Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that isn’t old enough to mistakenly call Bangladesh “East Pakistan.”
In this week’s post, we’ll check in on the South Asian country of Bangladesh and attempt to figure out why hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis have taken to the streets in a massive protest. We’ll examine several factors from the history of the country that help explain the lack of elbow room on the streets of Dhaka.
The Current: Disappointed Throngs
Massive rallies in the capital city of Dhaka began to organize on February 5th after a political figure, Abdul Quader Mollah, was only given a life sentence by an International Court Tribunal. The crowds wanted more – the death penalty.
Why would they desire this judicial outcome that would make Rick Perry smile?
It turns out that Mr. Mollah had been convicted in a Bangladeshi court for committing atrocities and war crimes during the 1971 war for independence in Bangladesh. The crowds, organized by several bloggers (not me), have turned out every day since the 5th in the tens of thousands. But the crowds were just beginning, however, for on February 16th an estimated 100,000 people came out to demand justice of the killing of an organizer of these protests, Rajib Haider. The death of the activist brought more students and workers and spread to other major cities.
Mr. Mollah’s Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, is also the target of the protesters who are calling for a complete secularization of politics in Bangladesh.
The protest movements, due to their enormous size and political implications, have now garnered the support of the ruling Awami League under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the chief opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Indeed, on February 17, Bangladesh parliament made a change to a law that allows the state to appeal against the life sentence of an Islamist party leader – much to the delight of the anti-Mollah protesters – and may potentially lead to the ban of Islamist parties like Jamaat.
Supporters of Mollah and Jamaat have clashed with government security and police forces in their own protest of the court’s decisions and Parliament’s, saying they were politically motivated. These protests have been particularly violent such as in a chaotic scene on February 15th where 3 Islamist activists were shot by police and on the 22nd, when 4 more Islamist activists were killed in skirmishes with police while denouncing the bloggers as blasphemous.
Why was the turnout against the court’s decision so huge and what implications do they have for Bangladesh’s leaders and people? And why has the government turned out against Islamist parties?
This ruling is a big deal for Bangladesh, a country that is now confronting its war crimes from independence. The reality is, Bangladesh was and still is shaped by the initial bounds of British colonial rule and its violent revolution and split from Pakistan in 1971. To explain the massive rallies and emotional response to the rulings, we need to revisit the South Asian country’s past political upheavals and revolution.
Bengal: A Land Ruled by Foreigners
The region now known as Bangladesh shares much of its ancient and modern history with the rest of the Indian subcontinent including some history that this blog has previously covered, such as the history of the Assam state of India and of Nepal.
Important to the content of this blog in Bengali ancient history is the conquest of the Mauryan Empire (320 – 180 BC) and the Islamic conquest and control of India from the 12th and 18th centuries under the Mughals. Essentially, the Bengal people lived in a region already controlled by foreigners for centuries before the British expanded their economic interests to India through the British East India Company (BEIC) in the 1600s.
Fertile land and high agricultural output made Bengal one of the most profitable regions under economic control of the BEIC because the Company profited via land taxes collected by local administrators known as zamindars.
Importantly, the administrative technique of the BEIC and later the British colonial government in India and Bengal changed the structure of society from education to cultural practices – a technique that caused significant divisions and stratification between Muslims and Hindus. Hindu populations tended to adapt more readily to the changes (though not without significant resistance) than Muslim populations in Bengal. This meant positions higher in society such as tax collectors, administrators, and many military positions were given to Hindus over Muslims. As a consequence, most leaders in business and industry were Hindu, not Muslim. When Indian nationalism and representative government gained popularity, many Muslims opposed the measure because they feared a Hindu-dominated government upon the departure of the British.
Partition and Muslim Unification
In 1905, the British Viceroy to India, Lord Curzon (famous for drawing other famous political boundaries) decided to divide the populous Bengal region into an East and West section to “improve administrative function” (which it did in East Bengal at least, improving education).
Many Bengali Muslims favored the move as it seemed to be a recognition of their political and cultural individuality, but upper class Hindus in Calcutta did not agree, as Curzon’s line seemed to be an attempt to prevent the Nationalist movement from gaining steam.
In 1912, the partition was voided by the British after significant lobbying by Hindus in high economic and political positions – fueling the belief that the British had acquiesced to Hindu demands. Muslim political separation gained some centralized power in the form of the Muslim League which emerged as a dominant political force in the 1940s under the leadership of Mohammad Ali Jinnah who proposed the 2 state solution of Pakistan (Muslim) and India (Hindu).
After World War II during the independence talks with Britain, massive violence from demonstrations and protests erupted from Muslims in Bengal after the Muslim League was not granted sharing power in the interim government. A resulting massacre in Calcutta forced Ghandi to arrive in Calcutta to quell uprisings in Bengal and Bihar, but they spread to other cities. When Lord Louis Mountbatten visited the scene in 1947 and found the subcontinent on the throes of civil war, he pushed Britain into supporting partition to grant full independence and stop the bloodshed -which it did.
Partition and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 forced a mass migration of Muslims from India into East and West Pakistan and Hindus and Sikhs into India. Millions of lives were uprooted and repression and poverty were widespread as those who migrated were reintroduced into a new homeland. The two state idea was full of well intentions, but was far from a full solution.
For the newly created country (with a split East and West), things went well as long as their founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, known as the Supreme Leader (Qiad i Azam) was there. But his death in 1948 brought dysfunction as his successor, Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated in 1951 by fanatics who wanted war against India.
It took the new nation of Pakistan until 1956 before a constitution was written, but already divisions between East and West over governance were arising. East Pakistan (Bengal)’s rising political parties, the Awami League and the Peasants and Social Worker’s Party centered their political platform on giving more power to East Pakistan, away from West Pakistan (which the Awami League believed should be divided up among its many tribal groups).
A scuffle in 1956 in East Pakistan between politicians and policemen spurred the Prime Minister to declare martial law. The new government, revamped in 1962 by the new President Ayud Khan gave much more power to himself, and made a law for the military to take over government (legalized martial law). This took a great deal of power and donor aid away from East Pakistan, straying West and East Pakistan further and influencing the political rise of a Bengali politician who advocated for an autonomous East Pakistan, Sheikh Mujibar Rahman (Mujib).
Mujib’s “six point plan” called for pretty much a full democracy and separate states within West Pakistan, running counter to President Ayub’s vision for central control and a unified Pakistan. During a strike in Dhaka by Mujib supporters in 1968, Mujib was arrested by Pakistani authorities. Ayub’s health deteriorated quickly and in 1970 he decided he would not run for reelection – causing mass protests and near anarchic conditions across the country. Due to this instability, Ayub’s Commander in Chief General Mohammad Yahya Khan was appointed Chief Martial law administrator and president – using that key provision from the constitution to maintain order while appointing a transitional government prior to the December 1970 election.
A storm may have derailed any further diplomatic efforts at a unified Pakistan. A massive cyclone struck the Bay of Bengal and into East Pakistan and Bengal in November 1970 killing an estimated 250,000 people. General Yahya visited the devastated Bengal the following day, but only remained for one day and aid relief efforts were delayed in reaching Dhaka. His seeming indifference to help devastated East Pakistan caused bitter resentment. After being released from prison, Mujib somberly relayed the feeling of a country ready for a break-up: “We must make the decisions that matter. We will no longer suffer arbitrary rule by bureaucrats, capitalists, and feudal interests of West Pakistan.”
In December, the voters of East Pakistan backed Mujib’s statements by electing his Awami Party to 160 out of 162 possible East Pakistani seats in the National Assembly. After Mujib called for 2 separate Prime Ministers for the 2 Pakistans and refused to step down from his 6 point plan, Yahya suspended the National Assembly. Mujib countered with a call for a general strike until the demands of the people’s representative were met, causing mass civil disobedience and the West Pakistani troop presence to increase dramatically in Dhaka.
The War for Independence
On March 23 1971, East Pakistan celebrated a “Resistance Day” in open defiance of the unified Pakistani holiday “Republic Day”. This was enough for General Yahya who decided to end the uprising through brute force and a campaign of terror to submit the East Pakistani people to the will of the military and centralized leadership.
This they did through a horrifying campaign of torture, rape, and systematic slaughter with the help of an Islamic group, Jamaat-e-Islami – against Hindus and secular leaders. After just 3 days, an estimated 15,000 had been killed and by the end of the civil war, estimates put the loss of life between 300,000 and as high as 3 million. To disguise their actions, West Pakistan expelled the foreign press while using the West Pakistani press to deny any reports from Eastern media outlets – playing down the war as simple unrest being put down.
One Pakistani journalist, Anthony Mascarenhas went into East Pakistan to cover the slaughters and instead of submitting to Pakistani censorship, clandestinely published the chaos and tragedies of the war to the world (after safely escaping with his family to America). Horrifying accounts of rape camps show one way the Pakistani army’s attempt to physically and mentally hollow out the Bengalis – a terrorizing effect that was immediate and prolonged as women who were raped were often killed by their husbands or not accepted back into their families.
The East Pakistan Liberation Force (Mukti Bahini) held their own against the Pakistani army in many areas and in some cases used retaliatory atrocities against West Pakistan supporters. But the Pakistani Army was made vulnerable by operating in East Pakistan, being cut off geographically from their home base.
India, who had vocally condemned Pakistan’s actions, decided to act militarily, and using a pincer movement from the Northwest Indian states with a superior force in numbers and equipment was able to defeat 90,000 Pakistani defenders of Dhaka in only 12 days with the help of Liberation Force freedom fighters. Independence was declared in April and India was the first country to recognize the new country of Bangladesh after West Pakistan’s surrender in December. Mujib returned to Dhaka two months later to much fanfare and helped push his democracy oriented constitution through on four main tenants, known as Mujibism: Nationalism, Secularism, Socialism, and democracy.
But these four pillars were sadly eroded very quickly under Mujib. He showed favoritism for freedom fighters and enforced Bengali language and party membership in the new Peasants, Workers, and People’s League. In short, Mujib tried to force Bangladesh’s nationhood of a relatively homogeneous population in language, culture, and religion, but ended up repressing many of its citizens scarred by the war. His assassination by army officers took no one by surprise in 1975.
Martial law again was the rule for the next two years and saw political parties who either favored pro-Indian policies (Awami League/ former Mujib supporters) and those that urged closer ties with West Pakistan. A former army officer Khaleda Zia gained power and was elected in 1977 promoting swift economic changes, not discriminating against those who hadn’t participated in the revolution (unlike Mujib) and most importantly emphasized that Bangladesh would be an Islamic country, eroding Mujib’s secularism pillar. Zia’s new political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won large majorities in the Assembly in 1981.
At this time, Zia collaborated with the Jamaat-e-Islami party, who had fought against the Liberation Fighters during the war, in their jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Jamaat supporters no longer suppressed as they were under Mujib, supported Zia’s turn towards an Islamic oriented government, but overall resisted the Zia regime because their ultimate goal was a government and constitution based on sharia law. Jamaat was and still is more of a political force in Pakistan but still has some support in Bangladesh.
Though Zia grew Bangladesh’s economy and restored order on a small scale, his efforts at controlling the armed and intelligence forces failed as a mutiny caused a small rebellion and Zia was the victim of assassination in 1981 allegedly plotted by an army officer. Zia, as a former Army officer himself, had not kept the civilian and military separate, continuing the tradition of army intervention into politics and power. This was evident in Major General Ershad’s taking of power from the Vice President in 1981 in the aftermath of the Zia regime.
Ershad and following Parliamentary governments have presided over a population that struggles with extreme poverty, famine, and natural disaster. This is not a result of geography, culture, or religion but of the lasting legacy of foreign rule and the inability to create political institutions that can provide for its people and protect their rights.
The Constitution that was written under Mujib still stands (with Zia’s edits) with a Parliamentary democracy, but Bangladesh continues to struggle with high levels of corruption, executive authority and martial law when unrest is present.
Conclusion: revisiting the horrors of war
As the sentences were handed down to the Jamaat members for their crimes in the revolution in 1971, we can begin to understand why most Bangladeshis were spurred into massive protest when the sentence was not the maximum. In essence, Bangladesh is seeking closure.
But Bangladesh, though an independent country that has seen some economic growth, still lags well behind India and even Pakistan in many economic and global standings. Bangladeshi’s are relatively frustrated with their government and if they can’t make the right call on judicial rulings in revolutionary justice, than massive protests is the response.
The politics and current maelstrom of Bangladesh has many smatterings from its history:
- A fear of being controlled by foreigners: from Mauryan to Mughal to British to Hindu to West Pakistani – hence Mujib’s breakaway efforts for independence and a nationalistic idealism.
- The presence of the military in civilian government: deemed necessary to protect against foreign control, the military has served more to repress people and to depose government leaders.
- The horrific acts of the Revolutionary War that often pitted secular, democratic leaning forces against Islamists has created resentment from the majority of Bangladeshis against Islamic politics.
- The Bangladeshi people have been unable to advance enough economically and too many people linger in the category as the poorest of the poor – a result of a lack of political institutions.
The tribunal that carried out the sentencing of Mollah and other war criminals from Bangladesh’s past has perhaps been influenced by corruption or politics, but it is the response from the government that is most interesting. The new law passed may see a backlash from the government to appeal the tribunal’s decision and may see Mollah face the death penalty. But more worrisome is the government’s violent crackdown on Jamaat supporters.
Yes, Jamaat supporters are often instigating the violence, but the government has to be careful not to once again use brute force and show favoritism – a condition that has seen negative results in the past for all Bangladeshis.
Until the next court decision that doesn’t go far enough,
Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson
You as the reader may seem inclined to believe that I have glossed over major events and details of Bangladesh’s history; this would be a correct assertion, but incomplete. This blog was an attempt to explain the emergence of a separate Bangladesh as a country – an effort that took countless lives of which the details are still being researched and uncovered. In reaching this effort, I found it necessary (however regrettable) to leave out some very important details and events.
I also could have gone further into the separation with West Pakistan and the emergence of Bhutto, and then the military regime under Musharraf, but then that would have been a history of Pakistan, which is a whole other basket.
Sources & Further Reads:
The British Imperial Century, 1815-1914, by Timothy H. Parsons
A History of Bangladesh, by Willem Van Schendel