Of the countries close to or bordering India, I have been once to China and Afghanistan, twice to Sri Lanka and Nepal, and three times to Pakistan. I have declined several invitations to visit Bhutan, but were anyone to invite me to Bangladesh or Burma I would accept without hesitation. I am told Bhutan is pretty—very pretty—and were I a botanist, Buddhist, or birdwatcher I would surely want to go there. But given my interests, I am attracted more to Burma and to Bangladesh, which are much larger, far more complex in sociological terms, and with tumultuous recent histories besides.
The birth of an independent Bangladesh was met with skepticism by Western observers. It was the archetypal basket case, incapable of feeding itself. Sympathetic do-gooders like Joan Baez sang songs to get their richer compatriots to gift money and supplies to the poor starving Bengalis. Others were more hard-headed. The well-known American biologist, Garrett Hardin, wrote that it was futile to send rice to a people incapable of anything other than procreation. In his view the Bangladeshis should have been left to starve to death.
For the first decade, and more, of its existence, Bangladesh was seen as proof of the Malthusian dictum that in the absence of social organization and technological innovation, population would soon outstrip food supply, leading to mass famine. When lectured to on their breeding habits in the United Nations, Bangladeshi diplomats answered that an American child consumed seventy times as much as a child born in Dhaka or Khulna. One diplomat was more cheeky—claiming, on the basis of a visit to a New York supermarket stocking rows upon rows of pet food, that the birth of one American dog or cat had a greater impact on the global environment than the birth of one Bangladeshi child.
Soon Bangladeshi diplomats had other, and more uncomfortable, questions to answer. There were a series of military coups, and a surge in Islamic fundamentalism. The popular image of the country was that it was over-populated, and run by generals hand-in-glove with mullahs. Slowly, however, perceptions began to change. There were no famines; in fact, rice production grew steadily within the country. The industrial sector also progressed, with Bangladesh emerging as a major exporter of textiles. The generals went back to their barracks, and civilian governments took their place. As the commonsense of Bengali Islam re-asserted itself, the jehadis also retreated.
In a fine recent book, the British anthropologist David Lewis shows that those early predictions of doom and gloom greatly underestimated the resilience and dynamism of Bangladeshi society. Defying the odds—and the cynics—the country’s farmers, workers, entrepreneurs, and professionals have made a modest success of their country. Once written off as a basket case, Bangladesh is now spoken of as a basket of innovation, with regard to, among other things, micro-credit.
As David Lewis demonstrates, given its unpropitious beginnings and violent interruptions (as in assassinations and coups), the fact that Bangladesh has survived forty testing years, and remains some kind of democracy, is a notable achievement. Lewis further points out that with regard to most economic and social indicators, Bangladesh is doing better than Pakistan, the country of which it was once the eastern wing. West Pakistanis looked down on the Bengalis, whom they considered effete and lazy. But from today’s vantage point it is the former East Pakistanis who come out much better. Pakistan is riven by civil conflict, religious violence, economic stagnation, and the oppression of women. On the other hand, Bangladesh has witnessed steady economic growth, the defeat of religious extremism, and an ever greater participation of women in the work force and in the public sphere more generally.
To be sure, whereas Bangladesh has done reasonably well in recent years, deficiencies remain. There is still an excessively Islamic cast to its politics, with Hindus and Buddhists not always secure of their rights of citizenship. The army may yet come out of the barracks. Corruption is rife. And the coastal districts are vulnerable to climate change.
These caveats notwithstanding, one cannot but be impressed with the steady progress made by Bangladeshi society. David Lewis compares it favourably to Pakistan. I am tempted, on the basis of the evidence in his book, to make another, and perhaps even more telling, comparison. This is with the Indian state of Paschim Banga. West Bengal and East Bengal share a common ecology, a common language, and a common cultural and historical heritage. They went their separate ways in 1947, with the former becoming a part of India, the latter a part of Pakistan.
It appears that in at least four respects Bangladesh is doing significantly better than West Bengal. First, the atmosphere is more conducive to welfare-oriented civil society organizations. Groups such as BRAC, Grameen Bank and Gonoshastya Kendra have done outstanding work in providing credit, health care, and education to poor peasants and slum dwellers. These groups have no real analogues in West Bengal, where civil society groups face considerable hostility from the state and from political parties.
Second, there is a more extensive, and apparently more reliable, network of roads and waterways. Roads and bridges allow peasants to get their produce to the market, get their children to school, and obtain medicines to treat the sick and elderly. This has been recognized by Nitish Kumar in Bihar, and by successive Governments in Bangladesh. But the roads in West Bengal continue to be in a pathetic condition.
The third and fourth contrasts are connected. There are many more women working in the modern manufacturing sector in Bangladesh, which is linked to the fact that the government’s economic policy is outward-looking and export-oriented. In West Bengal, on the other hand, the economic outlook has been insular, hostile to entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship.
As I know well from my years in Kolkata, the bhadralok of that city have long held feelings of condescension, if not contempt, for their compatriots in the east. The prejudices of caste and religion feed into this: upper-caste Bengali Hindus think of themselves as superior to low-caste Muslim converts. The sense of cultural superiority is enhanced by what Kolkata is supposed to be—a great international city, a centre of scientific and artistic creativity, the place that inspired or nurtured Ray, Tagore, Amartya Sen, Jagdish Bose (and so many others). Dhaka, on the other hand, is said to be a provincial dump.
The contempt for the Bangaal among the bhadralok is matched by their contempt for the Bihari, who are often seen as fit for not much more than pulling rickshaws. But it may now be the case that the patronizers have something to learn from the patronized. For, in recent years, the political elites of Bihar and Bangladesh have been far more focused on economic growth and social well-being than the nostalgic and self-regarding elites of West Bengal.
The problems with West Bengal are well known—a dysfunctional health system, badly run (and over-politicized) schools and colleges, lack of good roads (and oftentimes of any roads at all), inability to attract investment, the absence of a work ethic among office-goers and factory employees. To learn how to address these problems, Ministers in the Paschim Banga Government would do well to travel through Bihar, or read David Lewis’s book on Bangladesh—or preferably both. Then, perhaps, what Dhaka and Patna are doing today, Kolkata may yet come to do tomorrow.
THE TWO BENGALS
by Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 30th June 2012)