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Bengalis in the twenty-first century



The history of Bengal shows us two periods of rise or awakening, both of which were short-lived. The present period of history can be seen as the period of its third awakening or regeneration.

Today, the nations of the world are very close to each other, inter-linked and inter-dependent, ties by processes of co-operation as well as competition. No nation or nationality can live in isolation any longer, and neither can the processes of development pass them by. The Bengali nation is no exception.

What follows is by way of generalization and to a large extent speculation. The sweeping nature of this exposition can be traced to an attempt to delineate or describe a future for the Bengali nation to see how Bengalis can take their place in the emerging global order as an independent nation, and how to steer clear of dominating forces which may appear to subserve the Bengalis.

The 16th Century or The First Period of Awakening

This was marked by the writings of Chaitanya Dev, the advent of Vaisnavism and the indroduction of Islamic culture through Muslim rule.

The question naturally arises regarding the state of Bengali life and culture period to this time.

Bengalis appear to have lived in a state of slavish adherence to tradition. Inertia seems to have overtaken the nation-noinnovation, imagination or use of reason could be discerned.

The decline in trade and industry in Bengal can be seen to have started in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. The palas and the Senas (i.e. from the 8th century onwards) unsuccessfully tried to revive the old trade and industry. Isolationism can be said have prevailed during these centuries.

The life-style was very simple. Food production has always been easy in the fertile lands of the lower Gangetic delta. The tropical climate was friendly and did not put undue constraints on clothing and housing-clothing remained simple and dwelling places could remain simple and impermanent.

It is around the process of food production, clothing and housing the civilization develops, leading to innovations in technology, the development of science and the social production of artifacts. But Bengali remained absolutely dependent on agriculture, land and water. All these elements were friendly-and there was no need for a sustained struggle in the matter of earning a livelihood. This easy life style and friendly natural environment created a laid-back kind of people, not used to struggle, unenterprising, and totally confined within their immediate environs, i.e. their villages. Trade opens up new vistas for people, bringing them into contact with others, with other systems and modes of living and production. But Bengalis remained cut off from these processes, and therefore could not participate in the larger world of economic activity and cultural development.

The 12th and 13th centuries saw the advent of the Muslims, who ruled over Bengal for the next 500 years. The effects of Muslim rule, on the one hand, and the domination of the Brahmins, on the other, remained confined within a certain class or classes, and did not effect in any way the lives and thoughts of the larger section of Bengalis, Hindu or Muslim. The influence of the Muslim rules did not extend beyond the cities, while the Sanskrit culture of the Hindu Brahmins remained confined amongst the upper castes.

It was during this period with the massive convertion to Islam, brought about by itinerant preachers, and the challenge brought about by Vaisnavism, that the isolated communities in Bengal came together in a sprit of brotherhood. Both these movements can be seen as forging a social cohesive force touching the lives of the larger section of the population, both Hindus and Muslims, who lived in a primitive, simple rural state. The glories of the ancient Indian civilization, except as told in the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, was unknown to these people o Bengal. The new Bengali culture can then be described as a folk civilization, centering around rural units, marked by a kaum (Rural) social structure.

The causes of the breakdown of the old Hindu system is difficult to ascertain, but can be traced to the establishment of the Muslim hegemonic order in the region. The Brahmin priest who was at the center of this old Hindu civilization, lost all power with the coming of the Muslims. The purity of the ancient Hindu civilization was shattered. Religion, literature, language, art, social customs were all changed. The breakdown of classical Hindu forms brought about a drastic change in cultural production resulting in folk or localized expressions in all spheres, such as religion, social customs, literature and music. Of we are to look at the cultural life of the Bengali people before the British period, we will find its expression most typically in the rural-based economy and culture.

The Second Renaissance in Bengal

This period can be seen to have commenced in the early part of the 19th century with the establishment of the Hindu college in 1817. This brought about a new wave in the intellectual life of the Bengalis, with the introduction of English education, to English literature and to the philosophy of the European Enlightenment, along with the introduction of Western science and technology, and to the political ideas of democracy and citizenship. This resulted in a awakening which has often been termed as the Bengal Renaissance. This movement continued through the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century, and was marked by the establishment of Calcutta University, Presency College, Islamia College, Lady Brabourne College, Dhaka College and Dhaka University.

The 19th century saw the birth of a new class formation in Bengal. The new Bengali middle class, imbued with the ideals of the European Enlightenment, was established. This new class displayed ways of living and thought which bore no resemblance to any previous order.

Short-lived Periods

Both these period of change resulted in a transformation of Bengali intellectual life and world of ideas. But a corresponding transformation in the material processes of production was missing.

The short-lived effect of these awakenings can be traced to the partial nature of the change that it brought about-it was a change only in the thought processes of a certain class of people, and did not effect the actual system of economic and material production. A permanent change can only be brought about by a transformation of the economic basis of life-any other change is superficial, and bound to die.

Third Regeneration

The representatives of this Renaissance can be seen in varous fields-Meghnad Saha, Satyen Bose and J.C. Bose in science; Hem Chandra Ray and Deba Prasad Ghose in Scholarship; Premenda Mitra, Sailaja Nanda, Humayun Kabir, Sarat Chandra Chatapoddaya, Kazi Kazrul Islam, and Buddhadev Bose in literature. The name of Rabindranath Tagore stands on the top of this list. Bengalis gave political leadership to India as well in the persons of C.R. Das, Subash Bose, A.K. Fazlul Haque and Hossain Shaheed Suhrawardy. Only in the economic fields, Bengalis lagged behind. The Muslim rulers had patronised other non-Bengalis in trade and commerce, while the British took away their patronage with their capital in 1912 to Delhi from Calcutta, thus severing the Bengalis completely from Indian trade and commerce.

The creation of India-Pakistan in 1947 and the establishment of Bangladesh as an independent nation-state in 1971, bestowed to Bengalis, the status of citizen-subjects of independent nations. The Number of Bengali citizens is about 200 million today. It is estimated that in the year 2025 the number of Bengalis will be 350-400 million. These people will be spread across Bangladesh, West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Bihar, Oissa, Monipur, Arunachal, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram, Chittanong Hill Tracts, Arakan, Nepal, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia-Kwait-Singapore-Iran-Iraq in the Middle East, Japan-Korea-Singapore-Malaysia-Thailand-Twiwan in Far and South East Asia, USA and Canada in North America, Britain-Germany-France-Italy-Belgium-Holland-Denkmark in Europe and Australia, Russia etc.

In number, these people will constitute the 5th largest nationality in the world. These people will forge a new politico-socio-cultural identity, not on the basis of language or religion only, but also on professional and occupational basis. Bengalis can then be classified as workers, peasants, teachers, doctors, engineers, agriculturists, technocrats, traders, industrialists, co-operatives, journalists, lawyers, economists, scientists, poets, litterateurs, soldiers, executives etc. like all other nationalities. This professional/ occupational-based national identity will give a new direction both nationally and internationally.

Upto the Middle Ages, the political authority in society and states was vested in the religious clergy. The industrial revolution brought about a new era of the establishment of nation-states as well as colonization. The 20th century is marked by anti-colonial struggles and national liberation movements. Now the world seems to have exhausted its potential for the creation of new nation-states. In this stage of the history of nation-states, its citizens are identified as social forces engaged in science and technology, art and culture, production and defence. It is a matter of time merely for these forces to acquire a political dimension and vie for political power.

The church-based political power had been compelled to surrender its power and authority to the emerging power of the newly formed nation-states. This was a necessary part of historical transformation. By the same process, nation-state will have to share power with the emerging political authority of the social forces based on profession and occupation. In every country as well as at the international level, these social forces are very well organized today. On the other hand, the political power of the nation-states has become an obstacle for the establishment of world peace and world economic progress. It is only the social forces based on profession and occupation that can overcome these barriers and continue to hasten the pace of progress.

Religion had played a historical role in the restructuring of society for the welfare of humanity. Subsequently, this task had been performed mostly by independent nation-states.

At present, new forces based on occupation and profession have grown up, even within the womb of nation-states. The next political step will be establish the 'right', 'power' and 'authority' of these social forces at national and international levels.

There are many factors that determine the evolution of civilization. But the root cause of this evolution can be found in the social forces born in the womb of the old order-where it grows silently, gradually and surely. This is the source of the growth of the future forces of change.

The new social forces born in the womb of the old order must be guaranteed their 'right', 'power' and 'authority' in order to maintain the links and continuities between the various stages of civilization. This is the process by which the 200 million Bengalis spread all over the world today will make a notable contribution to the establishment of world peace and economic progress along with other nations, leading to the creation of one world order.