‘You immigrated here, that’s so cool. Where are you from?’
‘Sorry where is that?’
‘Oh, it is a Southasian country directly beside India’
‘OOH, that makes sense’
Much too often, this is the conversation I have when someone asks me about my beloved country of origin: Bangladesh. Interestingly, even though the question asks for the location, the subtext often feels as though one is asking ‘what (country) is that?’
Many westerners tend to often group together the populations of countries in the Indian subcontinent – Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives – as, ‘Indian’. As a result, the identities of the smaller countries surrounding the large (and certainly influential) nation of India often get lost in translation. As a result of their colonial past, the practice of regarding these people as one entity has been commonplace, and this is what has led us down the present path of such homogenization.
Even though I personally do not take offense with this generalization, I do think that it is high time we begin separating these identities from an all too common outdated oversimplification and recognize them for who they truly are.
On the occasion of Bangladeshi Heritage Month (as proclaimed by the government of Ontario), allow me to help the case by clearing the air on some of the obscurities surrounding Bangladesh.
A Quick Geography Lesson
Bangladesh is a country lying in the northern apex of the Bay of Bengal, sharing borders with Myanmar and India. With lush greenery, interwoven networks of numerous rivers, evergreen hill tracts, tropical and subtropical coniferous forests, freshwater swamp forests, and mixed deciduous forests, Bangladesh is a nation brimming with natural beauty. The country also boasts the largest mangrove forest and the longest natural sea beach on Earth.
Despite its bountiful natural resources and beauty, the most valuable assets of the country are its people.
Known as East Pakistan until 1971, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries on Earth. Notwithstanding its deep-rooted institutional corruption, and susceptibility to natural disasters, the country has one of the fastest growing economies of the world. In 2019, for instance, Bangladesh’s GDP growth was at a whopping 8.2%. It is truly by virtue of its population’s resilience that the country has come thus far. From sustaining its mother tongue as the official language of the country to finding its place in the world map, Bangladesh would never have been a nation in its own right if not for the courage and grit of its people.
This is unsurprising given the fact that overcoming challenges has been integrated into the country’s way of life since before its birth. Prior to its separation from Pakistan in 1971, the national population faced tremendous disparities. Political, cultural and economic oppression was prevalent ever since Pakistan became its own country in 1947. In fact, East Pakistanis (now Bangladeshis) were forbidden from exercising their mother language Bengali – spoken by 98% of the population – in their daily lives.
As a result, East Pakistanis led a movement in the 1950s to advocate for the recognition of Bengali as one of the official languages of the then-Pakistani regime. On February 21, 1952 — at the heights of the protests — police opened fire and many lost their lives*. The tensions between the two wings of Pakistan eventually reached boiling point in 1971. Thereafter, East Pakistanis fought a long, bloody freedom fight in 1971 to escape the oppression and injustice of their government and establish themselves as a nation.
Independence and Beyond
Since its independence, Bangladesh has made a name for itself in the global sports, tradership and diplomacy landscapes.
To name a few significant facts from these areas:
- Cricket is a sport in which Bangladesh has distinguished itself at the world stage, having consistently performed well in men and women’s regional and international championships over the past 2 decades.
- In 2019, Bangladesh exported goods with a value totalling $47.2B, making it the number 52 exporter in the world. Notably, Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of knitwear in the world.
- Since 2017, Bangladesh has taken in 742,000 Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar. The government’s asylum efforts have been recognized with international accolades.
Canadians of Bangladeshi Origin
With a population exceeding 163 million people, it is really no surprise that you can find Bangladeshis in many other corners of the world. There are 100,000 Bangladeshi-origin people living in Canada alone. The vibrant Bangladeshi communities in Canada have imbued their culture, traditions, and language into the multicultural mosaic of the nation; and have contributed significantly to the Canadian workforce.
In acknowledgement of such influence, March has been recognized as Bangladeshi heritage month in Ontario.
*Later, in memory of the deaths in 1952, UNESCO declared 21 February as International Mother Language Day in November 1999.