In ancient times, the area now known as Bangladesh was the eastern portion of a huge river delta region called Bang, where the Ganges and Brahmaputra River systems empty into the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. The region became known as Bengal in more modern times, but recorded history of the region can be traced to the 4th century BC when it was home to an apparently flourishing riverain civilization. The oldest surviving remains of this civilization are the ruins of the city of Mahasthan, the ancient Pundranagar, which continued to flourish for more than 1,500 years, even though the region was conquered by the Hindu Maurya empire that reached its height under Emperor Asoka around 207 BC . From this time onward, the history of Bengal was part of the wider historical experience of the Indian subcontinent, and during most of India's classical Hindu period— AD 320 to AD 1000—Bengal was a loosely incorporated outpost of empires centered in the Gangetic plain.
Islam came to South Asia in the years following AD 800 but did not reach Bengal until Muslim invaders from the west secured a foothold there around AD 1200. In the 13th and 14th centuries, after successive waves of Turkish, Persian, and Afghan invaders, Islam began to take a firm hold in the area that is now Bangladesh. The region was annexed by the Mughal Empire in 1576 under the Muslim Akbar and ruled by his successors into the 17th century. The fealty lesser Nawabs (or Nabobs) of the Bengal area paid to the Mughals ensured the political stability and economic prosperity of the region, which became known for its industries based on the weaving of silk and cotton cloth.
The arrival of the French and British East India Companies in the early 18th century coincided with Mughal decline, the death of Emperor Auranzeb, and an intense period of competition and conflict between Britain and France. By the middle of the 18th century, the British emerged supreme in what they created as the Bengal Presidency, establishing themselves in Calcutta and expanding with alacrity into all of what is now Bangladesh, as well as the Indian states of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam and Orissa. From Calcutta, British traders and administrators successfully played off rivalries among the satraps of the late Mughal empire to gain control of most of the subcontinent in the years between the Battle of Plassey in 1756 and the assumption of the company's domain by the British Crown in 1859. Calcutta remained the seat of British power in the subcontinent and the center of British control over the Indian Empire until 1931 when the capital was moved to the new city of New Delhi, adjacent to the traditional seat of Mughal power in old Delhi.
In general, Hindus in Bengal prospered under the British, apparently taking more easily to British ways and British law than the numerically dominant Muslims. The Muslim aristocracy of eastern Bengal—feudal barons under the Mughals—resisted British rule. By the turn of the 20th century, both communities had begun to develop a political-cum-cultural consciousness of their own in reaction to the Western culture brought by the British. They took offense at British efforts to impose western educational systems on local universities, reducing their independence. Hindus were further enraged by the British decision in 1905, in an effort to improve administration and to placate Muslims, to divide the overly large Bengal Presidency in two, with the Muslim-dominant area of eastern Bengal and Assam to be a separate province. The 1905 partition was the first acknowledgment of a sense of separateness among Muslims by the British and foreshadowed events of 42 years later when Bengal was divided between Muslim-majority and Hindu-majority districts to create East Pakistan.
The 1905 action was strongly opposed by Bengali Hindus and resulted in increasing acts of violence. This lasted until it was undone six years later in favor of reuniting Bengal and instead separating out what would become the provinces of Orissa and Bihar. But the agitation provoked by the 1905 partition and the Hindu-Muslim enmities it left behind continued to provoke terrorist actions against British rule until headed off by the evolution of nonviolence as a mode of political struggle, as later enunciated in the cause of Indian self-rule by Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi of the Indian National Congress.
British reforms in 1909 and 1919 expanded local self-rule in their Indian domains, but the pace fell short of the pace of demands put forth by the rising tide of nationalists espoused by the Indian National Congress, which in 1929 committed itself to the goal of complete independence. As the struggle gained momentum, the majority Hindu and minority Muslim communities in India as a whole began to divide on the eventual "end game." While the majority Hindu community saw a single Indian polity committed to secularism and diversity as the goal of the independence movement, Muslims came to fear that their community would be a permanent electoral minority, an anxiety they saw borne out in the 1937 elections held under British auspices. To look after their unique cultural interests, they formed the All-India Muslim League, and under the Muslim League leadership, sentiment began to coalesce around the "two nation" theory propounded earlier by the poet Iqbal, a belief that South Asian Muslims and Hindus were and should be two separate nations, i.e. that Muslims required the creation of an independent nation of their own—Pakistan—in which they would predominate. In 1940, the Muslim League adopted this as its goal, under the leadership of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a Mumbai (formerly Bombay) attorney who resisted all efforts at compromise through all the difficult days leading up to the grant of independence in 1947.
In language, culture, ethnic background, population density, political experience, and economic potential, East and West Pakistan were totally disparate—the main bonds being Islam and a fear of potential Indian (Hindu) revanchism. Pakistan's early years as a nation were dominated by unsuccessful attempts—punctuated by bouts of authoritarian rule—to create a national polity that would somehow bridge these differences. Larger in population and in economic importance than the west wing, the Bengali east wing chafed under national policies effectively dominated by the leadership residing in the west wing. When its influence was further reduced under repeated bouts of martial law and by the reconstruction of West Pakistan as a single province, demands for autonomy in the east began to mount. This insistent demand for autonomy in East Pakistan proved more than the fragile sense of Islamic nationhood could sustain. The new state of Pakistan, made up of Muslim-majority districts in both eastern and western reaches of formerly British India, was at best an unwieldy creation. It cut across long-established lines of trade and communication, divided families, provoked a mass movement of millions of refugees caught on the "wrong" side of the partition markers, and forced the creation of a new but divided polity. Pakistan consisted of two distinct territories, separated by 1,600 km (1,000 mi) of secular but predominantly Hindu India. West Pakistan, with a population of 34 million, consisted mainly of the former provinces of Baluchistan, Sindh, the Northwest Frontier, and (partially) Punjab (which, like Bengal, was also partitioned). East Pakistan, its 42 million people including nearly 9 million Hindus, encompassed the eastern half of Bengal province as shaped in 1912, plus the Sylhet District of Assam.
After yet another round of martial law in Pakistan in 1969, national elections were scheduled for 1970. But when the popular verdict in those elections—even in the national assembly—supported greater autonomy for East Pakistan than the West Pakistan-dominated national leadership was prepared to accord, the results were set aside.
Subsequent civil unrest escalated quickly to civil war in East Pakistan. Swamped with a million refugees from the fighting, India intervened militarily in December 1971, tipping the scales in favor of the rebels and facilitating the creation of Bangladesh in 1972. Sheikh Mujibur (Mujib) Rahman, leader of the Awami League and of the fight for autonomy, was released from prison in West Pakistan (which became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan) and became prime minister of the new nation of Bangladesh.
The 1971 civil war was a disaster for Bangladesh, undoing much of the limited progress East Pakistan had made in recovering from the socioeconomic disruption of the 1947 partition. The charismatic Mujib faced a task for which his administrative and political experience was lacking. He fought and won a massive victory at the polls in 1973, but two years later, he suspended the political process and took power into his own hands. Bangla opinion turned against Mujib, coalescing two main opposition groups that otherwise shared little in common besides their opposition to Mujib and to Indian influence: they were the ultra conservative Islamic groups, led by the Jamaat-i-Islami, and the radical left, led by Maoists, who opposed both Indian and Soviet influence.
On 15 August 1975, a group of young military officers seized power, killing Mujib and many of his family members and imposing martial law. A counter-coup three months later produced a new military government with Gen. Zia-ur Rahman at its head. In 1978, with limited political activity permitted, he was elected president and lifted martial law. In February 1979, he restored parliamentary government after elections gave his new party, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.
Zia's assassination during an abortive military coup in May 1981 set back the progress he had made. He was succeeded in power by his vice president, Abdus Sattar, who was deposed the following March by his army chief, Gen. Hussain Mohammad Ershad. Declaring martial law, Ershad became Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA), suspended the 1972 constitution, and banned political parties.
Ershad gained support by cracking down on corruption and opening up the economy to foreign collaboration. In 1983, he assumed the presidency, and by January 1986, he had restored full political activity in which his own party, the Jatiya (People's) Party took a prominent part. He retired from the army and was elected president without opposition in October 1986, but in July 1987, mounting opposition to his often dictatorial rule among the united opposition parties led him again to declare a state of emergency, dissolve the assembly, and schedule new elections for March 1988. His Jatiya Party triumphed in those elections, due mainly to the refusal of the opposition parties to participate. At the end of 1990, in the face of widespread demonstrations and some Hindu-Muslim violence, his opposition had grown so strong that Ershad was forced to resign the presidency, turning the government over to Supreme Court Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, the unanimous choice of the opposition parties.
An interim government scheduled elections for February 1991, and the result—in what has been described as the fairest polling ever held in the country—was the election of an assembly in which the BNP, now headed by Begum Khaleda Zia-ur Rahman, Zia's widow, held a plurality. However, the BNP lost popular support by March 1994, when opposition parties walked out of Parliament and boycotted the government, claiming the BNP had rigged a regional election. The main opposition groups—the Awami League (AL), Jatiya Party, and the Jamaat-e-Islami—continued the protest for two years, boycotting February 1996 elections swept by the BNP. Amid further charges of vote-rigging, Khaleda Zia resigned, the BNP dissolved Parliament, and a caretaker government conducted new elections in June 1996. The Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina Wajed, daughter of the Sheikh Mujid, gained control of Parliament in the elections, contested by all parties and monitored by international observers. Although initially dependent on the support of the Jatiya Party to form a government, by late September the Awami League held an absolute majority of seats in the legislature.
Prime Minister Sheik Hasina had no easier time ruling Bangladesh than her predecessor. Her government faced continuing protests, strikes, and often violent demonstrations organized by the BNP and other opposition parties. Targets for such actions included the government's historic agreement with India in December 1996 over sharing the waters of the River Ganges, higher taxes imposed by the government in July 1997, and problems of law and order in the country. During September 1997, Islamic militants took to the streets demanding the arrest and execution of controversial Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen. November 1998 saw a general strike organized by the BNP over alleged government repression and clashes between police and protesters over alleged electoral fraud. Tensions were heightened by the conviction and death sentences passed on several people involved in the assassination of Sheikh Hasina's father, Sheikh Mujib.
In August 1998, Bangladesh also saw some of the worst flooding in the country's history. Over 1,000 people died and flood waters covered some 60% of the country. Loss of crops raised the specter of widespread famine, and the total damage to the country's economy and infrastructure was estimated at over US $2 billion.
Among the AL government's achievements, however, were the Ganges water-sharing treaty, the December 1997 accord that ended the tribal insurgency in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in southeastern Bangladesh, and a restructuring of local government to increase grassroots involvement in politics. On the international stage, Bangladesh was elected to serve a two-year term on the Security Council of the United Nations, effective 1 January 2000. Bill Clinton became the first US president to visit Bangladesh when he stopped there during his South Asia tour in March 2000.
In December 2000, Bangladesh expelled a Pakistani diplomat for stating that the number of dead in the 1971 war was 26,000, whereas Bangladesh holds that nearly three million were killed. Bangladesh wanted Pakistan to apologize for the alleged genocide it says Pakistani forces were guilty of during the 1971 war. In July 2002, Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf visited Dhaka, and made an apology for excesses committed in Bangladesh's war for independence. His visit was seen as an attempt to build bridges with a country that regards Pakistan as a former colonizer.
A series of bombings beset Bangladesh during 2001, in April, June, and September. In total, 155 people were killed and more than 2,500 were injured in violence leading up to the October 2001 parliamentary elections. In July, Prime Minister Hasina stepped down, handing power over to a caretaker authority that supervised the upcoming elections; she became the first prime minister in the country's history to complete a full five-year term. Former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia won a landslide victory on 1 October 2001, campaigning against lawlessness and corruption, in an election in which 75% of the registered voters went to the polls. The Awami League boycotted Parliament, protesting alleged rigging of elections and the persecution of religious minorities.
In March 2002, the government enacted tough laws to combat the use of corrosive acid to disfigure and sometimes kill individuals, mostly women. The death penalty was set as the maximum sentence in some cases. In 2001, 338 acid attacks were carried out in Bangladesh, 90% of them against women. Most of the acid victims have had sulphuric or hydrochloric acid splashed on their faces.
In June 2002, the Awami League ended its boycott of Parliament, and attended for the first time since losing in the October 2001 elections. Also in June 2002, President Badruddoza Chowdhury resigned, after being criticized for not visiting the grave of the BNP's founder, Zia-ur Rahman. That October, Prime Minister Zia called out the army to contain terrorist attacks throughout the country in the absence of adequate logistic support from the police. The army was also directed to curb crime and corruption. As many as 44 people died in custody in the drive lasting from 16 October 2002 to 9 January 2003. Zia granted immunity to the armed forces for their actions during that period, a decision that was highly criticized by the opposition Awami League.
Bangladesh's history of political violence continued in 2002, when bomb explosions in four cinemas killed 17 people and injured 300 among families celebrating the end of Ramadan. The government arrested 39 members of the Awami League in connection with the explosions.