Sunday, September 11, 2011

West Bengal-Bangladesh divide: Mamata may have had reasons for opposing Teesta treaty

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee's recent cold shoulder to Bangladesh regarding sharing of the Teesta waters is in keeping with a long tradition of each Bengal looking after its own interests. Hardnosed politics, rather than the nebulous concept of Bengali brotherhood, has governed ties between the two regions.

The signs have always been there: hilsa vs prawns, East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan, basha vs bari (both mean 'home')... Small semiotic markers that for decades said what many Bengali romantics refused to acknowledge. Partition in 1947 only put a political seal on an everwidening cultural and economic divide.

The two Bengals - West Bengal and Bangladesh - are different. And have been different for many years. All talk about an overarching Bengali unity is just that - talk. 

Banerjee knows that sharing Teesta waters would sweep away her voters in north Bengal. Not to mention CPI(M) cadres taking to the streets. The other side of the barbed wire has been home to sundry anti-India militants, notably jihadis. Governments in Dhaka have chosen to turn a blind eye, fearing drying up of Arab aid and going against the growing pan-Islamic fervour among a section of the Bangladeshi population. But more than governments in Kolkata and Dhaka, it is the people of the two regions who have erased any memories of a common bond. Language, yes.

But culturally Kolkatans think their city to be the epicentre of Bengali culture. There is certain degree of condescension when discussing Bangladesh or Bangals (as people from Bangladesh are called in Bengali). Other than thinking of them as poor, distant country cousins, the space for Bangladesh in the common West Bengali's mind has more or less evaporated.

Economics, religion, culture - the differences are legion.

Too Many Cooks

Both Bengals' economies have developed in two distinct paths. Partition saw Bangladesh with acres of jute with few or no mills; in fact, most industries in Bengal were situated in West Bengal. Fledgling steel plants, small cement factories, foundries all had taken roots in the western half of undivided Bengal. The eastern half was and remains a primarily agrarian economy. Even now Bangladesh's only major industry is garments.

Bangladeshi wags say that every family in Sylhet (a district in Bangladesh) has a member living abroad. Most of the "Indian" restaurants dotting Europe are actually owned by Sylhetis. But migration is not a new phenomenon. Post-1947, huge numbers of Hindu professionals migrated west; a similar white-collar migration to Bangladesh did not happen. While Bangladeshi migrants tend to be overwhelmingly blue-collar workers, those leaving West Bengal are usually white-collar professionals.

Ballot vs Bullet

Nothing can be starker than the political difference between the two Bengals. While West Bengal has embraced a secular democracy, Bangladesh has lurched between military dictatorship and the ballot box. As part of India, West Bengal has had civilians wielding political power. Ruthlessly strong arm tactics did show up in Bengal politics (as during SS Ray's time and in the latter half of Left rule) but they have never been able to grab the political space completely. Bangladesh, on the contrary, has had a bloody history.

A violent independence struggle followed by the army forcing the democratically elected Awami League out of power. Bangladesh has seen many years of rule by the bayonet followed by fundamentalist-appeasing governments. The secular space has shrunk.