Since the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor was conceived to revive the south-western trade route of the ancient Southern Silk Road, claimed to be the shortest possible route between China and India, Geo-economic significance of the West Bengal has been multiplied, likely to open the doors of opportunities for the ignored region. But Delhi-Mumbai based powerful lobby in India is not much convinced with BCIM, economic corridor, under Chinese One Belt One Road (OBOR initiative, can create hurdles to initiate the project. West Bengal, if looking to lucrative Chinese carrots, in shape of economic benefits, it may also have bear the stick, in terms of manipulation by the Delhi-Mumbai lobby. Any mishandling could lead to socio-political volcano in the region.
Geographically Bengal implies Ganga-Brahmaputra delta that starts from Darbhanga (Dwar-Banga i.e. Door of Bengal) district of Bihar to Chittagong district of Bangladesh. This region is world’s most fertile region with one of the world’s highest population density. These characteristics make Bengal unique in every sense in the entire world. Its people’s main livelihood was paddy cultivation though after industrialisation more and more people are taking other jobs for mainstay. But even now it has a very potent and numerically strong agro society which usually determines this region’s politics.
Another important character of Bengal geography is its proximity to the sea and its position as junction between South Asia, East Asia and South-East Asia. These two characters make Bengal an important international trading point. So Bengal’s population density, its fertile soil and its role as international trading spot shapes Bengal’s history.
Bengal’s early history starts with hunting-gathering society. The strength of Bengal’s hunting society can be traced in its mythologies of Bengal like “Monosha Mongol” which tells about the story of the lives of a hinting tribe called Naga. It tells about the defeat of trader king Chandra Bonik at the hands of Naga queen Monosha. Hindu epic “Mahabharata” tells about the victory of Monosha’s son Sage Astika over Kurus of Ganga plain (Ganga plain implies today’s Indian pronices of Uttar Pradesh and West Bihar) when the later tried to destroy the Nagas. Pali literature including “Mahavamsha” tells about the story of Bijoy Singho’s Lanka conquest indicating flourishing merchant kingdoms in Bengal. Similarly Greek account suggests about Gangaridi Empire which too points out Bengal’s hunting-trading tradition. In the next thousand years Bengal gradually transformed from hunting society to agro society.
By late 6th century AD, Bengal emerged as agricultural empire under King Sasanka who had power struggle with Harsha of central India whose detailed account can be found in “Harshacharita”. By 750, Bengal began to flourish again under Buddhist Pala rule (Wikipedia). Bengal then became nerve centre of global Buddhism. Bengali Buddhist scholars went as far as Japan, China, Tibet, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malay to spread message of Vajrayana Buddhism. Bengal ports became one of the world’s busiest trading centres. Arab traveller Sulaiman said that the Caliphates of Baghdad, the Tangs of China and the Palas of Bengal exchanged ambassadors. Palas fought for supremacy with Gurjaras of West Indian desert. In late 11th century AD, Buddhism was dying in Bengal, the merchants were relegated socially, priests gained considerable powers and Buddhist Palas were replaced by Brahmanical Senas. By early 13th century AD, Bengal was overrun by Turk Khiljis who created independent empire in Bengal.
Bengal empire under Turks reached its glory when Bengal Sultan Illias Shah defeated Farukh-shah Tughlaq of Dlehi in mid-14th century. Illias Shah’s successors made Bengal world’s leading trade centre yet again. (Richard Maxwell Eaton’s “The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760”) Mings of China and Bengal Sultans received each other’s ambassadors. In the second decade of 14th century Bengal politics was shaken by rise of Hindu King Ganesh who took over Bengal throne. Sultan of Jaunpur (West India) challenged the authority of Ganesh. Then Ming King Yongle sent special emissary under legendary naval general Hu Xian to settle dispute between Bengal and Jaunpur. Special interest shown by Ming King proves that Bengal was very important to China for trade. (Tansen Sen’s “The Formation Chinese Maritime Networks to Southern Asia, 1200-1450”.)
As Europeans started dominating seas they began dominating Bengal ports as well. A comprador merchant class was born inside Bengal. In land Mughal power crushed independent Bengal sultanate by late 16th century. As Mughal power waned British filled up political vacuum by defeating semi independent Bengal Nawab Siraj in the battle of Plassey in 1757 with the help of comprador merchant class of Bengal. Gradually, Kolkata was made capital of British India. British did this due to huge revenue from fertile land of Bengal and Bengal’s importance in international trade. Up to 1848, China was world’s leading producer and exporter and hence Kolkata port was most important in India. After Opium wars the West replaced China as leading global producer. Consequently, the importance of Mumbai as international port outweighed that of Kolkata. Gradually, Bengal lost its importance and last nail was British transfer of political capital from Kolkata to Delhi. As economic and political influence waned, Bengal gradually broke down into several parts by mid-20th century. Though independent Bangladesh emerged in 1971 it was just a shadow of what Bengal was up to 16th century.
From history it is clear that Bengal often had to engage in power struggle with neighbouring countries of Hindi heartland, its fertile soil and trade points drew in huge migrants and Bengal had special foreign relations with China, South East Asia, etc. Actually exports of China and South East Asia often find its way into South Asia through Bengal ports and vice versa. Hence rise and fall of Bengal as trade centre is very much related to rise and fall of China which is most important producer in the Eastern world. Thus relations of Pala-Tang and Sultanate-Ming and fall of importance of Kolkata after opium wars were obvious consequences. Due to simple geo-economics, when China becomes globally leading exporter it helps Bengal to gain eminence as international trade centre.
Bengal in OBOR
On October 2013, in Boao Forum, Chinese government proposed One Belt One Road (OBOR) where Chinese government is going make huge infrastructural investments across different part of the globe like building ports, cities, railways, roads, etc. Boao Forum mentioned Kolkata as important point is OBOR. It proposes to link Kolkata with OBOR in two ways. Firstly, under Maritime Silk Road (MSR), port Kolkata is chosen as destination of all shipments from East Asia and Sout-East Asia to South Asia. Secondly, Kolkata to Kunming road is proposed in the name of Bangladesh China India Myanmar (BCIM) corridor. Thus Bengal is to link South Asia and China in land trade as well. OBOR showered so many opportunities to Kolkata and Bengal mainly because of its gifted geography and related demography and economy.
Indian Ruling Class & Bengal
Since independence India is economically dominated by West Indian business class (mainly from states of Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat) and politically by demographic strength of Uttar Pradesh (Ganga Plain) which is most populous state of India. This can be traced from the fact that India’s financial centre is Mumbai of West India and political capital is New Delhi of Ganges plain. History clearly pointed out Bengal was always in political struggle with them. Indian electoral democracy makes it impossible for Bengal to make voice heard above demographically superior Ganges plain. Anglo dominated world definitely gives West India geo-economic advantage over Bengal too. Indian Bengal at the moment is divided into many parts like West Bengal, Tripura, Mithila, Chotanagpur-plateau, Borak-valley and hence cannot challenge Indian ruling class. Bangladesh as a country is quite weak compared to India and hence cannot change course of politics.
Coming Demographic Change
East Bihar (Mithila), West Bengal and Assam are witnessing demographic change as Muslim population is growing faster than Hindus. Hindus in many parts of the region have less than replacement rate (2.1) fertility rates. By 2025, Muslim population share will be at least 35% and their population on average will be younger. Already no political party in these regions can perform without Muslim votes. As this change will continue, the delta can be affected by religious tensions.
Indian ruling class mainly belongs outside of Bengal and will find OBOR in Bengal a challenge to their supremacy. West Indian business class derived most of its strength from Western domination of global economy since last two centuries. So they will definitely not be overjoyed to see rise of China and fall of West. Consequent rise of Bengal as trade centre will be additional salt to their injury. So we cannot expect Indian ruling class to agree with OBOR projects like MSR and BCIM. Bengal delta being weak compared to Delhi-Mumbai cannot put much pressure to make them happen. So Bengal has to balance between stick of Mumbai-Delhi and carrot of Chinese OBOR. If not tackled perfectly, these two opposing international powers combined with demographic shift inside the region will make Bengal a socio-political volcano.