Prehistoric stone implements have been discovered in various parts of West Bengal in the districts of Midnapur, Bankura and Burdwan. But it is difficult to determine, even approximately, the time when people using them first settled in Bengal. It might have taken place 10 thousand years (or even more) ago. The original settlers may have spoken Austric or Austro-Asiatic languages like the languages of the present-day Kola, Bhil, Santal, Shabara and Pulinda peoples. At a subsequent age, peoples speaking languages from two other language families – Dravidian and Tibeto-Burman – seem to have settled in Bengal. Archaeological discoveries during the 1960s furnished evidence of a degree of civilisation in certain parts of Bengal as far back as the beginning of the first millennium BC, perhaps even earlier. The discoveries at Pandu Rajar Dhibi in the valley of the Ajay River (near Bolpur) in Burdwan district and in several other sites on the Ajay, Kunar and Kopai Rivers have thrown fresh light on Bengal’s prehistory. Pandu Rajar Dhibi represents the ruins of a trading township, which carried on trade not only with the interior regions of India, but also with the countries of the Mediterranean.
Some deprecatory references indicate that the early people in Bengal were different in ethnicity and culture from the Vedic beyond the boundary of Aryandom and who were classed as ‘Dasyus’. The Bhagavata Purana classes them as sinful people while Dharmasutra of Bodhayana prescribes expiatory rites after a journey among the Pundras and Vangas. Mahabharata speaks of Paundraka Vasudeva who was lord of the Pundrasand who allied himself with Jarasandha against Krishna. Mahabharata also speaks of Bengali kings called Chitrasena and Sanudrasena who were defeated by Bhima, Kalidas mentions Raghu defeated a coalition of Vanga kings who were defeated by Raghu and Raghu established a victory column in the Gangetic delta.
Hindu scriptures such as the Mahabharata suggest that Bengal was divided among various tribes or kingdoms, including the Nishadas and kingdoms known as the Janapadas: Vanga (southern Bengal), Pundra (northern Bengal), and Suhma (western Bengal) according to their respective totems. These Hindu sources, written by Indo-Aryans in what is now Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, suggest that the peoples of Bengal were not Indo-Aryans. However, Jain scriptures identify Vanga and Anga in Bengal as Indo-Aryan. While western Bengal, as part of Magadha, became part of the Indo-Aryan civilization by the 7th century BC, the Nanda Dynasty was the first historical state to unify all of Bengal under Indo-Aryan rule.
The Vanga Kingdom was a powerful seafaring nation of Ancient India. They had overseas trade relations with Java, Sumatra and Siam (modern day Thailand). According to Mahavamsa, the Vanga prince Vijaya Singha conquered Lanka (modern day Sri Lanka) in 544 BC and gave the name “Sinhala” to the country. Bengali people migrated to the Maritime Southeast Asia and Siam, establishing their own colonies there.
Though north and west Bengal were part of the Magadhan empire southern Bengal thrived and became powerful with her overseas trades. In 326 BCE, with the invasion of Alexander the Great the region again came to prominence. The Greek and Latin historians suggested that Alexander the Great withdrew from India anticipating the valiant counter attack of the mighty Gangaridai empire that was located in the Bengal region. Alexander, after the meeting with his officer, Coenus, was convinced that it was better to return. Diodorus Siculus mentions Gangaridai to be the most powerful empire in India whose king possessed an army of 20,000 horses, 200,000 infantry, 2,000 chariots and 4,000 elephants trained and equipped for war. The allied forces of Gangaridai Empire and Nanda Empire were preparing a massive counter attack against the forces of Alexander on the banks of Ganges. Gangaridai according to the Greek accounts kept on flourishing at least up to the 1st century AD.
Early Middle Ages
The pre-Gupta period of Bengal is shrouded with obscurity. Before the conquest of Samudragupta Bengal was divided into two kingdoms: Pushkarana and Samatata. Chandragupta II had defeated a confederacy of Vanga kings resulting in Bengal becoming part of the Gupta Empire.
By the sixth century, the Gupta Empire ruled over the northern Indian subcontinent was largely broken up. Eastern Bengal became the Vanga Kingdom while the Gauda kings rose in the west with their capital at Karnasuvarna (Murshidabad). Shashanka, a vassal of the last Gupta Empire became independent and unified the smaller principalities of Bengal (Gaur, Vanga, Samatata) and vied for regional power with Harshavardhana in northern India. But this burst of Bengali power did not last beyond his death, as Bengal descended afterward into a period marked by disunity and foreign invasion.
Pala dynasty were the first independent Buddhist dynasty of Bengal. The name Pala means “protector” and was used as an ending to the names of all Pala monarchs. The Palas were followers of the Mahayana and Tantric schools of Buddhism. Gopala was the first ruler from the dynasty. He came to power in 750 in Gaur by a democratic election. This event is recognised as one of the first democratic elections in South Asia since the time of the Mahā Janapadas. He reigned from 750-770 and consolidated his position by extending his control over all of Bengal. The Buddhist dynasty lasted for four centuries (750-1120 AD) and ushered in a period of stability and prosperity in Bengal. They created many temples and works of art as well as supported the Universities of Nalanda and Vikramashila. Somapura Mahavihara built by Dharmapala is the greatest Buddhist Vihara in the Indian Subcontinent.
The empire reached its peak under Dharmapala and Devapala. Dharmapala extended the empire into the northern parts of the Indian Subcontinent. This triggered once more for the control of the subcontinent. Devapala, successor of Dharmapala, expanded the empire to cover much of South Asia and beyond. His empire stretched from Assam and Utkala in the east, Kamboja (modern day Afghanistan) in the north-west and Deccan in the south. According to Pala copperplate inscription Devapala exterminated the Utkalas, conquered the Pragjyotisha (Assam), shattered the pride of the Huna, and humbled the lords of Gurjara, Pratiharas and the Dravidas.
The death of Devapala ended the period of ascendancy of the Pala Empire and several independent dynasties and kingdoms emerged during this time. However, Mahipala I rejuvenated the reign of the Palas. He recovered control over all of Bengal and expanded the empire. He survived the invasions of Rajendra Chola and the Chalukyas. After Mahipala I the Pala dynasty again saw its decline until Ramapala, the last great ruler of the dynasty, managed to retrieve the position of the dynasty to some extent. He crushed the Varendra rebellion and extended his empire farther to Kamarupa, Orissa and Northern India.
The Pala Empire can be considered as the golden era of Bengal. Never had the Bengali people reached such height of power and glory to that extent. Palas were responsible for the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet, Bhutan and Myanmar. The Pala had extensive trade as well as influence in south-east Asia. This can be seen in the sculptures and architectural style of the Sailendra Empire (present-day Malaya, Java, Sumatra).
The Palas were followed by the Sena dynasty who brought Bengal under one ruler during the 12th century. Vijay Sen the second ruler of this dynasty defeated the last Pala emperor Madanapala and established his reign. Ballal Sena introduced caste system in Bengal and made Nabadwip the capital. The fourth king of this dynasty Lakshman Sen expanded the empire beyond Bengal to Bihar, Assam and Orissa. Lakshman was later defeated by the Muslims and fled to eastern Bengal were he ruled few more years. The Sena dynasty brought a revival of Hinduism and cultivated Sanskrit literature in India.
Late Middle Ages
Islam made its first appearance in Bengal during the 12th century AD when Sufi missionaries arrived. Later occasional Muslim invaders reinforced the process of conversion by building mosques, madrassas and Sufi Khanqah. Beginning in 1202 a military commander from the Delhi Sultanate, Bakhtiar Khilji, overran Bihar and Bengal as far east as Rangpur, Bogra and the Brahmaputra River. The defeated Laksman Sen and his two sons moved to a place then called Vikramapur (present-day Munshiganj District), where their diminished dominion lasted until the late 13th century.
The period after Bakhtiar Khilji’s death in 1206 devolved into infighting among the Khiljis – representative of a pattern of succession struggles and intra-empire intrigues during later Turkic regimes. Ghiyasuddin Iwaz Khalji prevailed and extended the Sultan’s domain south to Jessore and made the eastern Bang province a tributary. The capital was made at Lakhnauti on the Ganges near the older Bengal capital of Gaur. He managed to make Kamarupa, Orissa and Trihut pay tribute to him. But he was later defeated by Shams-ud-Din Iltutmish.
The weak successors of Iltutmish encouraged the local governors to declare independence. Bengal was sufficiently remote from Delhi that its governors would declare independence on occasion, styling themselves as Sultans of Bengal. It was during this time that Bengal earned the name “Bulgakpur” (land of the rebels). Tughral Togun Khan added Oudh and Bihar to Bengal. Mughisuddin Yuzbak also conquered Bihar and Oudh from Delhi but was killed during an unsuccessful expedition in Assam. Two Turkic attempts to push east of the broad Jamuna and Brahmaputra rivers were repulsed, but a third led by Mughisuddin Tughral conquered the Sonargaon area south of Dhaka to Faridpur, bringing the Sen Kingdom officially to an end by 1277. Mughisuddin Tughral repulsed two massive attacks of the sultanate of Delhi before finally being defeated and killed by Ghiyas ud din Balban.
Mahmud Shahi dynasty started when Nasiruddin Bughra Khan declared independence in Bengal. Thus Bengal regained her independence back. Nasiruddin Bughra Khan and his successors ruled Bengal for 23 years finally being incorporated into Delhi Sultanate by Ghyiasuddin Tughlaq.
Shamsuddin Iliyas Shah founded an independent dynasty that lasted from 1342-1487. The dynasty successfully repulsed attempts by Delhi to conquer them. They continued to reel in the territory of modern-day Bengal, reaching to Khulna in the south and Sylhet in the east. The sultans advanced civic institutions and became more responsive and “native” in their outlook and cut loose from Delhi. Considerable architectural projects were completed including the massive Adina Mosque and the Darasbari Mosque which still stands in Bangladesh near the border. The Sultans of Bengal were patrons of Bengali literature and began a process in which Bengali culture and identity would flourish. The Ilyas Shahi Dynasty was interrupted by an uprising by the Hindus under Raja Ganesha. However the Ilyas Shahi dynasty was restored by Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah. The dynasty was finally overthrown by the Habshi (Abyssinian) slaves of the sultanate.
The Habshi rule gave way to the Hussain Shahi dynasty that ruled from 1494-1538. Alauddin Hussain Shah, considered as the greatest of all the sultans of Bengal for bringing cultural renaissance during his reign. He conquered Kamarupa, Kamata, Jajnagar, Orissa and extended the sultanate all the way to the port of Chittagong, which witnessed the arrival of the first Portuguese merchants. Nasiruddin Nasrat Shah gave refuge to the Afghan lords during the invasion of Babur though he remained neutral. However Nusrat Shah made a treaty with Babur and saved Bengal from a Mughal invasion. The last Sultan of the dynasty, who continued to rule from Gaur, had to contend with rising Afghan activity on his northwestern border. Eventually, the Afghans broke through and sacked the capital in 1538 where they remained for several decades until the arrival of the Mughals.
Sher Shah Suri established the Sur dynasty in Bengal. After the battle of Chausa he declared himself independent Sultan of Bengal and Bihar. Sher Shah was the only Muslim Sultan of Bengal to establish an empire in northern India. The Delhi Sultanate Islam Shah appointed Muhammad Khan Sur as the governor of Bengal. After the death of Islam Shah, Muhammad Khan Sur became independent. Muhammad Khan Sur was followed by Ghyiasuddin Bahadur Shah and Ghyiasuddin Jalal Shah. The Pashtun rule in Bengal remained for 44 years. Their most impressive achievement was Sher Shah’s construction of the Grand Trunk Road connecting Sonargaon, Delhi and Peshawar.
The Sur dynasty was followed by the Karrani dynasty. Sulaiman Khan Karrani annexed Orissa to the Muslim sultanate permanently. Daoud Shah Karrani declared independence from Akbar which led to four years of bloody war between the Mughals and the Pashtuns. The Mughal onslaught against the Pashtun Sultan ended with the battle of Rajmahal in 1576, led by Khan Jahan. However, the Pashtun and the local landlords (Baro Bhuyans) led by Isa Khan resisted the Mughal invasion.
Bengal came once more under the control of Delhi as the Mughals conquered it in 1576. At that time Dhaka became a Mughal provincial capital. But it remained remote and thus a difficult to govern the region especially the section east of the Brahmaputra River remained outside the mainstream of Mughal politics. The Bengali ethnic and linguistic identity further crystallised during this period, since the whole of Bengal was united under an able and long-lasting administration. Furthermore its inhabitants were given sufficient autonomy to cultivate their own customs and literature.
In 1612, during Emperor Jahangir’s reign, the defeat of Sylhet completed the Mughal conquest of Bengal with the exception of Chittagong. At this time Dhaka rose in prominence by becoming the provincial capital of Bengal. Chittagong was later annexed in order to stifle Arakanese raids from the east. A well-known Dhaka landmark, Lalbagh Fort, was built during Aurangzeb’s sovereignty.
History repeated itself as the frontier Bengal province broke off from a Delhi-based empire around the time Aurangzeb’s death in 1707. Murshid Quli Khan ended Dhaka’s century of grandeur as he shifted the capital to Murshidabad ushering in a series of independent Bengal Nawabs. Nawab Alivardi Khan showed military skill during his wars with the Marathas. He completely routed the Marathas from Bengal. He crushed an uprising of the Afghans in Bihar and made the British pay Tk 150,000 for blocking Mughal and Armenian trade ships.
Portuguese traders and missionaries were the first Europeans to reach Bengal in the latter part of the 15th century. They were followed by representatives from the Netherlands, France and the British East India Company. The Mughal Subahdar of Bengal Kasim Khan Mashadi completely destroyed the Portuguese forces in the Battle of Hoogly (1632). About 10,000 Portuguese men and women died in the battle and 4,400 were sent captive to Delhi.
During Aurangzeb’s reign, the local Nawab sold three villages, including one then known as Calcutta, to the British. Calcutta was Britain’s first foothold in Bengal and remained a focal point of their economic activity. The British gradually extended their commercial contacts and administrative control beyond Calcutta to the rest of Bengal. Job Charnock was one of the first dreamers of a British empire in Bengal. He waged war against the Mughal authority of Bengal which led to the Anglo-Mughal war for Bengal (1686-1690). Shaista Khan, the Nawab of Bengal, defeated the British in the battles of Hoogly as well as Baleshwar and expelled the British from Bengal. Captain William Heath with a naval fleet moved towards Chittagong but it was a failure and he had to retreat to Madras.
The British East India Company gained official control of Bengal following the Battle of Plassey in 1757. This was the first conquest, in a series of engagements that ultimately lead to the expulsion of other European competitors. The defeat of the Mughals and the consolidation of the subcontinent under the rule of a corporation was a unique event in imperialistic history. Kolkata (Anglicised as “Calcutta”) on the Hooghly became a major trading port for bamboo, tea, sugar cane, spices, cotton, muslin and jute produced in Dhaka, Rajshahi, Khulna, and Kushtia.
Scandals and the bloody rebellion known as the Sepoy Mutiny prompted the British government to intervene in the affairs of the East India Company. In 1858, authority in India was transferred from the Company to the crown, and the rebellion was brutally suppressed. Rule of India was organised under a Viceroy and continued a pattern of economic exploitation. Famine racked the subcontinent many times, including at least two major famines in Bengal. The British Raj was politically organised into 17 provinces of which Bengal was one of the most significant. For a brief period in the early 20th century, an abortive attempt was made to divide Bengal into two zones, West Bengal and East Bengal & Assam.
Birth of Pakistan
As the independence movement throughout British-controlled India began in the late 19nth century gained momentum during the 20th century, Bengali politicians played an active role in Mohandas Gandhi’s Congress Party and Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Muslim League, exposing the opposing forces of ethnic and religious nationalism. By exploiting the latter, the British probably intended to distract the independence movement, for example by partitioning Bengal in 1905 along religious lines. The split only lasted for seven years.
At first the Muslim League sought only to ensure minority rights in the future nation. In 1940 the Muslim League passed the Lahore Resolution which envisaged one or more Muslim majority states in South Asia. Non-negotiable was the inclusion of the Muslim parts of Punjab and Bengal in these proposed states. The stakes grew as a new Viceroy Lord Mountbatten of Burma was appointed expressly for the purpose of effecting a graceful British exit. Communal violence in Noakhali and Calcutta sparked a surge in support for the Muslim League, which won a majority of Bengal’s Muslim seats in the 1946 election. Accusations have been made that Hindu and Muslim nationalist instigators were involved in the latter incident. At the last moment Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Sarat Chandra Bose came up with the idea of an independent and unified Bengal state, which was endorsed by Jinnah. This idea was vetoed by the Indian National Congress.
British India was partitioned and the independent states of India and Pakistan were created in 1947; the region of Bengal was divided along religious lines. The predominantly Muslim eastern half of Bengal became the East Bengal (later renamed East Pakistan) state of Pakistan and the predominantly Hindu western part became the Indian state of West Bengal.
Pakistan’s history from 1947 to 1971 was marked by political instability and economic difficulties. In 1956 a constitution was at last adopted, making the country an “Islamic Republic within the Commonwealth”. The nascent democratic institutions foundered in the face of military intervention in 1958, and the government imposed martial law between 1958 and 1962, and again between 1969 and 1971.
Almost from the advent of independent Pakistan in 1947, frictions developed between East and West Pakistan, which were separated by more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory. East Pakistanis felt exploited by the West Pakistan-dominated central government. Linguistic, cultural and ethnic differences also contributed to the estrangement of East from West Pakistan.
When Mohammad Ali Jinnah died in September 1948, Khwaja Nazimuddin became the Governor General of Pakistan while Nurul Amin was appointed the Chief Minister of East Bengal. Nurul Amin continued as the Chief Minister of East Bengal until 2 April 1954. The abolition of the Zamindari system in East Bengal (1950) and the Language Movement were two most important events during his tenure.
After the Awami League won all the East Pakistan seats of the Pakistan’s National Assembly in the 1970-71 elections, West Pakistan opened talks with the East on constitutional questions about the division of power between the central government and the provinces, as well as the formation of a national government headed by the Awami League.
The talks proved unsuccessful, however, and on March 1, 1971, Pakistani President Yahya Khan indefinitely postponed the pending National Assembly session, precipitating massive civil disobedience in East Pakistan.
On March 2, 1971, a group of students, led by A S M Abdur Rob, student leader & VP of DUCSU (Dhaka University Central Students Union) raised the new (proposed) flag of Bangla under the direction of Swadhin Bangla.
On March 3, 1971, student leader Sahjahan Siraj read the Sadhinotar Ishtehar (Declaration of Independence) at Paltan Maidan in front of Bangabandhu Shaikh Mujib along with student and public gathering.
On March 7, there was a historical public gathering in Paltan Maidan to hear the guideline for the revolution and independence from Shaikh Mujib, the frontier leader of movement that time. Although he avoided the direct speech of independence as the talks were still underway, he influenced the mob to prepare for the separation war.
After the military crackdown by the Pakistan army began on the night of March 25, 1971 Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested and the political leaders dispersed, mostly fleeing to neighbouring India where they organized a provisional government afterwards. Before being held up by the Pakistani Army Sheikh Mujibur Rahman gave a hand note of the declaration of the independence of Bangladesh and it was circulated amongst people and transmitted by the then East Pakistan Rifles’ wireless transmitter. Bengali Army Major Zia-Ur-Rahman captured Kalurghat Radio Station in Chittagong and read the declaration of independence of Bangladesh. On 27th march Major Zia read the declaration of independence on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
The Bangladesh Government was formed in Meherpur, (later renamed as Mujibnagar a place adjacent to the Indian Border). Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was announced to be the head of the state. Tajuddin Ahmed became the prime minister of the government. There the war plan was sketched. A war force was established named “Muktibahini”. M.A.G. Osmani was assigned as the Chief of the force. The land sketched into 11 sectors under 11 sector commanders. Along with this sectors on the later part of the war Three special forces were formed namely Z Force, S Force and K Force. These three forces name were derived from the initial letter of the commander’s name. The training and most of the arms-ammunitions were arranged by the Meherpur government which were supported by India. As fighting grew between the Pakistan Army and the Bengali Mukti Bahini (“freedom fighters”), an estimated 10 million Bengalis, mainly Hindus, sought refuge in the Indian states of Assam, Tripura and West Bengal.
The crisis in East Pakistan produced new strains in Pakistan’s troubled relations with India. The two nations had fought a war in 1965, mainly in the west, but the refugee pressure in India in the fall of 1971 produced new tensions in the east. Indian sympathies lay with East Pakistan, and on December 3, 1971, India intervened on the side of the Bangladeshis. On December 16, 1971, Pakistani forces surrendered, and Bangla Desh (“Country of Bangla”) was finally established the following day. The new country changed its name to Bangladesh on January 11, 1972 and became a parliamentary democracy under a constitution. Shortly thereafter on March 19 Bangladesh signed a friendship treaty with India.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman came to office with immense personal popularity but had difficulty transforming this popular support into the political strength needed to function as head of government. The 1972 constitution adopted as state policy the Awami League (AL) four basic principles of nationalism, secularism, socialism, and democracy.
The first parliamentary elections were held in March 1973, with the Awami League winning a massive majority. The new Bangladesh government focused on relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction of the economy and society. In December 1974, in the face of continuing economic deterioration and mounting civil disorder, Mujib proclaimed a state of emergency, limited the powers of the legislative and judicial branches, banned all the newspaper except four government supported papers, and introduced one-party system baning all the other parties.
Despite some improvement in the economic situation during the first half of 1975, criticism of Mujib grew. In August 1975, Mujib, and most of his family, were assassinated by mid-level army officers. A new government, headed by former Mujib associate Khandakar Moshtaque Ahmed, was formed.
Successive military coups resulted in the emergence of Army Chief of Staff General Ziaur Rahman (“Zia”) as strongman. In the historic 7 November 1975, “Jatiyo Biplob O Shanghoti Dibosh” the army captured the power freed Major Zia. He pledged the army’s support to the civilian government headed by President Chief Justice Sayem. Acting at Zia’s behest, Sayem dissolved Parliament, and instituted the Martial Law Administration (MLA).
In November 1976, Zia became Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) and assumed the presidency upon Sayem’s forced retirement five months later, promising national elections in 1978.
As President, Zia announced a 19-point program of economic reform and began dismantling the MLA. Zia won a five-year term in June 1978 elections, with 76% of the vote. Democracy and constitutional order were fully restored when the ban on political parties was lifted, new parliamentary elections were held in February 1979. The AL and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), founded by Zia, emerged as the two major parties.
In May 1981, Zia was assassinated in Chittagong by dissident elements of the military. The conspirators were either taken into custody or killed. Vice President Justice Abdus Sattar was sworn in as acting president, and elected president as the BNP’s candidate six months later. Sattar followed the policies of his predecessor and retained essentially the same cabinet.
In March 1982 Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General H.M. Ershad suspended the constitution and declared martial law citing pervasive corruption, ineffectual government, and economic mismanagement. The following year, Ershad assumed the presidency, and won overwhelming public support for his regime in a national referendum in March 1985, although turnout was small. Political life was liberalised through 1985 and 1986, and the Jatiya (National) Party was established as Ershad’s vehicle for the transition back to democracy.
Parliamentary elections were held in May 1986, but were boycotted by the BNP, now led by President Zia’s widow, Begum Khaleda Zia,. The Jatiya Party won a modest majority of the 300 elected seats in the National Assembly. The participation of the Awami League – led by the late President Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed – lent the elections some credibility, despite widespread charges of voting irregularities.
Ershad retired from military service in preparation for the presidential elections in October 1986, and won 84% of the vote. Protesting that martial law was still in effect, both the BNP and the AL refused to put up opposing candidates. In November 1986, martial law was lifted, and the opposition parties took their elected seats in the National Assembly.
In July 1987, after the government hastily pushed through a bill to include military representation on local administrative councils, the opposition walked out of Parliament. As the opposition organized protest marches and nationwide strikes, the government arrested scores of opposition activists. After declaring a state of emergency, Ershad dissolved Parliament and scheduled fresh elections for March 1988.
The elections were held despite an opposition boycott, and the ruling Jatiya Party won 251 of the 300 seats. The Parliament passed a large number of bills, including in June 1988 a controversial constitutional amendment making Islam Bangladesh’s state religion.
On December 6, 1990, following general strikes, increased campus protests, public rallies and a general disintegration of law and order, Ershad resigned. On February 27, 1991, an interim government headed by Acting President Chief Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed oversaw what most observers believed to be the nation’s most free and fair elections to that date.
BNP won a plurality of seats and formed a government with Khaleda Zia, widow of Ziaur Rahman, becoming prime minister. In March 1994, controversy over a parliamentary by-election, which the opposition claimed the government had rigged, led to general strikes and an indefinite boycott of Parliament by the opposition. In late December 1994, the opposition resigned en masse from Parliament, and pledged to boycott national elections scheduled for February 15, 1996.
In February, Khaleda Zia was re-elected by a landslide in voting boycotted by the three main opposition parties. In March 1996, following escalating political turmoil, the Parliament amended the constitution to allow a neutral caretaker government to assume power and conduct new parliamentary elections.
Elections were held in June 1996 which were found by international and domestic election observers to be free and fair. The Awami League won a plurality of the seats, and formed the government with support from the Jatiya Party of deposed president Ershad. AL leader Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister.
In June 1999, the BNP and other opposition parties again began to boycott Parliament, and stage nationwide general strikes. A four-party opposition alliance formed at the beginning of 1999 announced that it would boycott parliamentary by-elections and local government elections.
The four-party alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) won over a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Begum Khaleda Zia was sworn in on October 10, 2001, as Prime Minister for the third time.
A grenade attack on a rally of Sheikh Hasina killed 23 people on August 21, 2004. On August 17, 2005, near-synchronised blasts of improvised explosive devices in 63 out of 64 administrative districts targeted mainly government buildings and killed two persons. An extremist Islamist group named Jama’atul Mujahideen, Bangladesh (JMB) claimed responsibility for the blasts, which aimed to press home JMB’s demand for a replacement of the secular legal system with Islamic sharia courts. Hundreds of senior and mid-level JMB leaders were arrested.
In February 2006, after sporadic boycotts, the AL returned to Parliament, demanded early elections and requested significant changes in the electoral and caretaker government systems to stop alleged moves by the ruling coalition to rig the next election. Dialogue between the Secretaries General of the main ruling and opposition parties failed to sort out the electoral reform issues.
In July 2001, the Awami League government stepped down to allow a caretaker government to preside over parliamentary elections. In August, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina agreed to respect the results of the election, join Parliament win or lose, foreswear the use of hartals (violently enforced strikes) as political tools, and if successful in forming a government allow for a more meaningful role for the opposition in Parliament. The caretaker government was successful in containing the violence, which allowed a parliamentary
On January 3, 2007, the Awami League announced it would boycott the January 22 parliamentary elections. The AL planned a series of country-wide general strikes and transportation blockades.
On January 11, 2007, President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency, resigned as Chief Adviser, and indefinitely postponed parliamentary elections. On January 12, 2007, former Bangladesh Bank governor Fakhruddin Ahmed was sworn in as the new Chief Adviser, and 10 new advisers (ministers) were appointed. Under emergency provisions, the government suspended certain fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution and detained a large number of politicians and others on suspicion of involvement in corruption and other crimes. The government announced elections would occur in late 2008.
In the summer of 2007 the government arrested Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, Bangladesh’s two most influential political leaders, on charges of corruption. Hasina and Zia have challenged the cases filed against them under the Emergency Power Rules, which deny the accused the right to bail. While the cases are under judicial review, the two leaders continue to be imprisoned as of March 2008.
On 19 November 2008 Awami League & Jatiya Party agreed to contest the elections jointly under the Caretaker Government to be held on 29 December 2008. Out of the 300 Constituencies in the Parliament, Ershad’s Jatiya Party will contest from 49 seats and Awami League and members of a leftist wing Fourteen Party Coalition from the rest 250 seats. Thus the Grand Alliance emerged in Bangladesh.
On December 29, 2008 Bangladesh went to the polls and the nation elected the Grand Alliance which was led by Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League and backed by Hussain Mohammed Ershad’s Jatiya Party. On the other hand Khaleda Zia’s BNP-led Four Party Alliance plagued by allegations of Khaleda Zia’s and her infamous son Tareq Rahman’s corruption allegations, suffered the most embarrassing defeat ever in Bangladesh’s history.
Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister and formed the government and a cabinet which included ministers from Jatiya Party although any post for Hussain Mohammed Ershad, is yet to be decided as the earlier agreed Presidency seems elusive.
The mutiny of border-guards (BDR) took place from 25 to 27 February 2009. More than a thousand BDR soldiers took over the BDR headquarters, and held many of their officers hostage. By the second day fighting spread to 12 other towns and cities. The mutiny ended as the mutineers surrendered their arms and released the hostages after a series of discussions and negotiations with the government. 52 army personnels died in the incident.