Bangladesh’s Long Journey From ‘Basket Case’ to Rising Star
But 50 years after independence, an authoritarian turn casts a shadow over the country’s future.
Fifty years ago, the streets around Dhaka University were strewn with corpses of students and intellectuals killed by the Pakistani armed forces, which went around the dormitories looking for Bengali nationalists. Dhaka was the premier city of East Pakistan, at the time still part of Pakistan, a nation united by religion and divided by language and separated by 1,300 miles of Indian territory, from which Pakistan had separated violently in 1947. The world’s deadliest tropical cyclone on record had ravaged East Pakistan in 1970, stoking resentment in the province, which had felt years of neglect and sought greater economic, cultural, and political autonomy within the Pakistani federation.
In the national elections Pakistan held in December 1970, of the 162 seats in East Pakistan, the autonomy-seeking Awami League won all but two seats. West Pakistan—corresponding to Pakistan today—sent 138 members to the federal assembly in Karachi, which meant that the Awami League had secured an absolute majority over the united country and its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, should have been invited to form a civilian government. But the generals who ruled Pakistan felt differently. Profoundly suspicious of civilians and uncertain about Bengali loyalty to Pakistan, they dragged Awami League politicians into long, exasperating negotiations. On March 7, Rahman gave a rousing speech during which he all but declared independence. East Pakistanis stopped cooperating with the federal government; there were daily marches and protests. Dockworkers had stopped working at the Chittagong Port.
On March 25, the Pakistani army began Operation Searchlight—a brutal repression of the protests, arrests of leading Awami League politicians, and mass killings targeting anyone suspected of supporting Bengali separatism. Archer Blood, a senior U.S. diplomat in what was then called Dacca, cabled the State Department, warning that Pakistan was conducting genocide. But the White House under then-President Richard Nixon had other priorities: In the great game of establishing relations with Mao Zedong’s China, Pakistan was a willing accomplice, a go-between that was helping to facilitate U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China. Both Nixon and Kissinger liked the Pakistani leader, Yahya Khan, who showed resolve.
The Pakistani military spared no one—Muslims, Hindus, Christians—as it went about systematically trying to reassert authority in East Pakistan. Many young Bengali men and boys scurried across the border to India, where some joined a rebel force called the Mukti Bahini, tacitly and explicitly supported by India. Nearly 10 million refugees—about two-thirds of them Hindu, the rest Muslim—crossed the border to India, stretching the capacity of its more populous but equally poor neighbor. In East Pakistan, the massacres continued, and hundreds of thousands of civilians died in the months that followed. Pakistani soldiers raped thousands of women, some of them repeatedly at camps, and abducted, captured, and tortured young men whom they suspected of being part of the rebel army. In December 1971, Pakistan’s air force attacked airfields in India, giving India the legal justification to formally enter the war. (India’s motives weren’t entire humanitarian or selfless, as an independent East Pakistan critically weakened its perennial rival.) India made quick work, and Pakistani troops in East Pakistan surrendered to India within two weeks.
A new nation, Bangladesh, was born, but expectations couldn’t have been lower. The country was promptly dismissed as an “international basket case” by Ural Alexis Johnson, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs at the time, during a December 1971 meeting. Kissinger agreed and replied: “But not necessarily our basket case.”
Fifty years later, following enormous economic and social progress against many odds, it is the Bangladeshis who have the last laugh. To be sure, Bangladesh faced a drought soon after independence, and cyclones have been a recurring curse for the riverine, flood-prone country. Its politics, too, have been divisive, with coups and counter-coups that saw the assassinations of Rahman, initially prime minister and later president, in 1975 and President Ziaur Rahman in 1981. There have also been attempts on the life of the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, who is Mujibur Rahman’s daughter. The dislike between Hasina and her rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia (who is Ziaur Rahman’s widow), is intense and personal, with each accusing the other of permitting political violence, encouraging corruption, and attempting to paralyze the economy with repeated strikes. But Hasina was elected in 2009 and has since been reelected twice, decimating the opposition in elections that many observers have found to be profoundly faulty.
Yet, in spite of such governance, Bangladesh has shown astonishing performance on various social development indicators. Life expectancy is 72.6 years, a quantum leap from 46.6 at independence. According to data compiled by the World Bank, nearly all Bangladeshi children finish primary school, a remarkable improvement from the 1980s, when only about a third did. At 72 percent, Bangladesh’s female literacy rate is higher than India’s (66 percent) and considerably higher than Pakistan’s (46 percent). At 26 deaths per 1,000 births, its infant mortality is lower than India’s (28) and Pakistan’s (67). In 1971, when Johnson and Kissinger saw a basket case, the infant mortality rate was 158. At 36 percent, Bangladesh’s female participation rate in the labor force is low by international standards but is superior to Pakistan’s 21.9 percent and India’s 21.5 percent. And at 2.04 births per woman, Bangladesh’s fertility rate has fallen below India’s 2.22. In a generation, the high population growth that has gone hand in hand with poverty will be no more.
Much credit for this social progress goes to Bangladesh’s civil society. Zafrullah Chowdhury was instrumental in pushing for a drug policy in the 1980s to make pharmaceuticals accessible at low prices even at the cost of angering Big Pharma. His nonprofit continues to do amazing work in public health. Fazle Hasan Abed founded a nonprofit called BRAC, which focuses on improving child health and is today among the world’s largest development organizations. Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank made loans in small amounts available to poor Bangladeshis, turning them into entrepreneurs instead of them having to rely on uncertain support from state or development organizations. In 2006, Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize for his innovation.
Today, Bangladesh is among the top garment exporters in the world, capitalizing only on its low cost of labor because it hardly grows any cotton and has to import textile machinery. The country supplies clothing to top brands around the world, and the majority of the 4.4 million workers in the sector are women, an immensely empowering phenomenon in a country where other jobs are scarce. Some 80 percent of Bangladesh’s foreign exchange is generated by the sector. Some 10 million Bangladeshis laboring overseas send back $15 billion annually as remittances, another substantial part of the national income. Last October, the International Monetary Fund projected that Bangladesh’s per capita GDP would surpass India’s in 2020. There is a joke in Dhaka that the infiltration-proof fence India wants to build along its border to keep Bangladeshis out will soon be necessary to keep job-seeking Indians out of Bangladesh.
This is exceptional progress, considering the damage caused by its bloody birth, natural disasters, and the political instability in its early years. In late February, the United Nations said Bangladesh qualified for graduation from its status of least developed country. That’s an achievement the country—and especially its hard-working citizens—should rightly be proud of.
While Islamism is rising in predominantly Muslim Bangladesh—one Islamist political party has been allied with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, while other Islamist organizations routinely demand the imposition of Islamic laws—many Bangladeshis are committed to secularism. Dictatorships between 1975 and the early 1990s introduced progressively Islamic laws. Hasina’s party, the nominally secular Awami League, has amended the constitution to restore secularism and freedom of religion while retaining Islam as the state religion.
The demands of fundamentalist groups continue to pose a serious challenge to the government, and there have been periodic attacks on religious minorities. Most recently, on March 28, members of a hard-line Islamist group attacked Hindu temples, protesting the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to join celebrations of Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary.
But even as the Hasina administration seeks to deflect religious fundamentalist attacks, its support of secular, liberal public figures has been weak. When fundamentalists attacked free-thinking, atheist, and rationalist bloggers, writers, and publishers (at least 11 were slain between 2013 and 2018), they were told to be careful about what they write and recognize that causing offense was not right. Several Bangladeshi writers and bloggers now live abroad in exile.
The government has severely cracked down on dissidents, most recently deploying the notorious Digital Security Act, passed in 2018 ostensibly to curb radicalism and pornography but which gives the authorities a free hand to jail anyone who posts something deemed “aggressive or frightening” online. In 2018, the acclaimed photographer and writer Shahidul Alam was arrested under provisions of the Information and Communication Technology Act, tortured in prison, and released on bail after 107 days in custody. Disappearances are common—Shafiqul Islam Kajol, a photojournalist, disappeared for 53 days in 2020 and continues to face charges. Mushtaq Ahmed, a writer, was arrested over social media posts and denied bail six times. He died in custody under circumstances never fully explained. Ahmed Kabir Kishore, a noted cartoonist, was also arrested. Released recently on bail, he has alleged he was tortured in detention.
According to the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh’s government detained at least 138 people in 2020 for criticizing the prime minister, her family, official corruption, and more. Critical editors can face interminable lawsuits on charges of sedition and defamation. That may be one reason why Bangladeshi media have been reluctant to follow up on a controversial documentary broadcast by Al Jazeera this year, which alleges that the head of the Bangladeshi army, Aziz Ahmed, who is close to Hasina, is tied to various abuses. Following the documentary, Human Rights Watch has raised concerns.
Bangladesh under Hasina seeks international approval for its social progress and economic performance. The government deserves some credit, and grassroots organizations deserve even more. But the country’s record on democracy and human rights has deteriorated significantly, and its authoritarian turn could eventually threaten developmental gains. Bangladesh would do well to recognize that political repression will not ease economic progress, nor do greater civil rights hinder economic development, as the Indian Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has shown. Those who repress their societies in the name of economic development—be they Soviet, Chinese, or Singaporean—do so because they seek power as an end and not as a means to something else.
At Rayer Bazaar in Dhaka, there is a memorial that honors the intellectuals who were slain in December 1971 by the defeated, parting Pakistani forces—a particularly cruel act of eliminating the kind of people who could have helped build the new nation. Inscribed on the monument is a poem by the Bangladeshi writer Asad Chowdhury, which addresses a question to those who were killed: Is Bangladesh today saying what you wanted it to say? At 50 years, the verdict is mixed. Those who died in 1971 had a vision of an inclusive, democratic nation where the lives of the poor would improve and rights would be respected. Chowdhury’s poem is a reminder that Bangladesh still has a while to go before it lives up to those dreams.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.