Ever since Bangladesh’s violent birth in 1971 with India’s midwifery, Bengalis on the two sides of the Hindu-Muslim divide have pondered anew a nostalgic question: Will East Bengal [Bangladesh] and West Bengal [part of India] ever reunite?
This question leads to several others: How did the Bengalis get divided in the first place? Is it just religion that burst them asunder or there are other profoundly deeper issues? How does the Bengal situation fit in the overall Indian context?
The story goes back some 70,000 years. That’s when some African migrants made India their home. Called the Negrito, or “little negroes,” they were the First Indians. Some of their distant relatives still roam around the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, 850 miles east of the subcontinent. The offspring of the First Indians look more like Namibia’s Bushmen or Australia’s aborigines than their distant cousins on mainland India. These reclusive islanders have managed to stay out of civilization for tens of thousands of years and kept their biological evolution at bay. They are almost dwarf, with very dark skin, closely curling hair, flat noses, thick lips, and large clumsy feet.
The second group of Indians — the Austroloid — entered the present-day state of Bihar at the foothills of the majestic Himalayas 40,000 BP [before present], coming from the Australia-Asian region. With silky, black and wavy hair, they have large jaws, chocolate skin color, and dark brown or black irises.
The third — the Harappan — settled in the Indus Valley roughly 10,000 BP, migrating from the Persian region. They looked like a blend of the Negrito, the Arja [or Aryan], and the Mongoloid, with sharp noses, thick lips, and slanted eyes.
The Arja and the Mongoloid — the two most recent migrant bands — moved into India around the same time, about 5,000 years ago. The Indralanders came from the colder region of southern Russia and the Mongoloid from relatively warmer Tibet and Indo-China.
In an agonizingly slow process, the Negrito and the Austroloid mingled to form what is now known as the Drabir or the Dravidian [the Bengalis are part of this group]. The Mongoloid later joined the Drabir to create a tri-racial society in southern and eastern India.
Meanwhile, the Indralanders, the rugged warriors from the Caspian Sea region, trounced the more civilized-but-fragile Harappan of the Mediterranean stock and took over northern India. Put differently, God “Indra stands accused” of obliterating the Harappan civilization and carrying out the “massacre” in Mohenjo-daro in present-day Pakistan.
The triumphant Eurasians were far fewer in number compared with the vast multitude of the vanquished locals. So, to establish their primacy and effectively rule the conquered land, the Arja segregated their new subjects into various groups and assigned each a specific task. They put the stamp of legitimacy on this divisive caste system with the newly minted Vedic religion [Arja-dharma].
SEGREGATION BEFORE ARJA CAME
To be fair, the Vedic people were not the first to plant the seed of discord in India. Tribal India, from which emerged today’s Bengalis, had been a stratified place long before the Indralanders made their adopted home a pyramid society.
The Aadibasi, or the original inhabitant, created different social classes based on status, wealth, and vocation; there were rich and poor, ruler and merchant as well as priest and parishioner. The Bhumij, for example, separated themselves into Ataisha [upper class], Nagadi [common folks], and Nichu [lower class].
What the light-skinned Arja did is they just made the existing schism even more rigid, adding skin color to it; they damned Indians into high-and-low classes from birth till death based on their parents’ vocation and ancestry. If you were born into a lower caste, you had no chance to move up the social ladder, no matter how hard you worked and how successful you were in life. The Arja religion rather promised that if you worked all your life as ordained, without ever trying to rock the system, you would get rewards in your next life.
For obvious reasons, to establish and perpetuate their control, the fair-skinned Indralanders placed themselves on top of the dark-colored locals in the caste ranking, inserting the race card into Indian society. Rig Ved, the oldest Arja holy book, declared: Dasam varnam adharam [black color impious]. Dark skin is still a curse in India; the “wheatish” color is the keyword in Indian matrimonial ads even today.
The karma-and-mokkha [action and salvation] creed imposed by the ruling Indralanders mandated that the locals strictly obey the Arja diktat. It tore apart Indian society, made the Indians docile, and conditioned them to bow to authority. It made the Indian sky gazers who prefer to look forward to the imaginary afterlife at the peril of sacrificing the material world they now live in. Above all, it retarded India’s prosperity and modernity. Religious superstitions barred Indians to venture out lest they get contaminated by the impure Mleccha (barbarian foreigners). Over the next few millennia, while the Indians slumbered in their homeland, India fell prey to Mleccha invasions time and again. The fallout of foreign subjugation still haunts India.
The Arja fooled the Indians into believing that their fate had been divinely sealed — they had better not rebel against it. This Vedic doctrine created by the Arja has been at the core of sectarian mayhem in India for thousands of years and a great source of trouble in this ancient land. It has filled the heads of the Indians with myths, inducing them to think emotionally rather than rationally and to believe in fiction rather than facts. It has created a field day for political rabble-rousers and allowed religious tricksters to mislead the trustful toward their evil designs. To borrow a phrase from Nobel-winning author V. S. Naipaul, it has caused “a million mutinies” in India.
HOW TWO BENGALS SEPARATED
What’s behind the chasm between two Bengals, once India’s most vibrant region in both treasure and brainpower? In a nutshell, the toxic cocktail of origin, wealth, and religion doomed the Bengalis into a divided bunch on two sides of the Radcliffe Line, the boundary the British drew in 1947 to cut off East Bengal from West Bengal.
The upper-class Bengali Hindus descended from primitive tribes of the hills and jungles, such as the Munda, the Santhal, and the Bhumij, who lived in eastern India. Until their conversion, they had been outside the Arja orbit, worshiping the nature of earthly sorts. They jumped the fence, leaving behind their nicheu kith and kin in Magadh and Madhayadesh, in an attempt to climb up the social ladder by mingling with the Arja migrants. They settled mostly on the west side of the Ganges in areas deemed kosher by Brahmmons for Hindu rituals.
The conversion accelerated after the Gupta kings pumped life back into Hinduism. Until then, the Arja dharma had been in a sharp retreat due to deadly blows from Buddhism and Jainism, the reformist cults that rocked Hindustan 2,500 years ago.
During the Gupta dynasty [4th to 6th century], Buddhism turned more ritualistic, and Buddhist ideas were made into Hindu schools. Baishnabism, Shaibism— softer variants of Hinduism — and other Hindu traditions became increasingly popular. Meanwhile, the Hindu aristocrats forged strong ties with the royalty.
This phenomenon helped the moribund Hinduism return with a vengeance. When the resurgent religion’s high tide hit India’s eastern hills, the jonglee [forest dwelling] chiefs left their own clans to become Hindu and, in the process, left behind their Mundari lingo, too. Armed with their new identity, the converted chiefs moved to Bengal to create their domain.
In Bengal, the chiefs became the second top-tier Hindu behind the priests. They learned Shanscrit [to use the spelling of Nathaniel Halhed, the Englishman who wrote the first Bengali grammar book in English] because they saw it as high culture and thus their elevator to upstairs. Down the road, they crafted the Bengali language, mixing up eastern dialects with Shanscrit to distinguish themselves from local tribal people who spoke vernaculars. This created distinct class identities and planted the seed of division in Bengal.
The legacy of the hilly tribes’ move-up mentality is still very much in play in today’s India. In vain attempts to bask in the ancient glory, South Indians claim they have descended from the men and women who built the Indus civilization more than three thousand years ago. This assertion is to counter the insult stamped on the Drabir by the Arja. The fair-skinned Eurasians described the Drabir as “dark-skinned, flat nose, harsh-spoken people who worshiped the phallus.” It’s a kind of name-calling the Drabir to find hard to swallow.
So the South Indians swear they carry the blood of the civilized early immigrants of the Mediterranean stock — the Harappan; they insist that the Harappan had been pushed south by the Indralayan invaders. This is an absurd contention.
The Arja destroyed the Indus society, but the Harappan never fled to the Vindhyachal, the Drabirian homeland. When the Indralanders arrived, much of India was swampy and covered by thick forests, making it virtually impassable. Furthermore, dakkhinapath, [the way to the South] was blocked by the Vindhyas, the Central Indian mountain range that separated the Drabir from the Arja. The Indraland warriors never mounted an armed campaign against the “Mleccha” in South India.
No evidence exists that the defeated Harappans took to the sea as their escape route to the South. There is no presence of Harappan artifacts south of the Vindhyas. Excavations in the South have revealed no traces of the Harappa culture. Today’s South Indians are everything but the Harappan.
Even though the invading Indralanders butchered and enslaved the Harappan in north India, the easterners were largely unaffected. So, they did not really spew lava in rage against the new white migrants. How can you hate someone you know nothing about? There was no CNN to beam the Arja massacre in the north to other parts of India. The Vedic people collided with the eastern hilly tribes much later when the intruders attacked Videha [Bihar] 2,500 years ago.
When the Indralanders first invaded north India, the Harappans were shocked and awed by the invaders’ superior military might, and the locals wished they had the same martial genes. As time went on, new waves of Arja arrived and the Negrito-Austroloid slowly resigned themselves to an inferior status. This inferiority complex plagues India even today. Thus Bombay becomes Bollywood mimicking Hollywood. Poona is not sexy enough for the Indian ego.
This mindset was also on clear display in Bengal’s tribal belt. For example, Rangpur-based Kochh tribe members began Shanscritization in the 1800s to move up in social status. They took the name Rajbongshi to assert their royal ancestry and claimed descent from King Dasarath, the father of Lord Ram. This upward mobility trend has been an ongoing process in eastern India for the past 1,600 years.
BUDDHISM FORCES HINDU REFORMS
The Shanscritization of India’s eastern belt, or the conversion of the “jonglee” folks into Hindu, began long after the Indralanders came to north India. Because navigating India’s forests was nearly impossible, the Eurasians stayed put for the first millennium in Arjabarta, or Hindustan — the land between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas. Outside Arjabarta, the rest of India remained virtually untouched by the new culture for a thousand years or so since the new immigrants came.
When the Iron Age arrived, the Indralanders learned how to make axes to clear-cut forests and began moving east. But Agni the fire God refused to cross the Gandak River because he judged Mleccha-infested Bihar and Bengal ritually unfit for Vedic sacrifices.
Some daring Indralayan pioneers, lured by prospects of economic largesse in the booming Magadh, nonetheless crossed the Gandak about 2,500 years ago, defying Agni. They started mixing with the Mleccha as Magadh [eastern India] flourished under the Maurya Empire, especially during the reign of Emperor Ashoke, a Hindu-turned-Buddhist monarch. This was the time when common folks embraced Buddhism in droves to escape the Arja tyranny, thanks to Buddha.
Buddhism is not a religion, but a rebellion against the oppressive Brammonism. Buddha was an atheist social reformer who wanted to change India. He mocked Hinduism and set in motion a crusade to get rid of the Vedic orthodoxy. Jainism, another reform drive based on agnostic beliefs, sprang up at the same time against the Brahmmonic dogma.
Buddha urged his devotees to shun Vedic Gods, bypass the Brahmmons, and meditate for nirvana. His doctrine had a fatal flaw; it lacked a God to pray to for comfort in times of distress and for salvation in the afterlife. Achieving nirvana on one’s own proved really tough business; the masses needed a God to lean on. After Buddha’s death, his disciples filled the void by making him the God, ignoring his sermons.
Because Buddha’s teachings and his followers’ practices clashed, Buddhist monks, split and spread over nearby lands. Buddha’s reforms slowly faded in India, as the ruling elite blessed the resurgent Hinduism and snubbed Buddhism. Soon, Hindu priests flocked to Bengal to charm tribal farmers, albeit with a dark-skinned Arja-dharma.
The refueled Hinduism, a blend of Vedic mantras and superstitious tribal [Santhal, Kol, Bhumij, and Munda] rituals, drew some elements from Buddhism and Jainism in an attempt to reflect the reality on the ground. [Both Buddhism and Jainism laid emphasis on non-violence and the sanctity of animal life. The Hindus were originally meat eaters but due to the influence of Buddhism and Jainism became vegetarian.]
By then, India had put on a new look, thanks to Buddha and Mahabir, the reformer who made Jainism popular. As a result, many powerful Arja Gods moved downstairs and some minor ones jumped up the ladder and took front seats in the Hindu pantheon alongside some jonglee [forest] deities. Contrasting the Arja dharma, in which male gods dwarfed female goddesses, eastern Hinduism worshiped several goddesses, such as Durga, Lakkhi, Saraswati, and Kali. Among them were some dark ones, too, with Kali being the darkest. To put it succinctly, Durga sent Ram into exile from eastern India.
The tribes in and around Magadh enthusiastically greeted the softer, modified Brahmmonic religion. It had by then been re-branded as Hinduism, or the Sanatan [traditional] dharma, as it was extolled by many of its ardent followers. Soon, the tribal rich-and-powerful started collecting their passport from the Hindu upper caste. Anyone, from the village landlord to the newly wealthy lower caste Shudra, could now bribe the Brahmmons to certify a fake family history. This certification helped the Hindu converts gain acceptance as Rajputs [or Kshatriyas, the second highest rank in the caste system, after the clergy]. However, they were derisively labeled by the locals as “fake Rajputs.”
The upper-class Ataisha from the Bhumij tribe not only converted to Hindu but also relocated to Bengal en masse. It is interesting that most of them settled on the west side of the River Ganges to avoid the Mleccha on the east. The Hindu community leaders, the orthodox as well as the advanced, in all parts of Bengal, laid great stress upon the purity of their Arja descent. By the time the priests put down firm roots in West Bengal, the converted Hindus had swamped the area. East Bengal, in contrast, remained virtually tribal. Thus, the Bengalis split culturally.
The history of the Ganges perhaps best paints the East-West divergence. From prehistoric times, the river flowed down the Bhagirathee channel. It did not divert eastward into the Padda River in East Bengal until after the 1500s. So, the river’s sanctity lingered on in West Bengal, where the Indraland folks settled down. East Bengal was cut off from West Bengal and thus from the Arja way of life.
NEW KID IN BENGAL: ISLAM
The left-out East Bengalis, oppressed and neglected, sought salvation in Islam. India, however, had begun feeling Islam’s pinch long ago, with fights erupting in northern regions over language soon after the Muslim conquerors arrived.
The new rulers had a tough time talking with their subjects in the hard-to-learn Shanscrit and often used their native idioms to clearly express themselves. When this mixed dialect first appeared in the Naagoree [now spelled as Nagari or Nagri] script, the Brahmmon showed disdain. To the Vedic pundits, the Naagoree, which means writing, was too coarse. So they had their sacred books published in “polished” Naagoree, or Daeb Naagoree, [now DebNagari] or the writing of the Gods. Hindu bankers, who were very active in the Ganges Delta and drew large traffic, circulated these books into the Bengal interior. However, Farsi remained Hindustan’s official language until the British changed it much later.
In the 1830s, when the British East India Company proposed to replace Farsi, which had been India’s official language since the Mughals came, clashes broke out all over India. The British wanted a uniform language and script to cut costs to interpret local documents settling court cases and conduct official business. But some localities feared that many of their people, who did court-related work, would be jobless if they were to switch to a new script; others took it as an attack on their religion. Among the options offered by the British to write the language were Persian in Persian script; Hindustani in Persian script [Urdu], Hindi in Nagari script, English in Roman script, and Bengali in Bengali script.
To the surprise of many people, nearly 500 Dhaka residents petitioned the government in 1839 in favor of Persian against Bengali. They argued Bengali script varied from place to place; one line of Persian could do the work of ten lines of Bengali; the awkward written style [derisively dubbed as the crab style] of Bengali read more slowly than that of Persian, and people from one district could barely understand the dialect of those from another district.
The petition surprised many people not just because the Bengalis went against their mother tongue, but also because both Muslims and Hindus jointly favored Farsi. Of the signatories, 200 were Hindu and the rest were Muslim. Both the Hindus and the Muslims, especially landowners and those who had to deal with the courts, understood Persian and Arabic connected with their business far better than any Shanscrit [nearly 50 percent of Bengali words came from Shanscrit] phrases. Here, the common Bengali interest superseded the parochial religious division. When it comes to money, everyone speaks the same language. Herein lies the silver lining of a possible East-West reunion someday.
THAKUR, PAKISTAN, KOLKATA BENGALI
Despite standing shoulder-to-shoulder to preserve their common interests, Hindus and Muslims remained poles apart in the ways they looked at life. Islam’s effects on East Bengal have been as strong as Hinduism’s on West Bengal, if not more. Both Islam and Hinduism are alien to Bengal, but Hinduism, especially the version practiced in eastern India, drew more of its nourishment from local sources.
The sharp religious-political prejudices of the two Bengals erupted into full view, first in 1905 and then again in 1947, when the British split up the delta. The 1905 partition was short-lived and ended in 1911 under fierce Hindu pressure. After the 1947 breakup, Hindu-majority West Bengal stayed with Mother India, a constitutionally secular republic, but in reality, a superstitious hodgepodge cloaked in half-baked western ideals.
And, Muslim-heavy East Bengal joined Pakistan, later emerging as Bangladesh, a professedly secular, but actually traditional society tinged with Islam.
Hindus and Muslims at one point became so estranged that they fought even over the name “Bangla.” The word evolved from “Bangala,” which was coined by Arab geographers from the word “Vangalam,” which was found on an inscription in the great temple of Tanjore, Tamil Nadu. From Arabic, it got into Persian, and the Ain-I-Akbari insisted that “the real name of Bangla is Bang.” From Persian, “Bangala” entered Hindustani, and Muslim writers used it in the Hindustani language. But classical Hindu writers still adhered to the proper name of the country — Bang. The word Bangala never appeared in Shanscrit literature.
The political divergence of the two parts of Bengal had its roots in the cultural and religious arenas. The 1793 Permanent Settlement Act had already created a permanent economic underclass and caused a vast Grand Canyon-type chasm between the Hindu landed gentry and the Muslim landless serf. The Hindu elite in Kolkata innovated the Bengali language for the elite; neither their manner of speaking nor their way of doing things touched lowly peasants, fishermen, cobblers and sweepers in East Bengal. To the masses — especially to the Muslim tiller—Bengali remained an elitist Hindu language and reflected Hindu culture.
So the Muslims invented their own vernacular and script. Sylheti Nagari, which was used primarily in eastern Sylhet in East Bengal, for example, chronicled Muslim religious poetry, known as puthis. This reality later spawned opposite camps when the Bengali language reform question arose in East Pakistan, and reformists in Dhaka split along religious and ideological dogmas.
In the rest of India, the melee centered on Hindi and Urdu. The Hindus favored Hindi in Nagari; the Muslims wanted Hindustani in Persian script [Urdu]. When the British ordered the exclusive use of Nagari in school in 1880 to meet a Hindu demand in Bihar, which was then under the Bengal Presidency, the Muslims howled.
In 1882, the National Muhammadan Association in Kolkata cited the 1839 petition in Dhaka to firm up its opposition to Hindi. Educated Muslims rejected the Hindu linguistic heritage; they showed a “natural antipathy” to learning Hindi. On the other end, educated Hindus wanted no part of the languages and scripts that smelled like Islam; they promoted Hindi in Nagari.
This venom vitiated the entire Bengal in the end. Countering the Muslim resistance to Hindi, Syamacharan Ganguli, a Calcutta University fellow, in 1882 asked Muslims to accept the fact that Urdu is “Hindi in its base, just as they themselves are largely Hindu by race.” He urged Muslims to merge into the Hindu mainstream of Indian culture, because “Hindus would never consider the reverse.”
The elitist toxins made Hindu-Muslim gaps in language and culture even wider. Early Bengali literary gems recorded no communal discords. When the epic Srikrishnakirtan came out in the 1300s, for example, Muslims and Hindus both used the same Bengali word for water. In the 1800s, they had different words for the same. During the 500-plus-year Muslim rule in Bengal, the Hindus called the shots in the cultural field, but the Muslims started making inroads.
In 1757, the British defeated the Muslim rulers. Under the British, the upper-class Hindus in Kolkata in due course made their position even stronger and reshaped modern Bengali in the Shanscrit mold into a “high-flown” medium of expression. This caused an ever-lasting fissure with the Muslims, who viewed Shanscrit as Hindu slang. The fallout was immense.
Ganguli protested the Shanscritization of Bengali. He instead pushed for assimilation of the vocabulary of written Bengali into the everyday speech of educated Bengalis. Several other Bengali literary giants, including Nobel winner Rabindranath Thakur, Haraprashad Shastri and Ramendrasundar Tribedi, backed Ganguli.
The high-flying language, however, was no good for common folks, because it was loaded with Shanscrit words. Neither was Ganguli’s Bengali of the educated, because illiterate farmers, weavers, and fishermen in East Bengal all spoke local dialects. [An estimated 50 percent of Bengali words are distorted Shanscrit, 45 percent are pure Shanscrit, and the rest are foreign].
As a result, Bengali, as a common-man’s tongue, has been “stunted in its growth by the cramming of a class of food” that it could not digest. However, the ordinary Hindus, better educated than their Muslim peers and in tune with Shanscrit because of their religion, quickly picked up the elitist Kolkata speech. Soon the Bengali Hindu and the Bengali Muslim neighbors, for thousands of years, were well on their way to a cultural divorce.
This rift affected not just the lingo but also politics. In fact, politics and religion colored the language as well as the lifestyle. In the 1920s, noted linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterji’s efforts to iron out Bengali spellings, for example, bore no fruits. In the 1930s, several famous Kolkata scholars — including Thakur, Shastri, and Tribedi — made rules to yank Bengali from the grip of Shanscrit and to stop the intrusion of foreign [mainly Arabic and Persian] words into it, but only West Bengal accepted them. In East Bengal, Moulana Akram Khan led a failed bid to fine-tune written Bengali. The competing ideas on the two sides of the Hindu-Muslim divide made it crystal clear that a Himalayan barrier existed between the two Bengals.
WILL TWO BENGALS EVER REUNITE?
The prospect of a reunion now between East Bengal and West Bengal is air-thin at best. However, one should never say never. Even though the two Bengalis don’t see eye to eye in politics or religion, they may one day find common ground in economics, for the rising tide lifts all boats.
A possible catalyst appears to be on the horizon to bring about this seismic change. By the end of this century, Bangladesh’s current population of 160 million would dip by roughly 50 percent to 81 million as part of a global trend, and a similar fate awaits 100 million-strong West Bengal. This is likely to cause economic and political volcanoes.
Nation states collapse when they are plagued by internal turmoil and they stop delivering positive political goods to their people. A downturn in national output year after year, an inescapable fallout of depopulation, spells doom and gloom for nations. To fend off such a misfortune, Muslim-majority Bangladesh and Hindu-dominated West Bengal will enter a survival mode, and the evil religious rift between them is likely to get blurry.
If the Hindus and the Muslims agree one day that the wealth of a united Bengali nation is much greater than the total wealth of the two divided Bengals [in other words, if 1+1=3], they will reach the promised land. There is no telling, however, if money alone can take them to the mountaintop, but the 1839 experience in Dhaka holds a promise.
If Bangladesh were to emerge as the Switzerland of the East someday, fulfilling the dream of its founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, West Bengal might find reunification tempting. On the flip side, if India were to flourish into a land of milk and honey, the magnetic pull may be too strong for Bangladesh to resist, as was the case with East Germany.
At any rate, religion would still be a hard nut to crack. Because of East Bengal’s perceived cultural inferiority, the divine inertia would be weaker in Bangladesh than in Indian Bengal toward a possible merger. West Bengal’s holier-than-thou attitude — and Hindus’ phobia of living in a Muslim-majority nation — would pour cold water on any effort in the Indian state to unite with Bangladesh.
West Bengali Hindus do not consider Muslims in Bangladesh as real Bengalis. Annada Shankar Ray, a prominent West Bengali Hindu intellectual, made this clear. During the 1950s and 1960s, he articulated in many articles and letters that he was “waiting for an auspicious moment when the Hindus and the Muslims on both sides of the partitioned Bengal would relinquish their animosity and rewrite the history of Bengal.” He wrote several Bengali poems criticizing India’s partition in 1947.
The same man, in an article on whether he would like to see West Bengal reunite with Bangladesh, wrote in 1987: “…West Bengal will never want to secede [from India]. But if there is an imbroglio all around the country, and if Delhi fails to manage it, then there is a possibility India might disintegrate. In such a case, West Bengal may secede from India and slam the door to the other seven states, including Assam, which will also secede. Then a federation of states can be formed under the leadership of West Bengal. But not with Bangladesh.”
He opposed the reunification of two Bengals not because of his loyalty to India [he admitted West Bengal might secede under certain conditions], but because of his “perception of Bangladesh which is indelibly inscribed as the other.” In other words, Hindus would want a united Bengal only if it remained under their domination within the federation of India.
Texas and Mexico illustrate the point. Texas will refuse to rejoin Mexico — even if the Hispanic nation becomes as wealthy as the United States — because Texans consider Mexicans inferior. But the Mexicans would count on joining the Gringos as God’s blessing. Likewise, Jews won’t live alongside Muslims in Palestine, even if it were a non-religious democracy, but Palestinians won’t fret much about residing with Jews in a secular republic.
While threats to life and liberty are prime factors to drive humans into action, money has sobering effects on race and religion in turbulent societies. Hardly anyone in the United States wants to live in a poor black neighborhood, but many Americans are more than excited to welcome a rich-and-famous black man as their neighbor. African-Americans refused to migrate to the free country of Liberia to bask in the sunshine of freedom and chose to stay in the oppressive United States because of its economic largesse. Scots stayed with England for economic benefits, too.
Of all the hurdles standing in the way of uniting the Bengalis, the biggest one is Hindi India. Will Delhi let Kolkata go? Highly unlikely. Indians, especially Bengali Hindus, who identify themselves as Indian first and Bengali second, stood firmly behind Bengal’s partition to keep the Hindu-majority part within India in 1947 when Britain quit. Today, because of its strategic location, West Bengal is crucial to India’s national defense and to prevent its ethnically charged northeastern states from breaking away. Indeed, the Delhi factor is likely to throw a monkey wrench into the whole equation.
To be sure, many other countries show equally strong anti-secessionist attitudes. Britain mounted robust efforts to defeat Scotland’s independence bid. Spain coerced Catalonia into silence. Northern Ireland’s nationalists shed blood in vain to join Ireland. Sri Lanka still treats ethnic Tamils as enemy combatants. China has turned Xinjiang into a Gulag.
Yet countries do fall apart. The Mughal Empire is gone, and so is the Ottoman. The Soviet Union is no more, nor is Yugoslavia. Neither Indonesia wanted East Timor to go, nor did Sudan wish to see South Sudan break free. Yet both East Timor and South Sudan are free nations. The breakup of Eritrea from Ethiopia is just one more example.
Separatist movements, however, rarely succeed without covert or overt external assistance. France gave money, troops, and arms that tipped the balance of military power in favor of the United States. America bullied Colombia to create Panama. India backed Bangladesh. East Timor, Bosnia, and South Sudan all enjoyed support worldwide. Will China assist West Bengal to secede? No, Beijing is highly unlikely to risk a cataclysmic war with Delhi, unless the Dragon wakes up one day from slumber and decides to cut off restive eastern India from the Elephant.
Until and unless that happens, a united Bengali nation is likely to remain an elusive dream.
B. Z. Khasru, a U.S.-based journalist, is the author of “Bangladesh Liberation War, How India, U.S., China, and the USSR Shaped the Outcome.” His new book, “One Eleven Minus Two, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s War on Yunus an America,” will be published shortly by Rupa & Co., New Delhi.