Bengali - History and Cultural Relations

Bengal is mentioned as a distinct region of South Asia in some of the earliest Hindu texts, and throughout the first millennium AD. it was governed by a succession of Buddhist and Hindu rulers. Islamic armies arrived in the region in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, and gradual Muslim conquest—culminating in Mughal rule after 1576—set the stage for widespread conversion of the local population to Islam, especially in eastern Bengal. Not long thereafter, European contact with, and competition for power on, the Indian subcontinent began, and the British period of India's history is usually dated from England's takeover of the administration of Bengal in 1757. Lasting until 1947, British rule had a profound impact on Bengali culture and society, especially with the introduction of English as the medium of higher education after 1835. Hindus responded more rapidly than did Muslims to opportunities provided by English education, and the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the rise of a highly Westernized elite, mostly, but not exclusively, Hindu in composition, whose intellectual attainments were coupled with efforts at sociocultural and political reform. Bengali elites provided major leadership to the Indian nationalist movement as a whole, which began to develop in force after the mid-1800s. Bengali Hindus tended to support a nationalist party called the Indian National Congress in its vision of a free, secular India to follow British rule. But most Bengali Muslims believed, as did many Muslims throughout India at that time, that they had benefited less than Hindus under British rule and feared that they would suffer discrimination in a free India dominated by the country's Hindu majority. The Muslims of Bengal were thus more attracted to another nationalist organization, the Muslim League, which in 1940 advocated a separate postindependence state for Muslims, to be known as Pakistan. The British acceded to India's independence in 1947, at which time the subcontinent was partitioned into two separate nation-states: India, with a Hindu majority, and Pakistan, with a Muslim majority. The predominantly Hindu western districts of Bengal then comprised the Indian state of West Bengal, whereas the mainly Muslim Districts of eastern Bengal formed the eastern province of Pakistan (called East Pakistan). Pakistan's national unity was based on common religious identity of its citizens as Muslims, but it was undermined by the nation's linguistic diversity and growing conflict between the country's ethnic groups. Over time the Bengali Muslims of East Pakistan came into increasing confrontation with the non-Bengali Muslim groups of West Pakistan, where a preponderance of the economic wealth and political power of the country was concentrated. In 1971 the schism between East and West Pakistan erupted into a civil war—a national liberation struggle from the Bengali point of view—resulting in the breakup of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh as a new nation. This history helps to explain why the Bengali population is divided into its two major political entities: the Hindu-majority Indian state of West Bengal, with its capital at Calcutta; and the Muslim-majority independent nation-state of Bangladesh, with its capital at Dhaka.

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