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The mirage of Bengal reunification
A good thing to look forward to from a national point of view (because clearly there isn't a Bengal point of view to look at anymore) would be increased co-operation with the smaller and less problematic neighbour and buy loyalty by enhanced economic aid and forced allegiance to India's foreign policy, China style.

I GREW up with listening to heart-rending tales of the partition of Bengal and the anguish and pain that it caused my grandparents. Being a third generation East Bengali refugee, such tales always mesmerized me by inspiring an aura of the bygone epoch.

The undulating golden paddy fields, the mighty rivers and innumerable canals crisscrossing the countryside, men and women bridging these on ‘shakho’ (a bamboo contraption with two rows of bamboos, one to walk on and the other to hold as a handrail, connecting areas in the Bengal hinterland till date), and above all, the prosperity. ‘Amar Shonar Bangla’, so beautifully painted in a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, which is now the national anthem of Bangladesh.

So deep was the imagery reinvigorated that a longing for that unseen land craved in and left my childish senses with one pertinent question: can the two Bengals be one again? I always found dismissals of such a thought among my parents, uncles and aunts. A few optimistic ones did propound theories of how that can become possible one day but these theories were riddled with clauses. Clauses that to my childhood judgment seemed improbable.

Then I grew up. Reading more on India’s history and that of Bengal in the greater context. Watching mobs of ‘kar-sevaks’ demolishing a historical monument with Muslim antecedents on TV (that also led to repression of Bangladeshi Hindus, among other things). And experiencing ‘change’ brought  by Mamata Banarjee by ushering in a non-communist government in West Bengal during my lifetime.

But I never found a suitable explanation for my childhood wonder; will the two Bengals be one? Ever? The answer has to lie within and thus the quest has to end with by answering two basic questions. One, what caused the partition. The other being, are there conditions prevailing for a reunification?

A mention of our erstwhile British colonialists and their American friends should be the point of start of the answer to the first one. The British, at some point in the 1930s realized that they cannot keep India no more. Freedom was inevitable, sooner or later. The crafty British at this point in time started strategizing on their exit plan from India. It goes without saying that their plan was not to relinquish all ties with India but to alter the course of the country’s future at its own behest.

Meetings and communication with senior Congress leaders, including Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru made British realize that an independent India would not play along United Kingdom in international politics.

With their morbid fear of communists led by Soviet Russia, Americans joined British anarchy in improvising methods to retain strategic military footholds in the region. Though Americans were against a partition in the beginning, they were overwhelmingly convinced by the British that a partition of India would ensure their cause. To bring matters to a desirable end for the British, Jinnah pledged allegiance to the Commonwealth and British and American military aspirations if delivered the promised land for Muslims, Pakistan.

Hence, the British slowly yet surely sowed the seeds of religious intolerance in the backdrop of a fallout between Khilafat and Congress. Or did they? There are thick volumes on historical commentary that corroborate how British played Hindu and Muslim sentiments to drive them at each other’s throats. But as I see it, religious intolerance existed at various levels across the centuries. Prevalence of an unstable equilibrium of such intolerance is a different matter. But they existed. Hindus were the non-believers with most of the resources and education. Muslims were conquerors who ate (the) holy cows. I have first-hand accounts of grand-parents taking a bath after feeding a Muslim beggar during the Great Bengal Famine. Humanity did lead them to feed but strongly ingrained religious suspicions compelled the bath.

A closely debated and now openly brandished example is of German re-unification. But to a wiser eye, it would become obvious that the underlying elements are quite different. Though strategic moves between British-American and Soviet forces laid the cornerstone of German partition, there was never any animosity between the Germans as such. There were no horrific riots to cry over and no ‘exchange’ of population who would live on to hate for their misgivings against fellow Germans (not considering the flight and expulsion of Germans during and after World War II from other east and central European countries). The weakening of the Soviet Bloc and the stage being set for dissolution of Soviet Union, threw the perfect opportunity to unify the German states, divided largely as the spoils of World War II.

Closer home, refugees at both sides of the Radcliffe Line brought in horrendous stories of rape, pillage, plunder and killings. Calcutta was avenged with Noakhali. And such reprisals continued till 1950s when most alive yet disillusioned East Bengali Hindus realized that partition is not a retractable political ‘gimmick’ played by the political masters in New Delhi, Islamabad and London (and arguably Washington) but is here to stay.  

The situation even today is not favourable in Bangladesh for the remaining Hindus (9.6% of the population) and instances of religious repercussions are rampant whenever similar religious overtones are witnessed in India. Many a travelling Bangladeshi Hindus will tell me that and my head will remain hung in dejection recalling Babri Masjid and Gujarat riots.

Post the war of 1971 and emergence of Bangladesh as a nation, there had been a ray of hope. ‘Bengali Language Movement’ gratified Bengali egos on either sides and formation of Bangladesh infused a fresh life into hopes of greater cross-border cultural exchange. Many say that the last real chance that the Bengals had for reunification was lost when Indira Gandhi decided in favour of liberation of Bangladesh and not annexation. The unintentional yet convenient chance was ceremoniously cast away and buried in history’s memories.

Nonetheless, when things were getting encouraging for an enhanced cultural bonding (if not a reunification), a series of military uprisings and coups took the political masters of India and Bangladesh further away. From being a country formed with Indian assistance, it soon became a hot bed for ISI and other anti-India insurgent activities.

Meanwhile, East Bengali refugees struggled to make a livelihood, especially those who had no education or knew no craft, in their new country. Glaring government apathy towards resettlement of Bengali refugees is evident from the correspondence between the then Chief Minister of West Bengal Dr. BC Roy and Pandit Nehru. But as time heals everything, so it did for the Bengali refugees. Despite being unwelcome in the areas west of the Radcliff Line, the situation was not as bad as was for the Muhajirs.

In the 65 years of Indian Independence, an East Bengali refugee (mostly his descendants) has come to identify more with the Indian nation than any standalone Bengali identity. Years of singing ‘Jana Gana Mana’ and ‘Saare Jahan Se Achcha’ does that to you. And in any case, all thoughts of reunification for Hindu refugees had always been under the Indian union.

These decades also saw interlinking of West Bengal’s economy with the Indian states; while all raw materials like jute in the industrial units in the Greater Calcutta region came from eastern parts of Bengal before partition. In West Bengal, the jute industry died with advancement of plastic while industry in itself had been sacrificed at the altar of communist ideals and militant trade unionism since 1970s. Remaining new industries found buyers and raw materials within India while Bangladesh stitched for the first world. Thus, the pre-partition Bengals have learnt to stay independent of each other, both culturally and economically.

A conclusion of sorts thus can be drawn that any question of reunification (except for cocktails in Boston or on-cab conversations in New York), in all probability, can be ruled out. Decades of animosity between the Bengali speaking people are also fuelling nationalistic passions bordering on religious strife till date. Moreover, religious suspicion is at an all-time high with Islamic terror raising its ugly head and making inroads through the porous Indo-Bangladesh border.

A good thing to look forward to from a national point of view (because clearly there isn’t a Bengal point of view to look at anymore) would be increased co-operation with the smaller and less problematic neighbour and buy loyalty by enhanced economic aid and forced allegiance to India’s foreign policy, China style.

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