Americans today are much better informed about Bangladesh than they were when
described it (not without reason) as a “basket case” in 1971, the year it achieved independence. That label stuck to Bangladesh like a malign limpet, and proud Bangladeshis have for decades resented the shadow it cast over their resilient and entrepreneurial land.
Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh—formerly East Pakistan. On March 26, 1971, Sheikh
the wildly popular secessionist leader of the Bengalis, declared independence from the Punjabi-dominated Pakistan of which it was an incongruous part. (A country of two wings—West and East—Pakistan was separated by 1,300 miles of India.) After the declaration of independence, a brutal civil war ensued. The number of Bengali civilians killed is a matter of dispute: the Central Intelligence Agency estimates 200,000, while Bangladeshis assert three million were murdered. Bangladesh was not, in fact, rid of Pakistan until Dec. 16, 1971, when the Pakistani army surrendered. Yet in choosing March 26 as their Independence Day, Bangladeshis made a very Bengali choice: elevating their state of mind over their objective reality.
Bangladesh today is a country transformed. Twice decolonized—first from Britain, next from Pakistan—it is a rare example of a constitutionally secular Muslim-majority nation. Most Bangladeshis adhere to a relatively tolerant form of Islam, born of centuries of cohabitation with Hindus, and it is one of the few Muslim countries that are winning the fight against radicalization. With the erosion of secularism in neighboring India, it’s possible to argue that Bangladesh is the most secular country in South Asia.
The government of Sheikh Hasina, Rahman’s daughter, is committed to stamping out Muslim fundamentalism. Yet its methods often come at the expense of democracy. Sheikh Hasina, in her third consecutive term as prime minister, is widely accused of rigging the last election, in 2018. Her actions were driven by hubris and paranoia: Neutral observers believe she would have coasted to victory without resorting to fraud.
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If the West is squeamish about having to suppress its criticism of an authoritarian leader because her regime curbs Islamism, it should have no trouble appreciating the many areas in which Bangladesh has made progress. In human-development indexes, Bangladesh has not only outstripped Pakistan but effectively reached parity with India. In just one example—key in a poor and overpopulated country—the fertility rate in Bangladesh (2.04 births per woman) has fallen below India’s (2.22). Even on its own terms, Bangladesh has made remarkable strides: its infant-mortality rate is 25.6 deaths per 1,000 live births, as compared with 148.2 at independence; life expectancy, 72.3 years today, was 46.6 in 1971.
Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest exporter of ready-made garments, and its economy is more robust—and open to business with the outside world—than India’s. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Bangladesh will surpass India in output per capita in 2021. (India had a lead of 25% five years ago.) Not quite an Asian tiger, Bangladesh is a tiger cub, and it has sought to pull its weight globally in the ways open to it. In 2020 it was the largest contributor of peacekeeping troops to the United Nations, even as it shelters three quarters of a million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.
As Bangladesh turns 50, its people are happier, healthier, wealthier, better-educated and more optimistic than at any time in its short history. Even Mr. Kissinger would say so.
Mr. Varadarajan, a Journal contributor, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and at New York University Law School’s Classical Liberal Institute.
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Appeared in the March 26, 2021, print edition.