South Asia: Pakistan and Bangladesh

A HUMAN PERSPECTIVE Some workers in the port of Chittagong, Bangladesh, have an unusual job. They are ship breakers. When oceangoing ships reach the end of their useful life, they take their last voyage to Chittagong. There, ship breakers wait on the beach with sledgehammers, crowbars, torches, and wrenches. They attack each ship, tearing it apart piece by piece. Within weeks, they can dismantle a ship. Then, they sell its scrap metal for recycling purposes. The job doesn't pay very well, but it is necessary work for the shipping industry, the workers, and the Bangladeshi economy.

New Countries, Ancient Lands

Like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are young countries with an ancient history and with rapidly growing populations. They, too, are striving to make their way in the modern world.


The largest of the world's first civilizations arose in what is now Pakistan. The Indus Valley civilization began around 2500 B.C. It featured well-planned cities like Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, which had brick buildings (shown below) and sophisticated sanitation systems. The map on page 544 depicts the extent of the civilization at the height of its power. It fell around 1500 B.C., and the Aryans invaded soon after. Later on, the Mauryan, Gupta, and Mughal empires ruled the territory that included modern Pakistan and Bangladesh. The British were the next to take control of the region.

The Indian Subcontinent


The end of British rule in 1947 brought the partition, or division, of British India. Two new countries were created—India (predominantly Hindu) and mainly Muslim Pakistan (separated into West Pakistan and East Pakistan). Partition led to much violence between Muslims and Hindus. About one million people died in the conflict. Another 10 million fled across national borders. Muslims in India moved to Pakistan, while Hindus in Pakistan crossed into India.

West Pakistan and East Pakistan shared a religious bond, but ethnic differences and their 1,100-mile separation eventually drove them apart. The people of East Pakistan began to call for their own state. But the government in West Pakistan opposed such a move. Civil war broke out in 1971. That year, with help from India, East Pakistan won its independence as Bangladesh.


Both Pakistan and Bangladesh have had political struggles since independence. Short periods of elected government have alternated with long periods of military rule. Political corruption has plagued both countries. Pakistan also has fought several destructive wars with India over the territory of Kashmir. These wars are discussed in the Case Study in Chapter 26. In the 1990s, both Bangladesh and Pakistan had women prime ministers, a rarity in the Muslim world.

Struggling Economies

Pakistan and Bangladesh have large, rapidly growing populations. In fact, Bangladesh is the eighth most populous country in the world. Both have economies that depend primarily on agriculture. As in India, per capita incomes are low, and much of the population lives in poverty. Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world.


Most farmers in Pakistan and Bangladesh work small plots of land and struggle to grow enough crops to feed their families. The government has tried to help modernize farming methods, but many farmers continue to follow less productive traditional ways. Climate also hinders crop yields. Large areas of Pakistan are arid, while Bangladesh is severely affected by seasonal monsoons and cyclones.

The most productive farming areas of Pakistan are the irrigated portions of the Indus Valley. Here, farmers grow enough cotton and rice to allow for export. The farmers also produce substantial amounts of wheat for domestic consumption. The moist delta lands of Bangladesh are ideal for the cultivation of rice, the country's principal food crop. The main export crop is jute (a plant used in the production of rope, carpets, and industrial-quality sacks). Fishing, mainly for freshwater fish, is also vital to the economy of Bangladesh.


Neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh is highly industrialized. Most factories are relatively small and lack the capital, resources, and markets required for expansion. Even so, both countries are trying to increase their industrial base. They have growing textile industries that provide an important source of revenue and employment. Both countries export cotton garments, and Pakistan also exports wool carpets and leather goods.

Economic Activity in Pakistan and Bangladesh

An important economic development has been the introduction of microcredit. This policy makes small loans available to poor entrepreneurs, people who start and build a business. Businesses that are too small to get loans from banks can often join forces to apply for these microloans. They then accept joint responsibility for repaying the loan. This program, begun in Bangladesh, has helped small businesses grow in South Asia and has raised living standards for many producers, especially women.

One Religion, Many Peoples Most of the people of Pakistan and Bangladesh are Muslims. In both countries, Islam is an important unifying force. At the same time, ethnic differences promote cultural diversity, particularly in Pakistan.


Islam has long played an important role in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Both lands were key parts of the Muslim Mughal Empire that ruled the Indian subcontinent for centuries, and their cultures bear the stamp of Islam. The faithful observe Islamic customs. These include daily prayer and participation in Ramadan, a month-long period of fasting from sunrise to sunset. Mosques in both countries are often large and impressive structures.

The two countries differ somewhat in their Islamic practices, however. In general, Pakistan is stricter in imposing Islamic law on its citizens. For example, many Pakistanis follow the custom of purdah, the seclusion of women. This custom prevents women from having contact with men who are not relatives. When women appear in public, they must wear veils. In Bangladesh, purdah is much less common and religious practices are less strict.


Pakistan is also more ethnically diverse than Bangladesh. Pakistan has five main ethnic groups—Punjabis, Sindhis, Pathans, Muhajirs, and Balochs. Each group has its own language. The Punjabis make up more than half of the population. Each group has its own regional origins within the country except for the Muhajirs, who migrated from India as a result of the partition in 1947. To avoid favoring one region or group over another, the government chose Urdu—the language of the Muhajirs—as the national language. Today, most Pakistanis understand Urdu, even though they may use another language as their primary language.

In contrast, the people of Bangladesh are mainly Bengalis. Bengal is the historic region that includes Bangladesh (once known as East Bengal) and the Indian state of West Bengal. Bengalis speak a language based on Sanskrit, the ancient Indo-Aryan language. Bangladesh also has a small population of Urdu-speaking Muslims and various non-Muslim tribal groups. About 10 percent of the population are Hindus.

Modern Life and Culture

As in India, life in Pakistan and Bangladesh revolves around the family. Arranged marriages are common, and families tend to be large. Most people live in small villages, in simple homes made of such materials as sun-baked mud, bamboo, or wood. The large cities are busy places, crowded with traffic and pedestrians.

People in both countries enjoy sports such as soccer and cricket, and also enjoy going to see movies.


Poetry is a special interest in both Pakistan and Bangladesh, where the tradition of oral literature is strong. Many Pakistanis memorize long poems and can recite them by heart. Poets are popular figures, and poetry readings—called mushairas—can draw thousands of people, much like a rock concert does in some countries.

The greatest literary figure in Bangladesh is the poet Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Although Tagore was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, he wrote about the Ganges and his Bengal homeland. Bangladesh adopted his song, “My Golden Bengal,” as its national anthem.


Music and dance are also important forms of expression in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Both countries share music traditions similar to those of India. Folk music of various types is popular in cities and in rural areas. Qawwali—a form of devotional singing performed by Muslims known as Sufis—is famous not only in South Asia but also in parts of Europe and the United States. Bangladesh also has a long tradition of folk dances, in which elaborately costumed dancers act out Bengali myths, legends, and stories.

You have been reading about Pakistan and Bangladesh, India's western and eastern neighbors. Next, you will learn about India's northern neighbors, Nepal and Bhutan.