WAS the birth of the linguistic state of Bangladesh in 1971 a rare accident of history? Or was it owing to invisible and inexorable forces of history? It’s the ‘geography of the demography’ that played a pivotal role, which, more often than not, has been ignored.
India rightly claims credit for her ‘politico-military midwife’ role in the creation of an independent Bengali-speaking state in 1971, despite apprehension and concern in some quarters as India’s border areas are vulnerable to turbulence caused by China-aided and Pakistan-backed actors. Hence, the completion of 49 years of sovereign Bangladesh is all the more creditable if one assesses the overlapping physical contours of geographical Bengal as a whole.
The stark geography of the east was succinctly described by Dr Sudhindra Nath Bhattacharyya, an eminent historian of Dacca University, in The History of Bengal. How the Mughals faced problems in suppressing Bengal: “The task of conquest and consolidation was rendered more complicated owing to insuperable difficulties arising out of the nature of the country (side) and its peculiar geography. Bengal, with its numerous rivers, streams, nalahs, creeks, swamps, its damps and moist air, and its prolonged rains half the year, peculiar vegetation, absence of barley and wheat, its no less peculiar language, foreign to Urdu and Hindi alike — all these made Mughal grandees intensely dislike service in Bengal.” Did the Pakistani army repeat the Mughal history in 1971? Notwithstanding the brute force and savagery perpetrated on ‘blacks of the east’, as infamously referred to by its army brass?
‘Blacks of the east’, nevertheless were not the sole obstacle to Pakistan’s forces. There existed something more deep-rooted. The geomorphology and terrain being the biggest mismatch of demographic civility and civilisational chemistry between the eastern geography of Bengal and the non-eastern topography of South Asia, as gleaned from the monumental research work of Dr Nihar Ranjan Ray in his path-breaking History of the Bengali people (1950).
Thus described Yuan-ch’uang: “People of Pundravardhana (south of Brahmaputra) were straightforward, virtuous and had great respect for culture and learning… Tamralipti (coastal town Tamluk) people were brave, industrious, fond of learning but rough in their manner. People of Samatata (coastal area) were hard-working, while those of Karnasuvarna (central Bengal) were gentle, of fine character, and gave much support to scholarship.”
On the linguistic front, however, things didn’t appear optimistic. Bodhayana Dharmasutra didn’t have good things to suggest on Bengali. “On return from Vanga (Bengal) to central lands, or Aryavarta, it was necessary to perform expiation” owing to ‘Vanga being barbarian territory and their people of low origin” (does it have an uncanny similarity with the views of the army of undivided Pakistan?) The contrary view, too, speaks for itself. The in-built contradiction and confrontation between Bengal and Aryavarta: “Aryan language and culture had neither understanding of, nor respect for, the language, customs and culture of non-Aryan or pre-Aryan people of Gauda (Central Bengal), Pundravardhana and Vanga.”
The uniqueness of Bengal’s geography, therefore, constitutes an oft-forgotten reality. That a country’s political boundaries and natural geographical boundaries may not always be the same even if there exists a common linguistic or homogenous ethnic group. Hence, the fertile land of Bengal invariably attracted those who hailed from a comparatively barren and less fertile land — for a better livelihood.
Another important scenario of the east pertained to language, literature and learning, traditionally the strongest features of the demography of Bengal. Its true that ancient India’s learning is well known to have begun with Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads. “However, the learning and scholarship embodied in Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads, even in the Dharmashastras and Dharmashutras, had no effect on Bengal for quite a long time,” according to Dr Nihar Ranjan Ray.
That said, there also existed a notable characteristic of the Bengali language: the flexibility to take/accept words, and usage, from the likes of Mon-Khmer and the Kola-Munda group of languages. The latter brought about by a stream of the Dravidian family of languages. Further came the language of the Tibetan-Burmese people. This introduction, acceptance and induction of diverse languages in Bengal, which began centuries before the birth of Christ, ultimately led to what one sees today as the rich and easy-to-learn and understand lingua franca of 32 crore people of the world. Thus, those known as Bengali today are not all from one, but diverse ethnic groups, their commonality and strongest bond being the Bengali language.
Regrettably, however, the historical challenge of geography, coupled with the depth of sensitivity and conviction of Bengali-speaking people, conspicuously remained incomprehensible to the gun-toting army rulers of Pakistan. Thus, when the former chief of Pakistan’s Eastern Command, Lt Gen AAK Niazi, wrote in his book, The betrayal of East Pakistan (1998) that “Bengalis had little chance of standing against my well-disciplined and experienced troops”, it showed the undiminished and ingrained arrogance and ignorance of the vanquished General. Essentially, a military junta’s lack of knowledge led to an unprecedented battlefield disaster. Little wonder the history of the Bengali-speaking demography stands tall, dwarfing the army of Pakistan before its former eastern wing. Sovereign Bangladesh has truly added a rich chapter to the history of South Asia. The change from the Karachi-Dhaka axis in the 1950s to the Delhi-Dhaka friendship of the 2020s appears impressive. At least for now.