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There won’t be a united Bengal

  • Published at 06:06 pm August 30th, 2018
Just friends
Just friends Photo: BSS

The relationship between the two Bengals are complicated, to say the least


It’s not that the question of having a united Bengal has been raised too frequently in recent times, by any prominent figure in the East or the West, political or otherwise. Most of the time the matter is an elephant in the room when public figures, academics, or others from the two Bengals meet. 

The unspoken agreement is that the 1947 Partition of Bengal is an unalterable reality and we have to live with it. 

But there has been a slight shift in recent years. The change is about the mutual knowhow. Now Bengalis from either side of the Radcliffe line know a lot more about each other and that has generated further interest in each other. 

Satellite television, the internet, social media, etc have revolutionized connectivity and a lot of people from both the Bengals are now a lot more connected with each other. Although these exchanges have not been particularly pleasant ones, sometimes this issue of the unification of Bengal based on linguistic nationalism and history was raised. 

What followed were mostly vicious blame games and portrayals of victimhood. While there were some sane and amicable voices, they remained the minority. 

There has been a substantial increase in the price of traveling from and to each Bengal. The cheap Kolkata markets are a priority shopping destination for the relatively solvent Bangladeshi upper middle class. Same is the situation when it comes to medical tourism. Many West Bengalis, although fewer in number, visit Bangladesh for professional reasons and for trade.

Yet, the mood of mutual suspicion, mistrust, and lack of understanding remains among the people of both Bengals. There are two different narratives of pre- and post-Partition happenings in both the Bengals. 

Average Bengali Muslims of past generations considered pre-Partition Bengal as a saga of deliberate Muslim suppression by the Anglo-Hindu alliance, and that the Partition and migration of Hindus have allowed the socio-economic flourishing of the Bengali Muslim middle class. This narrative still survives in Bangladesh, by and large. 

On the other hand, the bigger segment of  Bengali Hindus of West Bengal and other Bengali speaking areas of India consider the Partition of Bengal in 1947 as salvaging of a part of Bengali Hindudom from the hands of Bengali Muslim majority and their political dominance. 

Huge waves of postPartition migration East Pakistan to West Bengal followed. About one-fifth of West Bengal’s population are migrants from the East or their descendants. 

Bengali Hindus have become the majority in Tripura as a result. This has reinforced the psyche of the West Bengalis that came out of the Calcutta and Noakhali riots in 1946 that it’s difficult to live with the Muslims side by side. 

On the other side of the fence, in post-Liberation Bangladesh, political Islam was on the rise under the auspices of the illegal usurpers of state power -- the military dictators who used Islam to legitimize their capture. Bengali Hindu migration, in a lesser degree, from Bangladesh to West Bengal, Tripura, and some parts of Assam continued in the majoritarian social environment that had been created in Bangladesh. 

Meanwhile, baseless anti-India propaganda and fear-mongering became part and parcel of Islamist and centre right politics in Bangladesh. Indian hegemony and “Islam in danger” turned out to be their rhetoric. 

Reasoning or substantiation has hardly been a component in Bangladeshi political culture. Moreover, religiosity and orthodoxy have apparently increased among Bengali Muslims -- both in Bangladesh and West Bengal. This is unhelpful for multi-community co-existence. 

The Hindus of West Bengal and other Bengali areas of officially secular India like Tripura and Barak Valley observed this rise of political Islam in Bangladesh with repugnance and worry of further Hindu migration. 

The matter was further complicated by the alleged presence of Bengali Muslim economic migrants to West Bengal and Assam. West Bengal and Tripura remained under secular rule at state level throughout India’s post-independence history until recently, when the BJP for the first time ascended to power in Tripura. 

It is also probably on its way to becoming the second largest party in West Bengal, riding on the resentment of Bengali Hindus, pushing aside Congress and the left, coming only second to secular Trinamool Congress. 

Right wing forces in West Bengal, Tripura, and Barak Valley have their brand of fear mongering, for example claiming that Bangladeshis are planning to create a “Greater Bangladesh” by annexing West Bengal, Tripura, and Assam through deliberate demographic changes. 

Despite the bonhomie and visible exchange of pleasantries among sections of liberals from both the sides, the relations between  Bangladesh and Bengali speaking areas of India are far too complicated to even seriously consider any other political arrangement. 

The mental gaps among the two populations are simply unbridgeable at this point of time and even in the foreseeable future. Moreover, there is no visible incentive for the political elite in both the Bengals and other Bengali speaking areas to push for unification. 

Hence, there is no real possibility of a united Bengal, nor is there any genuine need for it. The best that can be expected is a gradual increase of mutual tolerance, knowhow, connectivity, trade, and people to people contact. 

That would, indeed, be good for all. 

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is a regular opinion contributor.