Why you should care
Because this is one of those countries you probably don’t know too much about. But you should.
For a small country, Bangladesh has been through a lot. Two divorces: the partition after Indian independence dividing the subcontinent into India and East/West Pakistan. Then the formation of Bangladesh and the shedding of East Pakistan. There’s been bloodshed, and a major war in the 1970s. Today, the nation is still an amalgam: It shares traits with India’s northeast state of Bengal (many Bangladeshis also call themselves “Bengalis,” and speak the Bengali language), but also with Pakistan (Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country).
The country today slides under the international radar, in many ways. Perhaps best known for its garment production and the 2013 collapse of a clothing factory that killed more than 1,300 and injured almost twice as many, Bangladesh has a history that hasn’t yet been told. Which is what brought Salil Tripathi, a London-based human rights activist and journalist, to do just that. In his latest book, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy (published by Aleph), he writes about the political turbulence in the country, profiles assassins and chronicles the lives of the country’s Hindu minority. Tripathi spoke to OZY about Bengali identity, revolutionaries and how Bangladesh has developed much better than you’d think.
OZY: You write in the book that the idea of Bangladesh goes back way before its official founding in 1971 — to 1948, in the years the British originally left the subcontinent.
SALIL TRIPATHI: The idea of a separate Bengali identity, which the Pakistani constitution should respect, was born in 1948, because that was always the assumption — that their language will get equal status and protection. But what happened was that West Pakistan wanted to have a common language: Urdu. And to be fair to Pakistan, on the Western side also you had other languages like Baluchi, Sindhi, Punjabi and Pakhtuni, so instead of having each one, they decided to have a common language for the whole country. But Bengal, not being in the same contiguity and being so far apart, saw it quite differently. They felt that they needed a language of their own for very valid reasons. In the speech [to the Pakistani national assembly], the guy [Dhirendranath Datta, a prominent Hindu leader] even says, ‘What would a poor farmer do when he gets a government form,’ and that was the problem.
OZY: It hasn’t all been bad news for Bangladesh. Tell us about some of the improvements you note in the book.
ST: One is health, the other is in terms of mortality of children. In Pakistan, there is a resistance towards immunization of children but Bangladesh doesn’t have that. In Pakistan, the Taliban have been saying that you can’t immunize children because it is an American plot or God’s plot to do something. But in Bangladesh, because of the strength of the NGOs and the health sector, immunization is very good. Similarly, access to water, access to primary education, female participation in schools and in the labor force … in all those sectors, Bangladesh is doing very well. Pakistan has suffered because it is much more fundamentalist in its understanding of Islam.
OZY: Speaking of extremism, you note a number of differences between Pakistan’s extremist groups and Bangladesh’s, the Jamaat-e-Islami. Why hasn’t extremism taken hold in Bangladesh?
ST: Jamaat has street power but it doesn’t have political power. It never gets more than 5 to 6 percent of the vote, but it is able to get its masses out to stop the country with protests. That’s what makes Jamaat useful to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which doesn’t have as much street strength as the Jamaat does. So BNP and Jamaat is an alliance of convenience. BNP can form the government only with Jamaat’s help, in a way, even if their members are very few because it’s call will get people to turn out. And Jamaat doesn’t have enough people to stand in every constituency.
OZY: So how secure do the minorities feel in Bangladesh — particularly the Hindus?
ST: They do feel safer, particularly under the Awami League … Hindus feel that they’re more likely to get justice when the Awami League is in power than the BNP, because of the historical connections it has with India.
OZY: What’s the current status of democracy in Bangladesh? Is it as turbulent or has it calmed down a bit?
ST: They have had elections regularly, and they’ve probably had more elections than Pakistan. But the loser doesn’t know how to behave. See in India, for example, government changes have not been very frequent and the losing party didn’t paralyze the country by going on strikes, or, you know, bringing production in the country to a standstill. In Bangladesh, that is what happens and it’s not just unique to BNP, even the Awami League does it. And they find it expedient to do so. It’s so much easier to bring the city to a closure, have a bit of violence to stop the city from functioning to show that they’re in power … even when they’re not.
This OZY encore was originally published March 3, 2015.