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Bengal’s blemishes – Dhiman Dasgupta

Many people, residing within and outside the State, often blame the poor economic condition of
West Bengal on its political inclinations. Their contentions are mainly the political inclinations post-
independence – militant trade unionism, militant land reform movements [Tebhaga, Barga etc], anti-
Centre stand of the left, Naxalbari Movement and (the most blamed) 34 years of Left rule. But
history says otherwise, and it is not any alternate history that is an exercise of intellectual
reconstruction. It is the official commentary supported by official records that proves, these blames
are baseless.

In 1792 – 93, during the Permanent Settlement of Bengal executed by Lord Cornwallis, East India
Company’s revenue collection from Bengal surpassed the total Tax revenue of the British Empire.
The first British Commander in Chief Robert Clive, succeeded by Warren Hastings – both utterly
corrupt, tyrants and pocketed riches in millions – had taxed the people of Bengal in such a manner
that farmers and artisans were unable to have two meals a day. A result of this repression was the
Great Famine of 1770 that wiped out a third of Bengal’s population. At this point of time, British
India meant Bengal, Bihar & Assam, nothing else. From this point onwards till 1848, till the
annexation of Punjab completed the Empire of British India, each and every military and
administrative move was financed by taxation of Bengal. Will Durant [The Case for India, 1930] say
that the British were Raping the Indian Sun-continent from its base in Bengal.

The first Sepoy Mutiny happened in Barackpore, a few miles north of Calcutta in 1824. Only 180 of
the 1400 mutineers were killed, but Bengal earned it’s first bit of rebellious notoriety. The second
Sepoy Mutiny happened in 1857, starting from a bloody massacre that resulted in more than one
hundred thousand deaths. This is called the first war of Independence and the scare was such,
surveyors from London gathered along with Cartographers to design an administrative map – the
nation-state of India was born. Bleeding of Bengal continued as it was the largest trading outpost
with the highest revenue output. Dipesh Chakraborty’s Rethinking Working Class History outlines the
misery of the Working Class in the hands of the local Bourgeoisie and the English rulers. But Bengal
by then has already attained its political notoriety in terms of its unmanageable size, rebellious
culture and literary ingenuity. There was another menace in form of the Congress Party [1886] as
most of the prominent leaders hailed from Bengal. Hence, Bengal had to be divided because (a) a
state so large and rebellious was difficult to manage and (b) it was commanding hegemony over
northern states that were difficult for leaders advocating self-rule from Avadh, Rohilakhand &
Rajputana to accept. The English wanted to give the latter some leverage to earn political benefits.

An excerpt from Lord Curzon’s letter dated 2nd February 1905 to St. John Broadrick, Seretary of State
for India explains the English attitude adequately why Bengal had to be divided:

"Calcutta is the centre from which the Congress Party is manipulated throughout the whole of
Bengal, and indeed the whole of India. Its best wire pullers and its most frothy orators all reside here.
The perfection of their machinery and the tyranny which it enables them to exercise are truly
remarkable. They dominate public opinion in Calcutta; they affect the High Court; they frighten the
local Government, and they are sometimes not without serious influence on the Government of India.
The whole of their activity is directed to creating an agency so powerful that they may one day be
able to force a weak government to give them what they desire. Any measure in consequence that

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would divide the Bengali-speaking population; that would permit independent centres of activity and
influence to grow up; that would dethrone Calcutta from its place as the center of successful intrigue,
or that would weaken the influence of the lawyer class, who have the entire organisation in their
hands, is intensely and hotly resented by them. The outcry will be loud and very fierce, but as a native
gentleman said to me – 'my countrymen always howl until a thing is settled; then they accept it'." It
must be kept in mind, the shift of the Capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi in 1906,
happened much in line with this recommendation.

But, why was Bengal reunited in 1911 is another part of the riddle. The Colonists could make out
that without a United Bengal – East Bengal, Assam and West Bengal, it would be impossible to put
up a strong front against Japanese attack through Burma – both in terms of Forces and Finance. Thus
started the final chapter of Bengal’s tirade – between 1914 and 1944 Bengal was forced to finance
two consecutive world wars. Per Capita grain consumption fell by 38% between 1911 & 1947,
indicates widespread starvation and malnutrition. An estimated Rs.3,800 Crores [Tributes: Jyoti Basu
by Utsa Patnaik; Social Scientist; Jul-Aug 2010] in 3 decades that led to the famine of 1943 in which
about 4 million people died. By the time India received its political Independence, Bengal was
divided once again, this time the Eastern Part became a part of Pakistan, and by the time world’s
largest divorce happened in terms of the Partition, Bengal was left in dire poverty. To make things
worse, the successive central governments imposed policies that added to the menace.

West Bengal has always had a demographic problem – about 9% of India’s population lives on 4% of
habitable and cultivable land. This makes a huge pressure on agricultural land and makes the cities
over crowded. The Tebhaga movement, Chinese war and Congress’ hostile attitude during the Food
Movement added fuel to the fire. Food production remained stagnant between 1947 -67, the
Congress era making the agriculturally rich state dependant on Central supplies. A congress ruled
state turned Left, militant and more rebellious. Where do people turn to in front of abject poverty
and unspeakable neglect? The Land Reform Act of 1956 that was gathering dust was revived by the
first United Front government and a land ceiling was brought in 1967. Land distribution started from
South Bengal and a militant faction started what is known as the Naxalbari movement. The UF
government was dissolved undemocratically till such time people of the state revolted and threw
out the Congress government once and for all. Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency, combined with
the aftermath of Bangladesh’s war of Liberation led the state into darker phases. Indira’s mass
disconnect was so intense that little could she understand that she will lose the 1977 elections and
land up in jail. But, she did and a fundamentally strong Left Front assumed power in West Bengal.

Rest is known to most of today’s readers – under the left rule while agricultural output increased in
the state, industry went south. It went in that direction because the rulers at the centre could make
out that they have no way to control or gain back West Bengal. Hence, there is little or no difference
between the Central Government of India and the extractive colonial institution of the British.

So next time, you are critical of the state, its people, its left-inclinations, its work culture … ad
infinitum, please remember, there is a two and a quarter century worth of neglect that runs behind
the political culture of the state and its people. And political cultures cannot be made good with
administrative policies. It takes a parallel political culture to do it and unfortunately, the
quintessential residents of Bengal [settlers included] usually do not take it lying down.

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