A Political History of Bangladesh

17 Min Read

Abrar Fahyaz

15 days after the official declaration of independence, on 10 April 1971, the provisional government of the sovereign nation of Bangladesh was formed. A week later, on the 17th of the same month, the cabinet took oath as the governing body of the not-yet formed republic. 51 years hence, let’s look back at the path we’ve thus far taken, and the events which have transpired therein.

For the sake of convenience, this history will be broken down into 6 epochs, beginning with;

Part-I: The War (1971)

By the time the Mujibnagar government took the reins of the war effort, the conflict was already in full swing. The country was soon divided into 11 sectors under 3 uniformed brigades, with both sides settling in for a protracted conflict. From its very inception, Bangladesh found itself entangled in the cobweb that is modern geopolitics, and regardless of how we may see it now, at the time, the Liberation War was viewed just as an insurgency, led by a socialist, against Pakistan. This brought Bangladesh into direct conflict with Pakistan’s allies, namely China and the US. And being at the height of the Cold War, the US could ill-afford to lose the support of a regional power such as Pakistan, and therefore found it in their best interests to simply dismiss the genocide taking place, and instead actively aid the extermination campaign. On top of that, the movement was left-leaning in nature, which made it awfully easy for the US to simply brush it off as ‘the internal affairs of Pakistan’. Concomitantly, the USSR also had a vested interest in the movement, since Mujib’s success would mean another socialist ally in the region. And therefore, in the usual Cold War fashion, both superpowers intervened in another conflict they had no business being in, until it finally subsided, with the capitulation of the Pakistani forces in December.

Part-II: The Two Revolutions (1972-1975)

The starting conditions Bangladesh inherited were less than pleasant, which prompted Henry Kissinger to bluntly describe the situation as a ‘basket case’. The country’s infrastructure had been thoroughly scorched, the economy had all but collapsed, the cities had been depopulated, the citizenry had been displaced, and the masses were on the brink of a famine of biblical proportions. International relations didn’t fare much better, with hostile relations with China and the Gulf States, most of whom didn’t even recognise Bangladesh’s independence. The government had their work cut out for them, and thus began The First Revolution. All things considered, the results of this project can plausibly be described as a success; though unable to achieve all objectives, the government prevented a massive humanitarian disaster and made sure its authority didn’t disintegrate. That being said, several issues still persisted, most notably the Communist Uprising. Immediately following the war, factionalism arose within Bangladesh’s top brass regarding how exactly to rule, and one of these factions was the Bangladesh Communist Party (JSD), and over the course of the next 4 years, their revolt slowly accumulated nationwide support. In response, the government founded the Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini (JRB), operating under the direct supervision of the President, to stamp down on the movement. But even with all that going on, Bangladesh remained a mostly functional, if somewhat unstable, state. The USSR, in fact, was so pleased with the results, that they began actively endorsing the then government.

But all that came crashing down in 1974, when we faced the worst disaster nature has to offer; US Foreign Policy. The US, in the exercise of the substantial food power at their disposal, decided to withhold food aid to Bangladesh, in a bid to force us to cut trade with Cuba. They succeeded, but the damage was already done before Bangladesh ever had the chance to accept their terms. In a matter of months, the country’s not yet recovered agricultural infrastructure collapsed in on itself. Overburdened supply lines failed to properly distribute food, triggering a massive nationwide famine. Amidst rising death tolls, the ongoing insurgency gained traction and legitimacy, which in turn forced the JRB to proliferate their counter-measures. With deteriorating public confidence in the state, the president instituted The Second Revolution; a series of sweeping reforms wherein he established a one-party state with a monopoly on the media, along with absolute party control of the governing apparatus and civil liberties (colloquially referred to as totalitarianism). However, this move only exacerbated instability, and in early 1975, a state of emergency had to be announced. In the end, the second revolution failed to overturn the damage caused by the crisis and only acted as a catalyst for doom.

Part-III: The Coups (1975-1981)

15 August, 1975 marked the end of an era. In the span of just the next 83 days, the government changed hands 3 times, and almost the entirety of the country’s top leadership found themselves no longer alive. When the dust eventually settled, General Ziaur Rahman had assumed control. A popular leader, he succeeded in calming down the uber-polarised political climate of the country and managed to put a stop to the Insurgency. Being a nationalist in ideology, Zia strengthened ties with the West while debilitating those with India and the USSR, in addition to normalising the strained relationship with the Gulf States and China. Though a self-proclaimed socialist, Zia distanced Bangladesh from its socialist edicts, such as secularism and collectivism, instead of putting an emphasis on economic liberalisation via the implementation of capitalist reforms, which saw varying levels of success. The Soviets were, understandably, not terribly pleased with the new state of affairs and bolstered KGB’s presence in the country, effectively reversing roles with the US which now backed the Bangladeshi administration. However, Zia’s rule, while definitely a cut above the 1974-75 period, was still exceedingly volatile. Ironically, his undoing was caused by the very institution which had facilitated his rise to power, the Army. General Zia faced as many as 21 coup d’états against his administration, each of which inspired him to crack down harder on the military, which aggravated the discontent and resulted in more attempts at overthrow. In one such attempt in 1981, Ziaur Rahman’s political career suffered a small setback when he was assassinated. A brief interregnum thereafter, a 22nd coup was launched which saw Zia’s right-hand man take his place as the president of Bangladesh.

Part-IV: The Strongman (1982-1990)

General H. M. Ershad took the helm in 1982 and surprised everybody by not being as inept as his predecessors. As his first order of business, he stabilised the Armed Forces, a task none before him had succeeded in doing, and he remains to this day, the only Bangladeshi head of state to have not faced a coup. He also undertook various infrastructural projects, such as the Jamuna Bridge, beefed up the stagnating economy, and established one of the most successful population control programmes in the world, which earned him the UN population award. Following in the footsteps of Zia, he continued the re-Islamisation of the nation and declared Islam as the state religion. And as with most right-leaning autocrats, Ershad enjoyed the uncritical backing of the West, allowing him to do whatever he pleased with impunity. Interestingly though, unlike those he succeeded, Ershad’s downfall was not a product of his own making, but rather one of circumstance.

With the Soviet Union edging towards a mild case of complete disintegration, the West no longer found it necessary to protect him. With his support snatched from under him, his political purges and abuses of power soon began causing mass discontent. Then followed the boycotted election of 1986, a devastating cyclone accompanied by the worst flooding in Bangladeshi history, and finally the contested elections of 1988; everything went wrong for Ershad. By 1989, protests began flaring up across the country, which gradually transformed into a mass uprising. And finally, in December 1990, Ershad resigned after nearly a decade in power. 

Part-V: Demokratizatsiya (1990-2008)

With Ershad no longer in the picture, Bangladesh finally transitioned into a ‘democratic state’. Until now, the country had been administered almost explicitly by dictators, all masquerading under the guise of being elected by a supposedly democratic system. Whether or not this custom continued after this point, is a matter of contention. But what we do know, is that the newly implemented system evolved post-haste into a two-party model, resembling the one in the US. On the one side was the centre-left Awami League (AL), and on the other was the centre-right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP); each a political dynasty descended from former presidents (S. Mujib and Z. Rahman), and each perpetuating the ideological legacies of their respective president. But for the most part, the principal goal of both AL and BNP was to undermine each other, and each embarked on their respective smearing campaigns to that end. The shenanigans of AL and BNP aside, things during this period were generally better than those before. The economy was booming, the people enjoyed more ‘freedom’, and incremental advances in social indicators were being made. 

Now, to mention everything that went down in this period would be digressing from the matter at hand, which is this: the politics soon fell into a cycle, closely resembling Ershad’s fall from power; contested elections, upheaval, government change- then rinse and repeat. Three elections were held in total, and each followed the same series of events. The 1996 elections were contested, protests were observed (bonus military coup), and the government changed from BNP to AL. The 2001 elections were contested, there was chaos (no military intervention this time though), and the government changed from AL to BNP. The 2006 elections were contested before they could even take place, a lot of chaos (Yep, the military got involved again), elections were held in 2008, and the government changed from BNP to AL

Part-VI: The New Order (2008-present)

This one’s a bit tricky to discuss, especially considering its incumbency. The exact onset of this era isn’t easy to pinpoint either. Some say it began with the 2008 elections, while others stress it began later. Whatever may be, the fact remains that in 2015, the aforementioned pattern was broken. The 2014 elections were contested, there was enough chaos to trigger another political crisis, and yet no government change took place. Somehow, AL managed to consolidate its hold on the state apparatus, and singlehandedly changed the political landscape of Bangladesh. The two-party model was supplanted by a dominant-party system, which rendered it virtually impossible for any other entity to win the elections (presently, AL’s biggest rival is literally itself). Since then, there has been a near meteoric rise in social development indices from per capita to HDI to literacy, considerable levels of poverty alleviation, and a prodigious increase in electricity and Internet penetration; accompanied however by a similarly meteoric fall in press freedom, freedom of speech, and democracy, along with rampant bureaucratic corruption, and allegations of forcibly silencing dissent.

AL has taken their moment in the sun to figuratively mould the country in their own image, from naming anything and everything after party officials, to reinstating former AL policies into the constitution, such as secularism. AL’s crowning achievement, however, is probably the pacification of the Armed Forces; we’re currently living through the longest phase in our history where a civilian government has been in power without facing any military uprisings (there have been 29 such revolts in our short history, so that’s really saying something). And geopolitically speaking, Bangladesh has established itself at the forefront of the new Sino-Indian gambit for regional dominance.

So, 51 years hence, this is where we find ourselves.

Is this really the best timeline? I won’t say many would agree. Yet at the same time, had I asked whether or not we were living through the worst-case scenario, I don’t believe many would’ve answered ‘yes’ either. We could speculate how it could’ve all played out differently, how it could’ve all gone sideways at any moment in our story; the liberation war could’ve devolved into a prolonged Cold War Proxy, the insurgency could’ve spiralled into an all-out civil war, and Ershad could’ve become the Lukashenko of the East. But things could’ve been better too; the famine could’ve been avoided, 15 years of military autocracy could’ve been circumvented, and democracy could’ve been spared being sacrificed at the altar in the name of economic growth.

But it is what it is. Bangladesh survived the countless revolts and rebellions, persevered through the sabotage of egotistical superpowers, and resisted being torn apart by internal conflicts. And it still remained standing. So, for the time being, we may have lost the opportunity to build a better present, but we may yet stand a chance in building a better future.

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