A labourer works at the construction site of a residential complex in Kolkata
A labourer works at the construction site of a residential complex in Kolkata Reuters

Less than two months before parliamentary elections are held in India, one of the many pressing regional issues confronting the principal candidates -- Narendra Modi of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and (most likely) Rahul Gandhi of the incumbent Congress Party -- involve the eastern state of West Bengal. West Bengal, which had been ruled by Communists for almost 35 years until 2011 (making it the longest-serving democratically elected Marxist government in world history), now has a maverick chief minister named Mamata Banerjee of Trinamool Congress, a breakaway party she formed.

Banerjee, an ambitious woman who may one day seek to become India's prime minister herself, won the 2011 state election partly because West Bengal's Muslim voters (who account for about one-fourth of the state's population) transferred their support from the long-entrenched Left Front (Communists) to Trinamool. As such, Banerjee has catered to her Muslim constituencies, while seeking to maintain her power and popularity among the dominant Hindu community. But critics complain that Banerjee's overtures toward Muslims amount to mere tokenism, noting, among other things, that West Bengali Muslims largely remain mired in poverty, high unemployment and marginalization.

However, any discussion of West Bengal and “communal politics” (that is, the often violent relationship between India's eternal enemies, Hindus and Muslims) must involve Bangladesh, the overwhelmingly Muslim, impoverished and overpopulated nation directly to the east of West Bengal.

In 1947, when Partition divided “British India” into a Hindu-dominated “new” India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan, Bengal was carved into two pieces: Hindu-dominant “West Bengal” of India and Muslim “East Bengal” (or East Pakistan). The Bengali “East Pakistanis” had almost nothing in common with the Urdu-speaking Punjabis who ruled them from Islamabad more than 1,000 miles away. Thus, this ill-conceived arrangement was doomed to fail.

By 1971, the new nation of Bangladesh was created after a devastating civil war severed the former East Pakistan from "West Pakistan" (a conflict in which India actively supported the secessionists in the east). In the wake of that war, millions of "East Pakistanis," mostly Hindus, fled to Indian West Bengal, to escape violence, war, rape, arson and certain death.

Over the past four-plus decades, Bangladeshis have continued to illegally pour into West Bengal and other Indian states that border Bangladesh -- however, now, these migrants are mostly Muslims escaping grave poverty. Their numbers have become so great that their presence has alarmed the local people in the host regions of India.

Modi himself has weighed in on this issue of illegal immigration -- but in a creative and clever way that plays well to his conservative Hindu base. Modi, speaking at a rally in Assam, another Indian state struggling with an influx of Bangladeshis, declared that India should embrace Bangladeshi Hindus but expel Muslim Bangladeshi immigrants. Modi even accused Congress of “encouraging” Muslim immigration as a way of increasing “vote banks” (since Muslims would be unlikely to vote for BJP candidates).

Aside from the issue of massive poverty, illegal immigration also involves various other actors to conspire together, including corrupt politicians, underpaid border patrol officers and unscrupulous businessmen. The DNA news agency of India reported recently that Bangladeshis can enter India illegally by paying as little as 150 to 250 Rupees ($2.45 to $4.10) a piece to corrupt Indian guards of the Border Security Force. By paying an additional 4,000 to 5,000 Rupees, they can secure passage for cities as far away as Chennai, Delhi or Mumbai through the help of “agents” in both West Bengal and Bangladesh.

As with illegal immigrants all over the world, the newcomers are resented for their willingness to work for lower wages than the native peoples, thereby depressing overall incomes and creating a ready-made “cause” for politicians to exploit and gain votes. Indeed, the BJP -- which has never had a strong presence in West Bengal -- may score well in some districts of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam and other regional states which feel threatened by the deluge of Muslim migrants. “In election after election, we are noticing a consolidation of Hindu votes in constituencies neighboring the India-Bangladesh border,” said Tathagata Roy, a Bengali BJP member, reported LiveMint.

West Bengal and Bangladesh are also fighting over the most precious resource of all -- water. Earlier this month, Bangladeshi officials said they wanted to sign more water treaties with India, particularly with respect to the Teesta River, the 200-mile body of water that is a crucial lifeline to Sikkim, West Bengal and Bangladesh. However, the aforementioned Mamata Banerjee recently refused to abide by terms of a water-sharing deal with Dhaka, prompting New Delhi to withdraw it. She cited, among other reasons, that the proposed agreement would deliver less water to West Bengali famers, thereby hurting local agricultural production.

Bangladeshi Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque said he is concerned by the diminishing amount of river flows that his country receives from Teesta. The Joint River Commission office in Dhaka claimed Bangladesh is now getting only 6.5 percent of Teesta's waters, the “lowest [level] ever”. “Common rivers should bind the two countries together,” Haque said, according to Bangladeshi media.

In addition, the possibility of Modi (who is still widely blamed for facilitating the massacre of Muslims in his native state of Gujarat in 2002) becoming Indian Prime Minister also has some observers in Bangladesh worried. "Secular forces are in retreat in India and the [BJP] is headed for a fresh new stint in government, this time under the leadership of an individual [Modi] whose role in [the] 2002 Gujarat riots has continued to raise questions," Syed Badrul Ahsan, executive editor of Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper, said at a seminar at the India International Centre in New Delhi. "The Taliban dictates terms to Pakistan's ruling classes. Hindutva [right-wing Hindu nationalism] remains on the march in India. In Bangladesh, the government [acts] tough against the backward-looking right [-wing] but understands, too, that the battle [against them] will be hard and long.”

But a senior BJP official countered that a Modi regime would seek to establish good relations with Bangladesh. "We had the best of relations with Bangladesh under [BJP’s Atal Bihari] Vajpayee as prime minister [between 1999 and 2004], said MP Tarun Vijay. “We will continue the legacy of Vajpayee because Modi is a follower of Vajpayee.” Vijay also took a swipe at Banerjee by asserting that a BJP government would be happy to share Teesta water resources with Bangladesh. "I have come to assure my friends from Bangladesh that if a Modi government is voted [into] power, it will be a new beginning ... in India's relations with Bangladesh,” Vijay concluded.

Perhaps Mamata Banerjee’s refusal to sign off on a Teesta water-sharing pact can serve as a metaphor for the ongoing schism between West Bengal and Bangladesh, two entities that essentially share the same language and ethnicity, but are divided by politics, religion and the vicissitudes of history. “Hardnosed politics, rather than the nebulous concept of Bengali brotherhood, has governed ties between the two regions,” wrote Yusuf Begg in the Economic Times. “Partition in 1947 only put a political seal on an ever-widening cultural and economic divide.” Indeed, Begg insisted, 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.”

Greater Bengal has a long and rich cultural tradition, exemplified by one of the greatest geniuses in global history, Rabindranath Tagore, the Kolkata-born Renaissance man, poet, novelist, scholar and musician, who is claimed and celebrated by all Bengalis, regardless of nationality or religion. Still, as Begg indicated, Kolkatans in West Bengal think of their city as the “epicenter of Bengali culture,” while generally dismissing Bangladeshis. “There is certain degree of condescension when discussing Bangladesh,” Begg wrote. “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.”

Garga Chatterjee, PhD from Harvard, and commentator on politics of Bengal, who splits his time between Kolkata and Cambridge, Mass., agreed with that assessment – up to a point. “Among middle-class and upper-class West Bengali Hindus especially, they definitely used to view East Bengalis as uncultured ‘country bumpkins,’” Chatterjee said in an interview. But, Chatterjee also noted that, among the masses of poor (who probably account for 90 percent of West Bengal’s population), such snobbish attitudes do not really exist. “The poor of West Bengal and just as poor as their counterparts in Bangladesh,” he quipped.

Naeem Mohaiemen, a Bangladeshi writer, wrote in the New York Times about the cultural snobbery in cosmopolitan Kolkata towards artists from Dhaka. “One complaint I heard was that West Bengal still treated Bangladesh as the lesser partner in cultural production,” he noted. “West Bengal writers like Sunil Ganguly and Samaresh Majumdar are popular in Dhaka, but far less reciprocal space has been created in Kolkata for best-selling Bangladeshi novelists like Humayun Ahmed and Imdadul Haq Milon.”

Yusuf Begg also cited that West and East Bengal have vastly different economic profiles and trajectories, which only exacerbates the chasm between these two divided peoples. “Partition saw Bangladesh with acres of jute with few or no mills; in fact, most industries in [greater] Bengal were situated in West Bengal,” he stated. “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.”

For 2012-2013, West Bengal boasted a per capita income of about 63,000 Rupees ($1030), according to Indian government statistics, while the corresponding figure for Bangladesh was about $750, using World Bank data. Given Bangladesh’s immense poverty, millions of its people have left the country as both legal and illegal immigrants, to work in India, the Middle East, Western Europe (especially Great Britain) and North America. Begg pointed out that Bangladeshi migrants are overwhelmingly blue-collar, while those who depart West Bengal for foreign lands tend to come from the white-collar educated classes, often doctors, engineers, academics, accountants and the like.

Chatterjee further points out that West Bengalis feel little or no attachment to Bangladesh, not even the Muslims on the western side of the border. “Muslims have resided in what is now West Bengal for centuries, so they are deeply rooted to the region,” he said. “They do not look east towards Bangladesh for anything -- after all, the migration in the area is east-to-west, not the reverse.”

One must also consider that West Bengal is part of a modern, increasingly urbanized and cosmopolitan nation of India -- viewed from this framework, West Bengalis feel even further removed from their poorer, less urbane, "siblings" in Bangladesh. “For those Bengalis who live on this side of the border [West Bengal], aspirations, role models, lifestyles are in sync with the rest of India,” Begg adjudged. “For them, Bangladesh is just another country. Like Myanmar.” In Kolkata, there is a kind of fake ‘high culture’ that completely excludes the poor, the rural villages and the illiterate, Chatterjee said. “But those segments form important parts of Bengali society and culture,” he added.

As for the question of which metropolis, Kolkata or Dhaka, represents the true capital of Bengali culture, Chatterjee had an interesting take. Ironically, Bangladesh’s poverty and relative isolation from the outside world (in contrast to wealthier and more outward-looking Kolkata), has resulted in Dhaka having a more dynamic, authentic, and perhaps, 'purer' Bengali culture and ethos. “Dhaka has a vitality that far surpasses Kolkata,” he said. Indeed, in Kolkata and much of West Bengal, English and Hindi (the national language of India) have entered everyday conversation and public communications to such a degree that they cannot be ignored. Very few Bengali people in West Bengal speak without using English words or idioms in virtually every sentence. This is not the case in Bangladesh, at least not to the same magnitude. Consider that in the 1980s, when (West) Bengali filmmaker Aparna Sen (whose family originated in East Bengal)) visited Dhaka, she was shocked to see auto license places in Bengali script, rather than in English.

But Bangladeshis (or East Pakistanis as they were called from 1947 to 1971) fought long and hard for their linguistic integrity. Indeed, in 1948, one year after Partition, Pakistan mandated that Urdu would serve as the official language of both West and East Pakistan. In response to the sudden marginalization of their ancient Bengali language, East Pakistanis protested – which even led to some deaths in street clashes with police. The Islamabad-based government eventually rescinded the order, allowing the Bengali language equal status. Bengalis have also strongly resisted efforts by (West) Pakistanis to “Arabize” their language script. Perhaps the threat of the loss of their tongue prompted East Bengalis to embrace their language with an even deeper commitment than their cousins in Indian Bengal.

An editorial from the Dainik Suprovat newspaper from as long ago 1998 summed up the divisions between the two Bengals in explicitly political terms –describing a scenario that remains in place today. “Until the Bangladeshi anti-liberation forces led by the BNP [right-wing Bangladesh National Party] are effectively subdued, and unless the Republic of Bangladesh joins the Union of India in some form, there will exist… a clear separation between the Indian Bengalis and the Bangladeshi Bengalis. This separation cannot be based on religion, but on nationality,” the piece explained.

Indeed, religion plays a dominant role in keeping West Bengal and Bangladesh separated and increasingly estranged. In Bangladesh itself, which has a large fundamentalist Muslim movement led by the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami which is inextricably linked to the BNP. For most Jamaat adherents, the Islam religion trumps ethnicity and nationality, thus making any kind of rapprochement with Bengali Hindus practically impossible.

Consider even the Bangladesh national Anthem, ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’ (or ‘My golden Bengal’), which is actually a song composed by Tagore in 1905. Since this poem was written long before the formation of either Pakistan or Bangladesh, it has no references whatsoever to liberation wars or to Islam. Rather, it depicts a romantic, pastoral view of 19th century rural Bengal that is directly at odds with the nationalistic fervor of groups like BNP which reportedly wanted the anthem changed. Celebrating Bangladeshi nationalism as an extension of Islam rather than “Bengali nationalism,” BNP founder and former President Zia ur Rahman derided the Tagore anthem as inimical to his view and vision for the country.

“Forty years after independence, Bangladesh continues to have an uneasy relationship with its national identity and the presence of its neighbor,” Mohaiemen concluded. “West Bengal is only one part of that equation, as Bangladeshi migrant-related instability in northeastern India now looms large as well. Still, relationships with West Bengal are the crucial prism for India-Bangladesh relationships.”

Now, in the spring of 2014, as reactionary forces in both India (BJP) and Bangladesh (Jamaat/BNP) ascend and grinding poverty continues to push desperate Bangladeshis into India, the emotional gulf between West and East Bengalis is likely to intensify.