindhia and raided Bengal again. The British Empire stopped payment of the Chauth, invading the territory of Bengal in the 1760s. The raids continued until Maratha was finally defeated by the British over the course of three Anglo-Maratha Wars lasting from 1777 to 1818.

 

Between 1905 and 1911, an abortive attempt was made to divide the province of Bengal into two zones. Following the exit of the British Empire in 1947, Bengal was partitioned along religious lines, with the western part going to newly created India and the eastern part (Muslim majority) joining Pakistan as a province called East Bengal (later renamed East Pakistan), with Dhaka as its capital. In 1950, land reform was accomplished in East Bengal with the abolishment of the feudal zamindari system. Despite the economic and demographic weight of the east, Pakistan's government and military were largely dominated by the upper classes from the west. The Bengali Language Movement of 1952 was the first sign of friction between the two wings of Pakistan. Dissatisfaction with the central government over economic and cultural issues continued to rise through the next decade, during which the Awami League emerged as the political voice of the Bengali-speaking population. It agitated for autonomy in the 1960s, and in 1966, its president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib), was jailed; he was released in 1969 after an unprecedented popular uprising. In 1970, a massive cyclone devastated the coast of East Pakistan, killing up to half a million people and the central government's response was seen as poor. The anger of the Bengali population was compounded when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose Awami League had won a majority in Parliament in the 1970 elections was blocked from taking office.

After staging compromise talks with Mujibur Rahman, President Yahya Khan and military officials launched Operation Searchlight a sustained military assault on East Pakistan, and arrested Mujibur Rahman in the early hours of 26 March 1971. Yahya's methods were extremely bloody, and the violence of the war resulted in many civilian deaths. Yahya's chief targets included intellectuals and Hindus, and about one million refugees fled to neighbouring India. Estimates of those massacred throughout the war range from thirty thousand to three million. Mujibur Rahman was ultimately released on 8 January 1972 as a result of direct US intervention.

Awami League leaders set up a government-in-exile in Calcutta, India. The exile government formally took oath at Meherpur, in the Kustia district of East Pakistan, on 17 April 1971, with Tajuddin Ahmad as the first Prime Minister and Syed Nazrul Islam as the Acting President. The Bangladesh Liberation War lasted for nine months. A resistance force known as the Mukti Bahini was formed from the Bangladesh Forces (consisting of Bengali regular forces) in alliance with civilian fighters such as the Kader Bahini and the Hemayet Bahini. Led by General M. A. G. Osmani, the Bangladesh Forces were organized into eleven sectors and, as part of Mukti Bahini, conducted a massive guerrilla war against the Pakistan Forces. The war witnessed the 1971 Bangladesh genocide, in which the Pakistan Army and its allied religious militias carried out a wide-scale, systematic elimination of Bengali civilians, intellectuals, youth, students, politicians, activists and religious minorities. By winter, Bangladesh-India Allied Forces defeated the Pakistani army, culminating in the Liberation of Dhaka and the Surrender of Pakistan on 16 December 1971.


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