Home / Feature / Milk in a Bottle is Milk, Milk in an Ocean is Nothing: Demystifying Bengali Identity in the UK.

Milk in a Bottle is Milk, Milk in an Ocean is Nothing: Demystifying Bengali Identity in the UK.

Piya Mayenin
BA (Hons) Econ, PGD Law

  ‘Manush dekhte eshechilelam bhobe‘ ( I came to this world to experience humanity) Fakir Lalon Shah.

What is Identity
Identity needs to be as clear as milk in a bottle. If that milk is spilled into an ocean, the milk will not be traceable. Throughout our lives we often ponder on who we are, where we are from and where we are going.  Searching meaning and belonging on this planet simultaneously is paramount in decisions we make with our lives. Moreover, Science has proved the link between DNA, race and identity. Medicine and research rely on this in order to find diagnosis, prevention and cures of medical conditions.  On another level, identity is needed for administration purposes in a country or across countries. Therefore, although one is entitled to as many identities as one wants, we can conclude that the nature of identity should be such that brings out the qualities of something in a most concrete and clear manner possible so that it is possible to be measured and evaluated.

Measuring Identity
We identify a man as a man, a cow as a cow, camel as a camel and a lion as a lion not as mammals as this would be too vague. A vehicle can be train plane boat tractor motorbike but a car is a car.  Identification of a person or group of persons needs to be similarly accurate for this very reason.  Asian, Caucasian and African are very broad definitions. Religion, spreading across continents, is even broader. Ethnicity on the other hand encompasses a common language, food and culture that religion does not.  This becomes absolutely clear by studying differences in a Bengali, Pakistani, Turkish or Somali Muslim. Somalian culture and practice of Female Genital Mutilation for instance, is not practised by Muslims in the other Muslim cultures stated. A national-religious identity is inaccurate, then, due to vagueness.   

Brief History & Identity of Bengalis
Bengali ethnic origin that later turned into a national identity has a history of at least 4000 years.  It is important to note that religion did not precipitate the existence of Bengalis. Geological evidence indicates that much of Bangladesh was formed 1 to 6.5 million years ago during the tertiary era.   Paleolithical and neolithical tools were found in the Bangladesh region and  the study of Philology and Theology shows that  the Copper Age settlements of 4000 years ago  spoke non – Aryan languages, probably Austro -Asiatic and practised Paganism as a religion .  This gradually changed with Aryianisation  of Bengal.

The traditional and revisionist  schools of thoughts established on the evolution of political Bengal are that:

The Bangladesh region in the ancient period was an integral part of mighty empires in North India. Beginning from Gangaridi (2nd century) and Gauda (7th century) to the great Budhist Pala empire (8th to 12th century) for 400 years. and Muslim & Mughal empire for 500 years after that, were some of the notable empires.

2)  Epigraphical  evidence suggest that only some of the areas which now constitute Bangladesh were occasionally incorporated in the larger all -India empires. Political fragmentation and not empire was the historical structure of Bengal in the ancient times. Independent local kingdoms included Vainyagupta, the Faridpur kings (6th century), the Bhadra dynasty, Khadaga dynasty up to the Pattikera dynasty in early 12th century.

Evidence of a United Bengal is found examining the growth of Buddhism under the golden age of Hinduism and the treatment of Hindus with liberalisation in the golden days of Buddhism(400 years).  Muslim rule (500 year) carried on the broad Buddhist principles. Emperor Akbar revised and promulgated the Bengali secular calendar in 1584.  Ariyanisation caused Hindu rule to persecute Buddhists in the 9th century that left a trail of the 900+ years of established Buddhists fleeing to neighbouring countries and throughout Bengal, Burma and China.

It was the British rule in Bengal that witnessed the greatest discontinuity in the history of Bengal. East India company in 1757, a mercantile company became the virtual ruler of Bengal by defeating Nawab Siraj-Ud Daulah through conspiracy. The commercialization of power saw the emergence of an industrial revolution in England and de-industrialisation in Bengal.  The muslin industry virtually disappeared in the wake of the British rule.    The forces of unity and division played simultaneously, bringing to surface rivalry and communal politics between the Hindus and Muslims which lay dormant in the era of  Muslim rule, yet again, within a hundred years of British rule, a separatist union of Hindu Muslim and Buddhist formed an army of India to fight  imperialistic rule. To counter this, the British pulled out divide and rule policy by mixing pig fat into the powder used as bullet for the rifle, infuriating Muslims and for the Hindus they cut up the sacred cow and smeared blood everywhere which was enough erupt religious violence.  Muhammed Ali Jinnah, Lawyer turned politician led Muslim League against the Indian National Congress and inoculated the sentiment for Muslims to demand and fight to establish an Islamic nation for the Muslims which resulted in the Pakistan Resolution of 1940 at Lahore. Pakistan, which emerged constitutionally as one country in 1947, had in fact two wings which were not only separated from each other by more than a thousand miles, they were also culturally, economically and socially, absolutely  different. The East wing (now Bangladesh) was deprived economically, politically and oppressed and with Urdu language about to be imposed as a state language, Bengalis retaliated which led to the blood-soaked revolution by the Bengali people to establish their own culture and language and live without oppression in their own land.

Culture of Bengalis
It is said that the best way to know a person is to know his music. Bengali culture  evolved with verses of Veda / Vaisnob Podaboli, Buddhist Charyapady. Verses about divinity turned to music of purely human form with Alaol-Ali Abbas Husain’s Poddaboti. In the rural areas folk music of Hason Raja, mystic philosopher and songwriter Lalon shah, Shah Abdul Karim  who had no formal education but were thinkers, social reformers  that influence Bengalis to date. Sufi Hazrat Shah Jalal, worshipping Allah through Ihsan – the perfection of worship.   The people of the delta, laid back in nature, overlooking green paddy fields, looked forward to fish and rice and indulged in rich musical history. The ancient Bharata Natya Shastra laid down the treatise of dance music and drama. Dhrupad, Kheyal was passed down from Guru to Shishyo, Bhajan Thumri Dadra reached their peak in the Mughal Empire with Emperor Akbar (who is also said to have established the worlds first secular state)and his wife Jodhabai also known as Mariam -Uz Zamani. Ustaad Alauddin Khan from Comilla composed many raags, and father of Ustaad Ali Akber Khan who brought western interest to North Indian Classical music in 1955 and Guru of the likes of Bahadur Khan, Ravi Shankar and Nikhil Banerjee.
In Language and Literature, Ishwar Chandra Biddyashagor, social reformer who influenced modernisation which Bonkimchandra Chattopodyai – fiction writer and social inspirer followed. Under the teachings of Anthony Firinghi, Michael Moddhushan Dutta began modernity.  Bengali language truly begun with Meghnad Bod Kabbyo. Raja Ram Mohan Rai, was the forerunner of the Bengali Renaissance and Rabindanath Tagore placed Bengalis on the psychological map of the world. After Tagore, Bengals most loved poets were Jibon Anondo Das, Amiyo Chakravarty, Vishnu Dey, Shudindronath Dutta and Buddho Deb Basu who formed the ‘Panchab Pandit’ of modern times.  National Poet of Bangladesh, Kazi Nazrul Islam’s revolutionary songs and poetry fills Bengalis with pride and joy. Begum Rokeya Sakawat Hossain pioneer of feminism and writers like Mir Musharraf Hussain and Syed Mujtoba Ali and the great Shamsur Rahman and many more shaped the cultural identity of the people of Bengal.

Arab countries- Emergence of Pan – Islamism
It was after the 1970’s that saw a rise in Islamism or political Islam, which draws upon the politicised religious teachings of Kharwiji, Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, Sayyid Qutb of Egypt and Abul ala Moududi of Pakistan.  Pan-Islamism grew from the Middle East.  Given the historical evidence that religious politics is enough to stir emotions and sentiments to kill and die on its behalf, just recall the Christian crusades in the high and late middle ages, the Armenian genocide of 1915   and recently Syria and Iraq, why is it global political Islam rose at this time and what is the driving force behind it?  

Egypt saw Liberalism based on Rifa’a Al Tahtawi’s writings but fizzled out as it only spread amongst the upper classes. Socialism and Arab nationalism in Egypt was deemed to have failed by the defeat in the 6 day War with Israel of 1967 and the death of Gamel al Nasser in 1970. Radical secular movements of Palestine Liberation Organisation was deemed to have failed and Pan-Arabism with it. This decline in secular forces created the gap that was filled with an alternative, i.e. Islamism, which was relatively under control up to then. Anwar Sadat reversed socialist policies and launched Infitah and released Muslim brotherhood prisoners and enlisted their help. It was they who assassinated him in 1981. Poverty in Egypt welcomed the importation of Wahabbism along with the income it offered, from Rich Saudi Arabia. Access to income encouraged people to endorse Islamism. The Shi’a Iranian Revolution in 1979 then consolidated that and brought home that it was possible to have a politicised Sunni Islamic State also. So started the experiments in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq. Islamists were even armed by the US in order to fight the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. The catastrophe and destabilisation created in the Middle East geared young home grown radicals  and radicals from within these countries begun to team up against the Western powers. Internally dis-enfranchised youth also started boiling in the pot and forced off the lid in 2011, initiating the Arab Springs revolt against stifling dictatorial governments. Thus it is not merely a fight with Arabs and Western Powers it is a cross fight between various sects, against dictatorship and various political variants of Islam. Put simply an enormous amount of Muslim fighting and killing Muslims is prevalent within the political Islam.  

Islamophobia and Confusion
Over-using a word can have the effect of decreasing its value quite rapidly. Islamophobia is one such word. To say that Muslims are the ‘new Jews’ and that one should imagine Jews in the 1930’s,  is unrealistic and untrue.  While it is true to say Muslims in Europe have been targeted by the far right wing, what has to be remembered is that for hundred of years Islam has been practised peacefully. The dilemma is created by those using Islam in their Islamist cause that makes the world a very turbulent and violent place. It creates people to use for its cause and teaches them how to murder. The backlash on large majority of genuinely peaceful Muslims must be protested and stopped, however, overuse of the word Islamophobia allows opportunist political religion to confuse those who practise religion peacefully. It even confuse Leftists who must understand that while all Muslims are not Islamists, discussing the history of political religion and the bloodshed and massacre associated with it is not Islamophobic.

Mission of Muhammed (PBUH)
Islam came as message of mercy, reinforcing the word of Allah. The goal of any religion is to save people from sin and guide them to the righteous path. The Prophet Muhammed’s mission was just that as was the mission of Prophets before him from Ibrahim (Abraham) to Isa (Jesus).

Political Islam denies the Prophet who established Islam, who clearly did not intend political Islam, and did not advocate fighting unless there was absolutely no other way.  The modern concept of Islamic ‘state’ did not exist. Muhammed had no title and no position of power.  He was not called ‘your honour’ ‘your majesty’ or even ‘prime minister’ or ‘president.’  He was clearly not a head of state, merely known as the Prophet. By default, he found that he had a territory which he shared with people of other faiths. He had to find a solution on how to live together irrespective of religion. So how did he do this?   Even if one were to superimpose a name of ‘state’ on it, then Muhammed’s ‘state’ would have been one of the first secular states. Non Muslims practised their own religion and the Jews had their own judicial system. Trade flowed between people of different faiths. Only when a Jew trader had a problem with a Muslim trader they went to Muhammed for guidance.

Another misconception is that of ‘Jiziya’ or ‘taxation’ of Non – Muslims by the Muslims, where there was no ‘Islamic state’ an ‘Islamic tax’ simply did not exist. Once again, taxation is another modern concept.  Bedouin travelling hundreds of miles, were frequently stopped, attacked and robbed. The looters lived on the spoils. Those Bedouin sought help from Muhammed’s and his people who supplied protection,
 food and water.  The fees paid by the Bedouin helped Muhammed’s people to sustain themselves.  Muhammed’s guide, lawmaking for people to get along without killing, robbing, as a way of life, became codes, irrespective of religion. Only when a Jew was unhappy with dealings with a Muslim he would go to court of Muhammed.  In this respect, Muhammed could be said to be one of the first codifiers of jurisprudence and law.

The most important message from Allah through Muhammed was that Allah does not like transgression i.e., the wrongful infringement of another’s personal space. Muhammed was criticised by his own followers when he compromised in the three year Treaty of Hudaibiyya with the Quraiysh of Mecca. He accepted the lowest possible terms one could possibly accept for the sake of peace.  He accepted not to go to Hajj simply because he put safety of his followers above everything. It was the Quraiysh of Mecca who breached the treaty and the Prophet led his, now, pious followers to Hajj.  When the Ka’aba was taken by the Muslims no one was killed.  

Responsible/Irresponsible Narratives
Narratives that encourage and politicise what was not intended to be so, is not only irresponsible but also dangerous. Religion is not the reason for radicals joining ISIS but politicising of religion plays a part regardless of how minor or major that is. When interviewed, many radicals have cited the reason for doing such an act as doing their religious duty for the afterlife by safeguarding the Muslim ‘Ummah’.  The irresponsible narratives surrounding identity such as we are ‘Muslim first and then British’ does play a part in this. Of course radicalisation involves further grooming by hate preachers, but a young person who is made to believe that the Pan-Islamist cause is his, easily adopts a sense that the ‘Umma’ (Muslim supra-national community) is under attack, and assumes the duty of a Muslim is to protect it or face punishment in the afterlife.  It does not even seem odd to them that the Muslim ‘Umma’ appears Arab centralised. Other Muslims (African, Asian) do not stir up as much sympathy. Sectarian violence and Arab politics are also overlooked.

Insensitivity to British Bengali History
Bengalis being shoved into ‘British Muslim’ bloc is not only factually inaccurate but also dangerous for the said reasons and insensitive to the plight of Bengalis. Not only does it create a diversion from mainstream politics but also divides the ethnic minority.  As members of the ethnic minority we still have battles to be had together. However this loses sight with divisions by religious politics. .

For a Bengali, with a rich cultural heritage, the only other heritage that could be embraced is that of the land that educated, fed and brought us up. Britain that gave us Sir Winston Churchill, one of the greatest wartime leaders to Clement Atlee who envisioned the Welfare state and NHS. From Emmeline Pankhurst, who brought women suffrage in Britain and Geoffrey Chaucer, father of English Literature; From William Shakespeare national poet to Jane Austen,  Slyvia Plait and the Bronte sisters;  From TS Elliot,  William Blake , Charles Dickens  and CS Lewis who established the foundation of children’s  literature; From music of Katie Melua, Katherine Jenkins and Top of the Pops, this is my  heritage and identity.  Thus Identity is not simple, its not constant,  but encompasses all of that inside a British Bengali in its truest form, that is clear concrete and measurable, thus  British Bengali would be an accurate description of Bengalis settled in the UK.   

Emergence of Identity Politics in UK
Identity politics did not emerge in a vacuum in the UK. Inequality between mainstream society and ethnic minorities is at the centre of it. For a community to prosper in a new land, integration is vital. The Host nation has the responsibility of facilitating that integration and prosperity. Despite Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and the riots that were directly linked to it, the organised ultra-right fascist groups such as National Front, British Nationalist Party, the murder of Altab Ali and now the EDL, Bengalis have against all odds, rooted themselves in the inner cities of Britain over the last several decades and have become a fabric amongst fabrics woven into the cosmopolitan society of London and other major cities.

Pan-Islamist agenda found a gap to reach young Britons, who,  stifled with racism and dismal chances for prosperity, also felt deceived by Tony Blair’s claim of Iraqi  ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ and later being exposed as being a liar. Islamists offered identity and belonging where others were failing to offer it.  What must be remembered here, however, is that the Iraq war was fundamentally a one man decision, i.e: Tony Blair’s. We have to remember his cabinet members Clare short, Robin Cook, Mo Mowlem all stood up against him and resigned. Similarly we need to remember that other wars, Gulf, Bosnia Afghanistan were clearly US and Russia playing out games of power, being invited to do so by Islamist and other groups. This cannot thus be seen as an ‘us and them’ decision. They are us and we are them.

Mayoral elections in Tower Hamlets   
A recent encounter with identity politics can be seen in an issue when the High Court  had ruled on  23 April 2015, that Mr Luthfur Rahman, Mayor of Tower Hamlets  from  2010  to when he was disqualified, was guilty of vote-rigging, seeking spiritual influence through local imams, and wrongly branding his Labour rival a racist.  This decision was subsequently met with criticism of racism and Islamophobia, and the British Election Court was called a Kangaroo court. Without going into the case, it must be said that, the British legal system is regarded as one of the best and independent in the world. It is the result of a thousand years of legal evolution.  A kangaroo court is a judicial tribunal or assembly that blatantly disregards recognized standards of law or justice, and often carries little or no official standing in the territory within which it resides and thus it is an utter disregard of thousand years of legal evolution and highly regarded legal system throughout the world to call this court a kangaroo court.

The Way forward
As a second generation British Bengali, I too suffered, was confused, found solace in my religion when things were not clear.  I came to the UK at the age of 3 months. I completed education to post University in the UK.  As a youngster and as a young adult I thought that the plight of Bangladeshi’s did not concern me.  My father told me it did but he did not understand that as a second or third generation it is more confusing to find our belonging in this world given the extra hurdles knowing your roots and racism in the UK because you weren’t English enough. Growing up with English children inside the English culture, yet being rejected created the void in me that needed fulfilling that was fulfilled through my passion for North Indian and Bangla music. Values of democracy liberalism and tolerance, culture and music also played an immense part of my Britishness.  My sense of belonging and identity thus became whole and my heritage and upbringing, education was equally important to me for that reason.

Historical evidence shows that the existence of the peaceful and diverse natured people of Bengal existed before any religion emerged.  Economically the silk road, jute, indigo and the crown jewels seduced the world and attracted people from all over in their different guises to Ariyanise conquer, loot and rule.  Bengal’s rich  literary and cultural heritage immensely influenced South Asian history through the Bengal Renaissance during the 19th and early 20th centuries and the Bengali Language Movement in the mid-20th century.  Bengal was the seat of western science education and a major industrial hub in pre and post independent India that reshaped the modern Indian culture. The people of Bengal made important contributions to the revolutionary movement for the overall Indian independence and successfully prosecuted the Bangladesh Liberation War.

Immigration does not change one’s heritage. One may choose to become part of another heritage but cannot disown his origin and heritage. Those that are proud of their Bengali heritage and roots have been made invisible within identity politics where a political Muslim identity overshadows their real ethnic heritage that sadly goes un-acknowledged.  However those Bengalis would like to scream out ‘We are still here!’

Irresponsible narrative, political in nature yet using Islam in order to secure larger numbers, confusing and straying those that are unaware of own identity are also strayed from  mainstream British Politics . Historically, Bengalis have shared many religions and still do. Moreover, in Britain, Muslims can be broken down into a number of ethnicity and national backgrounds.  Yet Identity politics seeks to fill a void with false sense of identity that is susceptible to Pan-Islamist narratives and must be disallowed.

Success in Parliament
Two decades ago, seeing Pola Manzila Uddin as a Baroness was encouraging to Bengalis. However, seeing Rushanara Ali, the first woman of Bangladeshi origin to be elected in 2010 to the House of Commons has paved the way for a succession of young, dynamic, intelligent Bengalis trying their hand at politics. This year a staggering total of 11 Bangladeshi potential candidates campaigned for election. Three Bengali women, Tulip Siddiq, Rushnara Ali and Rupa Huq were all successful. This brings British Bengalis a sense of true hope and prosperity. We feel included not isolated. It has fulfilled at least one of the integration standards and given us a real chance to transfer our belonging and responsibilities and which manifests in rights of every individual regardless of race colour or religion with full acceptance of immigrants by the host country. We can truly feel what it is to be a British Bengali now and this is the way forward.

Please note: The article is an edited version of a keynote paper presented at a seminar in East London on 4th June 2015 organised by a think tank ‘Unity Forum of UK.