Bengal was absorbed into the Mughul Empire in the 16th century, and
Dhaka, the seat of a nawab (the representative of the emperor), gained
some importance as a provincial center. But it remained remote and thus
a difficult to govern region--especially the section east of the Brahmaputra
River--outside the mainstream of Mughul politics. Portuguese traders and
missionaries were the first Europeans to reach 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. By the end of the 17th
century, the British presence on the Indian subcontinent was centered in
Calcutta. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the British gradually extended
their commercial contacts and administrative control beyond Calcutta to
Bengal. In 1859, the British Crown replaced the East India Company, extending
British dominion from Bengal, which became a region of India, in the east
to the Indus River in the west.
The rise of nationalism throughout British-controlled India in the late
19th century resulted in mounting animosity between the Hindu and Muslim
communities. In 1885, the All-India National Congress was founded with
Indian and British membership. Muslims seeking an organization of their
own founded the All-India Muslim League in 1906. Although both the League
and the Congress supported the goal of Indian self-government within the
British Empire, the two parties were unable to agree on a way to ensure
the protection of Muslim political, social, and economic rights. The subsequent
history of the nationalist movement was characterized by periods of Hindu-Muslim
cooperation, as well as by communal antagonism. The idea of a separate
Muslim state gained increasing popularity among Indian Muslims after 1936,
when the Muslim League suffered a decisive defeat in the first elections
under India's 1935 constitution. In 1940, the Muslim League called for
an independent state in regions where Muslims were in the majority. Campaigning
on that platform in provincial elections in 1946, the League won the majority
of the Muslim seats contested in Bengal. Widespread communal violence followed,
especially in Calcutta.
When British India was partitioned and the independent dominions of
India and Pakistan were created in 1947, the region of Bengal was divided
along religious lines. The predominantly Muslim eastern half was designated
East Pakistan--and made part of the newly independent Pakistan--while the
predominantly Hindu western part became the Indian state of West Bengal.
Pakistan's history from 1947 to 1971 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 again between 1969 and 1972.
Almost from the advent of independent Pakistan in 1947, frictions developed
between East and West Pakistan, which were separated by more than 1,000
miles of Indian territory. East Pakistanis felt exploited by the West Pakistan-dominated
central government. Linguistic, cultural, and ethnic differences also contributed
to the estrangement of East from West Pakistan. Bengalis strongly resisted
attempts to impose Urdu as the sole official language of Pakistan. Responding
to these grievances, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1948 formed a students' organization
called the Chhatra League. In 1949, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani and
some other Bengali leaders formed the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League
(AL), a party designed mainly to promote Bengali interests. This party
dropped the word Muslim from its name in 1955 and came to be known as Awami
League. Mujib became president of the Awami League in 1966 and emerged
as leader of the Bengali autonomy movement. In 1966, he was arrested for
his political activities.
After the Awami League won almost all the East Pakistan seats of the
Pakistan national assembly in 1970-71 elections, West Pakistan opened talks
with the East on constitutional questions about the division of power between
the central government and the provinces, as well as the formation of a
national government headed by the Awami League. The talks proved unsuccessful,
however, and on March 1, 1971, Pakistani President Yahya Khan indefinitely
postponed the pending national assembly session, precipitating massive
civil disobedience in East Pakistan. Mujib was arrested again; his party
was banned, and most of his aides fled to India, where they organized a
provisional government. On March 26, 1971, following a bloody crackdown
by the Pakistan Army, Bengali nationalists declared an independent People's
Republic of Bangladesh. As fighting grew between the army and the Bengali
mukti bahini ("freedom fighters"), an estimated 10 million Bengalis, mainly
Hindus, sought refuge in the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal.
The crisis in East Pakistan produced new strains in Pakistan's troubled
relations with India. The two nations had fought a war in 1965, mainly
in the west, but the refugee pressure in India in the fall of 1971 produced
new tensions in the east. Indian sympathies lay with East Pakistan, and
in November, India intervened on the side of the Bangladeshis. On December
16, 1971, Pakistani forces surrendered, and Bangladesh-- meaning "Bengal
nation"-- was born; the new country became a parliamentary democracy under
a 1972 constitution.
The provisional government of the new nation of Bangladesh was formed
in Dhaka with Justice Abu Sayeed Choudhury as President, and Sheikh Mujibur
Rahman ("Mujib")--who was released from Pakistani prison in early 1972--as
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, 1972-75
Mujib came to office with immense personal popularity but had difficulty
transforming this popular support into the political strength needed to
function as head of government. The new constitution, which came into force
in December 1972, created a strong executive prime minister, a largely
ceremonial presidency, an independent judiciary, and a unicameral legislature
on a modified Westminster model. The 1972 constitution adopted as state
policy the Awami League's (AL) four basic principles of nationalism, secularism,
socialism, and democracy.
The first parliamentary elections held under the 1972 constitution were
in March 1973, with the Awami League winning a massive majority. No other
political party in Bangladesh's early years was able to duplicate or challenge
the League's broad-based appeal, membership, or organizational strength.
Relying heavily on experienced civil servants and members of the Awami
League, the new Bangladesh Government focused on relief, rehabilitation,
and reconstruction of the economy and society. Economic conditions remained
precarious, however. In December 1974, Mujib decided that continuing economic
deterioration and mounting civil disorder required strong measures. After
proclaiming a state of emergency, Mujib used his parliamentary majority
to win a constitutional amendment limiting the powers of the legislative
and judicial branches, establishing an executive presidency, and instituting
a one-party system, the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (BAKSAL),
which all members of Parliament (and senior civil and military officials)
were obliged to join.
Despite some improvement in the economic situation during the first
half of 1975, implementation of promised political reforms was slow, and
criticism of government policies became increasingly centered on Mujib.
In August 1975, Mujib, and most of his family, were assassinated by mid-level
army officers. His daughter, Sheikh Hasina, was out of the country. A new
government, headed by former Mujib associate Khandakar Moshtaque, was formed.
Ziaur Rahman, 1975-81
Successive military coups resulted 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 President Chief Justice Sayem. Acting
at Zia's behest, Sayem dissolved Parliament, promising fresh elections
in 1977, and instituted martial law.
Acting behind the scenes of the Martial Law Administration (MLA), Zia
sought to invigorate government policy and administration. While continuing
the ban on political parties, he sought to revitalize the demoralized bureaucracy,
to begin new economic development programs, and to emphasize family planning.
In November 1976, Zia became Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) and
assumed the presidency upon Sayem's retirement 5 months later, promising
national elections in 1978.
As President, Zia announced a 19-point program of economic reform and
began dismantling the MLA. Keeping his promise to hold elections, Zia won
a 5-year term in June 1978 elections, with 76% of the vote. In November
1978, his government removed the remaining restrictions on political party
activities in time for parliamentary elections in February 1979. These
elections, which were contested by more than 30 parties, marked the culmination
of Zia's transformation of Bangladesh's Government from the MLA to a democratically
elected, constitutional one. The AL and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party
(BNP), founded by Zia, emerged as the two major parties. The constitution
was again amended to provide for an executive prime minister appointed
by the president, and responsible to a parliamentary majority.
In May 1981, Zia was assassinated in Chittagong by dissident elements
of the military. The attempted coup never spread beyond that city, and
the major conspirators were either taken into custody or killed. In accordance
with the constitution, Vice President Justice Abdus Sattar was sworn in
as acting president. He declared a new national emergency and called for
election of a new president within 6 months--an election Sattar won as
the BNP's candidate. President Sattar sought to follow the policies of
his predecessor and retained essentially the same cabinet, but the army
stepped in once again.
Hussain Mohammed Ershad, 1982-90
Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. H.M. Ershad assumed power in a bloodless
coup in March 1982. Like his predecessors, Ershad suspended the constitution
and--citing pervasive corruption, ineffectual government, and economic
mismanagement--declared martial law. The following year, Ershad assumed
the presidency, retaining his positions as army chief and CMLA. During
most of 1984, Ershad sought the opposition parties' participation in local
elections under martial law. The opposition's refusal to participate, however,
forced Ershad to abandon these plans. Ershad sought public support for
his regime in a national referendum on his leadership in March 1985. He
won overwhelmingly, although turnout was small. Two months later, Ershad
held elections for local council chairmen. Pro-government candidates won
a majority of the posts, setting in motion the President's ambitious decentralization
program. Political life was further liberalized in early 1986, and additional
political rights, including the right to hold large public rallies, were
restored. At the same time, the Jatiya (People's) Party, designed as Ershad's
political vehicle for the transition from martial law, was established.
Despite a boycott by the BNP, led by President Zia's widow, Begum Khaleda
Zia, parliamentary elections were held on schedule in May 1986. The Jatiya
Party won a modest majority of the 300 elected seats in the National Assembly.
The participation of the Awami League--led by the late Prime Minister Mujib's
daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed-- lent the elections some credibility, despite
widespread charges of voting irregularities.
Ershad resigned as Army Chief of Staff and retired from military service
in preparation for the presidential elections, scheduled for October. Protesting
that martial law was still in effect, both the BNP and the AL refused to
put up opposing candidates. Ershad easily outdistanced the remaining candidates,
taking 84% of the vote. Although Ershad's government claimed a turnout
of more than 50%, opposition leaders, and much of the foreign press, estimated
a far lower percentage and alleged voting irregularities.
Ershad continued his stated commitment to lift martial law. In November
1986, his government mustered the necessary two-thirds majority in the
National Assembly to amend the constitution and confirm the previous actions
of the martial law regime. The President then lifted martial law, and the
opposition parties took their elected seats in the National Assembly.
In July 1987, however, after the government hastily pushed through a
controversial legislative bill to include military representation on local
administrative councils, the opposition walked out of Parliament. Passage
of the bill helped spark an opposition movement that quickly gathered momentum,
uniting Bangladesh's opposition parties for the first time. The government
began to arrest scores of opposition activists under the country's Special
Powers Act of 1974. Despite these arrests, opposition parties continued
to organize protest marches and nationwide strikes. After declaring a state
of emergency, Ershad dissolved Parliament and scheduled fresh elections
for March 1988.
All major opposition parties refused government overtures to participate
in these polls, maintaining that the government was incapable of holding
free and fair elections. Despite the opposition boycott, the government
proceeded. The ruling Jatiya Party won 251 of the 300 seats. The Parliament,
while still regarded by the opposition as an illegitimate body, held its
sessions as scheduled, and passed a large number of bills, including, in
June 1988, a controversial constitutional amendment making Islam Bangladesh's
state religion and provision for setting up High Court benches in major
cities outside of Dhaka. While Islam remains the state religion, the provision
for decentralizing the High Court division has been struck down by the
By 1989, the domestic political situation in the country seemed to have
quieted. The local council elections were generally considered by international
observers to have been less violent and more free and fair than previous
elections. However, opposition to Ershad's rule began to regain momentum,
escalating by the end of 1990 in frequent general strikes, increased campus
protests, public rallies, and a general disintegration of law and order.
On December 6, 1990, Ershad offered his resignation. On February 27,
1991, after 2 months of widespread civil unrest, an interim government
oversaw what most observers believed to be the nation's most free and fair
elections to that date.
Khaleda Zia, 1991-96
The center-right BNP won a plurality of seats and formed a government
with support from the Islamic fundamentalist party Jamaat-I-Islami, with
Khaleda Zia, widow of Ziaur Rahman, obtaining the post of prime minister.
Only four parties had more than 10 members elected to the 1991 Parliament:
The BNP, led by Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia; the AL, led by Sheikh
Hasina; the Jamaat-I-Islami (JI), led by Golam Azam; and the Jatiya Party
(JP), led by acting chairman Mizanur Rahman Choudhury while its founder,
former President Ershad, served out a prison sentence on corruption charges.
The electorate approved still more changes to the constitution, formally
re-creating a parliamentary system and returning governing power to the
office of the prime minister, as in Bangladesh's original 1972 constitution.
In October 1991, members of Parliament elected a new head of state, President
Abdur Rahman Biswas.
In March 1994, controversy over a parliamentary by-election, which the
opposition claimed the government had rigged, led to an indefinite boycott
of Parliament by the entire opposition. The opposition also began a program
of repeated general strikes to press its demand that Khaleda Zia's government
resign and a caretaker government supervise a general election. Efforts
to mediate the dispute, under the auspices of the Commonwealth Secretariat,
failed. After another attempt at a negotiated settlement failed narrowly
in late December 1994, the opposition resigned en masse from Parliament.
The opposition then continued a campaign of marches, demonstrations, and
strikes in an effort to force the government to resign. The opposition,
including the Awami League's Sheikh Hasina, pledged to boycott national
elections scheduled for February 15, 1996.
In February, Khaleda Zia was re-elected by a landslide in voting boycotted
and denounced as unfair by the three main opposition parties. In March
1996, following escalating political turmoil, the sitting Parliament enacted
a constitutional amendment to allow a neutral caretaker government to assume
power and conduct new parliamentary elections; former Chief Justice Mohammed
Habibur Rahman was named Chief Adviser (a position equivalent to prime
minister) in the interim government. New parliamentary elections were held
in June 1996 and were won by the Awami League; party leader Sheikh Hasina
became Prime Minister.
Sheikh Hasina, 1996-2001
Sheikh Hasina formed what she called a "Government of National Consensus"
in June 1996, which included one minister from the Jatiya Party and another
from the Jatiyo Samajtantric Dal, a very small leftist party. The Jatiya
Party never entered into a formal coalition arrangement, and party president
H.M. Ershad withdrew his support from the government in September 1997.
Only three parties had more than 10 members elected to the 1996 Parliament:
The Awami League, BNP, and Jatiya Party. Jatiya Party president, Ershad,
was released from prison on bail in January 1997.
Although international and domestic election observers found the June
1996 election free and fair, the BNP protested alleged vote rigging by
the Awami League. Ultimately, however, the BNP party decided to join the
new Parliament. The BNP soon charged that police and Awami League activists
were engaged in largescale harassment and jailing of opposition activists.
At the end of 1996, the BNP staged a parliamentary walkout over this and
other grievances but returned in January 1997 under a four-point agreement
with the ruling party. The BNP asserted that this agreement was never implemented
and later staged another walkout in August 1997. The BNP returned to Parliament
under another agreement in March 1998.
In June 1999, the BNP and other opposition parties again began to abstain
from attending Parliament. Opposition parties staged an increasing number
of nationwide general strikes, rising from 6 days of general strikes in
1997 to 27 days in 1999. A four-party opposition alliance formed at the
beginning of 1999 announced that it would boycott parliamentary by-elections
and local government elections unless the government took steps demanded
by the opposition to ensure electoral fairness. The government did not
take these steps, and the opposition subsequently boycotted all elections,
including municipal council elections in February 1999, several parliamentary
by-elections, and the Chittagong city corporation elections in January
In July 2001, the Awami League government stepped down to allow a caretaker
government to preside over parliamentary elections. Political violence
that had increased during the Awami League government's tenure continued
to increase through the summer in the run up to the election. In August,
Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina agreed during a visit of former President
Jimmy Carter to respect the results of the election, join Parliament win
or lose, foreswear the use of hartals (violently enforced strikes) as political
tools, and if successful in forming a government allow for a more meaningful
role for the opposition in Parliament. The caretaker government was successful
in containing the violence, which allowed a parliamentary general election
to be successfully held on October 1, 2001.
Khaleda Zia, 2001-present
The four-party alliance led by the BNP won over a two-thirds majority
in Parliament. Begum Khaleda Zia was sworn in on October 10, 2001 as the
Prime Minister of the Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh
for the third time (first in 1991, second after the February 15, 1996 elections,
and third after the 2001 elections).
Despite her August pledge and all election monitoring groups declaring
the election free and fair (many going as far as labeling it the freest
and fairest in Bangladesh's history), Sheikh Hasina condemned the election
and disputed its results. Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League continue to
call for new elections and boycott Parliament, alleging the Khaleda Zia
government is using the police and security forces to persecute members
of the opposition.