A riverine nation with golden farmlands and emerald forests, on the cusp of South and Southeast Asia, embraced by the Bay of Bengal, sustaining more than 160 million people within a little over 55,000 square miles: This is Bangladesh.
Although having a 5,000-year-old history, Bangladesh itself was born in 1971. As the British left India in 1947, the nation’s Muslim-majority eastern and western parts were partitioned into Pakistan. Troubles soon rose in East Pakistan as the leadership in West Pakistan demanded for Urdu to be the national language. The Bengali-speaking majority in the east protested, and several were killed by security forces on February 21, 1952. This date is solemnized in present-day Bangladesh as Language Movement Day, to celebrate the Bengali language and those who died for it.
Turbulence reached a crescendo on December 1970, as the Awami League party of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which demanded regional autonomy, gained majority in national parliament. The military and political forces in West Pakistan halted the constituent assembly, which was followed by a province-wide civil disobedience campaign launched by Sheikh Mujib, which resulted in a Pakistani Army crackdown. India sheltered millions of Bengali refugees, trained freedom fighters, and eventually went to war as against Pakistan. On December 16, 1971, Bangladesh was born from the ashes of a 9-month liberation war.
Today, Bangladesh is represented by two major parties ; the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Bangladesh Awami League. BNP seeks its alliance among the Islamist parties like Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh while the Awami League aligns itself traditionally with leftist and secularist parties. Another strong player is the Jatiya Party, headed by former military ruler Hossain Mohammad Ershad. Moreover, almost all parties have highly active student wings, a strong group of their own and a legacy from the liberation movement era.
Despite recurring floods, severe overcrowding, and a weak infrastructure, Bangladesh has made significant progress. The World Bank reports falling poverty rates, from 57% in 1990 to 40% in 2005. Garments exports and remittances from overseas workers are fueling the economy. Primary and secondary school enrollments have reached gender parity, as families have realized the value of educated women.
Western hotels, fast-food restaurants, and retail shops are prevalent in the urban areas. Multistory shopping complexes offer designer shirts and pants, skirts and blouses alongside the Eastern kurta/pajamas and saris. Both religious and cultural events are marked as national holidays, including Eid, Christmas, Durga Puja, and Bengali New Year, striking a delicate balance that respects both elements.
Bangladesh is learning to have a role in global affairs, being a top contributor of military personnel to United Nations peacekeeping missions. Moreover, a microcredit lending program by Grameen Bank, which has helped millions out of poverty, is being emulated worldwide.
Like the three-wheeled rickshaw swerving and halting on the potholed roads, Bangladesh moves forward in the new millennium.