Minorities and the State: Changing Social and Political Landscape of Bengal


Edited by: Abhijit Dasgupta, Masahiko Togawa & Abul Barkat

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    In preparing this volume, we have received support from many individuals and institutions in India, Bangladesh, and Japan. We thank the Japanese Association for South Asian Studies (JASAS) for providing financial and logistical support. We acknowledge our debt to the Japan Society for Promotion of Sciences for a grant-in-aid, which helped us in organizing workshops in India and Bangladesh.

    We are grateful to Professor Kondo Norio, the Chair of Committee of JASAS Series, and anonymous referees of the JASAS Committee and SAGE Publications for their helpful comments on an earlier draft. We thank all those who were present at the workshops and commented on the papers. For editorial help we wish to thank Hoki Junko and Ikeda Jun and for organizational support our gratitude goes to Anindya Dey, Zobaida Nasreen, and Partha Ghosh. We also thank Professor Meghna Guhathakurta, the Chair of Research Initiative Bangladesh (RIB) for being our host in Dhaka and also Dr Sukumar Biswas, the Bangla Academy, Dhaka.

    Most of the contributors in this volume are actively involved in studying the contentious issues in the relationship between the state and communities; we hope the papers would provide a base from which informed position may be taken.

    List of Abbreviations

    AILFCLAll India Lawyers Forum for Civil Liberties
    ALAwami League
    BNPBangladesh Nationalist Party
    CEDAWConvention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women DPR Defence of Pakistan Rule
    EPAEnemy Property Act
    ISKCONInternational Society for Krishna Consciousness
    NCBPNGO coalition on Beijing Plus Five
    NPAWNational Policy for the Advancement of Women
    RSSRashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha
    SBFSouth Bengal Frontier
    SCScheduled Caste
    STScheduled Tribe
    TkTaka (Bangladeshi Currency)
    TMCTrinamool Congress
    UPAUnited Progressive Alliance
    VHPVishwa Hindu Parishad
    VPAVested Property Act
    VPRAVested Property Repeal Act
    WBLAWest Bengal Legislative Assembly


    AbhijitDasgupta, MasahikoTogawa, and AbulBarkat

    The relations between the state and the communities remained contentious throughout the twentieth-century Bengal. The decision by the colonial state to grant political representation to minority religious communities ushered in a new era in Bengal politics. These communities began to occupy centre stage in political life. In the 1920s, a group of Hindu political leaders in Calcutta argued that in order to establish the real foundation of self-government in the province it would be necessary to have a pact between the Hindus and the Muslims dealing with the rights of each community. The move was welcomed by the Congress and the Muslim League because the time had come to recognize the rights of the minority religious communities.

    Political rights to religious communities were mooted by the political leaders to deal with the problems of social, economic, and political inequalities. However, conflict over rights led to violent clashes. The situation became worse during the late 1940s and the early 1950s. The signing of the Nehru-Liaquat Ali Pact in 1950 was an important landmark in the history of Hindu-Muslim relations in India and Pakistan. It was a bold step, which succeeded in offering a space to the minorities to live in peace and harmony. There were other steps taken by India and Pakistan that ensured a sense of security among the minorities—like the adoption of the principle of secularism in the Indian Constitution and the adherence to non-interventionist policies towards minorities in Pakistan. But all these noble intentions proved futile as communal riots rocked two parts of Bengal from time to time. After six decades of independence, inter-community relations still remain an important political agenda in both West Bengal and Bangladesh.

    Two workshops on ‘Minorities and the State: Changing Social and Political Landscape of Bengal’ were organized in Kolkata and Dhaka to examine the question of the minorities in West Bengal and Bangladesh since the partition in 1947. One of the objectives of these workshops was to examine issues pertaining to the relationship between the state and the minorities, especially the vulnerable position of the minorities in Bengal (Bengal stands for both West Bengal and Bangladesh). Minorities remained soft targets of certain sections of the majority in the community, and often caused large-scale violence. At the time of independence in 1947, it was hoped that minorities in Bengal would be an integral part of the civil society. However, several events during the last few decades show that this is far from true. Minorities are alienated from the mainstream Bengali society, and a minority group remains as a liminal category in Bengal.

    Today, West Bengal and Bangladesh not only have numerically two significant religious minorities, for example, the Muslims and the Hindus, but there are others as well. For instance, in West Bengal, the Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains can be found in large numbers in different parts of the state. Similarly, in Bangladesh, one would find Buddhists (especially in the Chittagong Hill Tracts) and Christians (in the northern districts among tribal groups like the Garos and Hajongs). The minority question becomes more complex when we look at the internal differentiation of each of these communities. Caste, class, language, and such important markers of identity often divide them internally. In spite of these differences, most contributors are of the view that religion cuts across many such differences, and that it offers a unique sense of solidarity.

    In this volume, problems relating to two numerically significant religious minority groups, Hindus in Bangladesh and Muslims in West Bengal, have been discussed. In recent years, some published papers, media reports, and publications of civil society organizations highlighted the enormity of the problems encountered by these two communities, especially in the context of recent political changes in India and Bangladesh. They pointed out that the questions of citizenship, nationality, and identity are at stake. This volume deals specifically with the following themes: (a) the formation of minority identity at the time of partition in 1947, (b) crises and coping strategies, (c) state policies that are affecting minorities, (d) minorities and local-level politics, and (e) minorities and migration.


    Four chapters on minorities in West Bengal deal with interrelated themes. Sekhar Bandyopadhyay explores the minority issues against the backdrop of communal riots in Kolkata (Calcutta) city in 1950. According to Bandyopadhyay, the causes of Kolkata (Calcutta) riots need to be studied in the context of the state policies towards the minorities. He observed that the state policy to divide majority-minority relations was one of the important reasons behind the communal flare-up. He noted that the brutal communal violence that vitiated public life in Kolkata (Calcutta) and its surrounding regions since August 1946 stopped almost like a magic on 15 August 1947, as on the day of independence Hindus and Muslims with national flags in their hands hugged each other on the streets in a public display of reconciliation. This pleased Mahatma Gandhi, who was then stationed in Kolkata (Calcutta) to stop the rioting, and he left for Punjab soon. Even though refugees started streaming in from East Pakistan in the subsequent months, there was no major outbreak of communal violence in West Bengal in the next two and a half years. But obviously the nation's relationship with its minorities had not yet been properly defined, and that incompleteness of its postcolonial transformation was signalled by the fresh outbreak of anti-Muslim riots in February-March 1950 in Kolkata (Calcutta), Howrah, and in some border districts, in retaliation of an attack on Hindu minorities in Khulna in East Pakistan. The Nehruvian state acted sternly and swiftly with police action and diplomatic intervention. The riots stopped soon, and this was followed by the signing of the Delhi Pact on the minorities in April 1950 between India and Pakistan. However, the debates and political controversies that arose around the riots and the pact revealed that the nation had been deeply divided on the minority question. This chapter seeks to unravel those conflicting views and approaches to the minority issue, the perceived role of the state as the protector of minority life and property—or conversely, as ‘appeaser’ of the minorities—and also the interconnected nature of the problems of the minorities in the two Bengals. It seeks to show that although there was consensus about the undesirability of communal violence, there was serious ambivalence about the place of the minorities within the new nation state.

    After six decades of independence, this ambivalence still exists. Abhijit Dasgupta in his chapter points out how state policies to exclude minority communities from the purview of affirmative action led to the marginalization of the Muslim minority community in recent years. Three broad areas that have been addressed in his chapter are: affirmative action for ‘dalit’ and ‘backward’ Muslims, local-level politics, and demographic change. According to Dasgupta, these issues are crucial in understanding relations between the majority and the minority communities, and the process of marginalization of the latter. Although the question of affirmative action came up on several occasions, but nothing tangible has happened; Muslims, by and large, remained outside the purview of reservation benefits. As many as 56 different castes, communities, occupational groups were included in the OBC list of the state, but deserving dalit and backward Muslims were left out. The broad contour of local-level politics has been changing in the state in recent years, and as far as Muslims are concerned, community-centric politics is standing in the way of mainstreaming with the main political forces. He observed that many theories about population growth among Muslims need to be re-examined in the light of fresh data.

    Migration remains a contentious issue in the study of Muslim population in West Bengal. Samir Kumar Das takes up the case of a special category of minorities in West Bengal who may be described as ‘immigrant Muslims’. Like in the earlier two chapters, the author has explored the trajectories of state policies in dealing with the immigrants. The state-immigrant relations have been studied in the context of civilization, territorialization, and securitization. The moment of civilization began with the process of nation-building in the Indian subcontinent. Territorialization ushered in the open-arm policy of the state, whereas securitization changed all these. The vexed problems of the immigrant Muslims were linked with the security concerns of the state today.

    Tetsuya Nakatani takes up the case of the Hindu minority community, and notes that at the time of partition many Hindus stayed back in East Pakistan. They arrived in West Bengal subsequently, and faced the uphill task of assimilation with the local communities. According to Nakatani, who conducted fieldwork in a village in Nadia district, the local societies in the border area consist of heterogeneous population. There are locals and refugees. Refugee population included old-comers and newcomers; some were from neighbouring places and some from remote areas. He observes some divisiveness between locals and refugees. And among refugees, this divisiveness is related to the sense of otherness felt by each other. He reveals how local refugee societies have complex characteristics and the relationship between people has a sensitive aspect. He presents detailed data of migration, the process of settlements, religious functions, and the experience and memories of displacement. He outlines the current situation and migration process of refugees in a village where he conducted field research and focuses on the process of rehabilitation and social activities of refugees, particularly of Namasudras. With the help of narratives, he explains what it means to stay in a country as a minority.


    The Hindu minority community has experienced deprivation for several decades. Five chapters explore deprivation and different dimensions of minority life in Bangladesh. Abul Barkat criticises the state policies towards the minority. He notes that the enactment and implementation of the Enemy Property Act and its continuation in the name of Vested Property Act had its distinct historical root in Pakistani law. The feudal-military autocratic rulers of Pakistan in their quest for Pakistanization of Pakistan, from the very outset, wanted to get rid of the majority—the Bengalis and Bengali culture. It is argued that the consequences of operation of Enemy/Vested Property Act have been, simply, gross denial of freedom and liberty, and institutionalization of systematic socio-cultural, economic, and political deprivation of the Hindu minority in Bangladesh. Barkat's research shows that during the last four decades (1965–2006), approximately 1.2 million (out of the total of 2.7 million) households or 6 million people belonging to Hindu religion have been directly and severely affected by the Enemy/Vested Property Act and have lost 2.6 million acres of their own landed property. They have lost, in addition to landed property, other immovable and movable property. The approximate money value of such loss (US $55 billion) would be equivalent to 75 per cent of the GDP of Bangladesh (in 2007 price). In addition, there has been unmeasurable extent of national loses of human capital formation evident in forced mass out-migration of Hindu minority, breaking of family ties, stresses and strains, mental agonies, loss of human potentials, disruption in communal harmony, unfreedom, cultural disintegration, and fuelling of non-secular mindset and rise of religious fundamentalism. For the Hindu community, all these have created a perpetual cycle of deprivation, including powerlessness, vulnerability, physical and psychological weaknesses, poverty, and isolation. The whole issue has been instrumental in producing and reproducing distress and deprivation among Hindu minority, as well as for institutionalizing communal mindset in a historically secular context. It is argued that this act contradicts the basic spirit of the Proclamation of Independence of Bangladesh and the basic premises of the constitutional provisions of ‘equality, equity, freedom and justice for all citizens’. This act is inherently communal. To ensure a true environment for humane development in Bangladesh, there is no alternative but to abolish this act and return the properties affected by Enemy/Vested Property Act to their legal owners and/or inheritors. Barkat observed significant demographic changes in the composition of the minority community and provided estimates of ‘missing Hindus’. During the last 40 years since 1961, the relative share of the Hindu population has declined from 18.4 per cent of the total population in 1961 to 12.1 per cent in 1981, to 10.5 per cent in 1991, and further down to 9.2 per cent in 2001. Considering the rate of ‘missing Hindus’, the approximate share of Hindu population in 2007 would be less than 8 per cent of the total population of Bangladesh. According to him, the estimated total missing Hindu population was 8.1 million during 1964–2001, that is, 218,919 Hindus missing each year. In other words, if out-migration of Hindu population is caused mainly by communal disharmony resulting from the Enemy/Vested Property Acts, the approximate size of the missing Hindu population would be 600 persons each day during 1964–2001. Barkat, based on political-economic analysis substantiated by survey data and demographic changes, concludes that the Enemy/Vested Property Acts acted as an effective mechanism for the extermination of the Hindu minority from their motherland, and thereby inhibited the process of social-capital formation in Bangladesh.

    In politics, the Hindu minority community often finds itself at the receiving end. Rangalal Sen observed that the violence against the religious minorities that erupted in the wake of the General Elections of 2001 in Bangladesh had demonstrated the fact that the socio-politically weaker sections of society could not exercise their legitimate voting rights according to their own choice. If they had dared to cast their votes in favour of the candidates whom they considered better for them, they would have to face serious consequences. This situation reflected the helplessness of the religious minorities who were denied of certain basic constitutional rights. The religious and ethnic minorities of Bangladesh cannot really enjoy equal constitutional status as long as the de-secularizing fifth and eighth amendments of the original constitution of 1972 and the Enemy Property Act of 1965 in various forms remain in force. The present chapter discusses a specific case of the vulnerability of the religious minorities during the post-2001 General Elections of Bangladesh and has shown how the importance of voting rights of the marginal groups has been nullified by the vested interests. In fact, the violence against the religious minorities during the post-2001 General Elections of Bangladesh had actually convulsed the Bangladesh society and brought out the weakness that exists in its body politic.

    Like politics, demographic issues too merit attention. Masahiko Togawa examines the present situation of the Hindu minority in Bangladesh and discusses its social and historical backgrounds. According to him, the 2001 Census of Bangladesh reported a Hindu population of 11.2 million, which constituted approximately 9.1 per cent of the total population. However, the 1940s Census indicated a Hindu population of more than 22 per cent of East Bengal's population. A simple calculation reveals that during the last 50 years, since the partition of Pakistan and India, more than 10 per cent of the total population has disappeared from what is now Bangladesh. Through these analyses, Togawa discusses that it is not a simple issue of the so-called ‘refugees’ caused by specific incidents or economic factors, but a continuous process in daily life under the pressure of social, cultural, and psychological settings that disadvantage minorities. This chapter argues the religious organizations and political participation of the Hindu community under these conditions, and examines their coping strategies indicated by the agenda brought up by a Hindu association every year. Finally, he emphasizes the importance to understand the minority problem by placing it in the wider context of South Asia's social and historical backgrounds.

    The law and the minority community is the theme of Sadeka Halim's chapter. She explained through a broad spectrum of issues that constructed the structure of the discrimination and violation of human rights against Hindu women in Bangladesh. This chapter deals with the historical context of marginalization of Hindus in general as a consequence of the partition in 1947 in East Bengal and later in Bangladesh. It raises issues pertaining to the Bangladesh constitution, which through subsequent amendments identified the state with Islam, which eliminated minority rights in Bangladesh. She explores minority women's subordinated position through feminist perspectives, and observes that not only are Hindu women seen as second-class citizens of the country; their subordination is further reinforced through different aspects of discriminatory laws governing the socio-economic status of Hindu women. The political processes of the state have subjected the Hindu women to different forms of violations of human rights. A few cases in this chapter show how these violations subjected them to unequal treatment and pushed them to exclusion, and ends with some concluding remarks.

    It is often said that social realities are reflected in the literature. Abu Dayen's chapter deals with the reflections of minority life in Bengali literature. He examines the crises and conditions of Hindu minority communities as found in the novels and short stories. With the help of some selected novels and stories, he explains why the minority Hindus are in the margins of contemporary Bangladeshi society.

  • About the Editors and Contributors

    The Editors

    Abhijit Dasgupta is Professor of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, India. He has published several papers on agrarian relations in West Bengal and Bangladesh, population displacement, and affirmative action with reference to the minorities in India. He is the author of Growth with Equity: The New Technology and Agrarian Change in Bengal, and co-editor of the following books: Bengal: Development, Communities, and States; State, Society, Displaced People in South Asia; and Jati, Varna, and Bangali Samaj (in Bengali).

    Masahiko Togawa is Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Hiroshima University, Japan. He has written several books and papers on religion and society in West Bengal and Bangladesh. He is the author of An Abode of the Goddess: Kingship, Caste, and Sacrificial Organization in a Bengal Village; Syukyou ni Kousuru Seija (The Saint who resists ‘Religion’, in Japanese); Syncretism Revisited: Hindus and Muslims over a Saintly Cult in Bengal (Numen); Women within the Hierarchy (Journal of the Japanese Association for South Asian Studies), and co-editor of Gram Bangla: Itihas, Samaji o Artniti (in Bengali). He is a member of the executive board of the Japanese Association for South Asian Studies (JASAS).

    Abul Barkat is Professor and the Chair, Department of Economics, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is a reputed researcher in the field of contemporary economic growth in Bangladesh, political economy of human development, and minorities and the state. He is the author of a number of books, which include Development as Conscientization; Political Economy of Khas Land in Bangladesh; An Inquiry into Causes and Consequences of Deprivation of Hindu Minorities in Bangladesh through the Vested Property Act: Framework for a Realistic Solution; Political Economy of Land Litigation in Bangladesh; and Political Economy of Vested Property Act in Rural Bangladesh. Besides, he has written extensively in Bengali on economic and political issues. He is the elected President (2010–11) of Bangladesh Economic Association.

    The Contributors

    Sekhar Bandyopadhyay is Professor of Asian History at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. He specializes in modern Indian history and has published extensively on caste, minorities, and nationalism in colonial and post-colonial India, and in the Bengal region more particularly.

    Samir Kumar Das is Professor of Political Science, Calcutta University, Kolkata, India. He is the author of Peace Processes and Peace Accords (2008), and co-editor of Internal Displacement in South Asia: The Relevance of the UN's Guiding Principles (2008).

    Abu Dayen is Associate Professor of Department of Bangla, Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, Bangladesh. He earned his PhD from Jahangirnagar University. He is known in Bangladesh as a poet, human rights activist, and researcher. His interest lies in areas like literary theories, linguistics and literature, folklore, minor religious issues, and culture and literature of ethnic groups.

    Sadeka Halim is Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. She obtained her PhD from McGill University, Canada. She has published extensively in international and national journals. Her area of research includes gender, development, environmental issues, human rights and minority problems, and indigenous issues.

    Tetsuya Nakatani is Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Nara Prefectural University, Japan. He has done intensive field works on displaced persons in West Bengal and New Delhi. He co-edited Gram Bangla: Itihas, Samaj O Orthoniti (Bengali) with S. Taniguchi and M. Togawa (2007).

    Rangalal Sen is retired professor of the Department of Sociology, Dhaka University, Bangladesh. He has written, edited, and translated 24 books and published 45 research articles in national and international journals and books. He has also published 55 articles on different sociopolitical problems and issues in local magazines and newspapers. He is the founder President of Bangladesh Sociological Association 1986–88, and had been elected as a member of the Council of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh.

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