Born in war, Bangladesh marks 50 years of independence



Shafiqul Islam was studying business at Dhaka College in 1971 when a bloody and brutal war for independence ravaged Bangladesh. After undergoing guerrilla training in India, he returned to fight against Pakistani soldiers, reports AP.

“It was a time of total destruction,” he said. “Our bridges and roads were destroyed, our women were raped, towns were under siege. Thousands of homes and shops were torched.”

Nine months after it began, the war culminated in the country’s independence.

Fifty years on, 67-year-old Islam presides over Arrival Fashion Ltd., a new-generation garment factory spread over 2.5 acres and surrounded by lush paddy fields on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka. The factory employs nearly 3,000 workers who make jeans for export to Europe and North America.

Islam’s story in many ways mirrors the rise of Bangladesh, home to 160 million people.

On the eve of a half-century of independence this week, Bangladesh has been hailed as a success story for a young nation born out of strife and turbulence. Although it has struggled with famine, poverty, military coups and political violence, it’s also been celebrated for what experts say is remarkable progress in uplifting the lives of its young population.

Millions have risen out of poverty as the country has unexpectedly become one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies thanks to sectors like its garment industry, which clothes millions around the world.

But some fear its success conceals a darker turn, including concerns over its most recent election in 2018 when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won a fourth term after clinching 266 out of 300 seats in Parliament. It was a tainted election, as rights groups condemned violence against opponents who alleged manipulated and rigged voting.

“The most worrying thing in Bangladesh is the decimation of the electoral system,” said Ali Riaz, an expert on South Asia who teaches political science at Illinois State University.

But it was another fateful election, led by Hasina’s father, that spurred Bangladesh’s independence, whose origin stretches to 1947 when the Indian subcontinent gained independence from British colonial rule. The land was carved into separate states, with the Muslim-majority regions becoming East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and West Pakistan, now simply Pakistan. But from the beginning, a strong nationalist movement surged as language became a point of tension; Bengali was widely spoken in the East, while the West’s Urdu-speaking elite rose to power.

A watershed moment occurred in 1970 amid strikes and rising hostilities, when East Pakistan’s Awami League, led by Bengali politician Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, swept the polls in a national election. The government rejected the results, spawning a civil disobedience movement. On March 26, 1971, Bangladesh declared independence, sparking the nine-month war.

Pakistan launched a military operation to stop the move to independence, while India joined on the side of what is now Bangladesh. Pakistani forces surrendered on Dec. 16, 1971.

Bangladesh says 3 million Bengalis were killed. Millions also fled to India, and historians have said hundreds of thousands of Bengali women were raped.

Another casualty of the war was the economy — GDP was only $6.2 billion in 1972. This figure has catapulted since, reaching $305 billion in 2019. Some forecasts expect it to double its size by 2030.

Central to some of the country’s success is its apparel industry, second-largest globally after China, which rakes in more than $35 billion a year from exports. It employs four million people and the triumph has been felt most by women, who form the majority of factory workers. A job at Islam’s factory helps Nasima Akhter and her two siblings earn about $411 a month, which supports her and her family.

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