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Being Bengali

  • Published at 12:19 pm October 10th, 2020
being bengai
Photo: Zaima Hamid Zoa

It is up to us to determine what it means to be a Bangali

Who is a Bengali (Bangali)?

The simplest answer would be: One who speaks in Bangla (anglicized: Bengali) and admits to a sense of belonging to Bengal; an area now divided between the state of Bangladesh and West Bengal, a province in India. In this age when so many migrate for work, where the person lives at present is not the relevant question.

Sharing a common border on most sides with West Bengal, Bangladesh also shares a common history and cultural heritage; of which the Bengali language is an important part. On a map, the area of Bangladesh remains the same as East Pakistan of 1947, which in turn was carved out of the East Bengal of 1905; a short-lived colonial entity which had included Assam. East Bengal had been conceived in 1903 by the viceroy of British India, Lord Curzon.  

Initially, only for administrative purposes, the stated reason for the divide was to help out Assam which was considered to be a very backward area. Soon, political motives took over, and in reaction to the nationalist opposition to the partition of Bengal, Curzon is on record as saying: “The Bengalis, who like to think themselves as a nation, and who dream of a future when the English will have been turned out, and a Bengali Babu will be installed in Government House, Calcutta, of course bitterly resent any disruption that will be likely to interfere with the realization of this dream. If we are weak enough to yield to their clamour now, we shall not be able to dismember or reduce Bengal again; and you will be cementing and solidifying, on the eastern flank of India, a force already formidable, and certain to be a source of increasing trouble in the future1.”   

Partition was conceived along communal lines, so that West Bengal would comprise of those districts where the majority of the population was Hindu, who formed the majority of the land-owning and educated classes with stakes in Calcutta. The districts in East Bengal had Muslim majorities, and were mostly peasants.  

Although both Bengals shared a standard literary language, the differences in the spoken are still sharp, so that a “Bangal” (sometimes used pejoratively) of the east can be easily spotted as soon as he speaks. Partition seemed like a formal recognition of the religious, cultural, and economic divide that separated the two Bengals. It also meant that Calcutta, the glittering capital of the Raj, would have to share some of its limelight with Dhaka, a much older but almost forgotten city that had known better days, now chosen to be the provincial capital of East Bengal.  

Split in two

Those who resented partition mostly lived in the West, and their rallying cry was that the Bengali people had been split in two. This slogan consequently signalled the beginning of the swadeshi (nationalist) movement against the British. Anger and agitation was so widespread that the British rulers annulled the partition in 1911. 

At that time, that is, the early 20th century, did the Bengalis think of themselves as a nation? What was the Bengali nation? Who were included or excluded? We may get some idea about whom the Bengali bhodrolok considered to be Bengali from a passage written by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, a very popular and leading contemporary Bengali novelist. It is from Srikanta (Part 1) regarded to be a biographical novel. Young Srikanta recounts how he met his dear friend Indranath:  

“The Bengali and Musalman (Muslim) students were playing a football match in the school playground. It was almost dusk and I was watching the game totally engrossed.  What joy! Suddenly -- Oh my goodness -- what was happening! Sounds of beating and cries of ‘get that bloke, give it to him!’  I felt dazed. Two or three minutes. In the meantime, everyone had vanished, but where to? It was all very clear when I felt the crack of an umbrella-handle on my back; I saw some raised over my head and back. By then some Muslim punks (chhokra) had entirely surrounded me -- there was nowhere to run. 

“Another umbrella-handle -- then one more. Just at that moment, the person who stormed the human wall and stood in front to shield me -- that was Indranath.”2

Along communal lines

In this urban school football, teams were formed along communal lines, and a Muslim clearly could not be a Bengali although he spoke and read in the same language.  

In West Bengal, one still comes across this Bengali/Muslim divide, perhaps not so much among the urban elite, but definitely in the small towns and among the general masses.   Muslim still equals non-Bengali, and Bengali means only Hindu.

Photo: Subhasish Dutta 

Here I would like to recall a personal experience of mine of a few years ago. Visiting an archaeological site (the mosque and tomb of Zafar Khan Ghazi, popularly known as GhazirAkhra) in Tribeni in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, I spotted a group of men whose dress (lungi) and demeanour set them apart. Our rickshaw driver explained that these men were non-Bengali (oBangali) migrant workers from Bihar, employed in a nearby jute mill; they did not belong to the majority Bengali community. Later, on our ride back to the bus station, we crossed a village situated beside the road. Blaring loudspeakers indicated that a religious festival (puja) was being celebrated.  

The same driver pointed out that these villagers were all Bengali, as they were celebrating puja. For him, the equation was simple: Only those who participate in puja were Bengalis. 

The word Bangali first appears in the mid-14th century, when the Delhi historian Shams-i Siraj Afif (born 1342) narrates a battle between Sultan Firuz Shah Tughluq (1351-1388) of Delhi and Sultan ShamsuddinIlyas Shah (1342-57) of Bengal.Here Ilyas Shah is described as “Sultan of the Bengalis” and “king of Bengal.”3 Prior to this, the area known as Bengal consisted of several kingdoms each with its own ethnic composition and language.  

"In this urban school football, teams were formed along communal lines, and a Muslim clearly could not be a Bengali although he spoke and read in the same language"

The Turks, who were Muslims, had ruled as governors of the Delhi Sultan from the early 12th century. In the early 14th century, they broke away from Delhi rule, and founded the independent Sultanate of Bengal that united these small kingdoms. It included most of present-day Bangladesh and West Bengal, although the borders were fluid and sometimes enclosed Assam and even parts of Bihar.  

For several reasons -- strategic, political, and practical, the Sultans patronized a culture that created a sense of unity among the Bengali-speaking people irrespective of their religions. The majority of the people were either Hindu, Buddhist, practitioners of folk religions, or belonged to different cults who spoke some form of Bengali. Thus a Chinese traveller who visited Bengal in 1433, observed that although Persian was spoken by some in the Muslim court, “...the language in universal use is Bengali.”4

Literature thrives

There was a flowering of medieval Bengali literature under the patronage of the Sultans, parts of the Mahabharata were translated from Sanskrit into Bengali and works such as Manasa Mangal, Manasa Vijaya, Krishna-Mangala, and Sri-Krishna Vijaya were written.

Muslim Bengali poets of the 15th to 18th centuries also wrote romances, epics, and devotional poems, where Islam was presented to the common folk in idioms that they were familiar with. These were not just translations of well-known Islamic literature in Arabic or Persian into Bengali, but an adaptation of the symbols and values of the religion to a Bengali cultural environment. For example, the description of the irresistibly good-looking Yusuf (Joseph) in the Islamic romantic tale of Yusuf and Zulekha, could easily pass for a description of Krishna: “...Your eyebrows are like the bow of Kama and your ears are like lotuses which grow on shore...”5 Or, for example, the Nabi Bangsa of Saiyid Sultan written in the 17th century, where the author attempts to couch the Muslim concept of prophet in the Hindu concept of avatar.  

The poem begins with the creation myth and ends with the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, with Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Rama, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Hari, Moses, and Jesus treated as subsequent prophets of God in between. When the descendants of Adam became unbelievers, God sent Hari or Krishna as a prophet to dissuade them from doing evil.6

My own work on the architectural history of the period shows how unique regional forms were created for both mosques and temples. They shared much of the architectural vocabulary; the religious buildings of all three religions (Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam) of the region drawing heavily from the vernacular architecture of the village hut.7

In his Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, Richard Eaton goes into the dynamics of conversion in Bengal during the 15th and 16th centuries, to explain how the majority of the peasant population of Bengal who inhabited the eastern part of the delta became Muslims. It is significant that the language of these masses remained Bengali (Bangla).  

After the Mughal conquest of the 17th century, the cleavage between the Muslim nobility and the rural masses widened. Mughal officials who mostly came from North India and beyond, spoke first in Persian, then Urdu. This trend of aristocratic Muslims who held on to the legacy of the grand Mughals and a glorious Muslim past continued well into the 50s and 60s of the last century, so that it was not surprising to find many middle class, educated Bengalis speaking Urdu at home.  

When Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, a Bengali woman contemporary of Saratchandra and a pioneer feminist in South Asia established the first school for Muslim girls in Kolkata in 1911, she set the medium of instruction as Urdu, although all her own writings were in Bangla and English. 

This was the only way that she could persuade respectable Muslim families to send their girls to her school. Seen in this light,one cannot dismiss Saratchandra’s equation of Bengalis with Hindus as something that was totally imagined. But the deep sense of the “other” expressed in his communal labelling of boys attending the same school and probably speaking the same language (at least in school) is surprising.      

Modern Bengali emerged during colonial rule in the middle of the 19th century in the wake of the Bengal Renaissance. But the new colloquial which continues to be the official or chalit prose today drew heavily on the spoken language of West Bengal; the language of the East Bengalis being condescendingly labelled as “Bangal” rather than “Bangla.” 

Photo: Al Mahbub 

Inspite of the numerous dialects that are spoken in Bangladesh, chalit Bengali is the official language, a language spoken by the elite few. In educated Bengali and Muslim households which have overcome dialects, a close version of the chalit, known as shuddho (correct) is spoken. But differences persist even in this spoken language; Muslims generally punctuate their conversations with a number of Perso-Arabic words.  The presence of such words is much more pronounced in Musalmani Bengali or dobhashi -- a written language which the Muslims developed in the train of modern Bengali. 

The number of foreign words of Islamic origin which Muslim writers used depended on the readership they targeted; a larger percentage for a Muslim audience and a minimum if the readership was to be more inclusive. Clinton Seely’s comments on the manner in which Mir Musharraf Hosain strategized his language in Vishad Sindhu (The Sea of Sorrows), the well-known Islamic story of the Karbala, so that it could interest a mixed Hindu-Muslim audience illustrates the point well.8

The British go home

The British departed in 1947 after partitioning India along communal lines. East Pakistan remained the same as Lord Curzon’s East Bengal of 1905 but without Assam.  The new country of Pakistan comprised of the Muslim-majority provinces on the eastern and western extremities of India.  

As East Bengal became East Pakistan, it was separated from West Pakistan by a thousand miles of Indian territory in between. Within a year, cultural and economic factors began to surface, and undermined the tendentious religious homogeneity of the new country; among these, language became the strongest issue.

Outright rebellion followed the announcement by the Governor General Muhammad Ali Jinnah (acknowledged as Quaid-e-Azam or “father of the nation”) that only Urdu would be the state language of Pakistan, thus imposing an alien language on the majority population that lived in East Pakistan and spoke Bangla. He made this declaration in a speech given in Dacca during his visit to East Pakistan in March, 1948.  

At the end of the same year, in his presidential speech at the Purbo-Pakistan SahityaSammelan (East Pakistan Literary Conference) held in Dhaka, Dr Muhammad Shahidullah, a distinguished scholar, linguist, and educationist boldly shot back: “Just as it is true that we are either Hindu or Muslim, it is a greater truth that we are Bengali. This is not a matter of ideology, this is reality.”9

As problems compounded under policies of disparity and economic discrimination imposed by the nation’s rulers (mostly military) in West Pakistan, it was a matter of time before armed struggle broke out. When a savage military action was unleashed on the people of East Pakistan in 1971, millions fled across the border to India, mainly to West Bengal where people also spoke Bangla.  

A brutal War of Liberation was fought by guerilla freedom fighters for nine months, joined later by the Indian armed forces. On December 16, 1971, the Pakistani army surrendered and East Pakistan became the new sovereign country of Bangladesh, a word which meant “land of Bangla speaking people.”

What is Bangladesh?

Throughout the war, fought above all for the cause of secularism, there was never any question of dissolving the communally awarded borders of 1947 and merging with the other half of the Bengali-speaking nation that lived in the province of West Bengal in India, the province which had sheltered myriads of refugees who fled from their burning homes during the war. One very well-known but irate West Bengali historian (Ramesh Chandra Majumdar) totally rejected the right of the new nation state to call itself Bangladesh: 

“...It is necessary to remember that from the point of view of history the renaming of East Bengal as Bangladesh cannot be supported. ‘Bangala’ the former name of Bangla  was given by Muslims ... From the beginning, Muslims referred to the whole of Bangadesh as ‘MulukBangala.’ From the 14th century ‘Bangala(h)’ meant the kingdom of Gaur or Lakhnawti as in contemporary Muslim writings.  

“Later, Hindus also used this name for the country. When the Portugese arrived, they accepted ‘Bangala’ as the name for the entire east west and north Bengal regions calling it Bengala. The English ... called it Bengal... Muslims from the beginning of their rule (had) called that same country Bangala -- Bangla. Therefore, Bangladesh is the name of the entire British province of Bengal -- not any part of it. The people of all parts of Bangladesh, north, south, east, and west have always called themselves Bangali. It is absurd if today, the people of West Bengal are unable to refer to themselves as Bangali, just as absurd if ‘Bangladesh’ refers to just East Bengal.  

“After the long usage of Bangala, Bangladesh, and Bangali in the context of the whole of Bengal, no government has the right to proclaim that only East Bengal should be called ‘Bangladesh.’”10

He also angrily states that the masses of people in West Bengal have not yet accepted the change in the implications of the name “Bangladesh,” because both in their conversations and writings they continue to call their land Bangladesh.  

So the problem does not stop at who is a Bengali --Majumdar has gone further and questioned the right of Bangladeshis to be known as such, because the Bengalis from West Bengal cannot be excluded from this nomenclature.

"In other words, should we inflict on others what the Pakistani ruling powers had forced on us? Or do we become a democratic nation of many cultures, ethnicities, and languages?"

It was during the 60s of the last century that a strong Bengali identity was being forged that clearly set apart the Bengali-speaking people of East Pakistan from the West Pakistanis; dress and appearance became an important bearer of that separate identity.  In those years, as women students of Dhaka University, we liked to wear saris and dressing up would not be complete without a teep

Almost everyone sang or tried to sing Rabindrasangeet (Tagore songs).Shalwar kameez,the baggy trousers, and long shirts that were worn by the women of West Pakistan, were regarded as only appropriate for younger women in the East. This was the regime of President Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan. Although shalwar kameez soon acquired the reputation of being more appropriately Islamic (as it is now), the sari did not lose its popularity in East Pakistan, and was sometimes chosen by a few elite of West Pakistan as occasional party-wear.  

But wearing a teep, and singing or listening to Rabindrasangeet were considered overtly Hinduani. So Munaim Khan, the provincial governor of East Pakistan, obediently listening to his master’s voice, banned both from public television. This being the 60s, such banning only fanned the winds of defiance, and as anti-establishment singing of Rabindrasangeet became louder, teeps also became bigger and more colourful.

While on the issue of the auspicious mark on the forehead, I have to recall my personal experience of a few years ago in India. It was the heyday of the Bharatiya Janata Party and I was shopping at a government emporium in Madhya Pradesh. Seeing my teep and sari, the salesperson -- a demure, homely, middle-aged woman -- just assumed that I was from Kolkata.  

In the course of the transaction, when she came to know my name and nationality and consequently my religion, she asked why I was wearing a bindi. I explained that like many Bengalis, wearing this dot was just a part of my dressing up; it had no religious significance or meaning.  

I realized later why this answer did not please her, a displeasure that she made no attempt to hide with her parting sharp comment on the Bangladesh war of independence and India’s crucial role in it. She was displeased as I had not only trivialized what to a Hindu woman was a sacred symbol, but had committed the ultimate faux pas by confessing that this was just a matter of enhancing my looks. It was only a dot that went well with my outfit and meant nothing more.   

I realized that ironically, the ideology that the Ayub regime had pushed and the belief of the conservative Indian saleslady (although the incidents were separated by many years) regarding the teep converged, one rejecting it as Hindu, and the Hindu considering it as her own exclusive right. Its use as a secular marker by liberal Bengali Muslims was disapproved by both.

Bangladesh today is not a land of Bengalis only, it is home to all the indigenous peoples in the hills, near the forest and the sea who speak their own languages and are very protective of their own cultures. There are also a large number of Urdu speaking people who have opted to stay in Bangladesh instead of moving to Pakistan after 1971.  

As the Bengali-speaking majority who have marked out this land as our own, do we have the right to force our language and culture on others in order to make them “become” Bengali?  

In other words, should we inflict on others what the Pakistani ruling powers had forced on us? Or do we become a democratic nation of many cultures, ethnicities, and languages?The choice is ours (the Bengali-speaking Muslim majority), and the choice seems clear.  


1.    Curzon Collection, MSS Eur, F. 111/163 (vol. 8), National Archives of India, New Delhi.  Cited by Sumit Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, (New Delhi: People's Publishing House,1977), pp. 19-20.

2.    'Srikanta' in SharatSahityaSamagra, (Kolkata: Ananda Publishers Ltd.) 1: 268.  Tanslation is by the author.

3.    Shams-iSirajAfif, Tarikh-iFiruzShahi, in The History of India as Told by Its Own Historians, trans. And ed. H.M. Elliot and John Dowson (reprint Delhi:  Low Price Publications) 3: 295, 296. 

4.    P.C. Bagchi, “Political Relations between Bengal and China in the Pathan Period”, in VisvaBharati Annals, 1 (1945), p. 117.

5.    Richard M. Eaton, “Islam in Bengal”, in The Islamic Heritage of Bengal, ed. George Michell,  Paris: UNESCO, 1984, p. 31.

6.    Saiyid Sultan, NabiBangsha, ed. Ahmed Sharif (Dacca: Bangla Academy 1965), 1: 23-41, 468-500.

7.    Perween Hasan, Sultans and Mosques:  Early Muslim Architecture of Bangladesh (London, I.B.Tauris, 2007), pp. 23-69

8.    This novel was first published between 1895-1890 and narrated the story of the battle of Karbala (in Iraq), the slaying of the Prophet Muhammad's grandsons Hasan and Hussain, and the events that followed until the death of their enemy Yazid.  See Clinton B. Seely's 'A Muslim Voice in Modern Bengali Literature:  Mir MosharrafHosain', in Understanding the Bengal Muslims:  Interpretative Essays, ed. Rafiuddin Ahmed (Dhaka, University Press Limited, 2001), pp. 113-38.

9.    Anisuzzaman,'ShwaruperShandhanay' in BangladesherSahityerAlochanaParyalochona O AnyanyaPrabandhya, ed. PranabChowdhury,  pp. 19, Dhaka: JatiyaGranthaPrakashan, 2001.  Translation is by the author.

10.    'Preface to the second edition', BangladesherItihash, vol. 2, ed. R. C. Majumdar (Kolkata, 1385/1979), pp. 11-13. 

Translation by the author.

The author is Vice-Chancellor, Central Women's University, Dhaka

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