By Uttam Sen/newsin.asia
One of the most difficult assessments to make is how distinct a people can become from their forebears as they evolve through circumstances alien to their genesis.
Bengal is one of the most researched regions in the world owing to its British, Mughal , Afghan and Turkish pasts, from among whom two empires, the British and the Mughal, led the world at their prime. Bengal played the critical breadbasket for both of them. The wonder is that a particular continuum has stretched for more than two thousand years, as the cultural essence of a people.
This is proven by the defining role of language. Muslim-majority Bangladesh attested the point by breaking off from Pakistan on the basis of language. The father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman, was an uninhibited enthusiast of Rabindranath Tagore’s work.
But more importantly, after being exploited as a colony, including under Pakistan, the economics of independence based on productive capability are beginning to re-assert themselves, as Bangladesh promises to surge ahead of Pakistan, arguably India as well.
As William Dalrymple expounded in a lively exposition at a Bangalore lit fest recently, the (eastern) region as a global trading hub and economic leader, drew the attention of European traders almost as far back as the 17th century, when the English were still searching for the means to sustain themselves after Henry VIII’s split with the Roman Catholic Church had made his country a pariah in Europe. Fortuitous circumstances culminated in a curious conjunction of events in which the British used the money of Indian bankers to finance Indian troops in the spoliation of the premier muslin industry and raw material.
Latter-day political boundaries sometimes blur the general description of a people who were substantively the same when the Bengali capital of Murshidabad was richer than London.
In Bangladesh people of non-South Asian, sometimes Mughal descent, exist cheek by jowl with the rest and their political dispositions are not conclusively determined by lineage. For instance, the political family known to trace its antecedents to Arabs from the early Indian Ocean trade nexuses tried to make Bangladesh secular but was briefly overtaken by others who threatened to take it on a theocratic trajectory during a disturbed interregnum. The first lady from one such family was of Hindu descent.
But technically, Hindu Bengalis in West Bengal and India have to leave it at that because Muslim majority Bangladesh has defined a sovereign character (in the ascendant to some because of numbers) even if its incipient Sufi Islam was in its own way free of the tutelage of other dominant manifestations of the religion in the region. The overwhelmingly tribal animist peasantry converted to Islam when preachers joined them in their celebration of land and nature. The peasant is still generally unaffected even while richer sections and some among the middle classes have turned to a more combative interpretation of religion.
Leftists consciously eschew religio-communalism, but have often been caught unawares by its persistence. The Awami League under Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman moved away from the Muslim League and tried its best to keep Bangladesh secular, which it largely still is under his daughter Sheikh Hasina Wazed, who has successfully steered the country towards a prosperous growth path with political stability alongside good neighborly relations with India.
On both sides, vestiges of the open, unyoked trailblazer still linger, as they hopefully do in Pakistan.
Bengali identity consciousness is probably more pronounced in Bangladesh than in West Bengal because of its self-determined foothold. The trappings of contrasting faith and worship will keep the vast majority of the two Bengals politically divergent, perhaps a tad suspicious of each other and also competitive, even as they retain their similitude in matters literary and intellectual, and perhaps digital as well.
Again, politics and economics, local and global, should keep them mutually engrossed. Yet, there remains the substance of investing in people to attain self-sufficiency with dignity through the enlargement of human capabilities. That is where a common and sometimes painful history, eclectically treated, could facilitate a fellowship to beat the legacy of enforced inequity. It is encouraging that subjects like the study of economic and socio-political conditions, and now the modus operandi to sustain them, bring people closest to consensus across political boundaries. Helping people retain their traditional hearths should constitute the civilizational sine qua non.
Relocation for work across international borders could then be treated as natural, unexceptional and even beneficial if it became legal two-way traffic and workers had basic entitlements through education and awareness to protect themselves, not the least from traffickers and political manipulators. Bangladesh claims some of the employment reciprocity is already on, particularly through the informal movement of blue collar workers from Bihar.
If these spontaneous conditions require concerted subcontinental endeavor for fulfillment, the sobering thought against indifference is that like the devastation of its past riches, Bengal’s historical crises have translated into the region’s catastrophes. India’s eastern region could one day take a leaf out of the South which nurtures historical ties with Sri Lanka, and in a significant post-script, economic relations as well. It is another, though significant, story that migrants from the eastern region are believed to have been the forebears of the Sri Lankan people who possess the best human and social development indicators in South Asia. What really matters is the intimation of the holistic nature of human evolution and growth.
(The featured image at the top shows Muslim Bengalis celebrating the Bengali New Year or Pehela Baisakh in a colorful way)