Americans today are much better informed about Bangladesh than when Henry Kissinger described it (for good reason) as a “basket case” in 1971, the year it gained independence. That label has been stuck to Bangladesh like a malevolent sea slug, and the proud Bengalis have for decades hated the shadow it cast over their resilient and entrepreneurial country.
On Friday it will be 50 years ago that Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan, became independent. On March 26, 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the wildly popular secessionist leader of the Bengal, declared his independence from Punjabi-dominated Pakistan, of which it was an absurd part. (A country with two wings – West and East Pakistan was separated by 2,000 miles from India.) After the declaration of independence, a brutal civil war broke out. The number of Bengali civilians killed is a matter of contention: the Central Intelligence Agency estimates 200,000, while Bengalis claim three million were murdered. In fact, Bangladesh was not liberated from Pakistan until December 16, 1971, when the Pakistani military surrendered. But by choosing March 26 as their Independence Day, Bengals made a very Bengali choice: to elevate their state of mind above their objective reality.
Bangladesh is now a transformed country. Decolonized twice – first from Britain, then from Pakistan – it is a rare example of a constitutional secular nation with a Muslim majority. Most Bangladeshis adhere to a relatively tolerant form of Islam, born of centuries of cohabitation with Hindus, and it is one of the few Muslim countries to win the battle against radicalization. With the erosion of secularism in neighboring India, it is possible to argue that Bangladesh is South Asia’s most secular country.
The government of Sheikh Hasina, Rahman’s daughter, is committed to eradicating Muslim fundamentalism. Yet its methods often come at the expense of democracy. Sheikh Hasina, for her third consecutive term as Prime Minister, has been widely accused of manipulating the last election in 2018. Her actions were driven by pride and paranoia: neutral observers believe she would have climbed to victory without resorting to fraud. .
If the West is squeamish about having to quell its criticism of an authoritarian leader for its regime’s curbing Islamism, it should have no trouble appreciating the many areas in which Bangladesh has made progress. In terms of human development, Bangladesh has not only surpassed Pakistan but has actually achieved equality with India. In just one example – the most important in a poor and overpopulated country – the fertility rate in Bangladesh (2.04 births per woman) has fallen below that of India (2.22). Even on its own terms, Bangladesh has made remarkable progress: the infant mortality rate is 25.6 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to 148.2 at independence; life expectancy, at 72.3 years today, was 46.6 in 1971.