By Dr. Richard L. Benkin
(Richard Benkin, a writer and a close friend of Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, who lives in America has all through his life fought intellectual battles in Indian sub-continent in propagating human values and rights much above narrow sectarian, religious and ethnic divides has started dreaming for a united Bengal once divided by our British colonial masters in two parts. The history of Bengal however suggests the division of Bengal felt much needed amid bloodbath and displacement of one and half a billion Hindus from today’s Bangladesh in 1946, 1971. Hindu refugee influx is still continued into India .These Hindu hapless billions are living sub human lives in various parts of Indian provinces under compulsion. The victims are Bengali Hindus and the attackers are the violent Muslims. The views of the writer is his own and The News has only produced his paper for discussion and solicit learned views of the readers: – Editor)
It’s a story of few years ago to be worth recalling here. I was on a flight from Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, to Kolkata, the former capital of “British India” and the current capital of India’s fourth largest state as was once called The City of Palaces. Sitting next to me were a child of middle school years and her father. The girl, fascinated by the rare opportunity to talk to an American, struck up a conversation so she could ask me about life in the United States. I asked her the sort of questions adults tend to ask children of that age—friends, hobbies, and the obligatory, “how’s school” etc.
Speaking of school in perfect English, she told me matter-of-factly that “Kolkata is ours”; that is, rightly part of Bangladesh. Her teachers emphasized this regularly who said; that there is only one Bengal, one Bengali people, and no reason why they should be divided. I asked her if, that being the case, whether she ever considered merging Bangladesh into West Bengal. “After all,” I said, “if children in Dhaka can say ‘Kolkata is ours,’ Kolkata children can say the same about Dhaka.”
I often think about that conversation because the youngster and her teachers were right: there was only one Bengal, with a rich and well-documented history; and there is only one Bengali people. Even as a modern political entity, there was only one Bengal until the British divided it 1905. There was no “natural” division behind the partition, and Bengalis then and now believe that it was part of a British “divide and rule” strategy to set Hindus and Muslims to fight against one another. West Bengal (with pieces of Orissa and Bihar) is majority Hindu; East Bengal (with part of Assam) was majority Muslim. After six and a half years, the British were forced to annul the partition, and spin off the three non-Bengali areas into their own separate units. But the idea stuck. When the British left India in 1947 partitioned the nation along religious lines, they again divided Bengal, making the east a non-contiguous part of Muslim-majority Pakistan. Like the 1905 partition, that too was a failed experiment, which ended in 1971 when, with Indian assistance, East Bengal, then known as East Pakistan, rebelled and formed the nation of Bangladesh. It is time to rectify this travesty imposed by a foreign power.
In addition to sharing a common nationality and rich culture, West and East Bengal share a number of other traits. Both are fiercely independent; the border between them is very porous (something I have seen myself time and again), further reducing a sense of separateness; both are ruled by very strong leaders who, despite any considerations of power politics, love Bengal and the Bengali people first and foremost. Sheikh Hasina has been Bangladesh’s Prime Minister for just under nine years, not counting her previous stint as PM, and her Awami League (BAL) formed government being unopposed. Her rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) did not even contest in the last parliamentary elections. On the other side of the border, Mamata Banerjee has been West Bengal’s Chief Minister for six and a half year. She defeated a communist government that had been in power for 34 years, and has consolidated her Trinamool Congress Party’s (TMC) as effectively unchallenged power. The gains in the most recent elections by the Bhatariya Janata Party (BJP) of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, came at the expense of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty led Congress Party in a fight to see which one would come in a distant second. The TMC and BAL control the region’s political destiny, and their leaders are irrepressible forces who can impose their will on others.
The time is ripe for the idea of a united Bengal. East and West have significant resources, yet both face serious challenges. They have significant infrastructure problems that retard growth and lessen their attractiveness to businesses looking for a location. On a flight from Tokyo to Chicago, I sat next someone whose job was to scout Asian locations for McDonald’s. She told me that we will never see one in Bangladesh because of those infrastructure problems. In West Bengal, I’ve suffered at least one injury from riding on its terrible roads. Neither seem able to fix this on their own.
Both are struggling against a growing Islamist presence, including ISIS. Islamists threaten both leaders who have had to compromise with them for political reasons; and terrorists with their allies find refuge by crossing that porous border in either direction. That would end with increased cooperation that the bad guys never planned to face. Moreover, at the core of Islamist philosophy is the assertion that one’s religious identity trumps all others; in fact, is a Muslim’s only identity. Muslims that emphasize nationality fly in the face of the radicals. Baloch and Sindhi Muslims, for instance, are virulently anti-Islamist finding common cause and sharing fealty with other Baloch and Sindhi regardless of religion. A Bengal that unites Hindus and Muslims at this very critical time in the war against Islamist radicalism, could help the rest of the world find a path to victory over ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and like-minded enemies of civilization.
Despite economic gains made over the last several years, and having an economy almost twice the size of its West Bengali neighbor, Bangladesh remains dependent on international donations. Between 1980 and 2016, it received USD$63.63 billion in foreign assistance or $2.36 billion every year; figures that do not money not officially reported as foreign aid and money from NGOs and groups other than sovereign nations. Moreover, a union offers Bangladesh greater access to more economic resources outside of itself. While flights into Kolkata are loaded with people representing western businesses and new sources of wealth; those on flights to Dhaka are few and far between. Put the two pieces together, and a united Bengal would have the world’s 42nd largest economy (around the size of Israel’s and Iran’s); and would be the world’s fifth largest country, with only China, India, the United States, and Indonesia having more people. Finally, and not incidentally, Hindus face massive persecution in Bangladesh, including an unequal application of the law and inability for self-defense. Merging with Hindu-majority West Bengal would change that—for both the victims and Bangladesh, whose officials have admitted to me is incapable of solving this problem.
Bangladesh has even more reason to do this and do it now: the country is disappearing. Estimates are that the country will be totally under water by 2100 and that 17 percent will be inundated by mid-century. There are 156 million people in Bangladesh, with a one to three percent annual net population growth rate. What will happen to them? Where will they go? In a 2016 speech, Sheikh Hasina warned neighboring countries to expect “climate refugees” from Bangladesh; and there is growing anger among Bodo tribesmen and others in Assam and West Bengal over those Bangladeshis who already have been flooding their states. The native population refers to them as “infiltrators,” and they are unwelcome. South Asians will never forget the violence and millions of death accompanying past instances of major population moves, and violence is increasing in the areas in and around Bangladesh. They can avoid more of the same by anticipating the problem with structures like the Autonomous Republic of Bengal. Bangladesh is going away regardless of what we do. Better to take control of the future rather than be victims of it.
Economic challenges, disappearing land, anti-Hindu persecution, and the growing power of radical Islamists in both East and West are problems that Bengalis will not solve if they remain separated. They can solve them together, but the window of opportunity is closing. We must take resolute action now.
What would the final product be? A completely independent nation of Bengal is a bridge too far. To India, as well as the people of West Bengal, it would seem like an annexation of West Bengal by Bangladesh, rather than a merger and a new entity. An autonomous Bengal Republic, associated with India, however, might be the solution. It’s a model that has fared well in smaller areas within India, and it enhances the power of all parties, and together, East and West Bengal would form a significant bloc within India, with the accompanying power and influence. Bengalis might look at China’s “one country, two systems” approach to associating the former colonies of Hong Kong and Macau. An Autonomous Republic associated with India would give all Bengalis new access to the buying power that India offers; and it would mean better intelligence and counter-terrorism for both Bengal and India. It also would allow for easy resolution of matters such as water rights; pipelines; the status of certain populations, some in limbo since 1971; cattle smuggling; illegal arms; and more.
There certainly are formidable obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is determining the power relationship among the two powerful Bengali leaders and India’s Prime Minister Modi. What will happen to India’s “seven sisters”: states to the north and east of Bangladesh, connected to India through West Bengal? How are the two legal systems merged and which laws remain? That gets worked out by the people who will be affected by this new structure as the effort unfolds.
The geo-political trend in the world has been for peoples to re-unite: North and South Vietnam into Vietnam, East and West Germany into Germany. Other peoples, forcibly joined, have separated: Czechs and Slovaks from Czechoslovakia; six separate countries from Yugoslavia; 15 from the former Soviet Union; with major struggles in Spain (Catalans), the Middle East (Kurds), Pakistan (Sindhi, Baloch, Pashtun), and others. An autonomous Bengal would align with both trends: Bengal unity, and the recognition of Bengalis’ unique culture and history.