Tanzeem Hossain Asif

East Pakistani People Protest against Muhammad Ali Zinnah's Declaration of Installing Urdu as the Single Official Language of Pakistan.

Evolution of Bengali Nationalism in Bangladesh:
A Historical Analysis

The concept of nationalism is quite novel compared to other elements of international relations. But nationalism has been the driver for the biggest change in the history of international relations. World War II was inspired by nationalist ideas. And even in the post-World War II period, inspired by nationalist ideas, numerous new states were born through conflict from colonial rule. Considering the context of Bangladesh, the independence of Bangladesh also came from the hands of Bengali nationalism. This assignment shows how Bengali nationalism has evolved as the nationalism of Bangladesh.



In the 20th century, many nation-states were established through long nationalist movements. Those nations wanted freedom from subjugation and exploitation, oppression and deprivation

The character of the struggle for independence of all countries and the process of achieving freedom are not the same. Millions of people have sacrificed their lives in Bangladesh for independence. The history of the freedom struggle of the people of Bangladesh is connected with its history of nationalism. 

The evolution of Bengali nationalism is not just event-based— it is based on consciousness. It has to do with the culture of the people of this land i.e., language, social behavior, customs, economy, religion and life.



The word ‘nationalism’ has a multi-dimensional meaning. Its significance may vary according to space, time and context. The word Nationalism is derived from nation; Nation refers to a group of people bound and organized by a common sense of unity who are trying to be independent or independent.  

Ethnic identity or nationalism, on the other hand, refers to a political term that refers to the relationship between the individual and a particular state. 

Thomas Hylland Erikson said, “Nationalism is by definition its relationship to the state. A nationalist holds that political boundaries should be contiminous with cultural boundaries, whereas many ethnic group do not demand command over a state” 1

Nationalism can be termed as conciousness to come together and live together. The creation of a national state is the ultimate success of nationalism.

Evolution of Nationalism

Although the history of nationalism is quite ancient, what is meant by nationalism in a special sense is closely related to the modern era. In fact, as a result of the French Revolution in 1789, the spirit of nationalism spread throughout Europe

The French Revolution not only promoted the idea of equality, freedom and fraternity, but another great ideal of it was patriotism. It was this sense of patriotism that over time transformed into nationalism and gradually spread to Europe and America

Napoleon paved the way for the development of national sentiment by bringing Europe under France. As he conducted operations against the neighboring countries, the people of those countries became inspired by the spirit of national unity. 

In response to his attacks, nationalism developed in these regions and led to mass uprisings. The 20the century is a glorious era of nationalism. The Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919 based on nationalism. After World War II, many states emerged on the basis of nationalism in Asia and Africa.2


Bengali Nation and Nationalism

In terms of numbers, the Bengali nation is the fourth largest nation in the world except China and Arabia which is mainly based on the Bengali language and the ethnic group of the Bengal region. 

Although, in terms of history, the Bengali nation was one of the primitive groups living in this region, but in that comparison, political awareness or nationalism was introduced much later among the Bengali nation. 

Basically, from the end of the British rule, awareness of the identity of the Bengali nation began to develop and a strong desire for autonomy developed among them which united the entire Bengali population. 

Over the next two centuries, through various events, The Bengalese were established as a distinct and powerful nationalist, which served as the main basis for the establishment of Bangladesh.3


Evolution of Bengali Nationalism

The emergence of Bengali nationalism as an independent nationalism is a relatively new phenomenon that began to develop as a distinct nationalism at the end of the British rule in India, in which highly educated Bengali intellectual writers, journalists and teachers played a major role. 

Here is a quote from Lord Curzon, in a letter he wrote to the Secretary of India in 1904 mentioning the need for the partition of Bengal, saying that “Bengalis like to think of themselves as a nation”.4

At this time, the Bengalis were strongly practicing their mother tongue and taking forward the spirit of nationalism by writing novels and essays in their own language. In this case, the first major event happened with the partition of Bengal in 1905. 

As a result, there were protests and strikes in Kolkata strongly emphasizing the feeling of Bengali unity, rakhi bandhan and writing in newspapers. The swadeshi movement that developed around the partition of Bengal initially served as the basis of Bengali nationalism. 

In this case, it is a irony of history that the incident that became the process of building nationalist unity later became communal division and communalism.

In 1947, Based on Jinnah’s two-nation theory, India was divided and there were widespread armed riots. The Bengal region was annexed to Pakistan and renamed East Pakistan. As part of Pakistan, the Bengali nation could never see itself as one with Pakistani nationalism based on religion, but the idea of Bengali nationalism became the strongest. 

In order to live freely, free from exploitation, the indomitable expression of new consciousness in the Bengali nation was transformed into Bengali nationalism. The final destination of which was achieved through the independence of Bangladesh. 

And it was led by young leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The foundation of the common ethnicity of the Bengalis paved the way for the establishment of a united nation-state.5

The Bengali nationalism seen as a single dominating nationalism in Bangladesh today began with the partition of India in 1947. 

Among the stages of the evolution of Bengali nationalism after 1947, the language movement of 1952, the election of 1954, the six-point movement of 1966, the people’s uprising of 1969, the election of 1970 and the war of independence of 1971 played the most important role.

Language movement of 1952

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was created on August 14, 1947, on the basis of the two-nation theory. There was a huge gap between East and West Pakistan in all fields including language, anthropology, history, tradition, culture, geographical environment, diet. 

But despite such differences, an unequal state was created by incorporating East Bengal with West Pakistan only on the basis of religion.

The regime of the new state first attacked the Bengali language as a strategy to exploit the Bengali nation. Steps were taken to make Urdu the official language of Pakistan, where bengali was the mother tongue of the majority of the people of Pakistan. 

In response to this, the protest started by the students, intellectuals, teachers of Bengal is known as the Language Movement. Which gained momentum when on February 21, 1952, the protesting students were shot when they started a movement demanding the protection of the mother language.

The language movement of 1952 had a far-reaching impact on the history of Bangladesh. It was the first organized mass movement of the Bengali nation against the Pakistani state machinery.  

The language movement was able to have a profound impact on the politics, society, economy and culture of the time. Due to the language movement, there was a storm of protest against the State of Pakistan in the field of art, literature and culture in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). 

It unites everyone as a nation. The infatuation that people had for Pakistan gradually disappeared. They understand the importance of building politics, economy, education, culture for their self-identity as Bengalis. 

This language-centric unity played an important role in the development of Bengali nationalism and formed the basis of Bengali nationalism. It later played an important role in the establishment of the independent sovereign state of Bangladesh.


Election of 1954

The formation of the United Front and the election of 1954 are an important chapter in the history of Bengali nationalism. The election was a ‘ballot revolution’ against the activities of the Muslim League leadership against the Bengali nation, Bengali language and culture and history and heritage of Bengalis and six years of exploitation by the Pakistani rulers. 

The huge victory of the United Front in the election created a lot of enthusiasm and enthusiasm in the minds of the people of the region. Through this election, the Bengali nation abandoned the Muslim league’s idea of religion-based nationalism and a secular trend was created in the politics of East Bengal. 

The Bengalis expressed full support for the autonomy of East Bengal on the basis of Bengali nationalist ideology.5


Six-point demand

Another major influencer of the formation of Bengali nationalism was the six-point demand of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Through the six-point movement of 1966, Bangabandhu wanted to protect East Pakistan from the discrimination of West Pakistan. 

With this, the stage of achieving the independence of Bengalis began. Six points are the ultimate manifestation of Bengali nationalism. As a result of the strict suppression of the six-point movement, the renaissance spirit united the Bengali nation. 

This strengthened the demand for autonomy. Through the six points, east Bengal was identified as a separate region and more autonomy was demanded.5


 Mass uprising of 1969

The Government of Pakistan started a new conspiracy to stop the six-point movement. In January 1968, the government filed a treason case against Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the main accused. 

This is also called the Agartala case. During this trial, the anti-Ayub movement continued to grow in both parts of Pakistan. In East Pakistan, the demand for the release of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and withdrawal of the Agartala case intensified. The protesting people continued to press the government to release the accused and withdraw the case. 

Soon the movement turned into a mass uprising against Ayub Khan. This movement was the biggest movement after the establishment of the state of Pakistan. Through this movement, parliamentary government and the election of representatives on the basis of universal suffrage were recognized. 

The nationalism of Bengalis as an independent nation was created in 1948 through this mass uprising of 1979.5


Elections of 1970

The general elections of 1970 played an important role in the emergence of Bengali nationalism and independent sovereign Bangladesh. Through this election, the sense of independence of Bengalis on the basis of Bengali nation, language, literature and culture was recognized. 

By winning the election, the legitimacy of the Demand for Autonomy of the Bengalis was proved. This strengthened language-based Bengali nationalism. 

Although the Awami League won the election as the majority party in the national and provincial assemblies, the West Pakistani ruling class was not ready to hand over power to the Awami League. Their hostility to East Pakistan set the context for the Liberation War of Bangladesh.5


7 March Speech of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

In 1970, Pakistan’s military government did not hand over power to the elected Awami League representatives, creating a volatile situation in the political arena of Pakistan. At this time, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman understood that the Pakistani military ruler would not hand over power in a normal way. 

It has to be achieved through agitation. On March 7, 1971, he announced a public meeting at the then Race Course ground. Lakhs of people gathered at the race course ground on time. In his speech at Bangabandhu Race Course Ground, he called for preparing for the freedom struggle and pledged to liberate the country. 

He declared in a thundering voice “This time the struggle is the struggle for our freedom, this time the struggle is the struggle for freedom,”. He ordered everyone to be ready for the struggle for freedom. 

He called for maximum sacrifice to rid the country of enemies. The speech inspired Bengalis in the freedom struggle. As a nation, it unites Bengalis for their political rights in a way never seen before.5


Liberation War of 1971

The indiscriminate killing of unarmed Bengalis by the Pakistani army on the midnight of March 25, 1971, marked the beginning of a shameful chapter in the history of the world. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested from his Dhanmondi residence at 1:30am on March 25.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared the independence of Bangladesh at the first hour of March 26, the moment before his arrest. This declaration of independence was disseminated in all parts of Bangladesh through the transmitters, telegrams and teleprinters of the then EPR. 

The freedom-loving people were encouraged by the news of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s declaration of independence and the support and participation of the Bengali military, paramilitary and civilian forces in it. Initially, without any prior preparation and organizational activity, the people of East Pakistan resisted against them.5

As a result of the final form of Bengali nationalism seen in the 1970s, the people of East Pakistan united as a nation and unitedly achieved their independence through nine months of war. Independent Bangladesh was born on December 16, 1971.

Article 6 of the original constitution of 1972, after the Liberation War, referred to the citizenship of Bangladesh: “The citizenship of Bangladesh shall be determined and regulated by law; The citizens of Bangladesh will be known as Bengalis’ and in article 9, about Bengali nationalism, it was said, “The unity and solidarity of the Bengali nation, which has achieved the independence and sovereignty of Bangladesh through the National Liberation War through a united and determined struggle with linguistic and cultural unitary entity, will be the basis of Bengali nationalism.” 

That is, Bengali nationalism is recognized as a nation and nationality in the national constitution.6


Post-1975 Bengali nationalism

The domestic and international context of the early post-independence period left a lasting impression on the subsequent development of Bengali nationalism. While Bengali nationalism was fulfilled with the formation of an independent state in 1971, Bengali nationalism faced a crisis after the assassination of Bangabandhu in 1975

During this time, many also drew attention to the nature of the spirit of Bengali nationalism. For example, Badruddin Umar, in his 1972  essay ‘The Basis of Bengali Nationalism’, drawing attention to the religious aspect of Bengali nationalism, did not think it appropriate to accept Bengali nationalism as the intellectual basis of the Bengali nation.

He shows in his view that Bengali nationalism in East Bengal is the nationalism of Muslim Bengalis. Because it does not include The Hindu Bengalis of West Bengal.’7

Another problem arises  over the rights of small ethnic groups , 98% of the total population of Bangladesh, while in the remaining 2 percent, there are more than 45 small ethnic groups. 

The 1972 Constitution defines them as predominantly tribal and minor ethnic groups.  Where Bengali ethnicity is identified as a nation but other minor ethnicities are not recognized as a nation ।

In 1972, the then Chittagong Hill Tracts leader Manabendra Larma raised the issue in the first parliament of the Jatiya Sangsad. “Hon’ble Speaker, we have never been called a Bengali nation. We never consider ourselves Bengalis. 

Today, if this amendment is passed for the constitution of this independent sovereign Bangladesh, then the existence of our Chakma nation will disappear. We are citizens of Bangladesh. We consider and believe in ourselves as Bangladeshis. But not as Bengali.”7

A clear idea of Bangladeshi nationalism can be found from this statement of Manvendra Larma. Another such idea can be found in the 1974  book Inside Bangladesh Today: An Eye-Witness Account  by Indian journalist Basanta Chatterjee. 

There he wanted to show that if the people of Bangladesh identify themselves as a Bengali nation, then there will be a problem in the identity of the Bengalis of West Bengal. He demanded that the nationality of the people of Bangladesh should be found to be anything other than Bengali.7

In such a context, President Ziaur Rahman introduced Bangladeshi nationalism in the state. In 1979, through the fifth amendment to the Constitution, ‘Bismillah-e-Rahmani Rahim’ was added to the preamble of the Constitution and Bengali nationalism was called Bangladeshi.

Bangladeshi nationalism was born constitutionally. In the reasoning behind this, he shows that:

  1. Outside Bangladesh, millions of Bengalis live in different states of India, including West Bengal. Bengali speakers, even though there is a lot of similarity in behavior, the national identity of Bengalis in West Bengal is as Indian. Bengali nationalism cannot distinguish between the Bengali-speaking people of West Bengal and the people of Bangladesh. Therefore, Bengali nationalism cannot be the basis of our identity.
  2. Apart from Bengalis, there are many tribal communities in Bangladesh. The tribes are not Bengalis. A nation cannot have a two-dimensional identity. For this, all the ethnic groups of independent Bangladesh need a new identity, which will be our land centric.9
  3. In the interpretation of religion in Bangladeshi nationalism, Zia said in his Essay on Bangladeshi Nationalism: … We have ethnic pride, we have rich languages and we have religious traditions… So if someone says that Bangladeshi nationalism is not based on religion, then it will be wrong. Religious belief or devotion to religion is a great and eternal characteristic of the Bangladeshi nation.10

This was a critical moment in the history of the evolution of Bengali nationalism. There is a debate among intellectuals about whether the ethnic identity of the people of Bangladesh is Bengali or Bangladeshi. 

Some intellectuals argue about the religious aspect of Bangladeshi nationalism and prefer the issue of small ethnicity , while intellectuals in favor of Bengali nationalism prefer the issue of religious neutrality and single ethnicity.

Repeal of the Fifth Amendment

When the Awami League government came to power in 1996, it amended the law on the murder of the Father of the Nation. Then the first attempt to repeal the Fifth Amendment was taken, but even then such an initiative did not succeed. 

Later, in August 2005, the High Court overturned the fifth amendment in a writ petition filed by Maksudul Haque, owner of Moon Cinema Hall in the capital.11


Currently Bengali nationalism

Bengali nationalism was restored through the 15th amendment to the constitution in 2011 after the Awami League formed the government for the second time under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina. 

On the question of nationalism, it is said that the Bangladeshi people will be considered Bengalis as nation and citizenship will be considered Bangladeshi. 11


Future of Bengali nationalism

Bengali nationalism was re-recognized constitutionally through the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. However, this did not end the debate of Bengali nationalism versus Bangladeshi nationalism. 

In the meantime, the question of nationalism of the small ethnic groups of Bangladesh has become another big issue. Neither the Bengali nationalism of the 1972 Constitution nor the Bangladeshi nationalism of the 1979 Constitution could guarantee the rights and recognition of the small ethnic groups. 

Ziaur Rahman said that the nationality of all citizens is Bangladeshi through Bangladeshi nationalism, but it does not give constitutional recognition to the small ethnic groups separately. 

On the contrary, the presence of religion in the constitution and economic, social and cultural aggression has been carried out on them through Bengali settlers.  Although the peace agreement was signed in 1997, the Awami League or B.N.Neither party was interested. 

In such a situation, there is a possibility of developing a kind of ultra-nationalism in Bangladesh. In the future, its negative impact can be seen on the national integration of the whole of Bangladesh. 

Dr Mesbah Kamal, professor of history at Dhaka University,  said the reason behind the problem in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is the lack of recognition of other nations. If the peace agreement is not implemented and the ‘we are all Bengalis’ is not corrected, it will lead us to a radical nationalism.”12



The debate of Bengali versus Bangladeshi nationalism creates two parts in the intellectual circles of Bangladesh. For example, Khandaker Abdul Hamid, in his book “SpostoVashi”,  wanted to see that  there is a difference of emotions, feelings, religion, actions,   life-philosophy  between The Bangla of Bangladesh and the Bangla of West Bengal.  

Although the language of the two regions is essentially the same, the language of the people outside the literary arena  is very different. Therefore, ‘Bengali nationalism’ is  unrealistic from a political and historical point of view. So it  is appropriate to call our nationality ‘Bangladeshi nationality’.13

On the other hand  , political scientist Ali Riaz thinks, “Are we Bengalis or Bangladeshis ? The questions are by no means isolated. At various stages of our history, these questions have been raised around our nation-being to block our path of continuous progress. This is also the main goal of the imagined concept of Bangladeshi nationalism.14

Professor Anisuzzaman’s idea is very similar. He believes that our ethnic identity is identical to our new state identity. Those who want to identify themselves only in the state identity (Bangladeshi nationalism) by putting aside this ethnic entity, they want to forget all the struggles of 1971, they consider the history of the previous twenty-four years as unimportant.15

Syed Ali Ahsan, the first vice-chancellor of Jahangirnagar University, believes that the word nationalism in the international context is not entirely related to ethnicity but to the country. 

The existence of a country survives in terms of the country entity . The fact that has emerged in Bangladesh today is our national identity. We are Bangladeshis and that is our main identity.16

From this point of view, professor Sirajul Islam Chowdhury’s writings give a different picture of this debate. Just as he felt that not recognizing small ethnicities was a mistake of Bengali nationalism,  he did not consider good  the way BNP established Bangladeshi nationalism as nationalism, nationality and citizenship  .  According to him, the Bengalis of Bangladesh are Bengalis by nation, Bangladeshis by citizenship.17

But no matter how much debate is seen about this in the intellectual society, this debate is basically a theoretical matter for the common people, because whether the name of nationalism is Bengali or Bangladeshi,  as residents of Bangladesh, we want to live with a people,  a nation and a nationality with the ideology of unity in our heritage diversity. 



Finally, it can be said through various stages or stages of history, Bengali nationalism has come to this position today. Bengali nationalism was established through the partition of Bengal in 1905, the language movement of 1952 , the election of 1954, the six-point movement of 1966, the people’s uprising of 1969, the election of 1970 and the war of independence of 1971. 

But after 1975, the rise of Bangladeshi nationalism challenged Bengali nationalism. Although Bengali nationalism has been re-established through the 15th Constitution of the Constitution, the debate on whether we are Bengalis or Bangladeshis on the question of recognition of small ethnic groups is still relevant.




1.Thomas Hylland Erikson, Ethnicity and Nationalism, Plutu Press, 1994, p:6

2.Bangladesh Open University, Jati, Jatiyotabad o Antorjatikotabad, online. Available from: https://bit.ly/3wPjSwM

3.Banglapedia, Nationalism, online. Available from: https://bit.ly/3Lq1Oxf

4.Sirajuk Islam Chowdhury, Jatiyotabad, Samprodayikota o Mukti, Songhoti Prokashon, 2016, p:16

5. Bangladesh Open University, Purbo Banglar Andolon o Jatiyotabader Utthan, online. Available from: https://bit.ly/3uEDktA

6. Bangladesh Open University, Constitution of 1972, online. Available from: https://bit.ly/3IWqRq2

7. Bodrul Alom , Bangalir Jatiyotabad: Char Doshok por, online. Available from: https://bit.ly/3qOiR4o

8.Mohiuddin Ahmed, Mongol Kumar Chakma and Others, Zum Paharer Jibon, CDL Prokashoni, 2008, P:107

9.Dr. Wajed A Khan, Bangali Jatiyotabad bonam Bangladeshi Jatiyotabad, online. Available from: https://bit.ly/3iQzcRy

10.Ziaur Rahman, Bangladeshi Nationalism, online. Available from: https://bit.ly/3iMgvOT

11. Kadir Kallol, Swadhinotar pnchas bochor: bivinno karone desher songbidhan 17 bar songshodhon kora hoyeche, online. Available from: https://bbc.in/3Lv7Qg3

১2.Harun ur Rashid, Bangladesher Prekkhapote Ugro Jatiyotabad, online.Available from: https://bit.ly/3iO0fNu

13.Khondokar Abdul Hamid, Spostobhashi Smorone, Dhaka, 1984,P:21-23

14. Ali Riyaz, Bangali Jatiyotabda, Titash Prokashoni, 1979,P:58-65

15.Anisuzzaman, Bangladesh, Bangali o Bangladeshi, online. Available from: https://obisshash.com/bangladesh-bengali-bangladeshi/

16.Syed Ali Ahsan, Bangladeshi Jatiyotabad: Amader Atmoporichoy, Saleh Bookstall, 2002, P:69-79

17. Sirajul Islam Chowdhuri, Bangalir Jatiyotabad, University Press Ltd, 2000, P: 242-245

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