Growing up in West Bengal, I had primarily two images of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh – first, as the home that the maternal side of my family had to flee to save their life; and second, as the site of the great liberation struggle of 1971. Many Bengalis in West Bengal felt a deep resonance with the Liberation War.
As time went on, especially in the post-1990 period, these images began to fade from the public imagination and was slowly replaced by the image of the ‘illegal’ Bangladeshi, who is always sneaking in to take away menial jobs from West Bengal, threatening to change the demographic reality of border districts, and posing the danger of turning the state into a Muslim-majority province. Given this state of affairs, my first real sustained exposures to people from the East happened during my eight-year-long stay outside the Indian Union, primarily in the US but also in several European and West Asian countries.
In the Partition of 1947, Bengal was divided along the Radcliffe Line into East Bengal (part of Pakistan) and West Bengal (part of India). What followed was an unprecedented scale of migration of Hindus from East to West and Muslims from West to East, with the Hindu refugees far outnumbering Muslim refugees. The East to West migration continues to this day and has been termed the ‘Long Partition’. My mother’s side of the family is from Barisal, East Bengal. Although they were Partition refugees, they had enough socioeconomic capital to avoid the inhumane conditions of refugee camps and colonies. The Partition generation hardly exists in West Bengal anymore – both in term of being a living presence or having an identifiable cultural imprint. Later generations, especially in the big urban centres, have ‘assimilated’ at the cost of their original languages, religious-cultural practices and identity. Hence, growing up, my interactions with ‘Bangaals’ – a term used to refer to people from East Bengal, especially those from western East Bengal – did not give me much of an idea about the place and its people. My years in the US provided my first exposure to the greater part of my people. This is about that exposure, what I saw and how I compared ‘them’ with ‘us’.
Interestingly, the immigrant from West and East Bengal are drawn differently from their respective societies. Most expatriates from West Bengal in the US are upper-class, upper-caste, Hindu white-collar professionals with substantial institutional education. The ‘Bengaliness’ of this group is largely limited to certain interactions within themselves, around predictable religious-cultural events and a nostalgia for the land left behind, but also a simultaneous hope that their children should not return back to it. And of course, they largely do not present themselves to the White world around them as Bengalis; it is part of their incessant struggle to integrate with the dominant white culture.
This is very different from the mix of people who make up the East Bengali part of the immigrant Bengalis. There are folks who were and are extremely wealthy back in Bangladesh and have connections among the higher echelons of that nation’s political circles; there are the middle- to upper-grade white-collar professionals; there are taxi-drivers, street-hawkers, restaurant workers, departmental store employees and more. As such, they are more representative of their land than West Bengalis.
New England comprises of the near-coastal regions of the northeast US. I used to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it is here I started getting an idea of the degree of political activity in the Bangladeshi community. This activity relates to politics in present-day Bangladesh. The two main parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), have chapters spread all across the US. These are not just one-person operations or sign-board groups but organisations with a good membership base, regular meetings and year-round activities, similar to what would be expected ‘back home’. Their activities typically peak around major events. For example, there were many meetings and even street-corner congregation around issues like the recent Shahbag protests in Dhaka or the alleged partisanship in the ongoing war crimes trials. Keeping abreast of politics back home, quarrelling with the ‘other’ party, calling each other Pakistan’s bastard child or an Indian agent – these are standard fare.
In fact, there is another uncanny similarity with the homeland. Almost every state committee of the Awami League and BNP in the US have adversarial camps that claim they are the ‘real’ group. There is a fair bit of mud-slinging. About five years ago, I was myself a witness to sloganeering and counter-sloganeering between opposing US-based Awami League factions in front of the Awami League president and Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in Manhattan, New York. In some cases, even the smaller mass organisations of parent parties, like the Chhatra League (Student’s League) or Jubo League (Youth League) of the Awami League, are replicated. I often attended their public meeting. Almost every meeting ends in a sumptuous feast. And here, politics and ideology meets gastronomy. While the ‘secular’ Awami League would typically have two kinds of meats – beef and chicken to accomodate non-Muslims, the BNP, with ideological basis on ‘Islamic values’, would serve only beef.
Many MPs, ministers and even bureaucrats of Bangladesh often visit these local chapters and are shuttled from one location to another by locally influential post-holders. In case of groups where each claims to be the ‘real’ or more authentic one, the visiting politician typically divides their time between the feuding factions, clearly avoiding any statements that support either of the groups. Many of these politicians have sons and daughters who are permanently settled in the US. Additionally, Bangladesh has had long periods of military rule and one-party dictatorship. These periods have seen many opposition leaders move to seek refuge abroad till things got better. This legacy also has to be factored in when we see the curious phenomenon of the numerous foreign branches of established political parties.
However, another aspect of this is the clout immigrants of a certain type have, given Bangladeshi economy’s dependence on their remittance. In many cases, the ‘prodigal son’ of an area donates money to his local high school or mosque, thus maintaining a certain link of grounded legitimacy and giving back. Often, these are mediated by local politicians in Bangladesh. All this coupled with the near-complete marginalisation of Bangladeshis in the local politics of US gives rise to this nature of political engagement.
At certain times, other kinds of societal fissures come to fore in such political meetings. Bengal’s Muslims are indigenous almost to the last person, except for some elites who maintain their difference and imagined superiority of having descended from this non-Bengal family or that religious order from Hindustan region of the Indian Union, or Persia, or Central Asia. Even in a foreign country, such affiliations die hard and often provoke gentle sarcasm about the supposed superiority. I will recount one such incident.
In Boston, a prominent anti-Awami League and pro-BNP member called Selim Hossain (name changed) had the title of ‘Suhrawardy’. He was always insistent that this ‘title’ of his be prominently declared because he knew that this signified his descent from a Central Asian Sufi order that has been associated with power-politics for a very long time. At a New England BNP meeting, organised in honour of Moudud Ahmed, the former prime minister of Bangladesh and one of the senior-most politicians of the BNP, the emcee announced the names of the prominent pro-BNP persons on stage. As luck would have it, the emcee did not mention the ‘Suhrawardy’ part of the name of our exalted friend. Immediately, Selim Hossain corrected this and mentioned that his full name was Selim Hossain Suhrawardy. Moudud Ahmed, not a person to miss the opportunity of bursting this kind of a balloon, turned to Selim Hossain Suhrawardy and retorted in a very pious-sounding, full-throated and long ‘Assalam aleikum’. That he chose to say this to ‘Suhrawardy’ alone was only to be outwardly respectful in a religious sort of way (because the Suhrawardy clan claims eminence and status in religious hierarchy), and was an effective dig at this scion of the Suhrawardy clan. The audience, almost none of whom were from ‘exalted’ clans or orders, lapped it up. That shut up Selim Hossain for the evening.
While there are pan-Bangladeshi organisations in all the US states, such as the Bangladesh Association of New England (BANE) with a membership of about thousand, there are other kinds of civic organisations too. There are organisations based on regions within the territories of Bangladesh. The few members from the tribal groups of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) typically do not associate themselves with Bangladeshi organisations, given that the CHT is under quasi-military occupation in Bangladesh. The divide is political, cultural and ethnic. Hindu and Buddhist minorities, though less marginalised, often do not have prominent roles in these civic organisations.
Almost every district and medium-size town of Bangladesh has its corresponding organisation in various parts of the US. Because of the huge variation in social and linguistic cultures between parts of what is called ‘Bengal’, this is but natural. Hence, we see huge picnics of the Tangail Association or Eid celebrations by the Mymensingh Parishad. These organisations have substantial membership and are run by its nominal fees. They serve as support networks in a foreign land, especially so for the newly arrived. In this regard, the comparison with immigrants from West Bengal couldn’t have been starker. Almost all West Bengalis in US would say that they are from ‘Calcutta’, even if their home is in some other district far-away from Kolkata. Hence, there are no corresponding non-Kolkata districts, such as Bibhum associations or Bankura Parishads.
Clearly, the dominance of Kolkata-centric cultural identity is so extreme in West Bengal that emigrants carry this to foreign lands. They largely do not care about their district origins. West Bengal doesn’t really promote pride in district identities, thus inculcating a deep inferiority complex in them. That their ancestors in the Hooghly district used to go the fields early in a morning with a water-filled garu in hand to relieve himself are facts that are either unmentionable, forgotten or embarrassing. The Dhaka University campus is full of small leaflets advertising accommodations or paying-guest homes for students from particular districts. They associate with others, but mostly not at the cost of their local identity. There is no such comparable phenomenon in the Calcutta University because there these distinct identities are replaced by a less-layered less-rich identity around a certain overarching notion of ‘Bengaliness’, as theorised and dreamt up around metropolitan Kolkata. This lack of roots shows itself in the West Bengalis’ drive to ‘transcend’ Bankura-ness in Kolkata, Bengali-ness in Delhi and brown-ness in the US. Hence, it is only among folks like Badiuzzaman Khan Nasim of Cambridge do we have initiatives of creating a huge Bangla books and CDs section in the Cambridge Public Library in Massachusetts. The enviable collection has material from both Bengals, including some recent issues of Bangla literary magazines from West Bengal. Even in foreign lands, the Bengali identity is largely carried forward by those from East Bengal, however much more ‘accomplished’ their Western Bengali counterparts in those countries may be.
~Garga Chatterjee is a commentator on the culture and politics of Southasia. He holds a PhD from Harvard. A collection of his writings can be found at hajarduari.wordpress.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gargac. Chatterjee also has a review of Gary J Bass’s The Blood Telegram in the print issue ‘The Banglesh Paradox’.