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In quest of a larger Bengali identity

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

Book: “Land of Two Rivers: A History of Bengal from the Mahabharata to Mujib”; Author: Nitish Sengupta; Publisher: Penguin India; Price: Rs.650; Pages: 639

Not many Bengali-speaking people know of the history behind the christening of “Bengal”, which, like their language, was not in common usage before the Turkish period and is of historically recent origin, says a prominent historian, arguing for a change in the state’s name for a greater ethos.

Turkish and Arabic writers started using this name after the 13th century to refer to the lower Gangetic delta, says historian-administrator Nitish Sengupta in a new book, “Land of Two Rivers: A History of Bengal from the Mahabharata to Mujib”.

Quoting Abu’l Fazl’s account “Ain-i-Akbari”, Sengupta says the original name of Bengal was “Bung” and the suffix ‘al’ came from the fact that the ancient kings of the land raised mounds of earth nearly 10 ft high and 20 ft in breadth in the lowlands. The artificial ridges, which often separated farmlands, were known as “al”.

Hence the name “Bungal” or “Bengal”.

The early Portuguese traders and travellers like Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta refer to it either as “Bangala” or “Bengala”.

Sengupta recomends harking back to history in the ongoing hunt for a new name for West Bengal.

“The alphabet ‘W’ comes at the fag end of any state level discussions where the states are represented according to the alphabetical order. It has always created problems for West Bengal. West was added after the Partition. I didn’t support the name,” Sengupta, the author of the new treatise, told IANS.

West Bengal has always presented its case and staked its claims when meetings were almost over because of “W”, said the author, a former revenue secretrary in the central government, a Trinamool Congress MP and currently the chairman of the state Board for the Reconstruction of Public Sector Enterprises.

“Drop West, first of all. I think Bangla or Bongo will do as a name. The name Bangladesh has been taken from us, it is difficult to get it back,” Sengupta said, adding to the ongoing debate over a new name for West Bengal to represent the greater Bengali ethos.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has suggested two names – Bongo or Bongodesh – to symbolise the linguistic identity of the state.

A generic name for the state matters when analysed in terms of the Bengali speaking people around the world, Sengupta said.
Citing UN figures, he said at least 250 million people speak the language globally, making for Bengali the world’s fifth largest language group. The bulk of the Bengali-speaking people live in India and Bangladesh.

The book draws upon the history of the state to hint at the possibility of greater Bengali cooperation. The state was first mentioned in the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The latter (Ramayana) describes the state as “Vanga”, which was a part of king Dasharatha’s empire.

Renaming West Bengal to “Bangla” can forge greater links between both the Bengals, besides furthering the cause of the state in the national capital, the author suggests.

Sengupta says one can always look forward to a “loose confederation between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh which can create by far the strongest entity in the comity of nations”. India and Bangladesh may have thorny issues, but “there is a lot of fraternity between both the Bengals”, the author said.

“There is no doubt that people from both the Bengals cherish their common history, the commonality of the cultural outlook and shared attitudes over other factors,” he added.

For the people of Bangladesh, the sense of pride in their language and cultural identity have to be balanced with two powerful influences – first, a pan-Islamic Wahabi fundamentalism and jihadi fanaticism; and the second, the powerful Bengali cultural and social system, the writer said.

“They have to strike a balance… because they would not like to see their Bengali identity being swamped by overmuch reliance on the latter. Similarly, Bengalis in India have to balance their transnational Bengali cultural identity with the very powerful pan-Indian identity,” Sengupta pointed out.

“There is a lot happening at the cultural level globally to bring the Bengali-speaking people togther. I think the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of Rabindranath Tagore will ensure great intercation and bondage among Bengalis around the world – and in India and Bangladesh,” he said.

Sengupta, who has authored six works of non-fiction, said “he wanted to cover the history of both the Bengals”.

(Madhushree Chatterjee can be contacted at [email protected])