Bangladesh: A Brief Description

Geography and Population
Bangladesh lies between 20"34' and 26"38' North Latitude and 88"01' and 92"41' East Longitude with a total landmass of 1,47,570 square kilometers (56,977 Sq. miles). Bangladesh is surrounded by India on the West, North and Northeast, Myanmar on the Southeast and the Bay of Bengal on the South. Bangladesh has a strategic location and acts as bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia. It has a population of 147 million people. In other words, it is roughly the size of New York State with half the entire population of the United States crammed into this area.

Most of Bangladesh is at low elevations and is divided into five physical regions: (I) the Ganges Delta to the Southwest, (II) the Paradelta to the Northwest, (III) the East Central plains and the Sylhet Hills in the Northeast, and (IV) the Chittagong region in the Southeast. Bangladesh is the largest deltaic region in the world. The Ganges Delta is geologically the most recent compared with other deltas. Mangrove forests thrive in the lower delta, which is flooded by fresh tidal waters. The soil base is new alluvium. The Sundarbans to the Southwest is the largest mangrove forest in the world. The Paradelta, like the delta proper, is a plain but its elevations are higher at 100 to 300 feet above sea level. Its soils are varied - silt and sandy clays and old alluvium. It lies between the Ganges and the (Brahmaputra) Jamuna Rivers. The East Central plains, with the Meghna River almost at its centre, consists of plains and active floodplains in which the main rivers, including the Brahmaputra, have altered their channels in the past. At the centre of this plain lies Madhupur Forest, a former site for tiger hunting. To the Northeast is the Meghna depression, part of which is only 10 feet above sea level; during the rainy season it turns into a huge lake, covering most of its 7,250 square kilometer (2,800 square mile) basin. Bangladesh is a riverine country and is criss-crossed by innumerable rivers, rivulets and their tributaries.

Bangladesh has a tropical monsoon climate with heavy summer rain and high summer temperatures. Winters are dry and cool. South and Southwest winds dominate from mid-April to mid-October and bring enormous amounts of moisture from the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. 95% of the total rainfall, which averages about 80 inches (2,040 millimeters) occurs during that period. The temperatures range from an average of about 68 F (18C) in January to about 86 F (30C) in April.

Bengali tradition divides the year into six seasons; Grishmo(summer), Barsha(rainy), Sarat(early autumn), Hemanta(late autumn), Sheet(winter) and Boshonto (spring). For practical purposes, however, four seasons are clearly distinguishable; Summer, Rainy, late Autumn (when harvesting takes place) and Winter. Rains begin in April accompanied by Norwester or 'Kalbaishakhi'. It is then that farmers start tilling their land for early crop. With the onset of monsoon in the first week of June heavy downpour starts, and average temperature falls to low 80F. These heavy rains last for about two to three months causing floods and inundation of fields and riverbanks. The Winter is moderate while the Spring is mellow and pleasant.

Bangladesh enjoys a great bio-diversity in its flora and fauna. The flower "Shapla" (nympoea-nouchali) is the national emblem, Magpie Robin (Doel) is the national bird, while the Royal Bengal Tiger is the national animal of Bangladesh which abounds in the Sunderbans, recognized as a world heritage.

Building upon firm ethnological roots and an entrepreneurial spirit as well as innovative skill, the people of Bangladesh are creating a special niche for themselves on the global plank. Given the fascinating land with a variegated history and a rich cultural tapestry, the people are endowed with a native intellect, capacity for hard work and resilience. Bangladeshis are simple, friendly and hospitable in nature. With a 147 million population, Bangladesh ranks as the world's 8th most populous country. It is also one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The staple food of the people is rice, which is generally eaten with fish curry and lentil. Most women in Bangladesh wear a "Sari", and men "Lungi". Bengalees descended from several racial and sub-racial groups entering South Asia over the past five thousand years. By and large, they are now a single homogenous race with one common language - Bangla. There are, however, several other small ethnic groups with their own languages/dialects and distinctive cultures. Birth rate in 2006 came down to 1.5% while the percentage of literacy rate is now over 60, the highest in South Asia after Sri Lanka. Life expectancy at birth is now over 62.4 according to 2005 Census.

Bangla, the official language, is spoken by more than 99 percent of the population but English is also generally understood and spoken particularly in urban areas. Bangla is one of the most extensively spoken languages of the world. Bengali script is derived directly from Gupta Brahmi script having close affinity with Thai and Cambodian scripts. The origin of this script is generally traced to 10th century AD. Bengali is a rich language capable of expressing the finest nuances of thought and feeling, a language that continuously mirrors the ever-changing play of life. Bengalees passionately love their language. While under the neocolonial subjugation, the Bengalees on February 21, 1952 shed their blood for protecting and preserving their mother tongue from the encroachment of alien language. The day has been declared by UNESCO in 1999 as the International Mother Language Day to be observed all over the world in commemoration of the Bengali language movement. Bangla is rich in poetry, short story, novel, essay and drama. Two major Bangla poets are Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1863-1941), and Bangladesh's national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976). The latter's birth centenary was celebrated in 2000 with great acclaim.

Islam is the predominant religion with over 88% adherents. Hindus comprise about 10% of the population. The rest are Buddhists, Christians and animists. People are generally pious and keen in observing their respective religious rites and festivities with fervour. Bangladesh is a model of religious harmony and tolerance. Different religious communities and groups live in peace and the minorities are well represented in all tiers of society as well as in the government machinery.

Standard time of Bangladesh is 6 hours ahead of GMT. Friday and Saturday are weekly government holidays while private offices and enterprises observe Friday as the weekly day-off and remain open on Saturday. Office hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Bangladesh is usually called a comparatively new nation in an ancient land. It emerged as an independent country through a sanguinary and protracted War of Liberation at the cost of immense sacrifices. The history of the country is as old as it is eventful. Bangladesh was famed in ancient times as a land of bounty and affluence. Etymologically the word Bangladesh is derived from the cognate Banga, which was first mentioned in the Hindu scripture Oitery Araanyk composed between 5000 BC and 500 AD. Bangladesh is the largest wetland in the world formed by the interaction of innumerable rivers and streams; its configuration was determined and is continuously changed by these water bodies. Geological evidence indicates that much of Bangladesh was formed 1 to 6.5 million years ago during the tertiary era. Human habitation in the region is believed to be very old with its roots in the Paleolithic civilization dating back to about one hundred thousand (1,00,000) years. In the ancient age an Austro-Asian race first inhabited the region. Then came the Dravidians from Western India and later the Aryans from Central Asia. Then followed the influx of the Mongolians, Persians, Turks and Afghans. The mighty Gangaridai and Prasioi empires were located in Bengal. According to Greek sources of 4th century BC, the people of this deltaic region made extensive military preparations to halt the march of Alexander the Great, had he chosen to continue his Eastward advancement. Later records, inscriptions, coins and ornaments testify to the tradition of rich heritage and civilization indicating the glorious past of Bangladesh. Because of its strategic location Bangladesh since time immemorial served as a flourishing entry-port and intermediary in trade and commerce between South Asia and the Far East. The influence of Bengal spread far and wide and the region played a seminal role in disseminating its rich heritage and tradition, art and architecture, culture and learning in the wider continent of Asia and beyond. History recorded that Mauryas (4th to 2nd centuries BC), the Guptas (4th to 5th century AD), the empire of Sasanka (7th century AD), the Pala dynasty (750-1162 AD) and the Senas (1162 to 1223 AD) successively held their sway here. Then followed a long chain of Muslim rule (till 1757) when this region reached the zenith of economic affluence. In fact, had there been no British conquest in 1757 Bengal would have been the first country in Asia to achieve industrial revolution because of its excellence in the finest fabrics. The British rule, which started from Bengal, was subsequently extended to the whole of the sub-continent. When the British left the subcontinent was partitioned into two countries-India and Pakistan. Bangladesh formed the Eastern Wing of Pakistan. Though numerically in the majority, the Bengalees were treated unjustly and very soon the movement for the autonomy of Bangladesh started because of cultural, linguistic and ethnic differences and economic disparity, deprivation and exploitation perpetrated by the Pakistani rulers. The disillusionment of the people of Bangladesh with the state of Pakistan began early on. The decision of the central authorities in Pakistan to opt for Urdu as the only state language of the country militated against the emotions of the Bengali-speaking people, who constituted the majority in Pakistan. The then East Pakistan rose in protest, first in 1948 and then, in a more concerted form, in 1952. The death of a number of young men resulting from Police firing on demonstrators in Dhaka on 21 February 1952 proved to be the catalyst for what eventually became the nationalist struggle of the Bengali-speaking people of Pakistan.
The frustration and resentment continued and culminated in a mass upsurge in 1969. There came a sudden change over in the government – Martial Law was re-imposed. Consequently, the general elections held throughout Pakistan in 1970 gave the people of Bangladesh a remarkable opportunity to claim their rightful place in national politics. But that hope was soon to prove illusory when the military establishment refused to transfer power. Instead on the night of 25 March, 1971, they embarked on a systematic policy of repression and genocide. This prompted the declaration of independence of Bangladesh on 26 March 1971.

The liberation of Bangladesh on 16 December 1971 after nine months of a sustained war ushered in a new period of hope for the people of the country The Constitution of Bangladesh was framed and came into effect on 16 December 1972. Bangladesh became a member of the UN on 17 September 1974. In January 1975, the system of government was changed to a one party Presidential from on 15 August, 1975, then President late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed by some elements in the armed forces along with most of his family members. In the chaotic condition that followed, several national leaders and cabinet members were also killed. It was against this backdrop that late President Ziaur Rahman was called upon to take over the affairs of the state on 7 November 1975.

Late President Ziaur Rahman’s life was cut short in May 1981 when he was assassinated in Chittagong by a section of military officers. A coup in March 1982 forced the elected government of BNP to step down. But soon the misuse of power and corruption of the military regime caused widespread disillusionment. A relentless struggle for restoring democratic system was launched by the national political parties and alliances, which mobilized the masses and forced the autocratic regime to step down in December 1990.

The BNP under the leadership of Begum Khaleda Zia was voted to office through the general elections organized by a neutral caretaker government in February 1991. Within months of taking over the administration, Begum Zia undertook to take the country back to a parliamentary form of government. Fresh elections were organized in February 1996 for making the necessary amendment to the Constitution to facilitate holding of elections under a neutral caretaker administration. Following elections of June 1996, the Awami League formed a new government, and BNP took its place in parliament as the opposition. In the general election of October 2001, Begum Khaleda Zia led a four-party alliance to victory with a clear two-thirds majority in parliament.

The Constitution
In less than a year after Bangladesh's victory in its War of Independence, the then Prime Minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman presented the nation with a Constitution which was secular in character and egalitarian in nature guaranteeing full fundamental rights to all citizens irrespective of religion, caste, creed, class and sex. In 1991, all the political parties in the opposition opted for a parliamentary system of governance in place of then existing presidential system. In 1996 the provision of holding general elections in the country under a non-party neutral caretaker government was incorporated in the Constitution. This was designed to safeguard the franchise of the people. The Constitution of Bangladesh provides for three organs - the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary - for ensuring accountability, transparency and checks and balances of the government. All the three organs function harmoniously.

The Executive Branch of the Government
Bangladesh switched to the parliamentary system of government in 1991. The President, elected by parliament, is the constitutional head of the Government and acts on the advice of the Prime Minister. At the initiative of the then Prime Minister, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, held in high esteem as a neural non-party personality, was chosen as the President of the Republic. Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed was also the Acting President after the fall of the autocratic regime in December 1990 and had supervised the general elections in 1991.

The Prime Minister, under the provision of the Constitution, is the Head of the Government. The Prime Minister presides over the cabinet, which is collectively responsible to Parliament. The business of the national government is carried out by various ministries and divisions, which together constitute the nerve center of the country's administration. Under these bodies lie several government agencies including departments, directorates, corporations and other statutory bodies for executing government policies and decisions.

Caretaker Government
A unique feature of the Constitution of Bangladesh is the provision of holding general elections under a neutral, non-party Caretaker Government. The concept of Caretaker Government was the choosing of the major political parties designed to secure people's franchise so as to ensure peaceful transfer of power. It was adopted in the form of Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment provides that the immediate Chief Justice would be the Head of the Caretaker Government. If such retired Chief Justice is not available or is not willing to hold office, then the person who among the retired Chief Justices retired just before the last retired Chief Justice will become the head of the Caretaker Government. If no retired Chief Justice is available or willing to hold the office, then the person, who among the retired judges of the Appellate Division retired last will head the Caretaker Government. If such person is not available, the person who retired as Appellate Division Judge before the last retired judge will be the head of the Caretaker Government. If no such person is available, the President shall, after consultation as far as practicable, with major political parties, appoint the Chief Adviser from among the citizens of Bangladesh who is qualified to be appointed as Adviser. The tenure of such a Caretaker Government will begin three months before every general election. Through this system the people of Bangladesh got back their lost right to vote freely and independently without the pressures of the reigning government.

The Legislature
According to Article 65(1) of the Constitution, all legislative powers of the Republic are vested in Parliament called the Jatiya Sangsad comprising three hundred members directly elected from territorial constituencies. In addition, there are thirty reserved seats for women who are elected by an electoral college of the elected members. The Jatiya Sangsad has a tenure of five years and has to sit every two months. An elaborate committee system has been developed and bills introduced in parliament are referred to the committees for scrutiny. Contrary to the earlier practice, the concerned Minister is no longer the head of the committee, rather a Member of the Parliament heads a committee. The Prime Minister's question hour has been introduced which is televised live and the entire proceedings of the Parliament are directly relayed to provide the people an opportunity to form their own opinion without depending on any intermediary. The Prime Minister also appears before radio and television to answer questions from audiences and viewers on a wide range of subjects and on issues agitating the minds of the people. An institute of Parliamentary Practice has been set up to provide assistance to Members of Parliament in the discharge of their duties and responsibilities.

The Judiciary
The Government has been working for separation of the judiciary from the executive with a view to ensuring full independence of the judiciary. Under the present Government headed by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, the country's judiciary enjoys full independence. The Supreme Court stands at the apex of the country's judiciary and acts as the guardian of the Constitution. It has two divisions - the Appellate Division and the High Court Division. The legal decisions of the Supreme Court are binding on all other courts. The judges of both the divisions of the Supreme Court are appointed by the president. There are subordinate courts of district and session judges which deal with civil and criminal suits. The government believes in full freedom of judiciary. Hence the judiciary discharges its duty and constitutional obligations freely and without any let or hindrance.

A three-year project called "Judicial and Legal Capacity Building" with the objective of improvement of socio-economic condition, reforms of legal system, modernization and development of physical infrastructure of courts has been undertaken. The Government has constituted Legal Aid Committees, headed by District Judges in 61 districts, to provide legal assistance to the poor and destitute litigants. These district level committees have been working under the National Legal Aid Committee. The Government is committed to protect human rights. A Judicial Administration Training Institute has been formed to enhance the professional skill and standard of judicial personnel. A permanent Law Commission headed by a retired Chief Justice of Supreme Court has been constituted to up-date laws by suggesting necessary reforms. The Commission has already undertaken measures to recommend some new laws and re-frame some old ones. Considering the increasing number of pending cases in courts the Government has decided to set up village courts for settling litigation through negotiation called Alternative Dispute Resolution(ADR). The decision of setting up of village courts in line with local tradition is a very timely step. The Public Safety Act (PSA) has been framed for taking prompt punitive action against serious offenders of public peace and security as well as for maintaining general law and order. Special Courts have been set up for the trial of persons engaged in terrorist activities. There are also some special courts like Family Law Courts, Special Tribunals and commercial and financial courts to deal with specific cases.

Local Government
The Parliament has passed the Village Council Bill and District Council Bill. Through necessary amendment to the Union Council Act, for every three wards one seat has been kept reserved for women. Besides the reserved seats, women are also eligible for contesting in the general seats. This has opened up new avenues and opportunities for women's empowerment and flourishing women's leadership at the grass-roots level. Along with initiating appropriate reforms, the local Government bodies have also been strengthened through various other measures.