Around the middle of the 19th century, two men set out from a village in Hooghly district of what is today West Bengal, striding towards their future. Their journey, almost entirely on foot, took them through the entrails of lowland Bengal into the borderlands of hilly colonial Assam, their destination. After nearly a year on the road, they reached Shillong, then a backwater. There, they found the British authorities engaged in survey work. This was a lucky break, as it gave them a business opportunity: supplying groceries and other items to the survey team, and eventually to others. Over the next few years, their business expanded into many other activities, including running a commercial horse-driven mail service between Shillong and Calcutta, a large business that was eventually taken over by their children. Of those two intrepid travellers, one was the grandfather of my maternal grandfather.
My father’s ancestral home is in the district of Noakhali, the heart of southern Bengal, in present-day Bangladesh. It is well known for high levels of emigration, as land shortage has driven millions to seek their livelihoods elsewhere. The migrants have been derisively referred to in Bengal and surrounding regions as goru chor (cattle rustlers), juta chor (shoe thieves) and other such epithets. It has a high education rate, as the migrants will generally try anything that could raise an income. One joke, common to other regions of Southasia with high emigration rates, recounts how, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, a Noakhali man with a tiny shop tried to sell him a packet of cigarettes. He had migrated there before the first man on the moon.
Our family tree begins with one Pahlewan Shah, who precedes me by 14 generations. The name suggests Central Asian roots. It is obvious that the Ganga’s rich delta zone, where agriculture had begun to boom under Mughal domination, attracted crowds much the way that a gold rush does. Rivers had become much more navigable, and the Mughal need for crops and goods had increased manifold as a large part of the Subcontinent came under their control. Under Mughal supervision, the wet agriculture of Bengal became a path to wealth for the king as well as a source of jobs for new migrants. The educated new migrants found work as middlemen, facilitating transactions, acting as interpreters, moneylenders and accountants. The Shahs soon morphed into the Munshis, the ubiquitous accountants, scribes and writers. One of them, in search of employment, travelled to find both a job and marriage at the estate of my forefathers over 150 years ago. One Asgar Munshi eventually took over and the Chowdhurys were born.
But by the early 20th century, the zamindari was barely profitable. Education again stepped in to lend a hand, as the children of landlords began to produce graduates. My grandfather finished high school in 1896, something quite unheard of at the time – but a wise act nevertheless, giving his children a sight of the future, a view suited to the children of a decaying aristocracy. His sons both graduated and found jobs in Calcutta, that fabled city where all came together. It was a sign of a time of transition for my father’s brother, educated and gifted but not rich; he failed to win his desired bride, who was married off to a rich businessman with roots in the landed gentry as well. Like many others he went to Burma, once the address of the lovelorn Bengali, migrating away from pain and into an easier job market away from an impoverished aristocratic life. Indeed, people in Burma still remember and detest the Bengalis, the clerks and schoolteachers of the crown; and Gujaratis, the traders of the empire. My uncle finally returned home and killed himself by consuming a lethal dose of opium.
My father was the stolid one, raised in Calcutta by his sister, beginning his career as a policeman and then as a banker in the same city, the only place he ever loved. Meanwhile, two Bengalis, who had once shared rooms in the Cambridge law school years earlier, met in Calcutta. One, my father’s uncle, had an eligible nephew; the other, my mother’s uncle, had a niece. The match was made and my parents were married in 1943; one was an immigrant from Noakhali, and the other was an immigrant from Shillong. Two immigrants from two parts of historical Bengal were thus joined in a third city of migrants. Of course, none knew then what was just around the corner. As August 1947 came rushing towards them, nearly every life was soon be torn asunder in the largest forced migration in history.
Navigating new nations
Migration – be it within national borders or beyond, voluntary or forced – has long been part of Bengali life. Anil Seal, in his seminal book India and the Emergence of Indian Nationalism talks of how the British in Bengal created the new clerical ‘babu’ class to serve their own needs, which coincided with the aspirations of the emerging Bengali middle class. Schools and colleges sprang up in response to the demand for education, but soon there were more graduates than jobs. This is what set off the internal migration from Bengal to other parts of India, particularly modern-day Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where there was demand for an educated class. The Ganguly family of the well-known Indian film stars Kishore and Ashok Kumar was part of this Bengali migrant population.
While Bengali migrants to North India (and Burma) belonged largely to the middle classes, the journeys of the poorer migrants usually took them to the Indian Northeast. When Syed Ahmed Khan and the Nawab of Rampur (in present-day Uttar Pradesh), the former a Muslim and the latter a Hindu, came together to fight the immigrant Bengalis, they were responding to classic anti-immigrant sentiment. Their organisation, a splendid sign of interfaith political cooperation, was dedicated to fighting these new arrivals. Syed Ahmed’s virulent anti-Bengali feelings are rooted in the appearance of Bengali graduates taking jobs that locals thought were rightfully theirs. When many people in India today rail against Bangladeshi/Muslim ‘outsiders’, there are clear echoes of the rage at the arrival of Bengali Hindu migrants into the colonial United Provinces.
Migration, which is today seen as a security issue between New Delhi and Dhaka, began with little protest from local indigenous people when it came to the Northeast. There were no national borders to be crossed at that time – it was all British India, and the locals were not asked their opinion because they were poor and with little political organisation. It really did not matter whether anyone was going there, went the thinking, because no one else wanted to do so.
Between 1947 and 1971, large-scale migration was non-existent in East Pakistan save for the border areas, where national boundaries existed in the eyes of the states but not the border people. My grandfather travelled back and forth between Shillong, where he ran a restaurant, and Dhaka, where his family had moved after 1947, thus existing as a stranger in both lands. In 1965, while he was visiting Dhaka, war broke out between India and Pakistan. He was declared an enemy, his restaurant was seized by his business partner and he was rendered a pauper overnight. Till his death in the mid-1970s, Grandfather gradually retreated into his own mind, continuing to live in his Shillong home inside his head. He had experienced what many Hindus did in East Pakistan: living in two lands and then paying a price for doing so, despite the fact that the two lands look and feel – and are – so similar. Likewise, for my ‘refugee’ uncles, life in East Pakistan was brutal, as they had no networks and never managed to build or find any. They were lost in the labyrinths of failure into which most forced migrants disappear, marginalised and part of neither land, immigrants to nowhere.
The second-largest forced migration took place in 1971, when Bangladesh fought for independence and over 10 million fled to India. Being forced to leave one’s home behind, be it to save one’s life or to search for a livelihood, is inherently a deeply painful but all-too-common experience for the people of eastern Bengal. Independence in 1971 coincided with a surge in poverty, as the land-to-man ratio became a crisis. At that time, the population increased beyond sustainable levels, and general economic mismanagement made middle-class prosperity and outright survival for the poor very difficult. Suddenly, migration became a business of the state, the businessman and society, not to mention the security forces.
Internal migration remains a largely invisible phenomenon. Within Bangladesh, people move to harvesting work every season, creating a relatively unknown migrant culture with its alternative survival strategies and values. And as the landless population increases, so too does internal migration. Some move from the rural areas to Dhaka, choking an already dysfunctional city even as the new extreme poor populate the city in a desperate attempt to survive. Sometimes internal migration produces deadly results, as in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. From the mid-1970s, the Hill Tracts saw militant insurgency by the indigenous Chakma population and a brutal pacification attempt by the Bangladesh Army. One containment strategy was to bring in landless people from the tidal flats of the Bay of Bengal to the hills, and give them free land for cultivation. The clear idea was to create a pro-state local population to marginalise the highlanders and reduce them to a minority. The new migrants, already brutalised by poverty and natural disasters in their erstwhile homes, became vicious in protecting the land given to them. In this way, then, internal migration was successfully used as a military tool, while the indigenous highlanders lived in refugee camps in India. When they returned following an agreement in the mid-1990, few got their land back.
While emigration and migration to most areas require certain qualifications, connections and money, none of this is required when one moves to India. Duly, millions have gone across the border over the last century. This process, which was an ‘internal migration’ till 1947, thereafter became an illegal international border crossing, increasingly attached to security implications. In the Indian Northeast, clashes between migrants and local indigenous populations have resulted in regional instability, while elsewhere in India the Bengali of Bangladesh is often accused of being linked to ‘terrorist’ activities. Many of these migrants are reduced to mere shadows, living lives of wretched poverty and fear. Another destination for the very poor is Pakistan, where many work as domestic servants and in the fisheries sector, so badly off that they spark pity even among Pakistanis. Their lives as migrants are as poverty-stricken as the ones they left behind at home.
We now see three distinct trends in Bangladeshi migration: emigration for settlement to Europe, Australasia and North America; contract labour migration to the Gulf and a few Southeast Asian countries; and of course the movement of people across the border areas, mainly to India. Migration to West Asia has drawn attention due to its enormous impact on the home economy. Remittances have emerged as a key driver of economic growth and poverty reduction in Bangladesh, increasing at an average annual rate of 19 percent over the last three decades. The World Bank reports that remittances – the bulk of which come from West Asia – now exceed all other types of foreign-exchange inflow. The Bangladeshi migrants in West Asia do not constitute a monolithic block, of course. Professionals are comfortable, while labourers lead miserable lives. But when the latter return to Bangladesh, they constitute a newly rich group in impoverished rural areas, a new local elite impacting on power relations – and keeping the economy from collapsing.
The narrative changes
The new element of the past decade is the rise of emigration to the West. People go there to settle permanently; entire families move, particularly to the UK, US and Canada, building diasporic communities and providing new narratives of loss and gain. Sylheti sailors and newer immigrants make the diaspora in the UK the most stable and established, with a Bangladeshi-British MP and shadow minister, a mayor in Bethnal Green, and various local government officials. In the US too there are many Bangladeshi migrants, but they have not prospered as much as yet. They are one of the many immigrant communities in the US, split between a small group of those who have made it and the majority who still struggle. The recent election of Hashem Clarke, of Bangladeshi descent, to the US House of Representatives makes him only the third Southasian in the US Congress, after Dalip Singh Saund and Bobby Jindal.
Canada is fast becoming the most common Western address for Southasians, including Bangladeshis. Asians in general are the most successful immigrants there, with the Chinese and Indians leading the pack, even as their countries of origin also experience economic growth. But Bangladesh does not have a thriving economy, and it is left to the immigrants to figure out how to move ahead – and they, like their ancestors, have chosen education as a means of survival and a road to prosperity. Almost two hundred years after their ancestors took to education to move ahead, forsaking other paths to prosperity in colonial India, Bangladeshis are today doing the same in Canada. As narratives change, my family finds more cousins in New York than elsewhere. When my mother fell ill recently, my brother in Dhaka had to call Singapore, New York and Toronto to inform her other three children. It does not look as though the process will change, and the future looks far too much like the past. More destinations will have to be found and new addresses found for many more immigrants. Directions, methods and destinations have changed, grown and some shut down – but still, the traveller walks on, whether from Central Asia or West Bengal, to new lands and addresses, willing and unwilling but always in search of the next home.