The area which is now Bangladesh has a rich historical and cultural past, the product of the repeated influx of varied peoples, bringing with them the Dravidian, Indo-Aryan, Mongol-Mughul, Arab, Persian, Turkic, and European cultures. About 1200 A.D., Muslim invaders under Sufi influence, supplanted Hindu and Buddhist dynasties, and converted most of the population of the eastern areas of Bengal to Islam. Since then, Islam has played a crucial role in the region’s history and politics. In the 16th century, Bengal was absorbed into the Mughul Empire.
Portuguese traders and missionaries reached Bengal in the latter part of the 15th century. They were followed by representatives of the Dutch, the French, and the British East India Companies. During the 18th and 19th centuries, especially after the defeat of the French in 1757, the British gradually extended their commercial contacts and administrative control beyond Calcutta into the remainder of Bengal and northwesterly up the Ganges River valley. In 1859, the British Crown replaced the East India Company, extending British dominion from Bengal in the east to the Indus River in the west.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Muslim and Hindu leaders began to press for a greater degree of independence. At the movement’s forefront was the largely Hindu Indian National Congress. Growing concern about Hindu domination of the movement led Muslim leaders to form the All-India Muslim League in 1906. In 1913, the League formally adopted the same goal as the Indian National Congress: self-government for India within the British Empire. The Congress and the League were unable, however, to agree on a formula to ensure the protection of Muslim religious, economic, and political rights. Over the next 2 decades, mounting tension between Hindus and Muslims led to a series of bitter intercommunal conflicts.
The idea of a separate Muslim state emerged in the 1930s. It gained popularity among Indian Muslims after 1936, when the Muslim League suffered a decisive electoral defeat in the first elections under the 1935 constitution. On March 23, 1940, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, publicly endorsed the “Pakistan Resolution” that called for the creation of an independent state in regions where Muslims were a majority.
At the end of World War II, the United Kingdom, under considerable international pressure to reduce the size of its overseas empire, moved with increasing urgency to grant India independence. The Congress Party and the Muslim League could not, however, agree on the terms for drafting a constitution or establishing an interim government. In June 1947, the UK declared it would grant full dominion status to two successor states–India and Pakistan. Pakistan would consist of the contiguous Muslim-majority districts of western British India, plus parts of Bengal. The various princely states could freely join either India or Pakistan. These arrangements resulted in a bifurcated Muslim nation separated by more than 1,600 kilometers (1,000 mi.) of Indian territory. West Pakistan comprised four provinces and the capital, Lahore. East Pakistan was formed of a single province. Each province had a legislature. The capital of federal Pakistan was at Islamabad.
Pakistan’s history for the next 26 years was marked by political instability and economic difficulties. Dominion status was rejected in 1956 in favor of an “Islamic Republic within the Commonwealth.” Attempts at civilian political rule failed, and the government imposed martial law between 1958 and 1962 and 1969 and 1972. The government was dominated by Military and Oligarchies all rooted in the West. Significant amount of national revenues went towards developing the West at the expense of the East. The people of the Eastern wing began to feel increasingly dominated and exploited by the West. Frictions between West and East Pakistan culminated in a 1971 army crackdown against the East Pakistan dissident movement led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose Awami League (AL) Party had won 167 seats out of 313 National Assembly seats on a platform of greater autonomy for the eastern province.
Mujibur Rahman was arrested and his party banned. Many of his aides and more than 10 million Bengali refugees fled to India, where they established a provisional government. India and Pakistan went to war in late November 1971. The combined Indian-Bengali forces soon overwhelmed Pakistan’s army contingent in the East. By the time Pakistan’s forces surrendered on December 16, 1971, India had taken numerous prisoners and gained control of a large area of East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh.
Post Independence Era
Mujibur Rahman came to office with immense personal popularity but had difficulty quickly transforming this support into political legitimacy. The 1972 constitution created a strong prime ministership, an independent judiciary, and a unicameral legislature on a modified British model. More importantly, it enunciated as state policy the Awami League’s four basic principles–nationalism, secularism, socialism, and democracy.
The Awami League won a massive majority in the first parliamentary elections in March 1973. It continued as a mass movement, espousing the cause that brought Bangladesh into being and representing disparate and often incoherent elements under the banner of Bangla nationalism. No other political party in Bangladesh’s early years was able to duplicate or challenge its broad-based appeal, membership, or organizational strength.
The new government focused on relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction of the country’s war-ravaged economy and society. Economic conditions remained tenuous, however, and food and health difficulties continued to be endemic. In 1974, Mujib proclaimed a state of emergency and amended the constitution to limit the powers of the legislative and judicial branches, establish an executive presidency, and institute a one-party system. Calling these changes the “Second Revolution,” Mujib assumed the presidency. All political parties were dissolved except for a single new party, the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL), which all members of parliament were obliged to join.
Implementation of promised political reforms was slow, and Mujib increasingly was criticized. In August 1975, he was assassinated by mid-level army officers, and a new government, headed by a former associate, Khandakar Moshtaque, was formed. Successive military coups occurred on November 3 and 7, resulting in the emergence of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ziaur Rahman (Zia), as strongman. He pledged the army’s support to the civilian government headed by the president, Chief Justice Sayem. Acting at Zia’s behest, Sayem then promulgated martial law, naming himself Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA).
Ziaur Rahman was elected for a 5-year term as president in 1978. His government removed the remaining restrictions on political parties and encouraged opposition parties to participate in the pending parliamentary elections. More than 30 parties vied in the parliamentary elections of February 1979, but Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won 207 of the 300 elected seats.
In 1981, Zia was assassinated by dissident elements of the military. Vice President Justice Abdus Sattar was constitutionally sworn in as acting president. He declared a new national emergency and called for elections within 6 months. Sattar was elected president and won. Sattar was ineffective, however, and Army Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. H.M. Ershad assumed power in a bloodless coup in March 1982.
Like his predecessors, Ershad dissolved parliament, declared martial law, assumed the position of CMLA, suspended the constitution, and banned political activity. Ershad reaffirmed Bangladesh’s moderate, non-aligned foreign policy.
In December 1983, he assumed the presidency. Over the ensuing months, Ershad sought a formula for elections while dealing with potential threats to public order.
In January 1, 1986, full political rights, including the right to hold large public rallies, were restored. At the same time, the Jatiyo (People’s) Party (JP), designed as Ershad’s political vehicle for the transition from martial law, was established. Ershad resigned as chief of army staff, retired from military service, and was elected president in October 1986. (Both the BNP and the AL refused to put up an opposing candidate.)
In July 1987, the opposition parties united for the first time in opposition to government policies. Ershad declared a state of emergency in November, dissolved parliament in December, and scheduled new parliamentary elections for March 1988.
All major opposition parties refused to participate. Ershad’s party won 251 of the 300 seats; three other political parties which did participate, as well as a number of independent candidates, shared the remaining seats. This parliament passed a large number of legislative bills, including a controversial amendment making Islam the state religion.
By mid-1990, opposition to Ershad’s rule had escalated. November and December 1990 were marked by general strikes, increased campus protests, public rallies, and a general disintegration of law and order. Ershad resigned in December 1990.
On February 27, 1991, an interim government oversaw what may be one of the most free and fair elections in the nation’s history. The center-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party won a plurality of seats and formed a coalition government with the Islamic fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).
The new Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, was the widow of the assassinated former president Ziaur Rahman. Before the death of her husband in 1981, her participation in politics was minimal. She joined the BNP in 1982 and became chairman of the party in 1984.
In September 1991, the electorate approved changes to the constitution, formally creating a parliamentary system and returning governing power to the office of the prime minister, as in Bangladesh’s original constitution. In October 1991, members of parliament elected a new head of state, President Abdur Rahman Biswas.
Opposition legislators resigned en masse in December 1994, trying to force Khaleda to step down and allow early elections under a neutral caretaker administration. She refused and the opposition staged a series of strikes and shutdowns which economists say have slowed reforms and the pace of economic recovery. President Abdur Rahman Biswas dissolved parliament in November 1995 and called new elections for February 1996. He asked Khaleda Zia to stay in office until a successor was chosen. The opposition parties vowed to not to take part in the elections while Khaleda remained in office and boycotted the elections They said the elections had been rigged to ensure the BNP a landslide victory. They staged a series of crippling strikes and transport blockades, trying to force Khaleda to annul the election and transfer power to a neutral caretaker government. The new parliament bowed to opposition demands and passed a law March 26 allowing the president to form a caretaker government, Former chief justice Habibur Rahman was asked to head a caretaker government and parliament was dissolved.
Elections were completed June 23, 1996 with the Awami League garnering the highest number of seats. The leader of the Awami League, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, was sworn in as the new Prime Minister of Bangladesh. Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed was elected unopposed to replace Biswas as the next president of Bangladesh.
The latter part of Awami League’s tenure was marked by opposition boycott of the parliament and increasingly violent attempts at forcing early elections. However, Awami League completed its five year tenure and became the first govenment to complete its tenure in Bangladesh. New elections were held on October 1, 2001 under the aegis of a caretaker government as enshrined in the constitution of Bangladesh. These elections were won by a coalition of the BNP and three other parties led by Khaleda Zia. Begum Zia was subsequently sworn in as the Prime Minister. Political stability still appears to be a remote dream, since the Awami League alleges widespread rigging and vote manipulation and stayed away from the parliament. Independent and international observers have however termed the 2001 elections as free and fair.
The end of BNP’s five year stint was also marked by a repeat (this time by the AL) of opposition boycott of the parliament and increasingly violent attempts at forcing early elections. There was severe lack of consensus between the government and the opposition regarding the head of the interim caretaker administration. Under Bangladesh’s unique system, when an administration comes to the end of its term it hands over to an unelected interim government which has 90 days to organise elections. Violent protests broke out after the opposition objected to the nomination of ex-Chief Justice KM Hasan to head the interim administration as per the constitution. As a member of the BNP in his early days, his nomination was not palatable to them. On Saturday Mr Hasan pulled out just before he was due to be sworn in.
The president urged parties to find a replacement by Sunday afternoon. Mr Iajuddin Ahmed then held separate talks with party leaders, but failed to reach agreement on a compromise candidate. Finally, President Iajuddin Ahmed has been sworn in as head of an interim government after the main political parties failed to agree on a candidate. His decision to take the job without opposition backing is the last constitutional option available.
After increasingly violent clashes between political parties, a new caretaker government was sworn in with the backing of the armed forces. Erstwhile Bangadesh Bank governor Dr. Fakruddin Ahmed was sworn in as the Chief Adviser. An emergency was declared and the government suspended certain fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution and detained a large number of politicians and others on suspicion of involvement in corruption and other crimes. The government announced elections would occur in late 2008.
On December 29, 2008 Bangladesh went to the polls and the nation elected the Grand Alliance which was led by Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League and backed by Hussain Mohammed Ershad’s Jatiya Party. The Awami League won an absolute majority on its own accrod. Khaleda Zia’s BNP-led Four Party Alliance suffered a resounding defeat. Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister and formed the government.