Bangladesh: Shafiqul Islam was studying business at Dhaka College in 1971 when a bloody and brutal war of independence plagued Bangladesh. After undergoing guerrilla training in India, he returns to fight Pakistani soldiers.
“It was a time of total destruction,” he said. “Our bridges and roads have been destroyed, our women have been raped, villages have been under siege. Thousands of homes and shops were burnt down. ”
Nine months after it began, the war culminated in the independence of the country.
The 50-year-old Islam has been chairman of Arrival Fashion Ltd. for fifty years, a new generation clothing factory spread over 2.5 hectares and surrounded by lush rice fields on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka. The factory employs nearly 3,000 workers who manufacture jeans for export to Europe and North America.
Islam’s story in many ways reflects the rise of Bangladesh, home to 160 million people.
On the eve of half a century of independence this week, Bangladesh was hailed as a success story for a young nation born of strife and turmoil. Although it has struggled with famine, poverty, military coups and political violence, it has 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 unexpectedly becomes one of Asia’s fastest growing economies thanks to sectors such as its clothing industry, which attracts millions around the world.
But some fear that its success will obscure a darker turn, including concerns about the most recent election in 2018 when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won a fourth term after winning 266 of the 300 seats in parliament. It was a tainted election as real groups condemned violence against opponents who claimed to have manipulated and deceived.
“The most worrying thing in Bangladesh is the dismantling of the electoral system,” said Ali Riaz, a South Asian expert in political science at Illinois State University.
But it was another fatal election, led by Hasina’s father, that spurred the independence of Bangladesh, dating back to 1947 when the Indian subcontinent gained independence from the British colonial government. The country has been cut into separate states, with the Muslim majority territories becoming East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and West Pakistan, now simply Pakistan. But from the beginning, a strong nationalist movement rose as language became a point of tension; Bengali was widely spoken in the East, while the West’s Urdu-speaking elite came to power.
A watershed moment occurred in the midst of strikes and growing hostilities in 1970, when the East Pakistan Awami League, led by Bengali politician Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, swept the polls in a national election. The government rejected the result and created a civil disobedience movement. On March 26, 1971, Bangladesh declared independence and waged a nine-month war.
Pakistan launched a military operation to halt the move to independence, while India joined the side of present-day Bangladesh. Pakistani forces surrendered on December 16, 1971.
Bangladesh says 3 million Bengals are dead. Millions have also fled to India, with historians saying hundreds of thousands of Bengali women have been raped.
Another victim of the war was the economy – in 1972 GDP was only $ 6.2 billion. This figure has since capitulated to $ 305 billion in 2019. According to some forecasts, it will double in size by 2030.
The most important part of the country’s success is its clothing industry, the second largest worldwide after China, which generates more than $ 35 billion a year in exports. There are four million people employed and the triumph is felt especially by women, who are the majority factory workers. A job in the Islam factory helps Nasima Akhter and her two siblings earn about $ 411 a month, supporting her and her family.
When she was a teenager, her parents struggled to provide them with three meals a day. Now 28, Akhter works eight hours a day, and he works on hundreds of jeans. “We are doing well now,” she said.
Per capita income nearly tripled under Hasina, who first came to power in 1996 and was re-elected in 2008. Experts believe that the country has invested heavily in the lives of women and girls over the years. Currently, 98% of children have completed their primary school, with more girls in the secondary class than boys. The life expectancy in Bangladesh is 72 years compared to Pakistan’s 67 years, and it has also surpassed the richer India in terms of combating malnutrition and reproductive health in children, according to World Bank data.
“It was a fascinating journey,” the celebrities said to economist Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad said. “It’s a development model for others in the region.”
But Bangladesh is also very vulnerable to the growing effects of climate change, with a third of its population at risk of displacement from rising sea levels. Experts have long warned that a densely populated delta country like Bangladesh, which is struggling with severe and frequent floods, will be hit hardest by climate change. Strikingly, Bangladesh says the IMF is responsible for only 0.35% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
More immediately, the coronavirus pandemic presents challenges in Bangladesh. Cases of COVID-19 caused a nationwide exclusion, and large industries and small businesses came to a standstill. The country has so far reported more than 560,000 confirmed cases and about 8,600 deaths. Although experts believe that the full toll may be less reported, Bangladesh remains less affected than many other countries.
However, the clothing sector has shown signs of recovery and is also doing well with other economic drivers – overpayments, agriculture and the services sector – pointed out Ahmad, the economist.
But not everyone is part of the roaring growth in the country, Professor Riaz added, referring to data that job growth remains low despite high GDP numbers.
“The share of the poor in wealth, their income and opportunities is shrinking. “The country is not succeeding in creating more jobs for young people,” Riaz said.
Most importantly, observers say the government’s focus on development could push its democratic start. Law groups and non-profit organizations have sounded the alarm over the ruling Awami League. According to the U.S. Freedom House, the party “consolidated political power through persistent harassment of the opposition and those considered allies” in its 2020 annual report on democracy.
Experts also highlight a controversial digital security law, which they say could be abused to curb freedom of speech. In February, protesters rallied at an intersection in Dhaka over the death in prison of a commentator charged under the law with critical remarks about the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Bangladesh is witnessing democratic backlash over its electoral system, attempts to stifle political opposition and threats to freedom of expression, Riaz said.
“It was founded with the promise of an inclusive system, but it can move away from these fundamental promises,” he added.
Meanwhile, Hasina has set ambitious targets, including raising Bangladesh to a higher middle-income country by 2031 and a developed one by 2041. In February, the United Nations Development Policy Committee recommended that Bangladesh be promoted to a developing country, from at least -developed.
Islam, the director of the clothing factory that fought in the war, said he had done his part – but the country has much more to achieve.
“In 1971, we jumped in and never looked back because we knew independence was coming. Otherwise, this nation will not survive, ‘he said. “But it was not the end. We still have a way to go, but our heart is always with the motherland. ”