Bengali Hindus are an ethno-linguistic group, belonging to the Indo-Aryan family and are native to the Bengal region of the Indian Subcontinent. The Bengali Hindus along with other related ethno-linguistic groups constitute the Hindu ethnicity. Bengali Hindus speak Bengali, which is classified as a part of the Indo-Aryan language family and adhere to the Shakta and Vaishnava traditions of their native religion Hinduism.
The Bengali Hindu people belong to the broader Hindu people. In Bengali, the Bengali Hindus are described as jati meaning an ethnic group or a nation, that form an inseparable part of the Hindu mahajati or great nation. The Bengali Hindus constitute of the constituent ethnic groups of the Hindu nation.
In India, they tend to identify themselves as Bengalis while in Bangladesh they tend to identify themselves as Hindus. In the global context, the terms Indian Bengali and Bangladeshi Hindu are respectively used. In
, Bengali generally refers to Bengali Hindus, a notion widely accepted by the other ethnic groups. India
In the middle of the 8th century, the Bengali Hindu nobility democratically elected Gopala as the ruler of Gauda, a historic event that ushered an era of peace and prosperity in Bengal, ending almost a century of chaos and confusion. The Pala rulers unified Bengal into a single political entity and expanded it into an empire, conquering a major portion of North India. During this time, the Bengali Hindus excelled in art, literature, philosophy, mathematics, sciences and statecraft. The first scripture in Bengali Charyapada was composed during the Pala rule. The Pala were followed by the Senas who made far reaching changes in the social structure of Bengali Hindus, introducing 36 new castesand orthodox institutions like kulinism.
The literary progress of the Pala and Sena period came to a halt after the Turkish conquest in the early 13th century. Except for Haridas Datta's Manasar Bhasan no significant literary work was composed for an about a century after the conquest. Even though the ruling classes resisted the invaders, Gauda, the centre of Bengal polity, fell to the Mohammedans. During this period hundreds of temples and monasteries were desecrated. The next attack on the society came from the Islamic missionaries. Local chieftains like Akananda, Dakshin Ray and Mukut Ray, resisted the missionary activities.
The Pathan occupation of Bengal was limited to the region of Gauda, the rest of which was held in sway by different Bengali Hindu rulers. In the early 15th century, the Pathan rule was overthrown by the Bengali Hindu nobility under the leadership of Ganesha. When the Mughalsinvaded Bengal, the Bengali Hindu chiefs consolidated themselves into confederacies and resisted the Mughals. After the fall of the confederacies, the Mughals a major part of Bengal and constituted a subah. Independent Bengali Hindu kingdoms like Tripura and Koch Bihar continued to maintain their sovereignty. In the middle of the 17th century, Pran Narayan the ruler of Koch Bihar invaded Mughal occupied Bengal and temporarily captured Ghoraghat and
Early Modern Period
After the fall of the Mughal Empire, during the reign of Alivardi Khan the inhuman taxation and frequent Maratha Empire raids made the life miserable for the ordinary Bengali Hindu people. When the oppression reached its climax under Siraj ud-Daulah, a section of the Bengali Hindu nobility actively helped the British East India Company in overthrowing the Siraj ud-Daulah regime. After obtaining the revenue rights, the East India Company imposed more oppressive taxation that led to the famine of 1770, in which approximately one third of the Bengali Hindu population died of starvation.
However, the British began to face stiff resistance in conquering the semi-independent Bengali Hindu kingdoms outside the pale of Muslim occupied
Bengal. Even when their rulers have been captured or killed, the ordinary people began to carry on the fight. These resistances took the form of Bhumij (Chuar is a deragatory term used by the English to denote the Bhumij) and Paik rebellion. These warring people were later listed as criminal tribes and barred from recruitment in the Indian army. In 1766, the British troops were completely routed by the sanyasis or the warrior monks at Dinhata, where the latter resorted guerilla warfare. Bankimchandra Chatterjee's Anandamath is based on the Famine and consequential Sanyasi Revolt.
In the 19th century, the Bengali Hindu people underwent radical social reforms and rapid modernization; the phenomenon came to be known as the Bengal Renaissance. By the turn of half a century, the Bengali Hindus turned from one of the most orthodox to one of the most progressive communities in India. It was during this time that their identity came to be established with the help of modern virtues like press and railway.
Riding on the renaissance, they began to take early lessons of patriotism in the late sixties and by the turn of the 20th century, they were envisioning a modern nation state. Public media like press and theatres had become vents of nationalist sentiments, apolitical organizations had given way to political platforms, secret revolutionary societies had emerged and the society at large had become restive.
In order to keep the rising Bengali Hindu aspirations at bay, the British rulers conspired to strike at the root of their strength, their preeminent position in the Bengal, the most prosperous province of British India, where in spite of being in marginal minority in Bengal, they dominated each and every sphere of public life. The Britishers partitioned the province in 1905 and along with some additional restructuring came up with two provinces – Eastern Bengal & Assam and
Bengal itself, in each of which the Bengali Hindus were reduced to minorities. The incident triggered the Bengali Hindus into swift action and within a span of six years they coerced the Britishers to undo the Partition.
The Bengal Renaissance gave birth to a new generation of highly educated, spiritually enlightened and politically restive Bengali Hindus. The Britishers sensed imminent danger at the rise of nationalist aspirations among the Bengali Hindus, which they considered a threat to their imperialist hegemony. In order to keep the rising Bengali Hindus at bay, Curzon divided the Bengal Presidency into two - a western part called Bengal and an eastern part called Eastern Bengal and Assam, with the net effect that the Bengali Hindus being reduced to minorities in both the provinces. The Bengali Hindus, however, opposed to the Partition tooth and nail, embarked on a political movement of Swadeshi, boycott and revolutionary nationalism. On 28 September 1905, the day of Mahalaya, 50,000 Bengali Hindus resolved before the Mother at Kalighat to boycott foreign goods and stop employing foreigners. The power of Bengali Hindu resistance forced the British imperialists to finally annul the Partition on 1911. The imperialists however, carved out Bengali Hindu majority districts like Manbhum, Singbhum, Santal Pargana and Purnia awarding them to Bihar and others like Cachar that were awarded to Assam, which effectively made the Bengali Hindus a minority in the united province of Bengal. The Britishers also transferred the capital from Kolkata to New Delhi.
The revolutionary movement gained momentum after the Partition. After the first phase had ended with the martyrdom of Kshudiram, the Bengali Hindu revolutionaries collaborated with the Germans during the War to liberate British India. Later the revolutionaries defeated the British army in the Battle of Jalalabad and liberated Chittagong. During the Quit India Movement, the Bengali Hindus liberated the Tamluk and Contai subdivision of Midnapore district from British rule and established the Tamralipta National Government.
Bengali Hindus, who constituted 44% of the province, were awarded less than a third of the representation in the legislature.
The Britishers, unable to control the revolutionary activities, decided to strangulate the Bengali Hindu people through administrative reforms. The Government of India Act 1919 introduced in the 144 member Bengal Legislative Assembly, 46 seats for the Muslims, 59 for the institutions, Europeans & others and left the rest 39 as General, where the Bengali Hindus were to scramble for a representation. The situation worsened with the Communal Award of 1932, where in the 250 member Bengal Legislative Assembly a disproportionate 119 seats were reserved for the Muslims, 17 for Europeans, Anglo-Indians & Indian Christians, 34 for the institutions, and the rest 80 were left as General. The Communal Award further divided the Hindus into Scheduled Caste Hindus and Caste Hindus. Out of the 80 General seats, 10 were reserved for the Scheduled Castes. In response the leading Bengali Hindu landholders, lawyers and professionals signed the Bengal Hindu Manifesto on 23 April 1932 rejecting the justification of reservation of separate electorates for Muslims in the Bengal Legislative Assembly.
In 1946, the Muslim League government resorted to large scale massacre of the Hindu population of Kolkata in the name of Direct Action Day, which escalated into the bloodiest ethnic conflict of modern India. After two days of suffering, the Bengali Hindus resorted to a violent reprisal that resulted in heavy casualties on the other side, finally forcing the government to stop the mayhem. Later in the year, the Muslim League government orchestrated the infamous Noakhali genocide, where the modesty and honour of the Bengali Hindu women were violated at the point of the sword.
The Direct Action Day and the Noakhali genocide prompted the Bengali Hindu leadership to move for the creation of a Bengali Hindu majority province by partitioning
Bengal. At that time, the movement for creation of Pakistan was in full swing and Bengal was supposed to form one of its constituent provinces. After the failure of United Bengal plan when it became evident that Bengal would as a whole go to , the Bengali Hindus voted for the Partition of Bengal. On 23 April 1947, the Amrita Bazar Patrika published the results of an opinion poll, in which 98.3% of the Bengali Hindus favored the creation of a separate homeland. The proposal for the Partition of Bengal was moved in the Legislative Assembly on 20 June 1947, where the Hindu members voted 58-21 in favor of the Partition with two members abstaining. Pakistan
The Boundary Commission awarded the Bengali Hindus a territory far less in proportion to their population which was no less than 46% of the population of the province, awarding the Bengali Hindu majority district of Khulna to
After the Partition, the majority of the urban middle class Bengali Hindu population of East Bengal immigrated to West Bengal. The ones who stayed back belonged to two categories - ones who had significant landed property and believed that they would be able to lead a normal life in an Islamic State and others who were illiterate and backward and therefore had no other option left. However after the genocide of 1950, Bengali Hindus fled East Bengal in thousands and settled in West Bengal. In 1964, tens of thousands of Bengali Hindus were massacred in East Pakistan and most of the Bengali Hindu owned businesses were permanently destroyed. During the liberation war of Bangladesh, an estimated 24 million Bengali Hindus were massacred in Bangladesh. The Bengali Hindu people have been subject to routine persecution after Islam became the state religion of Bangladesh, most notably in 1989, 1992 and 2001. The Enemy Property Act of the Pakistan regime which is still in force in the new incarnation of Vested Property Act, has been utilized by successive governments to seize the properties of the Hindu minorities. According to Professor Abul Barkat of Dhaka University, the Act has been used to misappropriate 1.64 million acres of land from the Bengali Hindus, roughly equivalent to the 53% of the total landed area owned by them.
The refugee rehabilitation became an acute crisis and hundreds of refugees were rehabilitated in the inhabitable terrains of Orissa, Chattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and the Andamans. Apart from that thousands of Bengali Hindus had also immigrated to Assam, Tripura and other regions of the North East. In the Barak Valley region of Assam, where the Bengali Hindus were in a majority because of the inclusion of Sylhet into
, and subsequent immigration of Bengali Hindus from Sylhet into Cachar, an impasse was arrived at on the question of language. The government of Assam had unilaterally imposed Assamese as the sole medium of education. In response, the Bengali Hindus began peaceful demonstrations demanding Bengali as the optional medium of primary education in the Barak Valley region. The situation took an ugly turn on 19 May 1961, when eleven Bengali Hindu protesters including a minor girl were gunned down by the police at the Silchar railway station. Subsequently, the Assam government allowed Bengali as the medium of education in Barak Valley. However, the rise of ethnic militancy in the eighties and nineties once again made the Bengali Hindus vulnerable in the North East. Pakistan
The United Liberation Front of Asom, National Democratic Front of Bodoland, Muslim United Liberation Tigers of Assam and National Liberation Front of Tripura militants have selectively targeted the Bengali Hindu people. On the other hand massive infiltration from Bangladesh has substantially altered the demography in West Bengal so much so that Bengal Hindus have been reduced to minorities in the border regions. In the recent years, these marginal Bengali Hindu populations are increasingly becoming victims of Islamist fundamentalism.