Colonial Legacy in Bangladesh -Anas Ibne Monir


Many Bangladeshis still believed that they are free from every kind of colonial barrier. But how true is it in reality? Though Bangladesh got liberation politically, it is still carrying on the British legacy and is dominated by the British colonial doctrines. Colonialism shaped the mind of Bangladeshi people and those effects are lasting till now. As a former colony of the UK, Bangladesh has a huge legacy of education, government system, institutions, ideology, culture, and language. Today’s Bangladeshi politics, administration, government, and educational sectors are highly influenced by colonial features. The introduction of British law, new modes of communication, a modern bureaucracy, the English language, and a modern education system created new horizons for development in various spheres of life. This writing will show how the colonial rule has shaped today’s Bangladesh, how it continues to affect Bangladesh in many ways, and how many sectors and institutions were designed for the colonial purpose. The ultimate objective of this writing is to provide a critical evaluation of the present situation in Bangladesh and to find its linkages to the colonial period.

Background of colonial rule in Bangladesh:

Many foreign nations ruled Bangladesh at different times. Each nation left some impacts but the British are the ones who changed the whole way. The British colonization of South Asia started with the East India Company. The company expanded its business and political activities from the Bengal region which is now called Bangladesh. Then this European trading corporation, the British East Indian, came to rule one of the most prosperous regions in Asia. In 1757, The East India Company turned itself into the ruler. It occupied the Bengal region in a bloody war named “The Battle of Plassey”. It was a meeting of two civilizations, two cultures when politically Bengal and British met. Next 190 years they ruled Bengal and the whole Indian subcontinent. In their ruling period, many changes happened. Actually, those changes shaped Bangladesh, and still, its impact can be seen. In many areas, two cultures clashed. Willem van Schendel says in his book “A History of Bangladesh”, “British rule introduced new ideas, arrangements, and coercions that would shake Bengal’s society profoundly. They created completely a new state, new rule and new society. Over few years they changed the Whole South Asia.”

Bangladesh didn’t get liberation as a distinct nation from Britain. It had to be dominated by Pakistan for 24 years. Since the birth of Pakistan, East Pakistan faced a number of problems. The relationship between Pakistan and India was hostile. Ayub khan and Yahya Khan grew up in the military under the British colonial state. Simply in their regime, they were more colonial than being a ruler of their own country. Then Bangladesh opposed political and economic discrimination. Then colonial control of Pakistan over Bangladesh slipped. Finally, Bangladesh got independence in 1971. The impact of the colonial past continues to affect new nations in varying ways; particularly in their political and administrative arrangements. As an example, Bangladesh’s government formulation system is parliamentary like the British, not presidential like Pakistan. Again, democratic culture among political parties is certainly imported from Britain, not from Pakistan. In a word, Pakistan is a nation that got emancipation from colonial rulers and then Bangladesh got emancipation from them.

Colonial frame in Legal system and judiciary:

Bangladesh’s aspiration of a fully new legal system remains unfulfilled. Bangladesh’s legal system is still heavily colonized. After independence, the leaders of Bangladesh concentrate to make a new constitution and legal system. Unfortunately, the legal system of Pakistan and India which they had inherited from the British colonial rule, stayed in force. The constitution and the legal system of Bangladesh have developed over the past four decades. But, the contemporary Bangladeshi constitution and law are still colonial in nature and spirit. A self-dependent constitution and law remain a daydream. Recently, in 2012 Supreme Court of Bangladesh allowed Bangla, the national language, to be used in judgments and court proceedings. The colonial judiciary was racial, slow, and non-independent branch of government. Today’s Bangladeshi courts are not different. The criminal justice system is bureaucratic and remains colonial. In a nutshell, the legal system of Bangladesh has not been decolonized.

Education system in Colonial Manner:

Since the British period, till now our educational system has been manipulated for colonial interest. The educational system of Bangladesh and its foundation was laid down during the British colonial period. The system has three levels; Firstly primary level, secondly secondary level and thirdly higher education. This system actually comes from Britain. In Bangladesh, at the secondary level, our students usually learn a common term “Sir, I beg most respectfully to state” in the application. That means our forefathers used to beg. We are still beggars! The aim of a university is neither to create faithful and dutiful servants nor to make high-handed bureaucrats. Education must aim to create better, perfect and illuminated human beings that don’t oppose technical or market-based education. Rather a university student should be illuminated with native culture besides his professional skills. It is a common phenomenon that our students are going abroad. After departing the motherland they feel a kind of alienation. So, they don’t feel enthused to return to their native country. I think this is happening due to the lack of liberal education. Bangladesh has another educational sector called Madrasha. British patronized Madrasah for their own sake. Madrasah students are deprived of much knowledge. This system was actually created by the British and they took advantage of it. Actually, the educational system of Bangladesh is imposed by colonial customs. Its structure and its shape carry colonial signs.

Colonial reflection on government system:

British introduced a completely new governmental system. At present, Bangladesh practices democracy which comes from colonial rule. The colonial rule removed the former government system and forced it into an autocratic government. There was no similarity between the previous subahdar-in-darbar and The Governor General of the colonial state. The powers of the subahdars were limited by religion, tradition, culture, and customs. But the Governor General-in-Council had unlimited power. Before the British era,in the Mughal time, justice was rendered on the spot by Qazi. Qazi conducted the justice based on the local investigation. But the colonial system of justice was conducted on the basis of witnesses. After all, the British show a new government system which is based on an elected government and parliament, a bureaucratic body, few ministries, and an independent judiciary. British also divide government into three category-legislative, executive, and judicial which still exist in Bangladesh. Thus they changed the whole government system and imposed a democratic and complex system that is practicedin today’s Bangladesh. In total, the government system of today’s Bangladesh is still conducted by the colonial system.

Administration system based on colonial structure:

Before the colonial period, the subahdar had maintained a strong local government administered by a long chain of officers from the lowest grampradhan (village chief) and panchayet of the village to the faujdar of the district supported by an intermediate class of administrators called zamindar, taluqdar, thanadar, kazi, amin, etc. But the Governor General’s local government was simple. Only two civilians (a judge and a collector) armed with unlimited powers ruled a district having a size of hundreds of sq. kilometers. The powers and privileges of the Mughal state were shared between the Hindu and Muslim elites. But the bureaucracy of the colonial state was an all-white affair until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The administration of today’s Bangladesh is bureaucracy based. The mindset of the bureaucracy of Bangladesh remains fully colonial. People’s confidence in the legal system and administration remains low which is a colonial legacy. Red-tapism is one of the outcomes of the British legacy.

Socio-economic impact of colonization:

Colonial rule in Bengal promoted the forces of division and unity in the society. The middle classes Hindus who are city-based became the fiery champions of All-India-based nationalism. The British stoked rivalries at the same time between Hindus and Muslims. During Muslim rule, class conflict between Muslim peasantry and Hindu intermediaries had previously been diffused by the fact that these intermediaries themselves were agents of the Muslim rulers. Moreover, in the subsistence economy of pre-British Bengal, the scope of exploitation was limited. Bengal’s economic exploitation provoked an intense reaction against the British Raj although grievances against the colonial system varied. The Hindu Bhadralok, basically who were middle classes, was the greatest beneficiary of British rule. They had enough opportunities to get jobs in the administration. They originated primarily from the trading classes. The Bengal region had been historically an exporting country. For the rule of the company, Bengal lost its domination within five decades in the export market. It was turned into a captive market gradually for British industrial products. It was used in the agricultural hinterland for the supply of agricultural raw materials. Thus British rule changed the socio-economic conditions of Bangladesh. It created many class conflicts and destroyed the strong economy.
Colonialism all over the world has a negative and positive impact. The colonial rule can have a beneficial impact if the process of development is accelerated through the importation of external influences and ideas. On the other hand, the colonial rule also leads to a negative experience for the natives. Strict maintenance of law and order, intolerance of opposition to the governing power, and repressive measures adopted by colonial powers to maintain control generally contradict the principles of democracy practiced in the parent countries. Bangladesh constituted a part of the British Empire for almost two hundred years. Consequently, the British were replaced by Pakistani rulers who ruled this area for about twenty-four years. A bloody war of Independence eventually brought about the emancipation of Bangladesh. However, the effects of the colonial period shape Bangladesh in different ways and Bangladesh moves forward with those impacts. n