Becoming Bangladesh: Some countries just can’t catch a break

By Brad Miller

historyRight now, Bangladesh may be most widely known for its garment industry and collapsed factories, but this wasn’t always the case. In researching the nation’s history I discovered the story of a fertile land, rich in natural resources and with every reason to succeed – except for an unfortunate habit of being conquered by one exploitive empire after another.

Yet now, a new and independent Bangladesh is working to shake off old chains, and once again take up its title as a rich and prosperous nation.

The first to dominate Bangladesh was the Mughal Empire. They conquered the various rulers in the Bengal region and united it as a single province under their rule of the Indian subcontinent. They plundered food, goods, and slaves. In return, they established the province’s reputation as vastly profitable and gave it the name “Golden Bengal” (wasn’t that nice of them?).

But the Mughal Empire couldn’t last forever, and they proved unable to withstand the economic and military onslaught of newly-arrived European trading companies. The Mughal Empire crumbled, and after nearly a hundred and fifty years of servitude, Bengal officially gained autonomy. Which was great, except that they were now left to deal with the Europeans all by themselves.

As it turns out, Europeans colonialists don’t get along very well – and when they are all busy fighting each other they sometimes forget to oppress the locals. For a few decades it looked like Bengal might be okay, striking deals with local governors and maintaining at least a semblance of autonomy.

But by the 1780s, one European power had pushed out all rivals and risen to dominate the entire Indian subcontinent – the British East India Company. Just as the United States was gaining independence, India was losing it. And after spending so much money to conquer India and Bangladesh, the East India Company was looking to get as much wealth out of the region as possible.

The East India Company purchased raw materials like cotton, then used machinery and mass production back in England to make finished goods. They sold these goods back to Bangladesh, making a tidy profit and destroying the handcrafted industry that couldn’t compete with the low cost of machine-made products. Bottom line, in the 1780s, Europe was making clothes for Bangladesh.

But the native peoples were not going to take all of this lying down. In 1857 a massive uprising against the British East India Company occurred. It stretched across the entire subcontinent. This revolution, greatly supported by the Bengal region and the Muslim minority, nearly destroyed British interests. Royal British reinforcements had to be brought in to win the battle.

At this point, the British government was involved in India, and they were more than a little peeved at having to use royal troops (and the royal treasury) to bail out the British East India Company’s mismanagement.

The British East India Company was deemed a failure and the British government took direct control of India and Bengal. The entire cost of the revolution was charged to India in high taxes (because we all know the best way to win back the hearts and minds of revolutionaries is to increase their taxes). For their support in the revolution, a tradition of distrust and discrimination against Muslims began.

And for almost a hundred years, nothing changed. The British government ruled the subcontinent, controlling most of the wealth and power. The Hindu majority made up the civil service and the bureaucracy, and the Muslim minority was distrusted by the British and hated by the Hindus.

Eventually, a growing movement towards independence was born in India. Great Britain realized they could not rule there indefinitely, and began to transition to an independent India.

But on August 16, 1946, with Indian independence from British rule about to become a reality, massive country-wide riots between Muslims and Hindus occurred. A gulf of fear and hate had grown to the point where neither side wanted to share the same country.

The British were horrified by this, and decided that the “solution” to Muslim-Hindu animosity was to do a bit of nation building and simply carve out one area for Muslims to live and one area for Hindus to live. Simple, right? I mean, what could possibly be wrong with that plan?

The British created two Muslim-dominated regions and united them under a single government called Pakistan. Today’s Pakistan was originally called “Western Pakistan” and today’s Bangladesh was originally deemed “Eastern Pakistan”. With a thousand miles of Indian territory between them, the ruling government of dominant Western Pakistan took raw materials from Eastern Pakistan and returned the finished goods at monopoly prices (sound familiar?). This destroyed any remaining manufacturing industry and further crippled Bengal’s economy. Did I mention that Western Pakistan has an entirely different cultural, religious, and ancestral heritage than Bangladesh? They didn’t even speak the same language.

Well, it turns out that when a European country invents new borders while ignoring the cultural and historical backgrounds of the natives, things tend to fall apart. Eastern Pakistan rebelled against its Western rulers and a bloody civil war commenced. Eventually they won independence and took the name “Bangladesh.”

But with most of its manufacturing ability destroyed and its educated class departed to find better opportunities, Bangladesh began its independence with an uphill battle to fight.

With its vast agricultural and natural resources, huge untapped labor market, and a weak and corrupt central government, Bangladesh was the perfect target for more developed countries to exploit. India’s developed economy and cheap imports filled the void left by Pakistan and continued to undercut local businesses. Asian countries began moving garment factories there to get around US export restrictions.

Although many of these export factories do not pay a fair wage – for the first time in four hundred years they represent money going into the country instead of ­out of it. It may only be a sliver of what the workers deserve, but it creates enough of a personal surplus that some are starting to invest in education for themselves and their children. With education comes the idea of equality and worker’s rights. As these ideas grow, so does the appetite for change.

Oasis Bangladesh is fuelling that change – supporting families in their goal to educate their children, empowering individuals to organize and improve their community, and raising a new generation of Bangladeshis in the hope and the promise of a better future.