Part of ancient India and earlier known only as Bengal, Bangladesh had been a fertile alluvial land that attracted outsiders from time immemorial. Thanks to the inherent open-minded nature of Bengalis, the history of Bengal was one that is marked with constant migration and assimilation of outside cultures.
In the proto-historic period, ancient Bengal was believed to be divided among various tribes or kingdoms in the three main regions: Vanga (southern Bengal), Pundra (northern Bengal) and Suhma (western Bengal). 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 most of Bengal under Indo-Aryan rule.
The Buddhist Period:
By the time of reign of the great Indian Buddhist Emperor Ashoka (304–232 BC), Buddhism was firmly entrenched as the number one religion of Bengal. Mahasthangarh, the oldest archaeological site in Bangladesh dating back to 300 BCE, was the ancient capital of the Pundra Kingdom. In the 6th century AD, Sasanka, a powerful Buddhist king, founded the Gauda Empire in Bengal, which was eventually overthrown by the warrior king Sri Harsa, who ruled the Bengal area until the 8th century. Gopala, a Kshatriya tribal chief from Varendra, became the founding figure of the Buddhist Pala dynasty (8th to 11th centuries). He was succeeded by his son Dharmapala, who established the gigantic Somapura Vihara in Varendra, known today as Paharpur.
Though somewhat pushed back in the subsequent centuries, Buddhism never totally died out in Bangladesh. Countrywide it is the third major religion, but in certain areas, such as Chittagong Division, Buddhists make up an impressive 12% of the population.
The Hindu Period:
In the 12th century, Hindu Senas dynasty came to rule Bengal and over-powered Buddhism. Buddhists retreated to the Chittagong area.
The Muslim Period:
The arrival of the Muslims began with a few Sufi (Muslim mystic) missionaries in the 12th century. Then came Mohammed bin Bakhtiar (a Khilji from Turkistan) who, with only 12 men under his command, captured Bengal and brought the area under the rule of the Sultanate of Delhi, the centre of Muslim power in India. Under the Muslims, Bengal entered a new era. Cities developed; palaces, forts, mosques, mausoleums and gardens sprang up; roads and bridges were constructed; and new trade routes brought prosperity and a new cultural life. In 1576 Bengal became a province of the mighty Mughal Empire, which ushered in another golden age in India. Mughal power extended over most of Bengal except the far Southeast around Chittagong, and it was during this period that a small town named Dhaka emerged to become the Mughal Capital of Bengal.
The British Period:
For decades the Portuguese, Dutch, British and French tussled for influence over the Subcontinent, but it was the British East India Company that prevailed. It was during the reign of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (1618–1707) that a Bengali Nawab (Governor) sold three local villages to the British East India Company. One of those villages is today’s mega-city, Kolkata. From here the British gradually extended their influence to take over all of Bengal and finally the whole Subcontinent.
It has been said that the British Raj ushered Bengal into a period of growth and development, but historians hotly dispute this. Along with bringing many positive changes to India, the British also brought a number of negative institutions, including dictatorial agricultural policies and the establishment of the zamindar (feudal landowner) system, which many people consider responsible for draining Bengal of its wealth and damaging its social fabric. Though the British Raj has long since been relegated to the history books, the truth remains that the British adventure in South Asia remains one of the most significant events in the history of both Bangladesh and Britain.
The Partition & Pakistan Period:
At the close of the Second World War, the Indian National Congress continued to press for Indian self-rule and the British began to map out a path to independence of India. With the Muslim population of India worried about living in an overwhelmingly Hindu-majority nation, the Muslim League was formed and it pushed for two separate states for Hindus and Muslims in the Subcontinent. Lord Mountbatten, Viceroy of British India, decided to act on these desires and to partition the Subcontinent. Though support for the creation of Pakistan was based on Islamic solidarity, the two halves of the new state had little else in common. Furthermore, the country was administered from West Pakistan, which tended to favour itself in the distribution of revenues. The Awami League, led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, emerged as the national political party in East Pakistan, with the Language Movement as its ideological underpinning. The 1970 national elections saw the Awami League winning with a clear majority. Constitutionally, the Awami League should have formed the government of all Pakistan. However, faced with this unpalatable result, the then President Yahya Khan, on 01 March 1971, postponed indefinitely the opening of the National Assembly.
War of Liberation:
On 7 March 1971, at the historical public gathering in Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared an all-out non-cooperation movement against the central government of Pakistan. After a massive crackdown by the Pakistan Army had begun in the night of 25 March 1971, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in the early hours of 26 March 26 1971, declared East Pakistan as independent Bangladesh. Bangabandhu was arrested by the Pakistan Army; people, including Bengali members of military, para-military and police, started the War of Liberation against the occupation forces of Pakistan. The political leaders organized a government in exile. The bloody war of mostly common people against the well-trained and the heavily-armed Pakistan Army, which caused the death of around three million people, the violation of 200,000 women and the eviction of 10 million people from their homes to refugee camps in India, lasted for about 9 months. On 16 December 1971, the Pakistan Eastern Command surrendered to General Officer Commanding-in –chief of the Indian and Bangladesh forces in the eastern theatre and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh finally became a reality on the ground.