Bengali Pride Lives On
Bengal ceased to be an united political unit in 1947, divided on religious basis into East Pakistan and India’s West Bengal state by departing British rulers, who had first tried dividing colonial India’s biggest province first in 1905.
A last minute proposal by Congress leader Sarat Bose and Muslim League leader H S Suhrawardy to carve out an ” United Socialist Republic of Bengal” to avoid Bengal’s partition was thwarted by the British and the future rulers of India and Pakistan.
Bose insisted Bengal as the birthplace of modern Indian nationalism was against the vivesection of India but argued for a three rather than a two nation formula if India’s Hindu and Muslim leaders failed to avoid the Partition. The proposal fell through and great Bengali stalwart Annada Shankar Roy attacked the “Burokhokha” ( big leaders) for dividing India , Bengal in particular .
But the world’s seventh largest linguistic community remained repository to an unique spirit born of a distinct language and cultural rennaisance that never died. As writer Achintya Kumar Sengupta said :” Amra Bhasay Ek , Bhalobashay ek” ( we are united in love, by our language).
As Bangladesh was born through a bloody eight month old civil war in 1971 and West Bengal’s electorate brought to power the longest running elected Communist led Left government after a bloody spell of Maoist style insurrection , Bengali exceptionalism survived the pulls and pressures of South Asian politics.
Both the Bengals ( Bangladesh and West Bengal ) rejected India’s rising Hindu fundamentalist and Pakistan’s Islamist politics. Both stuck to the liberal cultural roots of the 19th century Bengal Rennaissance that impacted on social values and fostered gender empowerment as nowhere else in South Asia.
In Dec 2008, Bangladesh voted back to power the Awami League , the party of liberation founded by the ‘Father of the Nation’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. His daughter Sheikh Hasina , elected Prime Minister, has now presided over Bangladesh’s ‘Golden Decade of Development’.
In 2011, West Bengal rejected its long serving Left rulers and brought to power a Bengali regional party , Trinamul Congress led by a feisty and combative woman politician Mamata Banerjee.
Hasina is Muslim , Mamata a Hindu from the priestly Brahmin caste — but both are staunchly secular. They call each other sisters and come down hard on religious fundamentalists. Hasina is derided as ‘ murtad’ ( apostate) by Muslim radicals who threaten to topple her regime by an Iran style Islamist revolution, often backed by US. Mamata is labelled by India’s ruling Hindu fundamentalist BJP as a ” Muslim stooge ” and accused relentlessly of ‘appeasing Muslims’.
But the two ladies rule with an iron hand. Hasina returned to power a third time trouncing an Islamist Opposition coalition in 2019. Two years later, Mamata returned to power for a third term with a landslide against PM Modi’s BJP , braving the most aggressive and vicious money-and-muscle campaign unleashed by the saffron brigade.
” It is no accident that the two iron ladies run the show in the two Bengals. They epitomise the huge strides in gender empowerment in Bengali society cutting across the religious and territorial divide. They reflect our social modernisation initiated by Rammohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Begum Rokeya,” said Tarana Halim, an actor-lawyer-politician who served as Bangladesh’s telecom and information minister until recently.
Halim’s West Bengal equivalent is a feisty banker turned politician Mahua Moitra, who rattles the saffron brigade in Indian parliament as none else. Even India’s nosy TV anchors struggle with her passionate but factual rebuttals.
In the last one month, both Bengals have shown the strength of their distinct identity and how the ‘Bengali pride’ works.
Within a month, Bangladesh hit back at Asian giants China and India, after awkward remarks by their leaders that were seen as undermining its sovereignity or berating it.
Analysts say this displays a new-found confidence in Bangladesh perhaps stemming from its unusual economic and human development success over the past one decade.
This comes when Bangladesh is celebrating the Golden Jubilee of its Independence this year, re-emphasizing the strength of its secular, linguistic Bengali nationalism that guided its fight to break away from Islamist Pakistan.
” From cricket to economy to IT and the entertainment world, our people are displaying a fearless spirit that is reminiscent of our great revolutionary leaders ,” says Awami League youth leader Sufi Farooq, a technocrat specialising digital outreach.
389 of the 585 inmates of the Andaman Cellular Jail , Britain’s most notorious colony-time prison in South Asia, were Bengalis. Subhas Bose, forced to quit as Congress president , raised the Indian National Army from Prisoners of war to fight the British during World War 2.
That a dimunitive Bengali lady Mamata Banerjee invoked similiar Bengali pride, as displayed by Bangladesh’s freedom fighters in 1971, to trounce India’s ruling Hindu fundamentalist BJP in recent state polls points to under-currents of a powerful regional Bengali identity 75 years after the largest undivided province was partitioned into West Bengal and East Pakistan.
Not accidentally, Banerjee and supporters shouted ” Joi Bangla” ( Long Live Bengal” ) slogans raised by the Bangladeshi freedom fighters in 1971.
Bangladesh Foreign Minister AKA Momen actually congratulated Mamata Banerjee , on behalf of his Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina , for ” spiritedly upholding the long-cherished values of Bengal — the principle of religious harmony and brotherhood that Bangabandhu spearheaded throughout his life.”
Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly invoked Bengal’s secular tradition and a cultural identity above religion to fight what she described as BJP’s “divisive communal Hindu-Muslim binary”, evoking huge admiration across the border in Bangladesh, where the 8-phase bitterly contested West Bengal polls (27 March-29 April) was closely watched.
” Mamata Banerjee’s victory is a victory for all Bengalis and values they cherish,” wrote Awami League women wing leader Shahanaz Parvin Dolly in her Facebook page, drawing thousands of likes and supporting comment in both Bangladesh and West Bengal..
‘Bangabandhu’ ( Friend Of Bengal) is how Bangladeshis describe their Founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose birth centenary was observed last year and whose daughter Hasina, into a third term like Banerjee, has presided over Bangladesh’s Golden Decade of Development.
Momen’s congratulatory message talked of ” shared history, culture, language, values, and ancestral linkages between people on both sides of the border that have made relations stronger and unique. “West Bengal and its people have a special place in the hearts of Bangladeshis,” he further said.
This adulatory tone sharply contrasted Momen’s sharp snub of India’s powerful Home Minister Amit Shah, who berated Bangladesh in several West Bengal election speches as his party tried to whip up the Hindu-Muslim divide by talking of ‘large scale illegal migration from Bangladesh.”
Momen termed these comments “sad, unacceptable” and expected maturity from the Indian leader.
“He is a wise man. Not all have wisdom of all affairs, however. Sometimes they make political comments,” he said while reacting to Amit Shah’s comment that “Bangladeshis keep coming here ( India) because they go hungry at home.”
Amit Shah promised , if his party was brought to power, prevention of illegal migration to West Bengal and other parts of India with iron hand by amending the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
When asked by mediapersons in Calcutta why illegal immigration was happening even though Bangladesh made much economic development in last 10-15 years, Shah said Bangladesh’s development had not trickled down to the people of bordering areas.
“As a result, the poor in Bangladesh still go hungry. That’s why intrusion is happening. The intruders are not only living in Bangla [West Bengal], they are also spreading to different states, even to Jammu-Kashmir,” Shah alleged.
Banerjee’s Bengali regional party Trinamul Congress, which swept to power with two-third majority, rubbished Shah’s ‘false bogies’ with the party spokesman Sriparno Moitra described them as ‘a bag of lies to divide Bengalis on religious lines.’
They had company from an angry Bangladesh foreign minister Momen who lashed out at Amit Shah for ” possibly thinking Bangladesh is still in 1970s or 1974, which is very sad.”
” In the last two decades, Bangladesh has made enormous socio-economic progress, including rural infrastructure, agricultural development, women education, reduction in child and maternal mortality and overall poverty reduction,” Momen told journalists in Dhaka.
He reminded Shah that Bangladesh , once described by Kissinger as a ‘bottomless basket’ , had now crossed India in annual per capita income and per capita GDP growth.
About 35 percent people in Bangladesh are covered by social safety net, Momen said, insisting that in some spheres, Bangladesh had performed better than that of India. “Possibly, we have not been able to communicate our progress to them. We need to do it.”
Momen said Bangladesh and India now are in “golden chapter” of its relationship, which will not be affected by the remarks made by Amit Shah. “However, such remarks create antagonism among the masses.”
India is a mature democracy and those who lead the country are expected to behave maturely, Momem said, adding: “We don’t expect anything irrelevant from them ( Indians).”
Bangladesh has been upset over the updating of the National Register of Citizens ( NRC) in the northeastern state of Assam , from which 2 million mostly Bengali Hindus and Muslims were excluded two years ago.
Banerjee used these exclusions in BJP-ruled Assam as a huge issue to mobilise the Bengal ekectorate, whipping up ‘Bengali pride’ and a victimhood narrative that just sank the BJP campaign of religious polarisation in the summer state polls. Her party won 213 seats, Modi’s BJP only 77.
But it is not just a big mouth Indian politician who was put in its place by the Bangladesh foreign. In early May, China received return fire from Momen after controversial comments by its Dhaka-based ambassdor.
This happened after China had publicly warned Bangladesh against joining the US-led Quad alliance, insisting that Dhaka’s presence in the anti-Beijing “club” would “substantially damage” bilateral relations.
The surprise warning from Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh Li Jiming came few weeks after visiting Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe requested Bangladesh President Abdul Hamid that Beijing and Dhaka should work jointly against ‘outside powers’ establishing a “military alliance” in South Asia and practising “hegemonism”.
The ‘hegemony’ barb was possibly aimed at both US and India, who are strategic partners and members of the Quad that upsets China.
“Obviously it will not be a good idea for Bangladesh to participate in this small club of four (Quad) because it will substantially damage our bilateral relationship,” Ambassador Li told a virtual meeting organised by the Diplomatic Correspondents Association, Bangladesh .
Reacting to the Chinese envoy’s controversial remarks, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Momen said Dhaka maintains a non-aligned and balanced foreign policy and it will decide what to do according to those principles.
“We’re an independent and sovereign state. We decide our (own) foreign policy. But yes, any country can uphold its position,” he told reporters .
“Naturally, he (Chinese ambassador) represents a country. They can say what they want. Maybe they don’t want it (Bangladesh joining the Quad),” Mr Momen said, adding that no one from the Quad has approached Bangladesh yet.
The comment has been preemptive and unwarranted, said Momen, a career diplomat turned foreign minister like India’s S Jaishanker.
Initiated in 2007, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Quad for short, is an informal grouping of India, the US, Australia and Japan.
During May 11 virtual event, the Chinese ambassaor also raised the possibility of China aiding Bangladesh’s efforts on the Teesta River management project, stating that their involvement in the project would be seriously considered’ once Dhaka submitted a feasibility report.
The Bangladesh government was yet to formally propose that China take part in the project, he said.
The Teesta River management project would dredge and embank large portions of the river in order to form a single, manageable channel.
Mr Li dismissed concerns that water sharing disputes between Bangladesh and India could affect the project.
” I think it is the legitimate right of Bangladeshi people to build this kind of project within the lower reach of a shared river, he said. If this was made in the upper reaches, you would have to consult the opinions of countries from the lower reaches. But as you are building it in the lower reaches, I don’t think there are any sensitive issues, ” Li was quoted as saying.
The Teesta deal was set to be signed during then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Bangladesh in September, 2011 but was postponed at the last minute due to objections raised by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
Ms Banarjee had expressed strong reservations against giving Bangladesh a greater share of water from the Teesta river.
The issue also figured during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Bangladesh in March during which he reiterated India’s “sincere and continued efforts” to conclude the Teesta water-sharing agreement in consultation with relevant stakeholders.
” Bangladesh is a sovereign country whose people value national honour and Bengali identity. Bengalis in West Bengal also value their linguistic identity and social modernisation and hate rising religious obscurantism in India’s northern and western states,” said Sukhoranjan Dasgupta, author of several books on West Bengal and Bangladesh.
” That was reflected in election results in Bangladesh in 2019 and in West Bengal two years later.”
Bengali scholars debating a World Bank report ” Connecting to Thrive” told a recent webinar that Bangladesh and West Bengal alongwith Bengali-speaking areas of Northeast look forward to great transport connectivity and ease of travel, rather than divisive communalism and hard frontiers guarded by trigger-happy borderguards.
” The World Bank report says India and Bangladesh can augment yheir national incomes by 8 to 10 percent and boost exports by 180 to 300 percent in five years with seamless connectivity. So our Bengali people on both sides want the EU model, not the India-Pakistan one,” said Bipul Chatterji of Indian thinktank CUTS, which organised the webinar.
” Bengalis on both sides want economic and cultural integration because they can both grow. They want pre-Partition transport linkages, nostalgia tours to ancestral villages on either side, they want cross-border trade and investment flows ,” said Calcutta’ based economist Dipankar Dey.
” Our future lies in strong economic and cultural integration . If Bangladesh rises , West Bengal and Bengali-majority Tripura will gain enormously from the spill over effect,” says Sukhoranjan Dasgupta. ” Restoring our pre Partition linkages is critical and Mamata should pay more attention to it than chasing the mirage of becoming India’s first Bengali PM.”
Dasgupta said Mamata will be accepted by India only if she creates a powerful Bengal model of bottons-up economic growth on the Hasina model. ” That can be the viable alternative to the top-down crony capitalist Gujarat model,” he told Easternlink.
” Look East rather than Look West should be Mamata”s motto. And for a change, listen to Amit Mitra and get some real big ticket investments so far going to Vietnam and Bangladesh,” said logistics professional Atin Sen, insisting Mamata should now ape Hasina’s penchant for infrastructure growth.
” Mamata should follow Hasina’s growth strategy, Hasina should closely study Mamata’s election strategy , her Double M ( Mohila, Minorities) thrust ,” says gender activist and writer Bijoylaxmi Choudhury.
In 2013, as Bangladeshis encircled the Pakistan embassy in Dhaka demanding formal apology for the 1971 genocide, actress-lawyer turned minister Tarana Halim raised a passionate slogan ” Amar Mati , Amar Ma, Pakistan Hobe Na” ( my land, my mother will never be Pakistan) . Eight years later, one could hear a similar slogan from victory rallies of Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress ” Amar Mati , Amar Ma, Gujarat , UP hobe na.” ( My land, my mother will never be Gujarat or UP)
Gujarat, home state of Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi, and UP, where Modi now contests from, are both ruled by Hindu fundamentalist BJP, that rules India.
“Bengali women, be it Sheikh Hasina or Mamata Banerjee, Tarana Halim or Mohua Moitra, are the prime drivers that shape the Bengali exceptionalism, its identity and culture,” says Sayantika Bhowal, an election strategist with IPAC that helped Banerjee’s Tribamul manage the 2021 state polls.
Bengalis , Hindus and Muslins alike, welcome a girl child in the family as ‘Ma Laxmi’ ( Mother Goddess of Wealth) unlike other parts of South Asia where aborting female foetus is common and male-female ratio is understandable skewed, Bhowal points out.
From the garment factories of Bangladesh to the red light district of Calcutta ( where the world strongest sex workers union Durbar Mohila Samanoy Samity), the Bengali gender power displays its unique social muscle and shapes the unique Bengali identity says Paula Banerjee, India’s top gender scholar and an university vice-chancellor.
US academic Paul Brass had lamented the failure of the Bengalis to ‘translate their numbers into political power’.
But how can one grudge them for carving out a niche in South Asian politics and society and in the world of letters , having produced i half the region’s Nobel laureates !