“Oh! Calcutta.”, she exclaimed.
Walking past the dilapidated colonial buildings and narrow alleyways that line most of Kolkata’s cobbled streets, overhearing such heartfelt exclamations can conjure much in the imagination, stirring the soul.
The clamor of college students I had accidentally eavesdropped on, however, had only felt their bellies stirring, as they finally decided to head to Oh! Calcutta— an up-market restaurant offering a mouthwatering fusion of traditional Bengali fare and continental delicacies.
On first impression, this erstwhile capital of India is a fusion of new and old, a unique juxtaposition of resplendence and squalor, sophistication and desperation. Yet, Kolkata’s illustrious history shows that the state capital of West Bengal is much more, and remains a crucial element in the jittery relations between India and Bangladesh.
“In recent times, under the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh, India has had good relations with Bangladesh, which has become its largest trading partner in South Asia. However, India’s engagement with Khaleda Zia, hasn’t been as productive, shadowed by the harboring of Indian insurgents under Zia’s erstwhile government. This lack of engagement with Zia is a major roadblock to cooperation as at least one-third of the Bangladeshi electorate are behind her and so remain suspicious of India.“, says a senior reporter at a national daily based out of Kolkata.
Opinions, insights and stories of East Bengal (later East Pakistan and finally Bangladesh), are rife in West Bengal. Despite sharing borders with other South Asian neighbors, Nepal and Bhutan, secession of the two Bengals, saw much anger, grief and longing fill the region; it also brought a conflict in identity, on both sides of the border, with some inclined to their Muslim identity while others staunchly embraced their Bengali roots.
“Broadly speaking a South Asian identity does exist with Punjabi and Bengali identities overlapping borders. Yet, Bengali identity is more profound in Bangladesh than my own state of West Bengal”, says a doctoral researcher at Jadavpur University.
The influx of millions of Bangladeshi refugees to West Bengal, following the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, caused significant strains on the state’s infrastructure, contributing significantly to the decades of economic stagnation that followed. Consequently, the lack of economic opportunity in West Bengal led to distrust and discrimination towards Bangladesh despite once being a people of the same state, who shared ideas and resources to make Bengal a hub for socio-economic activities and political ideation.
There is, of course, tremendous scope to rectify these relations but in South Asia, regional politics and their ramifications tend to take priority over economic development. Opposition by the Mamata Banerjee-led West Bengal government, towards sharing the waters of the river Teesta (which flows through the state) with Bangladesh has caused much anxiety for India and remains a sour point with the Sheikh Hasina government.
“If India is serious about greater cooperation, there is a lot it could do. For example, India could have financed the USD 2.9 billion Padma Bridge project, instead of allowing Chinese and Malaysian offers to take precedence. Although India had suggested Bangladesh could use the USD 200 million grant component from a 2010-allocated USD 1 billion line of credit for the bridge, China offered better terms— funding nearly 70 per cent of the project cost, finishing the project in three years and an easy 20-year payback schedule. Worried about upsetting India, over the growing Chinese influence (they are already funding a deep sea port at Sonadia), and keen on sending a message to the rest of the world about its growing economic capabilities, Bangladesh has decided to do the Padma Bridge project on its own. India has many such opportunities to contribute and develop relations with its neighbors which should be pursued if they are serious about establishing a portal to the North East.”, says a veteran journalist and senior editor.
“With regard to civil society initiatives, cooperation is strong between West Bengal and Bangladesh as they combat trafficking across the borders. A Missing Child Alert (MCA) project, currently, runs between Bangladesh, India and Nepal. An inter-governmental SAARC apex body called South Asia Initiative to End Violence against Children (SAIEVAC), which works for child rights has also been established. However, we often run into difficulties tracking trafficking victims once they have been repatriated to Bangladesh.”, says the additional director of an international humanitarian organization focusing on children in need.
The belief in the preciousness of life of Kolkata’s persevering proletariat, despite facing hunger, deplorable living conditions, illness, and bone-breaking work (or no work at all) earned it the nickname ‘City of Joy’. But this belief and struggle is characteristic of almost any place in South Asia.
Today, as the City of Joy (and consequently West Bengal) embraces an economic rejuvenation, it has a unique opportunity to serve and spread joy through greater cooperation, not just with its kinsman in Dhaka, one of the fastest growing cities in the world, but with its other South Asian neighbors as well.
Oh, Calcutta! Its time.