A Tale of Two Bengals, Linked By One Bhasha

In post-Independence India, language had often set the political discourse.

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A Tale of Two Bengals, Linked By One Bhasha

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(This piece was first published on 10 August 2017 and is being republished in light of recent calls for ‘One Nation, One Language’.)

The Indian subcontinent was divided by the British in 1947 into two major entities – one the Hindu-majority India and the other the Muslim-dominated Pakistan. If the boundaries of the two countries were drawn largely on the basis of religion, language constituted another major component that impacted the historical journey of this partition. Language, like religion, remained a major source of discord and continued to stir the minds of millions of the Bengali-speaking population of Pakistan’s non-contiguous territory of East Pakistan – now Bangladesh.

In post-Independence India, language had often set the political discourse. Teeming millions in East Pakistan chose Bengali over Urdu as their language of preference and fought for its official sanction.


The fight for the Bengali language continued and much blood was spilled as the Pakistani rulers first tried to silence the demand by force, then finally buckled under a determined, uncompromising population for whom the Mother tongue was as important as the Mother land. The freedom movement and the language movement became synonymous and finally, Bengali earned its rightful place in Bangladesh when it was granted the status of national language after waves of protests and agitations.

Even as we enter the 70th year of our Independence in India, Bengali, as it is nurtured and cultivated in two Bengals – Bangladesh and West Bengal – is a subject of fierce debate and comparison.

Critics have gone deep into analysing the evolution of the Bengali language – one under national patronage in Bangladesh and the other under the care and control of a regional government in the Indian union of states – West Bengal.

Apart from Bangladesh, the language movement for Bengali had sparked a fire in other areas too, like in Assam and some parts of Bihar. The Bengali language movement in Barak Valley, Assam is as important a landmark as the language movement of Bangladesh. Sylhetis in Barak valley had fought alongside the Bengali-speaking population against the Assam government’s decision to impose Assamese as the sole official language. The Bengali-speaking population constituted a majority in the Barak valley, yet it was being denied official recognition.


On 19 May 1961, police and paramilitary forces opened fire on the protesting Bengali mobs in Silchar and killed 11 persons, including a woman. The dead were later termed “language martyrs” of the Barak valley. The Assam government had to subsequently concede official status to Bengali in the Barak valley.

Parts of Bihar in present-day Jharkhanad also witnessed Bengali language movements, particularly with Purulia and Jharkhand in Ranchi as the nerve centre and the Bengali population, demanding an official status for the sizeable Bengali-speaking population settled in the region.

This was when the first State Reorganization Commission was holding its hearings and redrawing the maps largely on the basis of linguistic majority. Bengali was often seen as a mother language with its Magadhi-Prakrit origin and having deep-rooted influences on languages like Assamese or Odisi. Before partition, these were precisely the regions that used to fall under Bengal Presidency but the geographical spread of the Bengali language had begun to shrink with the abolition of its old administrative structure.


Fast forward to the present day politics, and the latest sparks over language in the Darjeeling hills where the Gorkhas vehemently resented what they felt was an attempt to forcibly impose Bengali as a subject of compulsory study for Gorkha students. They were not ready to accept it. The government of Mamata Banerjee quickly stepped in to clarify that Bengali was being offered only as an optional subject for the Gorkhas and not a compulsory one. But language issues, more often than not generated deep mistrust as they did in Darjeeling, and ever since the first week of June, the hills had been on the boil.

The sensitive and the emotionally explosive issue of language rightly or wrongly galvanised the Gorkhas to unite in their do or die pursuit of the elusive goal of a separate state of Gorkhaland based on its ethnicity and separate culture.

The event, on a larger canvas, symbolised how the space for Bengali on this side of the divide has been shrinking over the years. The misery and tragedy of the two Bengals did not end with partition.

As the British Commission drew up new boundaries, the Bengali-speaking population of East Pakistan grew more and more restive over attempts by the Punjab-dominated rulers of West Pakistan’s bid to impose Urdu as the sole language of communication.

But Bangladesh fought vehemently to secure its rights and create world history with its language movement.

As a tribute to Bangladesh’s language movement, the UNESCO in 1999 declared 21 February as International Mother Language Day.

In the post-partition journey, linguists seem sharply divided over the excellence achieved by the two Bengals in the field of study, in practical application of Bengali and in literary creations. Bangladesh seems to surge ahead in the ranking unanimously when it comes to official application of the language in government work, in judicial matters, in stamps and in its daily, common usage in life.

Phenomenal progress had been made in popularising the language from the grassroots level up, as research and innovations largely at Dacca University as the nerve centre had made significant breakthroughs.

But language experts of both countries say that there are other strong regional pockets where scholars have set exemplary standards of excellence in the study of Bengali language and its research like Chittagong or Sylhet in Bangladesh or the Barak valley-Silchar, Assam in India.

Application of the Bengali language in daily use is one area where West Bengal lagged far behind when compared to Bangladesh. During the long Left regime of about 35 years in West Bengal, the rulers had failed to give the language the impetus it needed and its official application ended in several half-hearted attempts. Attempts to introduce Bengali notes in official government works and file noting met with resistance from the English-speaking bureaucracy.

Still, for sometime at least we had seen a Tamil chief secretary in the West Bengal government trying to adapt to the Bengali language and sign in Bengali. Others did not follow suit, of course. And the effort did not succeed.
Pabitra Sarkar, well-known linguist

“We had also seen some feeble attempts at introducing Bengali number plates for vehicles in West Bengal but that too did not last long,” Sarkar added.

One measure of prosperity of the Bengali language as practised in the two Bengals is the work done by essayists, scholars and researchers from both Bangladesh and West Bengal in enriching studies on Rabindranath Tagore. Bangladesh is said to have made great strides with scholars like Syed Akram Hossain or Ghulam Murshed, whose writings on Rabindranath Tagore are as rich and enriching as the stalwarts in the field in West Bengal like Shankha Ghosh. Akram is regarded as a preeminent literary critic on Rabindranath and his writings on Tagore novels are well acclaimed.

In Bangladesh, little magazines on poetry and literature published from places like Chittagong or Sylhet are said to have done phenomenal work in this regard and brought out special issues on Rabindranath Tagore on the sesquicentennial birth anniversary of the Nobel-winning Bengali poet. The publications, say experts, made significant contributions and spurred initiatives in studies in Tagore.


If we have Santiniketan – the abode of peace set up by Tagore and his ancestral home in Jorasanko in West Bengal, Bangladesh boasts of the “Kaccharbaris” in Shahzadpur and Silaidaha where the iconic buildings had been declared national monuments. Bangladesh is also setting up a model university in the Visva Bharati-Santiniketan mould.

Abdul Razzaq – a former Vice Chancellor, Rajashahi university – was quoted in Bangaldeshi reports as saying “we are studying the Visva Bharati model and would assess how best we could adapt Santiniketan’s model in the Bangladeshi social landscape.”

Razzaq was a member of the committee that was planning the university. Like Tagore literature, Rabindra Sangeet (Tagore songs) too, had been a scale of comparisons between the two Bengals. It is well known that Suchitra Mitra-Kanika Bandopadhyay, while alive, had been a permanent source of training and learning for many of Bangladeshi artists who had successfully adopted and preserved the purity of Tagore songs and strictly adhered to Tagore songs grammar (known as Swarabitan). The younger crop of Bangladeshi Rabindra sangeet artists are often pegged higher than their counterparts in West Bengal now.


(The writer is a Kolkata-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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