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Though the British rulers left the Indian subcontinent in 1947, their influence remains deeply rooted in all sectors of Bangladesh.

Under the guise of civilizing the world, colonizers reshaped societies to serve their interests. The country of Bangladesh was part of the British Empire for nearly two centuries. This era was followed by 24 years of Pakistani rule, ending only after a brutal war of liberation that led to Bangladesh’s independence. Before the British arrived, the Bengal Delta was under Mughal rule, which had already established administrative structures to ensure revenue collection.

However, it was British colonial rule from 1757 that introduced significant changes in administration, the judiciary, and education, which continue to impact Bangladesh today.

The British institutionalized law and property rights through new judicial systems and trained a segment of the Bengali elite in English-language schools and colleges. As a result, they set up two modern universities on the Indian subcontinent.

The influence of these institutions remains visible in Bangladesh’s judicial, educational, health, engineering, and military institutions. Calcutta, founded by the British in 1690, became the capital of colonial Bengal and rapidly developed into a major urban center.

Bangladesh’s creation stemmed from the failures of the Pakistani state to address the aspirations of East Pakistanis, leading to a violent partition in 1971. The conflict in 1947 was primarily between upwardly mobile Muslim Bengali elites and more established Hindu Bengali elites. In contrast, the 1971 conflict was about power distribution between East and West Pakistani elites. The roots of Bangladesh’s evolution lie deeply embedded in the British colonial system, influencing law and order, judiciary, education, administration, military, and parliamentary systems.

When the East India Company became the de facto ruler of Bengal, they appointed local administrators but retained ultimate control. Following their victory over Mir Qasim, the East India Company secured revenue collection and judicial powers, establishing full control over Bengal. The British ran India with just a thousand colonial civil servants for 200 years, necessitating the establishment of English-language schools to train a small elite for administrative roles. This group, steeped in British tradition, played a key role in consolidating the new state of Pakistan immediately after independence.

Lord Cornwallis established the civil service and Fort William College in Calcutta to train young recruits, leading to the founding of universities in Kolkata (1857) and Dhaka (1921). These institutions played a crucial role in ending British rule and creating the Indian and Pakistani states. After independence, Bangladesh’s administration continued to build on its British heritage, maintaining a bureaucratic system with the same pride, power, and exclusiveness.

British colonialism had a profound impact on the education system. Charles Grant, the Chairman of the British East India Company around this time, and considered the father of modern education in India, promoted the Charter Act of 1813, which laid the foundation for Western education in the region.

Macaulay’s vision for an indoctrination system aimed to produce a class of loyal, Westernized Indians. This system focused on educating a small elite, not the general populace, a strategy that persisted until nationalist leaders established schools, colleges, and universities in the early 20th century to challenge British rule.

The British passed several laws to ensure their dominance, including the Regulating Act of 1773, which established the framework of the current government system and a Supreme Court of Justice. The foundation of the contemporary police administration and the judicial system was also laid during this period. These structures persisted after colonial rule, with Pakistan and later Bangladesh continuing to use these systems.

The military under British rule served primarily as a deterrent to popular movements and external threats. The Bangladeshi armed forces, developed during the liberation war, evolved along quite different lines. However, the influence of British military governance is evident in the power dynamics of post-independence Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. A series of coups and counter-coups occurred in the Pakistani army to gain power. The power struggle between the military coup and political leaders continued after the independence of Bangladesh.

Bengal was a political hotspot during British rule, with significant movements for independence emerging from the region. The British parliamentary system, with its Houses of Lords and Commons, influenced the political structures in Bangladesh. The Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, key players in the independence movement, emerged in this context. These political parties played a significant role in creating a strong opposition against the Pakistani rulers, and the Bengal people came together to make their motherland free from Pakistan in 1971. Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign nation on December 16, 1971, after defeating the Pakistani rulers in a nine-month freedom war.

The East India Company, a joint-stock company, initially sought commercial ventures in Bengal. Their economic exploitation led to events like the Bengal famine of 1770, highlighting the destructive impact of their rule. Nationalist movements like the Swadeshi Movement eventually pressured the British into granting independence, leading to the creation of India, East, and West Pakistan, and later Bangladesh. The reason behind the creation of Bangladesh was discriminatory treatment by the ruling elite of Pakistan. The unwillingness of the Pakistani rulers to give Bangladesh its rightful share of national resources and their refusal to share power led to the armed confrontation between East and West Pakistan. West Pakistani rulers maintained economic and military disparity as well as cultural hegemony. Eventually, the system could no longer survive the tension, and Pakistan’s colonial rule over Bangladesh ended.

Bangladesh’s struggle for independence was driven by discriminatory treatment and economic and military disparities imposed by Pakistani rulers. The legacy of British colonial practices is still evident in the political and administrative systems of Bangladesh. Post-liberation, Bangladesh adopted a parliamentary democratic model, reflecting its colonial heritage. The written constitution, drafted nine months after independence, drew heavily from the British system, aiming to ensure political stability. The influence of the British Parliament system, consisting of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, is also apparent.

Imperialists argue that the British introduced education, social structure, democracy, and economic reform in the region, but these were often self-serving. The British transferred enormous wealth from Bengal to Britain and introduced concepts like liberty, equality, freedom, and human rights selectively. The bureaucracy in Bangladesh, built on British traditions, emerged stronger post-independence, continuing to shape the country’s policy, social structure, and economy.

Though the British rulers left the Indian subcontinent in 1947, their influence remains deeply rooted in all sectors of Bangladesh, shaping its policies, social structure, and economy.

Ashikur Rahaman is currently pursuing a degree in International Relations at the University of Dhaka. Ashikur's area of focus is climate change and has been actively involved in various local and international institutions. Ashikur had been invited to present at Harvard University and was selected for a climate exchange program at the University of Nevada. Ashikur's goal is to leverage his education and experiences to contribute meaningfully to sustainable development and policymaking.