Bengal, Separated by Religion, United by Ecosystem.13 Sep 2016
To the world outside of the Indian subcontinent, the freedom of the British Raj was commonly considered a huge win for the Indian people, and a repercussion of the toll that the United Kingdom had taken over World War II. Yet, like the empire chose to do with many of its holdings in the Middle East and Africa, the British split India fairly arbitrarily into two separate countries India and Pakistan (Bangladesh would later split from Pakistan in 1971, but would be at the time labelled East Pakistan or East Bengal). The critical separating factors were key socioeconomic divides that would prevent the country from growing at a significant rate for at least 50 years, but more impactful was the religious divide. India had developed a significant contingent of a Muslim population under British rule (about 50 percent), and while the lines of Pakistan and India were the most significant barriers by religion, the country was fairly sparse throughout. Some of these lines were drawn in the middle of two significant regions of India, Bengal and Punjab. The former would go from becoming the capital of India to one of the most impoverished parts of the world, and the Partition of India would cost the region over a million lives and more than half a decade of tension and religious based violence. Through all of that, the region would begin reconciliation over its most defining natural feature, the Bay of Bengal and the estuary of the Ganges.
As it still is today, the region has been defined by its fishing culture for over the last three centuries. It is the only truly sea-life rich area of the Indian peninsula, one where the majority of major rivers in the subcontinent converge to create the one of the largest estuaries in the world. The Bengal region is otherwise largely covered in tropical forests and farmland that once again relies of the Bay of Bengal for its survival and adequate irrigation. Yet, the entire region needed to work together to have an effective economy. Much of the prime fishing territory was on the East Pakistan side of the estuary, but in order to make an economy of the practice, much of the fish would be traded up the Ganges to Kolkata and beyond.
A large part of this economy began to fail once the lines were drawn in the Partition of India. Over the next ten years, a region once fairly assimilated by class and religion would begin to self segregate over the arbitrary border defined by the British. This would make such trade extremely hard, and disconnected West and East Bengal from their respective nations. This isolation festered internal frustration, and the two sides began to blame each other for the misfortune across the region. Those who were wealthy enough abandoned the region, and everyone else was trapped socioeconomically. Once the Indian and East Pakistan borders began to close, it became harder for people to move, and those who were misplaced as a minority were heavily persecuted and often killed. My grandparents lost a net total of seven siblings and several other family members to this effect.
Since 1957, the people of Bengal have been able to make amends over the violence that once dominated the region due to the mutual dependency on the Bay and its defining factor in the operation of the region. After the dust settled over war and violence, the tension persisted. This tension defined the better part of the late 20th century, but began to diminish as younger generations began to take over industry, farming, and fishing. Slowly, but surely, the two countries began cooperation over trades and fishing rights, and these agreements have been critical to the assimilation of people into their own countries. Families have been since reunited, development has begun to once again progress after vastly falling behind the rest of India, and the diffusion of tension by religion in Bengal has been critical into eventual progress with rekindling relationships with other Muslim nations and moving the people of West Bengal out of the conservative right.
The next big challenge for the region will once again be defined by the Bay of Bengal. The region has the highest loss of landmass rate of any shore in the world cause by global warming. The expectation is by 2030 half of the current available land go underwater or inhabitable, displacing over thirty million people once again. For a region defined by massive migration and displacement, it’ll be hard for the people of Bengal to once again recover from another disaster. Yet, there’s reason to be optimistic. Many initiatives have been started by India and Bangladesh together to preemptively maintain the estuaries natural properties as well and creating natural forms of irrigation that are mitigated the effects of flooding. Many urban innovations have been made by cooperative research to prevent the effects of Global Warming tied to the natural monsoon season, and in like the two countries are developing the area in a manner that is respectful to the environment as well as each other. It took the region fifty years to heal, but it wouldn’t have been possible without their mutual connection to the Bay of Bengal.