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LOCATION: Bangladesh
POPULATION: 158 million
LANGUAGE: Bengali (Bangla)
RELIGION: Islam (majority Sunni Muslim)
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Chakmas; Vol. 4: Santals; Pakistanis


Banglādeshīs, like Indians and Pakistanis, owe their modern political identity to the events that accompanied the end of the British Empire in South Asia. When British India was partitioned in 1947, areas with a Muslim majority in the population were assigned to Pakistan, the new Muslim state. This included northwestern areas of the Indian subcontinent that were first conquered and settled by Muslim invaders in the 11th century ad. However, Muslim majorities also existed in the east of the subcontinent in Bengal. This area was separated to form the "East Wing" of Pakistan. Residents of the region thus became "Pakistani," members of a Muslim state that was split into two territorial units separated by 1,600 km (1,000 mi) of Indian territory. The link between the two Wings was religion, their populations being followers of Islam. The ties of religion, however, were not strong enough to overcome historical and cultural differences, as the events of the following two and a half decades were to show.

The region in which Bangladesh lies is thought to have been settled around 1000 BC by Dravidian-speaking peoples who came to be called the "Bang." This ancient tribal name is echoed in modern names such as Bangladesh, Bengal, and Bengali. For most of its history, Bengal (as it is convenient to call it) remained on the periphery of the great political events of the Indian subcontinent. At times, it fell under the control of the great pan-Indian empires such as that of the Mauryas (321–181 BC), while at other times it led an independent political existence. In AD 1202, however, Bengal came under the influence of the Muslim Turks who had established themselves in Delhi, and it remained under Muslim rule for the next 550 years. Beginning in the 13th century AD and continuing for several hundred years, Bengal saw the wholesale conversion of its people to Islam. These conversions were generally of the lower-caste Hindus, attracted by the ideals of brotherhood and equality taught by Islam.

Conversion to Islam did not mean adopting the language and culture of Islam. Bengali Muslims spoke the Bengali tongue and displayed a deep-rooted commitment to Bengali culture—something that was never fully understood by the national leaders of Pakistan, who were mainly from West Pakistan. Attempts in 1953 to impose Urdu as a second language in East Pakistan led to riots and several deaths. This day is still celebrated in Bangladesh as "National Mourning Day." Cultural differences, economic pressures, neglect of East Pakistan by the central government, and West Pakistanis' feelings of the superiority of their Islamic heritage, all contributed to deteriorating relations between East Pakistan and West Pakistan.

Popular dissatisfaction among Banglādeshīs resulted in a growing movement for autonomy in East Pakistan, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib) of the Awami League. National elections held in December 1970 gave Mujib a sweeping victory, and by rights he should have been appointed prime minister of Pakistan. However, General Yahya Khan, President of Pakistan, postponed indefinitely the convening of the National Assembly. When talks between Mujib and Yahya broke down, Yahya decided to solve the problem by force. In March 1971, the Pakistan Army embarked on a terror campaign in East Pakistan aimed at forcing the Bengālīs into submission. They identified and executed students, teachers, writers, members of the intelligentsia—anyone who was deemed a threat to the regime in power. For the next nine months, a bloody civil war was waged, pitting East Pakistan's Mukti Bahini (Liberation Force) against the Pakistani military. One estimate claims that more than a million Bengali civilians died at the hands of the Pakistan Army. The matter was ended when the Indian Army entered the fray, leading to the capitulation of Pakistan's forces on 16 December 1971. The "independent, sovereign republic of Bangladesh," first proclaimed on 26 March 1971, now became a reality.


Bangladesh lies in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent at the head of the Bay of Bengal. It is a relatively compact country covering an area of 147,570 sq km (56,977 sq mi), roughly the size of the state of Iowa. The Banglādeshī population numbers 158 million people, which ranks the country the seventh most populous in the world.

Except for its southern coastline, Bangladesh is virtually surrounded on all sides by India. Of its 4,246 km (2,638 mi) land border, only some 193 km (120 mi) in the southeast is shared with Burma (Myanmar). Bangladesh extends over 650 km (approximately 400 mi) northwards from the mouth of the Ganges River almost to the foothills of the Himalayas. In the extreme northwest, its border comes so close to Nepal's that less than 40 km (25 mi) of Indian territory separates the two countries. (The vulnerability of this narrow land corridor to Assam and its oil reserves was a strategic factor in India's decision to enter the 1971 war on the side of the insurgent Banglādeshīs.)

Bangladesh lacks the geographical diversity of the other countries of South Asia. The Chittagong Hills in the southeast are the only significant hill system in the country. An extension of the mountain ranges of eastern India and Burma, they form narrow north–south ridges rising to between 600 and 900 m (approximately 1,970–2,950 ft) above sea level. The highest point in Bangladesh (1,046 m or 3,432 ft) lies here in the south east. Roughly 80% of Bangladesh is located on the fertile alluvial lowland of the Gangetic Plain and on the Ganges Delta itself. Soon after it enters Bangladesh, the Ganges River is joined by both the Brahmaputra River (known in Bangladesh as the Jamuna) and the Meghna River to form one of the largest deltas in the world. The coastal section of the delta is known as the sundarbans, a belt of low-lying tidal forests and mangrove trees that is the home of the Royal Bengal tiger.

The rivers of Bangladesh, some 700 in total, are at once its lifeblood and its curse. The annual flooding of the alluvial plain and delta renews the fertile soils of the region and allows it to support some of the highest agricultural population densities in the world. Yet periodically the region is subject to devastating floods with considerable loss of life and economic cost. In 1988, some of the worst flooding in the country's history occurred. Some 83% of the country was affected. Over 1,600 people died, a relatively small number compared to some natural catastrophes in the region, but the cost in terms of lost crops, livestock, and damage to the economic infrastructure was enormous.

Bangladesh experiences a subtropical monsoon climate, with the three distinct seasons typical of South Asia. Cool, dry winters are experienced from October to February. Temperatures rise during the following months to maximums between 32°c and 38°c (approximately 90°f to 100°f) in April, the hottest month. May sees the onset of early monsoon rains, with high humidity making for unpleasant conditions. June to October is the rainy season, with rainfall totals varying from 160 cm (63 in) in the west to 500 cm (approximately 200 in) in the northeast. During the late monsoon season, tropical cyclones periodically sweep in from the Bay of Bengal, often with disastrous consequences. In November 1970, such a storm slammed into the delta with winds exceeding 160 kph (100 mph) and a storm surge of 5.5 m (18 ft). Many of the coastal areas lie between 4 and 10 feet above sea-level and were completely submerged. Lacking an early warning system and given the poor transportation facilities, an estimated 250,000 people lost their lives in this storm. In November 2007, Bangladesh was struck by cyclone Sidr, which similarly caused enormous damage to the country. This was followed by severe flooding. As the Jamuna, Ganges and Meghna Rivers spilled over their banks, 30 million people were made homeless, 135,000 cattle died and 11,000 kilometers of roads damaged or destroyed. Two-thirds of the country was underwater.

Perhaps more than any other nationality in South Asia, Banglādeshīs are characterized by ethnic unity. Over 98% of the population are Bengālīs, speaking the Bengali language and identifying with Bengali cultural traditions. Biharis form another element, although a numerically small one, in the Bangladesh population. Biharis are non-Bengali, Urdu-speaking Muslim refugees from Bihar and other parts of northern India. This group stood to lose from Bangladesh's'independen ce and supported the West Pakistanis during the 1971 war. At that time they numbered about 1 million. Many of them were repatriated to Pakistan after the war, however, but their current total is estimated at as many as 500,000 people.

Tribal peoples make up less than 1% of Bangladesh's population but they differ significantly from the rest of the population in their social organization, customs, and rituals. The largest of these groups are the Chakmas who, along with the Marmas, occupy the highland valleys of the Chittagong Hills. The Mros, considered the area's original inhabitants, and the Tiparas are other tribal groups of the Chittagong Hills. These hill tribes are of Sino-Tibetan descent and have distinct Mongoloid features. Other tribal groups, such as the Santal, Khasis, Garos, and Khajons, represent extensions of tribal populations from adjacent areas of India.


Bengali, or Bangla, is spoken by 98.8% of the population and is also the country's official language. It is a member of the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European family of languages and is written in its own Bengali script. Regional dialects of Bengali include Rajbangshi, Varendra, and Vanga. Dialects such as Sylhetta and Chittagonian show strong Arab-Persian influences. Chakma, the tongue spoken by Chakma tribals, is a dialect of Bengali, although tribal languages such as Magh and Arakanese belong to the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family. Urdu is the language spoken by Biharis. English remains an important language in Bangladesh.


Banglādeshīs identify with the folk traditions of Bengali culture. This includes belief in shamanism and the powers of fakīrs (Muslim holy men who are viewed as exorcists and faith healers), ōjhās (shamans with magical healing powers), and Bauls (religious mendicants and wandering musicians). Sūfism is strongly entrenched in Bangladesh, with Shah Jalal and Khan Jahan Ali being among the most celebrated Sufisaints.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, and the fighters of the Mukti Bahini are regarded as national heroes of the Banglādeshī independence movement.


At its creation, Bangladesh was constituted as a secular state. However, a series of constitutional amendments in 1977 and 1978 led to the adoption of Islam as the state religion. Most Banglādeshīs are Muslims, with nearly 90% of the population claiming Islam as their religion (2001 Census). The conversion of local populations to Islam began after AD 1202, when Bengal fell to invading Turkish armies, and continued for several centuries. Conversions were generally collective, with lower-caste Hindus and groups of Buddhists attracted to Islam by its ideals of equality, brotherhood, and social justice. Sufis played a major role in this process, and fakirs and pirrs (wandering Muslim holy men) were familiar figures in the villages of the region. Sufism remains an important element in the religious life of the people today. Most Banglādeshīs are Sunnis, although small Shia minorities are found in urban areas. The Shia festival of Muharram is widely observed by Sunnis in Bangladesh.

Although many non-Muslims fled Bangladesh in 1947, Hindus still account for 9.2% of the population. Buddhists (0.8%), Christians (0.3%) and tribal groups (0.1%) form other religious minorities in the country.


As an Islamic state, Bangladesh officially celebrates the Muslim festivals of Id-ul-Fitr, Bakr-Id, Muharram, and other Muslim festivals as public holidays. In addition, several Hindu festivals (e.g., Janamashtami, Durga Puja), Christian holy days (Good Friday, Easter Monday, and Christmas), and Buddhist celebrations (Buddha Purnima) are recognized as holidays.

Secular holidays include National Mourning Day (21 February), Independence Day (26 March) National Revolution Day (7 November) and Victory Day (16 December).


The rites of passage of Banglādeshīs follow normal Muslim patterns. Births are occasions for rejoicing, with male babies preferred over females. Muslim prayers are whispered into the baby's ears, and the naming ceremony is accompanied by the sacrifice of a sheep or goat. Male children undergo the Sunnat or circumcision. It is becoming fashionable, especially in urban communities, to celebrate children's birthdays.

Death rituals are performed according to Muslim canonical rules. The corpse is washed, shrouded, and carried to the cemetery where it is interred with the customary prayers for the departed soul. The next forty days are marked by various rituals, ending in the ceremonies held 40 days after death that bring the main period of mourning to a close.


Banglādeshīs are a warm, accommodating people and follow the usual traditions of South Asian hospitality. Visitors, even casual ones, are expected to stay for refreshments. Even the poorest host will provide a visitor with a glass of water and a spoonful of molasses, a piece of betel nut (areca nut), or offer a hukkā (a pipe used for smoking tobacco).


Some have described Bangladesh as belonging not to the Third World of developing nations but to the Fourth World, the poorest of the poor. This is reflected in its health statistics and economic indices. Life expectancy at birth in 2001 was 62.5 years—almost 20 years less than in Japan, the world's leading country in terms of life expectancy. Leading causes of death include typhoid fever, tetanus, and respiratory ailments such as tuberculosis. Medical advances have reduced infant mortality rates to around 62 deaths per 1,000 live births. Fertility rates are high, with the average number of births per childbearing woman in the population being 3.11 and the rate of natural increase of population is just over 2% per year.

Banglādeshīs are a rural people, with some 78% living in villages scattered across the country. Rural house types and construction materials depend on local conditions. Reeds are used in the delta, but houses further inland are made of mud, bamboo, and brush wood. Roofs are thatched with palm leaves, though the more prosperous now use corrugated iron. Tribes in the eastern hills build their houses on raised platforms. Villages may also contain the more substantial houses of former landowners (zamīndārs) and Hindu moneylenders. Per capita income in 2006 was among the lowest in South Asia, at US$2,300, well below the world average of $10,200 per year. However, the middle classes in cities such as Dhaka (the capital) live very much in the manner of urban elites throughout South Asia.

Land communications in Bangladesh are generally poor, with only 4% of the country's 193,000 km (120,000 mi) of road paved. The numerous rivers of the country make rail transportation difficult (there is an average of six bridges or culverts per kilometer of rail line), but water transport is an important means of communications. Biman Bangladesh Airlines is the country's air carrier, providing both international and domestic services.


The basic social unit in rural Bangladesh is the family (paribār or gushtī). This consists of an extended family living in a household (chula) residing in a homestead (bārī). Individual nuclear families known as ghar are often to be found within the extended family. Beyond the circle of immediate relatives is an institution known as "the society" (samāj). This voluntary association concerns itself with issues such as the maintenance of the local mosque, support of a mullah (priest), and settling village disputes.

The extended family is the significant unit of economic endeavor, with jointly held property and household activities under the direction of the father's authority. Banglādeshī society is patrilineal, and married sons and their wives reside in the father's household. Marriage is a civil contract in Islam and is often made for the interests of the family rather than the individual. In Bangladesh, marriages are arranged by parents, although men may have some say in the choice of their spouses. Partners are chosen from families of similar social standing. The custom of paying a bride-price is followed, and some families have adopted the Hindu custom of providing a dowry.

Women remain subordinate to men in Banglādeshī society. Purdah, the seclusion of women from male company after puberty, is practiced to varying degrees. Even among modernized groups that have rejected purdah, segregation of the sexes continues. At public performances or lectures, for instance, it is common for men and women to sit in separate parts of the hall. Purdah also limits women's access to the workplace.


In rural areas, Banglādeshī men wear the lungi and a vest or a shirt. The lungi is a piece of cotton cloth, usually checkered, that is wrapped around the waist like a sarong. The better-educated wear a collarless, tunic-length shirt known as a punjābī, and pyjāmās (loose cotton trousers.) On formal occasions, the sherwani (śerwānī), tight trousers known as chūrīdār, and a turban are worn. Hindus wear the dhoti or the punjabi-pyjama attire. Women typically wear the sari and blouse, although girls and young women prefer the salwār-kamīz tunic and pants combination. Western-style shirts, pants, and jackets are commonly worn by men in urban areas.


Rice, vegetables, pulses, fish, and meat form the staples of the Banglādeshī diet. The tastes and preferences of Muslims and other groups, however, differ. Beef is popular with Muslims, though taboo for Hindus. At feasts or formal dinners, Muslims often serve Muhgal-style dishes including pilaf and biryānī (rice dishes containing meat and vegetables), kebābs (barbecued cubes of meat), and kormās (meat served in various kinds of sauces). Ghī (clarified butter) is commonly served at such meals. Milk forms an important element in the diet, and Bangladesh is known for its milk-based sweets. All communities eat with their hands rather than with utensils.


Nearly 59% of Banglādeshīs 5 years of age and over have no formal schooling, and only 15.3% have completed their secondary education. This is reflected in literacy rates among the lowest in South Asia, with only 43.1% of the population over 15 years old being able to read and write (2001). This figure drops to 32.8% for females. Universal primary education is a goal of government education policy, but high drop-out rates, inadequate resources, and a lack of trained teachers at all levels have hindered education in the country.

The national government has attempted to modernize the curricula of madrasas, Islamic religious schools attached to mosques and supported by endowments and public charity but which cater mainly to males.


Banglādeshīs are proud of their Bengali culture, with its traditions of music, dance, and literature. The country shares in the classical and devotional traditions of Hindu and Muslim music but has developed its own regional forms of popular music (e.g., bātiālī songs connected with boatmen and life on the river, and baul, mystical verse sung by a caste of religious musicians called Bauls). Indigenous dance forms include the dhali, baul, manipuri, and snake dances.

The Bengali literary tradition is one of the oldest regional traditions in India, dating to the 11th century ad. Its greatest figure was the poet Rabrindranath Tagore, who was part of the 19th-century revival of Bengali culture. Kazi Azrul Islam is a modern poet and playwright known as the "voice of Bengali nationalism and independence." He forms part of a Muslim literary heritage in Bengali culture that can be traced back to the Sufidevotional compositions of the 13th century. A distinctive regional style of architecture may be seen in mosques and other monuments built by Muslims beginning in the early 15th century.


Bangladesh is primarily an agricultural country, with 60% of the labor force involved in cultivation. Rice is the dominant food crop. Jute is the country's major cash crop and an important export item. The industrial resource base is poor, and the manufacturing sector of the economy is quite small. Since the 1970s, however, Bangladesh has become a major producer of ready-made garments for export to the West (particularly the U.S.). Based on cheap Banglādeshī labor (mostly women), this now accounts for over 80% of export revenues, although the preferential system afforded Banglādeshī-made garments ended in 2005. The export of frozen shrimp and fish has also increased in importance over the last several decades.

Large numbers of Banglādeshīs are working in the Persian Gulf region, and remittances from this population is an important source of foreign exchange for the country.


Children in rural areas play games common to all of South Asia, such as hide-and-seek, flying kites, and spinning tops. Ha-do-do is a traditional game in which teams send a member into the opponents' territory to tag as many of the opposition as possible while holding his or her breath. Wrestling is a favorite pastime for young men. Soccer is the most popular modern sport, while cricket, field hockey, badminton, and table tennis are also played.


In villages, festivals and fairs are occasions for entertainment and relaxation. Dances, music, and song are popular, as are the jātrās (village operas based on local myths). Boat races allow young men to display their prowess. In urban centers and those villages that have cinema houses, movies are by far the most popular form of entertainment. Radio and television broadcasts are available, but these are controlled by the government. The press is relatively free, but given the low literacy rates, newspapers in Bangladesh have a low circulation.


Among the arts and crafts for which Bangladesh is known are kathas (finely embroidered quilt-work); hand printed textiles; terracotta dolls, toys, and idols; and sikhars (elaborate rope hangings for pots, bottles, etc.). Alpana drawings are designs made on floors and courtyards out of rice-paste. They are prepared by Hindu women in connection with certain religious festivals and rites. Copper and brass metalwork, basketry, and mat-weaving are also traditional crafts among Banglādeshī artisans. The region also has an important boat-building industry, and the decoration of boats is a thriving folk art in Bangladesh.


When Bangladesh became independent in 1971, the country was referred to in some foreign circles as an "international basket case." It suffered from overpopulation, extreme poverty, malnutrition, and lack of resources. It was subject to periodic natural disasters—drought, famine, cyclones, and especially the repeated flooding that plays havoc with peoples' lives and the country's economic infrastructure. Few thought there was much of a future for the country.

A quarter of a century later, little seems to have changed. Bangladesh ranks lowest among the nations of South Asia in many economic indices. Overpopulation and poverty are still a problem, and the country has one of the highest population densities in the world. Daily per capita calorie intake is over 2200 kcal, though 75% of the population is classified as below the poverty line in terms of caloric intake. Natural disasters still devastate the country. Yet the country's very survival is a victory of sorts, and the future looks less bleak than it did in 1971. Slowly, with generous foreign aid provided through the World Bank-led Bangladesh Aid Group in Paris, the economy is struggling upwards. Food production has increased and a nationwide birth control program has succeeded in lowering the rate of population growth. Flood control projects will help limit the incidence of flooding. Diversification of the economy has increased the value of the country's exports.

A major political problem faced by Banglādeshīs was that of tribal unrest in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Chakmas and other tribal groups resorted to armed resistance in support of demands for regional autonomy. Banglādeshī Army operations in the area during the 1980s and 1990s resulted in a flood of refugees into India, and charges of human rights violations against the government. In 1997 a peace agreement was signed between Chakma rebels and the government of Bangladesh, granting a degree of autonomy to the Chakma people. Bangladesh has also survived the imposition of military government and periods of civil unrest. Following rioting in early 2007, a caretaker government (now under Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former World Bank economist) was installed to oversee general elections, which were postponed until the end of 2008.

Concerns exist that Bangladesh is becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda and Taliban extremist terrorist groups.

Bangladesh continues to have major economic, social, and political problems. Despite an expanding economy, it will remain dependent on massive foreign aid for the foreseeable future. Its population remains among the poorest in the world, and its political future is uncertain. But it also has a population united by Bengali culture, the heritage of Islam, the legacy of its struggle for independence from Pakistan, a tradition of democracy and considerable optimism for the future and pride in its nation.

One success story in the development of the Banglādeshī economy has been the widespread propagation of microcredit by Muhammad Yunus (awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2006) through the Grameen Bank. The Grameen Bank currently has nearly 5 million members, many of them poor rural women.

In order to enhance economic growth, the government has set up several export processing zones to attract foreign investment. These are managed by the Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority. Exports of garments and agricultural products have helped propel Bangladesh to an annual economic growth rate of around 5% a year—not quite on a par with China and India, but quite impressive in its own right.


The Global Gender Gap Index 2007 ranks Bangladesh 100 out of 128 countries in terms of gender equality. Bangladesh being a predominantly Muslim country, women are viewed asinferior citizens and subject to Shariah law. Despite this, the Bangladesh government is pushing ahead with a new National Women's Development Policy (NWDP). A section of Muslim clerics and some Islamic political parties say equal rights for women in terms of property would violate Sharia law on inheritance, which stipulates that a woman should inherit only half of what her brother would get (in April 2008, there were riots by Muslims protesting women receiving equal rights in terms of inheritance). Only 32.8% of women are literate (compared to 43.1% for men) and only 4% participate in tertiary education. Despite the two most important political parties in Bangladesh (the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League) being headed by women (Khalida Zia and Sheik Hasina, respectively), only 15% of parliamentarians are women.

A certain ambiguity exists surrounding the question of violence against women in Banglādeshī society. On the one hand, violence is held in repugnance and may provoke outrage. On the other hand, violence against women is accepted, tolerated and "in certain prescribed forms and given contexts," it is legitimated. Gender inequality, leading to gender violence, is deeply embedded in the Banglādeshī social structure; all Banglādeshī social institutions permit, even encourage the demonstration of unequal power relations between the sexes.


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Heitzman, James, and Robert L. Worden, ed. Bangladesh, a Country Study. 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1988.

International Crisis Group, Asia Report No.121, October 23, 2006.

Johnson, B. L. C. Bangladesh. 2nd ed. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1982.

Mascarenhas, A. Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood. Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1986.

—by D. O. Lodrick