The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim Migration

Categories Uncategorized

~ Review by Rituparna Roy; originally published in The Wire ~

Speaking to our times:

“Our focus on Muslim migration is deliberate. It addresses a glaring lacuna in Partition Studies, of course. But it also challenges essentialized accounts of ‘Muslim identity’ in a global climate of Islamophobia” – so declare the authors Joya Chatterjee, Claire Alexander and Annu Jalais in the ‘Introduction’ to their book The Bengal Diaspora.

It’s rare to find an academic book that not only stretches disciplinay boundaries (here, history has been brought into conversation with sociology and anthropology), but more remarkably, aligns disciplinary agendas with contemporary issues of great import. The Bengal Diaspora is that rare work. Consequently, it has the ability to speak to people beyond the rarefied world of academia. And it definitely speaks to the West Bengal of today, which has seen a marked increase in Islamophobia even as, ironically, its Chief Minister has sought to woo Muslim voters. There is a deep fear of “demographic imbalance”, of Muslim “infiltrators” from Bangladesh – a fear that the BJP tapped into during its election campaign earlier in 2019, and triumphantly promised to bring in the NRC to West Bengal (should it win).

Islamophobia, however, is not new to Bengal – after all, it is one of the reasons why Bengal was partitioned in 1947 in the first place. As Joya Chatterjee memorably put it in her pioneering work, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition 1932-1947

Bengalis were not passive bystanders in the politics of their province; nor were they victims of circumstances entirely out of their control, forced reluctantly to accept the division of their ‘motherland’. On the contrary, a large number of Hindus of Bengal, backed up by the provincial branches of the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha, campaigned intensively in 1947 for the partition of Bengal and for the creation of a separate Hindu province that would remain inside an Indian union.

Muslims have unfortunately remained the “other” in postcolonial India: in West Bengal, we find proof of that not only in realities like the Muslim ghettoes of Kolkata (Rajabajar, Park Circus) or the Muslim-majority districts like Murshidabad (erstwhile capital of Mughal Bengal) where Muslim refugees fleed at various times after 1947 to be close to their co-religionists, but also in the under-representation of Muslim experiences in history and literature.

Let’s take history first: when it comes to dealing with the Partition of India in the East, that is on the Bengal border, studies have usually focussed on one kind of migration – that of Bengali Hindu refugees (from the upper and middle classes) migrating from East to West Bengal. But those of Muslims the other way round have been largely ignored. Mahbubar Rahman and Willem van Schendel had alerted about this lacuna more than a decade back, but it went unheeded… until The Bengal Diaspora.


Opening up a new discursive space

Chatterjee, Alexander & Jalais have rectified the imbalance in historical research on the Bengal Partition – filling in a lacuna in Partition Studies. But they have also opened up a new space in Migration and Diaspora Studies. Their work demonstrates the truth of two major claims made by Aristide Zolberg: that “nation-making is a refugee generating process”, and that refugees from the global south predominantly remain in the global south. Not only that, they mostly migrate to neighbouring countries, staying as close to home as possible. As the authors’ memorably put it: “The South is not just a ‘source’ of migration, but its preeminent destination”. But they also take Zolberg’s claims two steps further. They study intra-border migration and immobility. They map out (in Chapter 1) a broad survey of the widespread mobility in eastern India since the mid-nineteenth century, underlining the fact that the population of this region was “profoundly intermingled” by the time of the Partition in 1947.

It is useful for us to remember this intermingling of almost two centuries in 2019. If we do, then we don’t need to tell migrants from other states of India that they need to learn Bangla if they are to live in Bengal. Because the Bhojpuri, Bihari, and Oriya speakers (that the authors mention in the quote above) have always taken the trouble to learn Bangla (imperfect though it may be) – like migrants in any host culture – for survival, if not for anything else.

Chatterjee, Alexander & Jalais also study ‘immobility’. They contend in their book (Chapter 2) that why some people decide to stay put – even when it goes against the grain of the situation and when all others are leaving – should also be made to be a part of migration studies. In their own work, they do this, saying they are “as concerned with inertia as… movement”.

There are two more interesting combinations in the book (apart from sudying mobility and immobility): one pertains, once again, to content; the other, to methodology. The book emphasizes both arrival and departure – the two ends of the migration spectrum. This is to correct another bias that Migration studies have had – an almost exclusive concern with arrival. The methodology combines historical analysis with ethnography. This combination was inevitable, given the range of disciplines the authors come from; but both the methods had their limitations and they yielded different results, facts the authors are candid about.


Of contrasting histories & narratives; brides & Biharis

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that there are several contrasting histories of the Muslim Diaspora that the authors unearth in it. One relates to two settlements, another to two books.

Chapter 4 (‘Making home: claiming and contesting diasporic space in Britain ’) looks at two of the oldest and most significant Bengali settlements in the UK – ‘Tower Hamlets’ in East London (immortalized in Caroline Adams’ pioneering 1987 work, Across Seven Seas and Thireteen Rivers & Monica Ali’s feted 2003 novel, Brick Lane) and ‘Oldham’ in greater Manchester  (where, Bengalis mostly worked in its factories and mills, and their immigrant history was tied up inseparably with “the longer history of this postindustrial town”). While Tower Hamlets and Oldham share a similar trajectory of community formation, they differ when it comes to community mobilization. The Bengali community in the UK had come of age in the mid-’70s, in the face of racist attacks. A turning point was the racist murder of Altab Ali, a young garment worker, in May 1978. It gave the necessary impetus to the community for the public resistance of racism and for staking a rightful claim as immigrants who had been around for a long time. More than a decade later, in 2001, Oldham faced massive racist attacks – which were contained, but it did not lead to any transformation in the Bengali community; and the Bengali presence there, to this day, remains less robust that in Tower Hamlets.

Chapter 8 (‘Narrating Diaspora’) centres round two books – Yousuf Choudhury’s The Roots and Tales of Bangladeshi Settlers (1993) & Ahmed Ilias’ Biharis. The Indian Emigres in Bangladesh: An Objective Analysis (2003) – that are classic studies of ‘economic migration’ and ‘forced migration’, respectively. By exploring the differences (one a history of enablement in Britain, the other of disempowerment in Bangladesh) and commonalities (of theme and structure) between them, the authors suggest that the writing of these histories is fundamentally an attempt by the writers to help ‘assimilate’ their respective migrant communities into their ‘host’ cultures, with the hope that it will earn them more respect and recognition in the place they have settled. That attempt definitely succeeded with the Biharis. It had a deep political impact: its publication was followed by the release of Tanvir Mokammel’s film Swapnabhumi (‘The Promised Land’, 2007); and both contributed to mobilizing a more sympathetic attitude towards a marginalized and hated minority in Bangladesh.

The most striking chapters in the book are Chapters 5 and 6, dealing with Muslim brides and Biharis in Bangladesh, respectively. They attest to the inclusiveness – and uniqueness – of the authors’ vision.

Bengali Muslim women migrants changed the very nature of migration to the UK from the mid-1970s. They accompanied or followed their husbands mostly as dependants (in the role of wives and mothers); but while their arrival led to the formation of ‘permanent’ communities, they themselves were looked upon as ‘cultural’ rather than ‘economic migrants’ — based on the assumption (since colonial times) that they were, principally, carriers and purveyors of ‘culture’. But this migration to the UK was just one side of the picture. The authors argue that for most South Aian women, marriage itself has always meant migration, as it was a rite of passage that inevitably entailed leaving the natal home and the place where one was born and raised to the home of one’s husband in another place (which could be a neighbouring village or town or province). They also argue that brides often negotiated with patriarchal structures through marriage migration and some even took advantage of the changing state policies of migration after Partition to rid themselves of unhappy relationships.

The case of Bihari migrants is a particularly fraught one. Bihari Muslims were twice displaced in the 20th century: in the wake of pre-partition riots in 1946, they fled from Bihar to East Bengal; and after the Bangladesh Liberation War (in which they were implicated in the atrocities of the Pakistani army), they tried to flee to Pakistan (in the west) but most got stuck in the newly created Bengali nation. About 3,00,000 remain stranded in camps in Bangladesh (mostly in Dhaka) and live in limbo – considered neither ‘citizens’ (by the State, till 2008) nor ‘refugees’ (by UNHCR). It is only during Muharram that they can wrest some space for themselves in a hostile environment. Muharram rituals – like building a tazia, running as paiks (with all their attendant customs) ­– uniquely allow them that, argue the authors.


The Bengal Diaspora is an important intervention in Partition, Migration and Diaspora Studies. But running through it is a thread of compassion for its 227 respondents – from Koikhali to Tower Hamlets, and from brides to Biharis – that makes it much more than a brilliant academic book.


(Originally published in The Wire, on 2 July 2019).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *