By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Bangladesh has faced many struggles in the last century. Partitions, corruption, and war have racked the densely populated nation of 163 million. COVID-19’s Delta variant is causing more strife for the South Asian country.
After daily coronavirus cases in Bangladesh quintupled, citizens of the small country in South Asia found themselves under another national lockdown to limit disease spread. The surge in cases marks Bangladesh’s third wave of COVID-19 cases, due largely to the Delta variant of COVID-19, which crossed into Bangladesh from India. India surrounds Bangladesh on its west, north, and east sides; the Bay of Bengal lies to the south.
Just 3.5% of Bangladesh citizens have received a COVID vaccination. The pandemic is just the latest struggle the country has faced in the last 100 years. In his video series A History of India, Dr. Michael Fisher, the Robert S. Danforth Professor of History at Oberlin College, said much of Bangladesh’s turmoil revolves around its three partitions as a nation.
The First Two Partitions of Bengal
“In 1905, the British colonial Raj divided majority Muslim East Bengal from predominantly Hindu West Bengal,” Dr. Fisher said. “The British justified this on purely administrative grounds since the province had been so huge, but most scholars agree that this was really a British political effort to weaken the Indian national leaders based in Calcutta.”
The British hoped to split the Bengalis into “Hindus vs. Muslims” in order to divide and rule, but widespread protests caused them to rejoin Bengal seven years later. When the British left in 1947, they partitioned the area again—this time, after being pushed by Muslim nationalist leaders who had gotten the idea from the first partition.
Dr. Fisher said the new nation of Pakistan had hoped to claim all of Bengal, but only got the eastern half. Up to two million Bengali Hindus fled to India, and most non-Muslims in Pakistan’s west wing fled or were killed. Bangladesh today is 12% Hindu, while Pakistan is approximately 3% Hindu. Meanwhile, non-Bengali Muslims left India for East Pakistan.
The Third Partition of Bangladesh
After the creation of East Pakistan and West Pakistan in 1947, many East Pakistanis felt like an internal colony. Meanwhile, many Bengalis found a renewed sense of pride in cultural heritage, resulting in a politicized movement to make Bengali a national language of Pakistan, which they did in 1954.
“The Awami or People’s League was founded in 1953 as an expression of Bengali political aspirations, but free and democratic expression in Pakistan was highly limited,” Dr. Fisher said. “Under the regime of West Pakistani General Iskander Mirza, most of the Awami League leaders were imprisoned. As [they] were sporadically released, Sheikh Mujibir Rahman emerged as the reconstituted Awami League’s most prominent figure from the early 1960s onward.”
Another West Pakistani leader, General Yahya Khan, called for an election to be held in 1970 for a new national Assembly. Rahman and the Awami League won 99% of the vote in East Pakistan, weakening West Pakistan’s hold on the country.
General Khan rejected the election results and suspended the Assembly, and when talks between East Pakistan and West Pakistan deteriorated, the Pakistan Army invaded East Pakistan, driving millions of residents to flee for India. India armed them and sent them back to Pakistan to fight as the Mukti Bahini, or Freedom Force.
“However, pro-Pakistani Islamists allied with the Pakistan Army,” Dr. Fisher said. “All this fighting entailed mass killings, but the scale of the deaths remains highly disputed. Pakistani authorities have reluctantly admitted to about 300,000 killed, but many Bengalis claim 10 times that many died.”
In the end, the Indian Army invaded in support of the Mukti Bahini, capturing the entire Pakistan Army—about 100,000 men. India withdrew, leaving Bangladesh independent after three national partitions in under 70 years.
With tense memories still causing a rift between the India-leaning Bengali and the Pakistani-leaning Muslim populations, Bangladesh adds a deadly third wave of the pandemic to its troubles. Its future remains uncertain, while its people are determined and perseverant.