Bangladesh: Two Independence Movements

Sheikh Mujib and his daughter, Sheikh Hasina. Bangladesh Independence War Archives,


March 12, 2018: This article, the last that Howard and Teresita Schaffer wrote together, is adapted from a study commissioned by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C., to be published as part of a book called Independence Movements and their Aftermath: Self-Determination and the Struggle for Success. It is carried here by permission of CSIS. It summarizes Bangladesh’s two independence movements: the end of British rule in 1947, and liberation from Pakistan in 1971. It concludes that of the three biggest problems they confronted, Bangladesh’s early leaders succeeded beyond expectations in creating a unified and disciplined army and a dynamic economy, but the country is still struggling to craft a governing consensus.


Bangladesh’s independence in 1971 shocked the world with its violence and the callousness of U.S. policy, inspired a unique Beatles concert, and became a feature in a major shift in relations among the United States, China, the Soviet Union, and India. But the Bangladesh movement did not arise in a vacuum. Instead it grew out of the fragmented geographic, ethnic, and power structure left behind from its first independence movement when the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947.


After independence, Bangladesh was expected to be a “basket case.” Relatively successful economically, its political trajectory has been more volatile, albeit more promising than other countries studied for this project. However, many issues that shaped the Bangladesh movement – the second of the country’s two independence movements – still stalk Bangladeshi politics four decades after its bloody creation.


The First Independence Movement: Creating Pakistan


In the wake of the Second World War, the British concluded that they would have to “Quit India.” They aspired to leave behind a united subcontinent, long a jewel in their imperial crown. But by spring, 1947, political realities on the ground forced the British to accept demands of the subcontinent’s sizeable Muslim minority for a separate independent homeland to be called Pakistan. The hastily carried out Partition that followed in August 1947 was accompanied by widespread violence, murder, and an unprecedented number of refugees.[1]


The Partition settlement worked out between the British government and contending Indian political forces was designed to place the bulk of imperial India’s Muslim population in Pakistan. Since the major Muslim-majority areas were situated at opposite ends of the subcontinent, this led to the creation of a Pakistan that awkwardly comprised two wings, separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory.[2]


Two-Winged Pakistan: A Country Fragile from the Start


Issues that ultimately led to the demise of a united Pakistan arose in the new country’s earliest days. One of the most immediate was the question of Pakistan’s national language. Another was composition of the armed forces, which included very few Bengalis. What little industry and commerce existed in Pakistan was mostly in the west and held in non-Bengali hands. Although Pakistan’s ruling Muslim League included some prominent Bengali politicians, they were overshadowed by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the venerated “Great Leader” (Quaid-e-Azam) who dominated the government, the party and all aspects of Pakistani national life until his untimely death in September 1948.


The Language Issue: Controversies over the designation of a national language have bedeviled many emerging countries, notably those of the multilingual former British possessions in South Asia. In East Pakistan, Bengali pride in the Bangla language had an unusually important political dimension. Culture, rather than competition for jobs, was the most contentious aspect of this divisive issue.


Jinnah was adamant about one national language for Pakistan and rejected Bengali demands for equal status for Urdu and Bangla. After his death, the language issue sparked lengthy, acrimonious debates in the Constituent Assembly, the parliamentary body charged with framing a constitution for the new country. In early 1952, students demanding equal status for Bangla rioted in the streets of Dhaka. Several were killed by police. The date of what Bangladeshis consider the students’ martyrdom, “Ekushay,” (for the 21st of February), is an annual remembrance still observed with great solemnity in Bangladesh.


In September 1954, the Constituent Assembly finally designated two official languages for Pakistan – Urdu and Bangla. But the bitter debate leading up to this compromise had damaged Pakistan’s fragile unity and birthed a strong cultural movement in East Pakistan that significantly contributed to the growth of Bengali nationalism.


The Military: The ethnic composition of the Pakistani armed forces reflected the long-standing British practice of recruiting Indians exclusively from the so-called “martial races.” Since their disloyalty to the Raj during the 1857 Mutiny, Bengalis – both Muslim and Hindu – were largely excluded. As a result, the Pakistani military mostly comprised officers and other ranks drawn from the Punjabi and Pashtun ethnic groups and from Urdu-speaking families of Northern India. Bengalis were virtually excluded from senior positions.


The military and their West Pakistani civilian allies dominated Pakistan’s governing institutions, determining security, foreign, and economic policies. That resulted in Pakistan’s 1954 alignment with the U.S.-led Western bloc in the global confrontation between the “Free World” and the forces of international Communism. This support was more popular in West Pakistan than in the East. Bengalis were increasingly convinced that Western compatriots were profiting more from the alliance than they were.


East Pakistanis were also troubled by the military leaders’ strategy in the event of another war with India. The military argued the only effective way to defend East Pakistan would be to attack India from the West, stationing only a small force in the East. Understandably, this strategy did not allay East Pakistanis’ concerns that their wing could easily be overrun by vastly superior Indian forces.


Economic Grievances: Another major concern for East Pakistanis was the widespread conviction that most of the economic assistance from the United States and its allies ended up in the Western Wing. Per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in East Pakistan was about 20 percent higher than the West in 1960, when Pakistan’s treaty relations with the United States were fully in place. But by 1970, the East lagged 20 percent behind the West in GDP. More than half of its GDP came from agriculture throughout the 1960s. By contrast, agricultural production in the West had fallen as industrial production surged.[3]
First Stirrings of the Independence Movement


East Pakistanis increasingly believed they were victims of deliberate and unfair discrimination by their more privileged West Wing compatriots. They relied on political organization and legal change as their methods for demanding a more equitable role in national affairs. They found an early opportunity in the March 1954 election for the East Pakistan Legislative Assembly.


This provincial election pitted the incumbent Muslim League against a newly organized United Front of disparate opposition leaders and parties. The strongest of these parties was the Awami (People’s) Muslim League, soon to be renamed the Awami League and opened to Hindu and other non-Muslim members. Its leader, veteran politician Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy,[4] chose   the charismatic, up-and-coming young Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as one of his principal lieutenants. When Suhrawardy died in 1963, Sheikh Mujib, as he was widely called, became party leader. Eight years later he led Bangladesh to independence.


Conducted under universal suffrage but with separate balloting for Muslim and non-Muslim voters, the provincial election resulted in an upset landslide victory for the United Front. It won 223 of the 237 Muslim seats to the Muslim League’s seven, and also enjoyed substantial support among the provincial assembly’s considerable Hindu membership. Awami Leaguers won the bulk of the United Front seats. Successful candidates of its ally the Krishak Sramik Party (KSP), led by veteran politician Fazlul Haq, made up the second largest group. Despite the Awami League’s stronger performance at the polls, Haq became chief minister.[5]


The United Front platform demanded provincial autonomy except in defense, foreign affairs, and currency. It called for: recognition of Bangla as a national language and its use in instruction at all levels; the creation of a directly elected constituent assembly; agricultural reforms; the ending of restrictions on trade with and travel to India; freedom of trade in jute; and withdrawal of provisions permitting political arrests and detentions.[6] Most of these demands were, of course, largely or totally unacceptable to the West Pakistani generals, senior civil servants, and politicians who dominated the central government in Karachi.


This establishment was unwilling to tolerate a United Front government in Dhaka or dissidence from Bengalis and others at the national level. The United Front enjoyed only a brief, troubled life. Severe rioting at East Pakistani jute mills between Bengali and non-Bengali workers and accusations that Haq was collaborating with the Indians led the central government to dismiss him and his provincial government before any of the United Front’s major demands could be satisfied or addressed. The assembly was suspended, then dissolved a few months later. The East Pakistani government came to be led by a succession of political groupings that reflected both the instability of alignments in the assembly and frequent intervention by the central government.[7]


General Ayub Khan Takes Charge


Mohammad Ayub Khan, a former commander of the Pakistan Army and defense minister in   civilian-led governments in the 1950s, declared martial law in October 1958.[8] Ayub would rule Pakistan as president for the next 11 years. The pro-West Pakistan biases of earlier governments continued to dominate his approach. He relied on an inner circle drawn from West Pakistani military and civil service elite. West Pakistanis approved of Ayub’s anti-corruption measures, the rapid economic growth he generated, and his establishment of Pakistan as a poster child for economic development and political stability among Third World countries.


By contrast, sentiment in East Pakistan was much less positive. Bengalis had only limited roles in running the country, sensed they were falling behind the West in economic development, and felt largely neglected by the aid-giving world. With the deaths in the 1960s of Suhrawardy and Fazlul Haq, they also lost two of their most respected leaders.


Ayub did, however, make several decisions that pleased Bengalis. Most importantly, in his final years as president, he significantly increased recruitment of East Pakistanis into commissioned ranks of the armed forces and senior civil service. He also boosted East Pakistan’s industrial and agricultural development, though it continued to lag behind the West.


Ayub’s Decline and Fall


Ayub’s seemingly invulnerable position declined in the mid-1960s. His reputation as a statesman and military leader was badly damaged after the short war with India to win control over Kashmir ended in stalemate. He also suffered from the changing perception in West Pakistan of his government’s economic performance. Resentment grew towards the beneficiaries of the new wealth, seen in today’s terms as “crony capitalists.”[9]


As support for Ayub weakened, frustrated Bengalis took action. At a conference of opposition party leaders from East and West Pakistan in Lahore in February 1966, Sheikh Mujib, then president of the Awami League, radically changed the focus of Bengali demands. He and others representing East Pakistan concluded that the West Pakistani establishment’s domination of the national government meant that sharing power was no longer a feasible way for the Bengalis to attain their political and economic objectives.


The Six Point Program that Sheikh Mujib set out exceeded the limited autonomy the United Front had proposed in its 1964 provincial election campaign. It called for two sovereign autonomous states; limiting the power of the federal government; new currency provisions; autonomous taxation and revenue collection; a new foreign exchange arrangement; and the establishment of an East Pakistani armed force.


Not surprisingly, President Ayub called the Six Point program a scheme for East Pakistan’s secession and threatened force to block its adoption. Sheikh Mujib and other Awami Leaguers were jailed, leading to province-wide demonstrations and clashes in which students played a leading role.[10] Facing mounting turbulence, Ayub invited opposition leaders from both wings, including the recently released Sheikh Mujib, to a Round Table Conference. Held in February and March 1969, the bitterly divided conference ultimately failed when President Ayub declared that fundamental constitutional questions could be decided only by elected representatives.[11]


Soon afterwards, Ayub announced his resignation as president. The 1962 constitution he had promulgated was abrogated, the National Assembly was dissolved, and martial law proclaimed. Ayub handed over the presidency to General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, the Army’s commander-in-chief.


The End of United Pakistan


Yahya Khan was the last president of Pakistan as delineated in the 1947 Partition of India. His three years in power ended with his resignation after Pakistan’s military defeat by India in 1971 and the emergence of an independent Bangladesh. He was a man of limited ability and unsteady character who proved unable to deal with the enormous problems Pakistan faced. Nonetheless, he received strong support from the administration of President Richard Nixon.


Yahya got off to a promising start. He pledged early elections for a national assembly that would be required to draft a new constitution within 120 days of the balloting. The new president also issued an important decree stipulating that provincial representation in the newly chosen body would be allocated on the basis of population. For the first time, East Pakistan would choose a majority of the members of a national Pakistani assembly.


In East Pakistan, the Awami League’s battle cry in the campaign was the Six Point Program.  Sheikh Mujib’s party’s strong appeal there was boosted by widespread resentment at the central government’s failure to deal adequately and promptly with the devastating impact of the worst cyclone and tidal wave in Eastern Bengal in living memory.[12] When polling took place starting in early December, 1970, the Awami League swept the East, winning 160 of the province’s 162 National Assembly seats. Results were less decisive in the West, where Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party won 81 of 138 seats. Importantly, the Awami League won no seats in the West, nor did the PPP win any in the East.


The outcome surprised Yahya and his military commanders. They were troubled by the Awami League’s sweep in East Pakistan and all that implied for the division of power between the East and West and the military’s parochial interests. A series of talks involving Yahya, Sheikh Mujib, and Bhutto followed the elections, but made no progress in resolving the deadlock on the establishment of a civilian-led, constitutional government. Under pressure from Bhutto and military colleagues, Yahya postponed indefinitely the inaugural session of the National Assembly scheduled for Dhaka March 1, 1971. At the same time, he sent military reinforcements to East Pakistan and prepared diplomatic groundwork for an eventual crackdown there.[13]


The postponement sine die of the National Assembly triggered an Awami League-directed shutdown of all normal activity in East Pakistan. Violence flared and hundreds were killed. Sheikh Mujib continued to urge restraint, but also began to speak of a “struggle for independence” in speeches to supporters in Dhaka.


The deadlock was broken on March 25 when the Awami League was banned, all political activity proscribed, and a brutal crackdown implemented. The reinforced Pakistan Army killed thousands of Bengali civilians. Sheikh Mujib and his principal associates were arrested a few days later. Bhutto, fully supporting Yahya’s action, told the press, “By the Grace of God, Pakistan has at last been saved.”[14] He was wrong. Instead, the military action led to a nine-month civil war and, in December 1971, to the liberation of East Pakistan and its emergence as independent Bangladesh.


The International Tapestry


The development of the Bangladesh movement grew out of the structure of the Pakistan state as first created and how united Pakistan was governed. Unhappiness in East Pakistan fueled calls for separation. Pakistan and Bangladesh found themselves at the confluence of two international forces: Cold War politics, specifically Henry Kissinger’s China diplomacy; and India’s response to Pakistan’s fragility. The Cold War connection added drama and international significance to the events surrounding Bangladesh independence and India’s intervention proved to be decisive.


The Cold War dimension: Secretary of State Kissinger’s determination to pursue a dramatic reversal of major power relationships was the driving force behind the United States’ pro-Pakistan policy. For some time, the United States had explored an opening to China, hoping to secure Chinese cooperation against the Soviet Union. Pakistan was one of two countries being considered as possible intermediaries. Kissinger would not countenance any policy moves distasteful to Pakistan lest they interfere with his larger strategic aims. In October 1970, before the crackdown in East Bengal, President Nixon asked for Pakistan’s assistance.[15] In July 1971, Kissinger, with the help of Yahya’s government, made a secret visit to China. Soon after Kissinger returned to Washington, his visit to Beijing was announced, along with the news that Nixon planned to visit China. Pakistan’s role in brokering the U.S. opening to China became publicly known.


Evidence of increasingly close U.S.-Pakistan ties set off alarms in New Delhi. On August 9, 1971, India signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union.[16] Such a pact had apparently been under discussion for six years.[17] But Washington’s pro-Pakistan policy provided an important argument for this clear deviation from India’s traditional posture of non-alignment, shaping an environment where India decided to intervene in the Bangladesh war.


Indian and Pakistani diplomacy: Indian and Pakistani diplomacy intensified in August, 1971. The Awami League, with its principal leaders in jail in Pakistan, had formed a provisional government. Close ties were established with the Indian government, which provided offices in Calcutta and assigned a liaison officer from the Ministry of External Affairs. Indian diplomats hoped to heal splits and ease tensions within the pro-Bangladesh movement. India also had begun training pro-independence guerrillas.


India’s policy toward Pakistan hardened, largely confined to diplomacy. Pakistan also made overtures to Bangladesh movement leaders, working through George Griffin, an official at the U.S. Consulate General in Calcutta. Pakistan sought a face-saving arrangement but refused to release Sheikh Mujib from jail or to grant Bangladesh independence – both non-starters in light of the violence of Pakistan’s crackdown a few months earlier.[18]


Refugees, most of them Hindu, began pouring into India, estimated at 7 million by July 1971. By October, India felt that time was running out. India had always sought to maintain regional primacy. Washington was still in Pakistan’s corner. Concerned about a preemptive U.S. gambit, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi preferred to make the first move. Once convinced that her military could achieve a decisive and quick victory, she had them prepare in earnest. Government and public opinion solidly backed her. By November, India was providing sanctuary to Awami League paramilitaries conducting operations against the Pakistan army. With intervention looming, India and pro-Bangladesh forces created a joint command. In the end, Pakistan’s decision to attack three airfields in Indian Punjab on December 3 triggered India’s full-scale intervention.[19]


Last minute diplomacy: The most dramatic U.S. moves came after India’s intervention. On December 3, the United States cut off economic aid to India and dispatched the aircraft carrier Enterprise to provide a show of force in the Indian Ocean. The U.N. Security Council got involved. A U.S.-sponsored resolution calling for a cessation of hostilities was vetoed by the Soviet Union, supporting India. The General Assembly eventually approved a ceasefire resolution by a huge majority.


Kissinger made two moves. On Nixon’s direct instructions, he attempted an unsuccessful bid to induce Soviet pressure on India to pull back. The other came on December 10, when Kissinger told the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations that “if the People’s Republic were to consider the situation on the Indian subcontinent a threat to its security… [the United States] would oppose efforts of others to interfere with the People’s Republic.” The United States, in other words, was prepared to act as China’s quasi-ally. The Chinese, however, showed no interest.[20] Next the Pakistani governor of East Pakistan made a last-ditch effort to obtain a ceasefire and to install a Bangladesh government without a formal surrender from the Pakistan Army. In the end, an independent Bangladesh was inevitable.


Maneuvering among the United States, India, China, and the Soviet Union influenced the foreign policy of these nations and impacted their ties with Bangladesh. In particular, U.S. policies toward events that reshaped the politics of the Indian subcontinent were driven almost entirely by extra-regional issues.[21]


The End of the War: On December 15, 1971, the Indian army entered Dhaka. The next day, General Niazi, commander of the Pakistan army forces, approached the U.S. Consulate General in Dhaka to ask its help in communicating a ceasefire proposal to his Indian counterparts. Once again, Pakistanis tried to accomplish this without use of the word “surrender.” – in vain.[22] From India’s intervention to the surrender took only 13 days.


Establishing the New State


Sheikh Mujib and other senior Awami League leaders were released from prison in Pakistan starting December 28, 1971. Sheikh Mujib returned to a victorious Bangladesh on January 10.[23]  He had been an iconic rebel leader, exemplified by his oft-used title, “Bangabandhu,” or Friend of Bengal. Now, he needed to create a state, establish authority, and reinvigorate the economy.


Laying the Groundwork: The first steps in establishing national institutions occurred immediately after the brutal Pakistan army crackdown. Just before his arrest, Sheikh Mujib had begun a state-in-waiting.[24] In mid-April, 1971, the leaders still at liberty announced the formation of a provisional government and swore in a roster of office-holders – Sheikh Mujib as president in absentia, Syed Nazrul Islam as acting president, and Tajuddin Ahmed as prime minister. They also published a Declaration of Independence that Mujib issued the day after the massacre. Provisional government leaders put Colonel Osmany, a Bengali officer retired from the Pakistan Army, in charge of military affairs. He set up an organizational structure and regional commands for the military personnel who had left the Pakistan army.[25]


In the nine months between the crackdown and the end of the war, many Bengali foreign service officers assigned to Pakistani missions abroad left their posts. Most were permitted to stay in their host countries.[26] The provisional government – and after the surrender, the new government – used these people to make contact with other governments. Some wound up playing a major role in independent Bangladesh. The most senior Bengali in the embassy in Washington, the economist A.M.A. Muhith, went on to senior positions, and at this writing is finance minister in Sheikh Hasina’s government.[27]


Many civil servants who had run the East Pakistan government came from the West. The few Bengali civil servants physically in Bangladesh, who were disproportionately junior in rank, remained in place. Bengali civil servants stationed in West Pakistan, like their military counterparts, were not repatriated to Bangladesh until after 1973. Besides these structural problems, East Bengal had only had a provincial government in the pre-independence period. Civil servants were suddenly faced with larger responsibilities that came with running a sovereign state – but with far fewer resources than most states enjoy.


Writing a Constitution: Much energy of the Bangladesh movement focused on dissatisfaction with Pakistan’s constitutional arrangements, so a constitution for the new country loomed large for post-independence leaders. Writing the constitution was entrusted to lawyers trained, like so many in the subcontinental elite, in Britain. Soon after Sheikh Mujib’s return, provisional authorities constituted those who had been elected to the ill-fated National Assembly in 1970 as a Constituent Assembly. To provide interim governing rules, they also proclaimed a provisional constitutional instrument and established a Supreme Court.


The constitution adopted on the first anniversary of Pakistan’s surrender – December 16, 1972 – created a parliamentary system, with the prime minister as the chief executive and a unicameral legislature. Drafters struggled to avoid mistakes they felt Pakistan’s constitution had made, detailing principles often left implicit. The constitution made significant use of symbolism: besides the date, the drafters made a major effort to find a lawyer capable of writing the document in Bangla.[28]


Separating from Pakistan, joining the world: Transitioning from surrender to peace was the subject of negotiations between India and Pakistan, culminating in a conference at Simla in the summer of 1972.[29] The Simla Agreement is best remembered for providing “rules of the road” for India-Pakistan relations. It mandated India’s release of 93,000 Pakistan troops who were in the East when the war ended and taken to India as prisoners of war. Simla also created a framework for Pakistan’s return to Bangladesh of interned Bengalis who had been in the Pakistani civil service or military.[30]


These exchanges of personnel were delayed by the larger drama of settling Bangladesh’s place in international institutions and dividing assets and liabilities between Pakistan and Bangladesh. The first breakthrough came in February 1974. With a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) fast approaching, a delegation of Islamic ministers travelled to Dhaka, seeking to broker an agreement between these two Muslim states. When the delegation went on to Lahore the next day, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Bhutto announced his recognition of Bangladesh, thus removing the major obstacle to personnel exchanges, which took place over the next year.[31]


Pakistani recognition also accelerated the process of separating Bangladeshi and Pakistani international debt. Bangladesh had joined the International Monetary Fund and World Bank after the Simla conference in August 1972. This brought access to desperately needed aid resources while the World Bank provided a formula for separating the debt. Its application to join the United Nations, previously vetoed by China, finally gained approval in October 1974.[32] Pakistan and Bangladesh established diplomatic relations and trade in January, 1976.


Governing Independent Bangladesh: Sheikh Mujib’s Turbulent Rule and Bloody End


Sheikh Mujib was an extraordinary leader of the Bangladesh movement. He gave millions of his countrymen hope, leadership, and unity. Yet he was burdened by high expectations his political leadership created in the Bangladeshi public. He spoke of “four pillars” of Bangladesh: nationalism, socialism, secularism and democracy. He was not the first iconic leader, however, to discover that governing a country beset by desperate problems is a different and more arduous challenge. Sheikh Mujib’s tenure as head of a new government was extraordinarily volatile because of an agricultural sector far from feeding the country, few foreign exchange earning assets, a desperate shortage of human and financial resources, fractious politics, divisions in the army, and the continuing presence of armed activists.


On March 26, 1972 – exactly one year after the bloody crackdown on Dhaka that marked the official birth of Bangladesh – the government decided to nationalize the property of Pakistanis who had returned to West Pakistan, as well as Bengali-owned industrial assets over a certain size, the first step in a hoped for socialist transformation.[33]


In the elections of 1973, the Awami League once again won nearly all of the 300 seats in parliament and 73 percent of the votes. The economy, however, remained a disaster. The middle class, once the backbone of the Awami League, and donors, that the government depended on for funding, pushed back. Spreading law and order problems led Sheikh Mujib to declare a state of emergency in December 1974. He changed the Constitution to increase his authority. The Fourth Amendment, passed overwhelmingly in January 1975, declared him president, and instituted a one-party state. He also created the personal security group, Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini.[34]


On August 15, 1975, a group led by four army officers assassinated Sheikh Mujib and almost his entire family. Only his two daughters, both in Europe at the time, survived. One, Sheikh Hasina, has served three times as Prime Minister. Accounts of his assassination focused more on personal factors than on the institutional problems of the army. Two of the officers involved had recently been separated from the army and had personal scores to settle.[35]


The Zia Years: Economic Success, Military Crackdown, a Bloody End


The few months that followed Sheikh Mujib’s assassination were chaotic. Another coup in early November, again led by an army officer, killed four of Sheikh Mujib’s closest associates in Dhaka Central Jail. A few days later, the officer who had led the first coup was killed in a counter-coup. Soon afterward, Chief Justice A.S.M. Sayem was appointed president and chief martial law administrator. The army chief of staff, General Ziaur Rahman, soon emerged as the next power figure and became president after Sayem’s resignation for ill health in 1977.


Over an extended period, generals ruled Bangladesh. Zia’s rule began with martial law and he put down coup attempts in 1976 and 1977. Elected president in 1978, he then founded his own party, now one of the two major contending parties in Bangladeshi democratic politics. Zia’s party won a two-thirds majority in 1979 elections.


Three issues marked Zia’s time in power and represented significant departures from Sheikh Mujib’s era. First, he softened the emphasis on secularism that had represented one of Mujib’s “pillars.” He incorporated into his party former members of the Muslim League – the founding party of Pakistan, regarded as traitorous by freedom parties. [36]


Second, Zia devoted enormous energy, indeed ruthlessness, to restoring discipline in the armed forces. Developing a unified army was one of the central tasks that consumed the early Bangladeshi governments.


Finally, Zia made major changes in Bangladeshi economic policy, including relaxing restrictions on private investment and reversing much of the Mujib-era nationalization. This led to a resurgence of the economy which would have astonished anyone familiar with pre-independence years.


In 1981, Zia too was assassinated, again by army officers. As with Sheikh Mujib, the ringleader had a history of tensions with Zia. The immediate succession to Zia followed the constitutional order. But within about a year, Gen. H. M. Ershad had taken over, again in a coup. Ershad left office in 1990, forced out by a popular movement spearheaded by Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Sheikh Mujib, and by Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of General Zia. For a decade and a half, these two women, representing two political dynasties of Bangladesh, alternated in power, with elections widely praised for fairness. Between elections, the political situation remained highly polarized.


Sheikh Hasina, elected in 2008, was able to secure reelection in 2014 in a controversial election, the first time since 1990 that a civilian political leader had served two successive terms. The opposition declined to take part in the 2014 election; this means that she wields power with no significant counterweight. Bangladesh under her leadership has continued to do well economically – far better than anyone expected at its birth.


Three Central Challenges: Army, Economy, and Governance


Those who have governed Bangladesh faced many difficulties in launching a new nation. Three stand out: creating a disciplined and unified army; enabling a desperately poor economy to support one of the densest populations on earth; and governance, including in particular forging a governing consensus. Broadly speaking, the country met the first two quite successfully. The governing consensus, however, remains elusive.


The Army: Bangladesh had three types of armed organizations at independence. The first two comprised Bengalis who had been in the Pakistan Army. Within days after the March 25, 1971, army crackdown, five Bengali battalions based in East Pakistan left the Pakistan army and joined the rebellion. The East Pakistan Rifles, a paramilitary formation with members dispersed around the country, followed quickly. All joined independence forces as units, including Bengali officers and enlisted troops. They formed the nucleus of the forces organized by Colonel, later General, Osmany. They are referred to as Freedom Fighters or, in Bangla, Mukti Bahini.


A second ex-Pakistan Army group consisted of Bengali military officers and troops who were stationed in West Pakistan when the crackdown took place. They were interned and brought back to Bangladesh between 1973 and 1975. They were known in Bangladesh as Repatriates.


Integrating these two groups after independence took more than three decades. In consideration of their role in achieving independence, Freedom Fighters were granted two years back-dated seniority, with the result that some repatriated officers were suddenly junior to those they had previously outranked. Freedom Fighters were suspicious of the more numerous Repatriates, and the latter did not always share the strong personal loyalty to Mujib that most of the Freedom Fighters espoused. Repatriates, on the other hand, resented the prominence given the Freedom Fighters.[37]


The third set of armed groups were guerrilla organizations that had taken part in the liberation war. Some were civilian volunteers with minimal training who were not integrated into the regular army, though a few volunteered. These included young people with radical political views sharply at variance with those who had served in the military. The latter had little patience with talk of “a revolutionary army.”


Other guerrillas had been more professionally trained by India in the run-up to the war. Mujib recognized these forces could be a threat to his authority. A week after his return to Bangladesh, he called on the Freedom Fighters outside the regular defense forces to surrender arms. He presided over a ceremony in which perhaps the most powerful Mukti Bahini leader, Kader “Tiger” Siddiqui, surrendered arms to the new government.


The army was where classic “insider/outsider” problems simmered and flared. Freedom Fighters led the army for a decade after independence. General Zia carried out a discipline campaign that led to the execution of hundreds of military officers. He also integrated the Jatiyo Rakkhi Bahini into the army. In his stewardship of the army, he leaned more heavily on Repatriates.[38] General Ershad, who took power in a 1982 military coup and was the first Repatriate to head the army, came down hard on the Freedom Fighters.[39]  Mutinies and other problems traceable to the different groups in the army continued for four decades.


The army has played an important role in politics at various times, especially through its involvement in the interim government of 2007-2008 and its role in the unsuccessful effort to banish the two principal political leaders, Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia, from political life.


The Economic Surprise: The immediate impact of independence was an economic disaster. In 1972, its first year of independence, newly independent Bangladesh saw a 13 percent drop in its GDP, a 10 percent fall in agricultural production, and a 46 percent reduction in industrial production. Agricultural land had been pillaged and burned. The transportation network suffered vast destruction.[40]  The new government’s decision to take over most of the country’s industrial assets deepened the economic trough.


The big surprise was how successfully the economy turned around. A few years after independence, aid resources began to flow in much greater quantity. The World Bank began lending to Bangladesh in 1973, although about two-thirds of the new money was allocated to reconstruction of war and cyclone damage.[41] What really fueled the resurgence were the growth of a vibrant and effective NGO sector and the rise of the textile industry.


The NGO story predates Bangladeshi independence. East Pakistan had a lively NGO scene. Its best-known institution was the Academy of Rural Development in Comilla, in eastern Bangladesh, launched in 1959 and headed by the charismatic Akhtar Hameed Khan, who hailed from the far northwest of West Pakistan. He developed a model for using cooperatives as an economic development tool and was widely believed to be one inspiration for the microcredit model, used with considerable success by several path-breaking NGOs.[42]  The oldest of these, BRAC, founded by Sir Fazle Hassan Abed in 1972, now claims the title of the world’s largest NGO. Grameen Bank, founded by Muhammad Yunus, is also internationally renowned. The success of these NGOs owed a great deal to successive Bangladeshi governments’ decision to adopt policies that provided space to bear fruit, not just in microcredit, but also in tremendously successful programs for literacy and family planning. Many benefited from foreign funding.


The decision of the post-Mujib governments to reverse much of the earlier nationalization policy set the stage for the extraordinary success of the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh. Zia, before becoming president, was under considerable pressure from aid donors to ease conditions for private investment – both domestic and foreign. As early as December 1975, the government eliminated the ceiling on individual private investments and removed a number of industries from the category reserved for the public sector. Further legislative changes were enacted over the next few years.[43]


The private sector responded. The first ready-made garment factory to register was a South Korean-Bangladeshi joint venture, Daewoo-Desh. By 1983, 21 factories had been registered. By this time, the industry was overwhelmingly home-grown.  Joint ventures were greatly outnumbered by Bangladeshi investments. Labor in these plants was entirely Bangladeshi, consisting largely of women who were the first female wage-earners in their families.


Export figures illustrate the impact of this surging industry on the Bangladeshi economy. By 1993, ready-made garments accounted for 52 percent of Bangladeshi exports.


Growth of Bangladesh Ready-Made Garments Industry, 1982-93[44]
Year Gross Exports % of Total Exports
1981/2 7.0 1.1
1982/3 10.8 1.6
1983/4 32.0 3.8
1984/5 116.0 12.8
1985/6 131.0 16.0
1986/7 299.0 27.8
1987/8 433.0 35.2
1988/9 471.0 36.6
1989/90 609.0 40.0
1990/1 736.0 42.8
1991/2 1064.0 53.4
1992/3 1240.5 52.0

Bangladeshi GDP has continued to grow. The country also has achieved another goal no one expected: it is able to feed itself and even to export rice most years. National leaders have begun speaking about Bangladesh as a “middle income country,” and young people think of themselves as part of the next cyber-generation.


Struggling with governance: History still shapes politics in Bangladesh. Many issues that led to the breakup of the two-wing Pakistan are still part of the fabric of the country. Some, such as the language issue, are rallying points for Bangladeshis. Ideological divisions that roiled the Bangladesh movement at independence, such as the argument over whether Bangladesh should seek a socialist revolution or a revolutionary army, have eased.


The first decade of independence left a legacy of deep political polarization. The two principal political parties, Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League, which brought the country to birth, and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), created by Zia seven years later, have carried on a bitter contest for power over three decades. Both continue to be led and dominated by members of the founders’ families. Both are prepared to use every means available to retain their power.


Politics is a winner-take-all affair in Bangladesh. Both parties have ensured that positions of power remain firmly in the hands of their sympathizers. In the early years, Bangladesh was often at the bottom of the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index – perceived as corrupt more often and in more ways than any other country covered.[45]


The tradition of polarized politics goes back to Bangladesh’s first independence struggle – the partition of British India. One of Bangladesh’s most respected political scientists told the authors that Bangladesh’s politicians got their start in British days as opponents of the established order, opponents who had no chance of taking power. This same brand of hopeless opposition was typical of many Bengali political activists during the days of united Pakistan. The result was an environment in which purity is prized and compromise is a dirty word.[46] That persists to this day.


The country was founded with an ethos of secularism. Though Zia was the first leader to call Bangladesh an Islamic republic, he departed little from the overall ethos of tolerance and secularism. The BNP’s tactical alliance with some Islamist parties brought the issue of Islamic extremism into the already overheated political arena and also played into the politics of history. The July 2016 attack on a popular café in a Dhaka neighborhood, carried out by young Bangladeshis professing adherence to the Islamic State, was a shock to the government and to many Bangladeshis, demonstrating that Islamic extremism now has some Bangladeshi roots.


Polarization is likely to remain strong. Over the past two decades, areas of agreement among Bangladeshis have dwindled. Yet there remains wide acceptance of the push for literacy and empowerment that built the NGO movement; family planning, one of the country’s early successes, maintains support across the board; and entrepreneurship which benefits country and its economy is vibrant. Still to be determined is whether personalities involved in these efforts can work together on common goals while avoiding controversy. Americans today should have some sympathy for the difficulty of operating in this environment, but in this respect, the early dreams of Bangladesh have become harder to achieve.


Howard and Teresita Schaffer


[1] Although these tragic developments attracted world attention, the degree of coverage in that pre-television, pre-social media world was much more limited than it would have been later (and was, we shall see, a quarter century afterwards during the war for Bangladesh independence). There was no outcry for outside humanitarian relief, let alone for the intervention of foreign powers. Partition and its immediate aftermath were considered a “British show” for London and the emerging South Asian successor states to deal with on their own. Nor did the events figure in the Cold War confrontation between the Communist and non-Communist powers that was then in its earliest stages. This would change over time, especially when the confrontation between India and Pakistan over the disputed princely state of Kashmir attracted the diplomatic attention of Washington and Moscow.

[2] Coined in the early 1930s, the term “Pakistan” was based on an acronym derived from Punjab, Afghania (the Northwest Frontier Province), Kashmir, Sindh, and the “stan” of Baluchistan. Significantly, the acronym did not include any reference to Bengal or other parts of eastern India.  In its original form, which was accepted by the Muslim League at its session in Lahore in 1940, the so-called “Pakistan Resolution” stated that if the condition of Muslims in the provinces of India ruled by the Indian National Congress did not improve, India should be divided into Muslim and non-Muslim areas with two independent sovereign Muslim-majority states carved out of the rest of India in the northwest and the east. It did not call for a single, united Pakistan, nor indeed did it include the term “Pakistan.” In 1946, the resolution was rescinded and reissued as a call for a single Pakistan state. For a detailed study of this important historic background to the formation of Pakistan, see Craig Baxter, Bangladesh: A New Nation in an Old Setting (Boulder and London, 1984), 25-27.

[3] Economic statistics in this paragraph are taken from the World Bank data base, website of the World Bank,

[4] Suhrawardy had been Muslim League premier (chief minister) of the Bengal Province of British India in the pre-Partition years before Jinnah ousted him for supporting a failed last ditch effort by Bengali Hindu and Muslim political leaders to set up a sovereign, independent single United Bengal outside both India and Pakistan. He had subsequently remained behind in Calcutta for several years after Partition before moving to East Pakistan.

[5] Haq’s party’s name means Farmer and Worker Party. Suhrawardy briefly served as a member of Haq’s provincial government before becoming prime minister of Pakistan.

[6] Craig Baxter, Bangladesh: A New Nation in an Old Setting, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1984), 41-42.

[7] Craig Baxter, Bangladesh: A New Nation in an Old Setting, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1984), 43.

[8] Initially, Iskandar Mirza, Pakistan’s president, and Ayub were co-leaders of the martial law administration. But within three weeks Ayub, doubting Mirza’s loyalty, packed him off to London ending what would probably have been an unworkable duumvirate.

[9] The list was compiled in 1968 by Dr. Mahbub ul Haq, then chief economist at the Planning Commission of Pakistan.  According to Haq, these twenty-two families controlled 66% of Pakistan’s industrial assets and 87 percent of its banking assets. Almost all of the twenty-two families were based in West Pakistan or had West Pakistani origins.

[10] Agartala, where the conspiracy was allegedly hatched, is a town in northeastern India close to the international border. In February 1960, the Pakistan government withdrew all charges against Mujib and others. He was rapturously welcomed by huge crowds in Dhaka.  For a detailed personal account of how the trial played out, see Kamal Hossain, Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom and Justice (Dhaka: University Press Limited, 2013), chapter 4.

[11] Aside from the issue of provincial autonomy, the conference also grappled (unsuccessfully) with the long contentious issue of the administration of West Pakistan.  This matter pitted the Punjabis, who favored a “One Unit” arrangement that they would dominate, against representatives of the smaller ethnic groups—Sindhis, Pashtuns, and Baluchis — whose provinces had been amalgamated into a unified Punjabi-dominated West Pakistan province in the 1950s over their strong objection.

[12] An estimated quarter million died in the storm. Sheikh Mujib declared that the destruction and its aftermath had brought into sharp focus “the basic truth that every Bengali has felt in his bones, that we have been treated so long as a colony and a market.” Asked by a foreign correspondent if his statement could be read as a call for independence, Mujib replied “No, not yet.” (Quoted in Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), 32.

[13] As India had closed its airspace to traffic between the two wings of Pakistan, the planes had to refuel in Sri Lanka en route.

[14] Articles in Dawn and the Pakistan Times, both March 27,1971, quoted in Raghavan, op. cit, 51

[15] Gary J. Bass, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, (New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 2013), 103.

[16] Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India,

[17] J. N. Dixit, India-Pakistan in War and Peace, (New Delhi : Books Today, 2002), 176.

[18] George G. B. Griffin, Interview, ADST Oral History project, (April 30, 2002),,%20George%20G.B.toc.pdf, 34-58; Dixit, J. N., India-Pakistan in War and Peace, (New Delhi : Books Today, 2002), 188 ff.

[19] Gary J. Bass, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, (New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 2013), 205-235; Dixit, J. N., India-Pakistan in War and Peace, (New Delhi : Books Today, 2002), 199-204.

[20]Gary J. Bass, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, (New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 2013), 302-303; Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 205, 240-256.

[21] Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 252-255.

[22] Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 257-262.

[23] For a moving account of their imprisonment, release, and intermediate stops in London and Delhi, see Kamal Hossain, Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom and Justice, (Dhaka: University Press Ltd., 2013), 105-122. Kamal Hossain, a close associate of Mujib, was imprisoned and in solitary confinement for eight months. He later became Mujib’s foreign minister and remained active in Awami League politics until the mid-1990s.

[24] Kamal Hossain, Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom and Justice, (Dhaka: University Press Ltd., 2013), 134. Zia was the first to declare an independent state with himself as head, on March 27, a statement that he corrected the next day, stating that the new state was operating under the guidance of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. See text on the web site of the party he founded, the BNP, at

[25] Kamal Hossain, Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom and Justice, (Dhaka: University Press Ltd., 2013), 134-5; Bangladesh Defence web site, “History of Bangladesh Army,” The provisional government was often referred to as a “government in exile” because it also enjoyed facilities in India.

[26] Despite the strong U.S. pro-Pakistan policy, the United States did accommodate the Bengali diplomats in Washington who left the Pakistan embassy. The State Department assigned an officer to maintain liaison with them, Craig Baxter, selected in part because he was a South Asia expert but was not then working in the Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. This kept the effort at a safe distance from the White House.

[27] Muhith, in an interview with one of the authors, made clear that he considered this period one of the most important of his life.

[28] Kamal Hossain, Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom and Justice, (Dhaka: University Press Ltd., 2013), 135-156. He was one of the authors of the constitution.

[29] Simla Agreement, July 2, 1972, web site of Ministry of External Affairs, India,

[30] Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 270.

[31] T.S. Cheema, Pakistan Bangladesh Relations, (Unistar Books, Bangladesh, 2013), 72-73

[32] The People’s Republic of China was only admitted to the United Nations on October 25, 1971.

[33] Stanley A.Kochanek, Patron-Client Politics and Business in Bangladesh, (New Delhi: Sage, 1993), 75-88.

[34] Craig Baxter, Bangladesh: A New Nation in an Old Setting, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1984) 57-59.

[35] Craig Baxter, Bangladesh: A New Nation in an Old Setting, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1984), 59; Franda, Marcus, Bangladesh: The First Decade, New Delhi: South Asian Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1982, pp. 53-63.

[36] Marcus Franda, Bangladesh: The First Decade, (New Delhi: South Asian Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1982), 223, 306-316.

[37] Kamal Hossain gives the number of these ex-Pakistan Army freedom fighters as 25,000 (op. cit., 126). Much larger figures, ranging from 51-120,000, are cited in “Freedom Fighters,” in Genocide Bangladesh, web site of a Freedom Fighters’ organization, , though this source appears to combine ex-army personnel and guerrillas.  Bangladesh Defence web site, “History of Bangladesh Army,” cites a figure of 28,000 for the repatriates. Shamsher Chowdhury believes the relative size of the Freedom Fighter group was smaller. See also Ziaur Rahman’s party biography,

[38] Marcus Franda, Bangladesh: The First Decade, (New Delhi: South Asian Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1982), 276. Franda claims that Zia himself admitted to 406 executions (p. 306). See also Global, “Bangladesh Army History.” claims over 1000.

[39] Global, “Bangladesh Army History,”; Bangladesh Defence web site, “History of Bangladesh Army,”

[40] World Bank database,

[41] World Bank annual report (1973),, 126, 131.

[42] “About the Founder,” Web site of Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development Comilla,  Ironically, Akhtar Hameed went back to Pakistan after Bangladeshi independence, and tried out his cooperative model in a poor neighborhood in Karachi – only to fall afoul of the governmental and religious authorities. He was revered in Bangladesh, especially in Comilla, until and beyond his death in 1999, in contrast to the low profile he had in Pakistan.

[43] Stanley A. Kochanek, Patron-Client Politics and Business in Bangladesh, (New Delhi: Sage, 1993), 91.

[44] BGMEA and Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, cited in World Bank (1995), 77

[45] Website of Transparency International,

[46] Najma Chowdhury, Professor of Political Science (retired), Dhaka University, conversations with authors.

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