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Bangladesh at 50

In the half-century since it gained independence, Bangladesh has gone from being what Henry Kissinger called a “basket case” to a case study in rapid economic development. A large microfinance sector, balanced labor regulations, and resistance to religious fundamentalism have been key to the country's success.

ITHACA – It feels strange to have known a country since its birth. For much of 1971, Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) was engaged in a war for independence. With US President Richard Nixon standing firmly behind Pakistan as President Yahya Khan’s army tried to crush the independence movement by resorting to rape and genocide, millions of Bangladeshi refugees poured into India. I was then an undergraduate in Delhi and joined a team of students to work in the sprawling refugee camps that had sprung up in the Indian states of West Bengal and Odisha.

Full-fledged aerial war with Pakistan broke out on December 2. I vividly remember catching the night train in Kolkata to return to college during a curfew, under orders to keep all the lights off in the compartment.

This was the high point of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s career. She had opened India’s doors to the refugees and intervened militarily to support Bangladesh, refusing to cave in to US pressure, which included sending the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal. Khan’s army surrendered to an Indian-Bangladeshi allied force on December 16, 1971. Bangladesh had already declared independence on March 26, but it was effectively born that day in December.