Bangladesh: Facts and History

Small group of pilgrims splashing and fooling around in river, Sri Krishnapur, Rajshahi, Bangladesh
Patrick Williamson Photography / Getty Images

Bangladesh is often associated with flooding, cyclones, and famine, and the low-lying country is among the most vulnerable to the threat of rising sea levels due to global warming. However, this densely populated nation on the Ganges/Brahmaputra/Meghna Delta is an innovator in the development and is quickly pulling its people up out of poverty.

Although the modern state of Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan only in 1971, the cultural roots of the Bengali people run deep into the past.

Capital

Dhaka, population 19.6 million (July 2017 estimate, CIA World Factbook)

Major Cities

Chittagong, 4.8 million

Khulna, 1 million

Rajshahi, 880,000

Bangladesh's Government

The People's Republic of Bangladesh is a parliamentary democracy, with the president as chief of state and prime minister as head of government. The president is elected to a five-year term and may serve two terms total. All citizens over 18 years of age can vote.

The unicameral parliament is called the Jatiya Sangsad; its 300 members also serve five-year terms. The president officially appoints the prime minister, but he or she must be the representative of the majority coalition in parliament. The current president is Abdul Hamid. Bangladesh's prime minister is Sheikh Hasina.

Population of Bangladesh

Bangladesh is home to approximately 158,000,000 people, giving this Iowa-sized nation the eighth highest population in the world. Bangladesh groans under a population density of about 3,300 per square mile.

Population growth has slowed dramatically, however, thanks to a fertility rate that has fallen from 6.33 live births per adult woman in 1975 to 2.1 in 2016, which is replacement-rate fertility. Bangladesh also is experiencing net out-migration.

Ethnic Bengalis make up 98 percent of the population. The remaining 2 percent is divided among small tribal groups along the Burmese border and Bihari immigrants.

Languages

The official language of Bangladesh is Bangla, also known as Bengali. English also is commonly used in urban areas. Bangla is an Indo-Aryan language descended from Sanskrit. It has a unique script, also based on Sanskrit.

Some non-Bengali Muslims in Bangladesh speak Urdu as their primary tongue. Literacy rates in Bangladesh are improving as the poverty rate falls, but still, only 76 percent of men and 70 percent of women are literate, as of 2016. Those aged 15–24, though, have a literacy rate of 92 percent, according to UNESCO.

Religion in Bangladesh

The predominant religion in Bangladesh is Islam, with 89 percent of the population adhering to that faith. Among Bangladeshi Muslims, 92 percent are Sunni, and 2 percent Shi'a; only a fraction of 1 percent are Ahmadiyyas. (Some didn't specify.)

Hindus are the largest minority religion in Bangladesh, at 10 percent of the population. There are also tiny minorities (less than 1 percent) of Christians, Buddhists, and animists.

Geography

Bangladesh is blessed with deep, rich, and fertile soil, a gift from the three major rivers that form the deltaic plain upon which it sits. The Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna Rivers all wend their way down from the Himalayas, carrying nutrients to replenish Bangladesh's fields.

This luxury comes at a heavy cost, however. Bangladesh is almost entirely flat, and except for some hills along the Burmese border, it almost entirely at sea level. As a result, the country is regularly flooded by the rivers, by tropical cyclones off the Bay of Bengal, and by tidal bores.

Bangladesh is bordered by India all around it, except a short border with Burma (Myanmar) in the southeast.

Climate of Bangladesh

The climate in Bangladesh is tropical and monsoonal. In the dry season, from October to March, temperatures are mild and pleasant. The weather turns hot and muggy from March to June, awaiting the monsoon rains. From June to October, the skies open and drop most of the country's total annual rainfall, as much as 224 inches per year (6,950 mm).

As mentioned, Bangladesh often suffers from flooding and cyclone strikes—an average of 16 cyclones hit per decade. In 1998, flooding struck due to an unusual melt-off of Himalayan glaciers, covering two-thirds of Bangladesh with floodwater, and in 2017, hundreds of villages were submerged, and tens of thousands of people were displaced by two months of monsoon flooding.

Economy

Bangladesh is a developing country, with per capita GDP of just about $4,200 U.S. per year as of 2017. Nevertheless, the economy is growing rapidly, with a roughly 6 percent annual growth rate from 2005 to 2017.

Although manufacturing and services are increasing in importance, almost half of the Bangladeshi workers are employed in agriculture. Most factories and enterprises are owned by the government and tend to be inefficient.

One important source of income for Bangladesh has been workers' remittances from the oil-rich Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Bangladeshi workers sent $15.8 billion U.S. home in 2015.

History of Bangladesh

For centuries, the area that is now Bangladesh was part of the Bengal region of India. It was ruled by the same empires that ruled central India, from the Maurya (321–184 BCE) to the Mughal (CE 1526–1858). When the British took control of the region and created their Raj in India (1858–1947), Bangladesh was included.

During the negotiations surrounding independence and the partition of British India, predominantly Muslim Bangladesh was separated from majority-Hindu India. In the Muslim League's 1940 Lahore Resolution, one of the demands was that the majority-Muslim sections of the Punjab and Bengal would be included in Muslim states, rather than remaining with India. After communal violence broke out in India, some politicians suggested that a unified Bengali state would be a better solution. This idea was vetoed by the Indian National Congress, led by the Mahatma Gandhi.

At the end, when British India gained its independence in August 1947, the Muslim section of Bengal became a noncontiguous part of the new nation of Pakistan. It was called "East Pakistan."

East Pakistan was in an odd position, separated from Pakistan proper by a 1,000-mile stretch of India. It was also divided from the main body of Pakistan by ethnicity and language; Pakistanis are primarily Punjabi and Pashtun, as opposed to the Bengali East Pakistanis. 

For 24 years, East Pakistan struggled under financial and political neglect from West Pakistan. Political unrest was endemic in the region, as military regimes repeatedly overthrew democratically elected governments. Between 1958 and 1962, and from 1969 to 1971, East Pakistan was under martial law.

In the parliamentary elections of 1970–71, East Pakistan's separatist Awami League won every single seat allocated to the East. Talks between the two Pakistans failed, and on March 27, 1971, Sheikh Mujibar Rahman declared Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan. The Pakistani Army fought to stop the secession, but India sent troops to support the Bangladeshis. On January 11, 1972, Bangladesh became an independent parliamentary democracy.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the first leader of Bangladesh, from 1972 until his assassination in 1975. The current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, is his daughter. The political situation in Bangladesh is still volatile and has included free and fair elections, but recent persecution of political dissent by the state has raised some concerns about how the 2018 elections will go.