Bengali Hindu: who they are?

Posted on January 9, 2011


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.Around 8th century, Bengali branched off from Magadhi Prakrit, a derivative from Sanskrit that was prevalent in the eastern region of the Indian Subcontinent at that time. During the Pala and the Sena period the Bengali culture developed into a distinct culture within the Hindu civilization. In the subsequent centuries of foreign occupation and struggle for independence, the Bengali Hindu culture remained dormant, only to revive itself in the 19th century in the form of Bengal Renaissance. However, as a consequence of the extended periods of foreign occupation, a community of Bengali speaking Muslims evolved, socially and culturally different[citation needed] from the Bengali Hindu people. While the Bengali Hindus fought for the independence of India from the British rule, the Bengali Muslims opted for a separate Muslim homeland which came to be known as Pakistan. The province of Bengal was partitioned between Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims into West Bengal and East Pakistan (East Bengal). Millions of Bengali Hindus migrated from East Bengal, later Bangladesh and settled in West Bengal and other states of India. From the sixties, the Bengali Hindus began to emigrate to the West, mostly to pursue higher studies and later to the Middle East, in search of lucrative careers. This gave rise to a sizeable expatriate Bengali Hindu population in the West and the Middle East. The Bengali Hindu population is mainly concentrated in the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh. While in the Indian states of West Bengal and Tripura they are in majority, in the other Indian states like Assam, Meghalaya, Jharkhand and the Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands they from a significant linguistic minority. The Bengali Hindus thus onstitute a minority ethnic group both in India and Bangladesh, forming less than 10% of the population in both the countries.


The Hindus are an ethnic group, native to the Indian subcontinent, speaking a broad range of Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages and adhering to the native belief systems, rooted in the Vedas. The word Hindu is popularly believed to be a Persian exonym for the people native to the Indian subcontinent. The word is derived from Sindhu, the Sanskrit name for the river Indus and it initially referred to the people residing to the east of the river. The Hindus are constituted into various ethno-linguistic subgroups, which in spite of being culturally diverse, share a common bond of unity. The word Bengali is an English exonym for the native Bengali word bangali. The English word Bengali denoting the people as well as the language is derived from the English word Bengal denoting the region, which itself is derived ultimately from the Bengali word Vanga which was one of the five historical kingdoms of Eastern India. According to Harivamsa, Bali, the king of the asuras had five sons from his wife Sudeshna through sage Dirghatama. The five sons namely Anga, Vanga, Kalinga, Pundra and Sumha went on found five kingdoms of the same name in the eastern region of the Indian subcontinent. In ancient times Vanga proper consisted of the deltaic region between Bhagirathi, Padma and Madhumati, but later on extended to include the regions which now roughly comprise of the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh.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 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 India, Bengali generally refers to Bengali Hindus[citation needed], a notion widely accepted by the other ethnic groups. The ‘other’ is usually identified as ‘non-Bengali’, a term that generically refers to the Indian people who are not Bengali speaking, but sometimes specifically used to denote the Hindi speaking population.EthnologyThe Bengali Hindus constitute of numerous endogamous castes, which are sometimes further subdivided into endogamous subgroups. The caste system evolved over centuries and became more and more complex with time. In the medieval period, several castes were boycotted by the ruling classes from time to time and this isolation continued till the 19th century.

Though these social boycotts were somewhat discriminatory in nature, there was no untouchability. After the Renaissance, the rigidity of the caste system ceased to a great extent, so much so that the first celebrated intercaste marriage took place as early as in 1925.The Bengali Hindu families are patriarchal as well as patrilocal and traditionally follow a joint family system. However, due to the Partition and subsequent urbanization, the joint families have given way to the nuclear families. The Bengali Hindus were traditionally governed by the Dayabhaga school of law, as opposed to the Mitak?ara school of law, which governed the other Hindu ethno-linguistic groups. In India, after the promulgation of the Hindu code bills, the Bengali Hindus along with other Hindus are being governed by a uniform Hindu law.There are two major social subgroups among the Bengali Hindus – the ghotis and the bangals. The Bengali Hindus who emigrated from Pakistan at the wake of the Partition and settled in West Bengal, came to known as the bangals, while the native Bengali Hindus of West Bengal came to known as ghotis. These two social subgroups possess marked difference in their accents and their rivalry is manifested in almost every sphere of life, most notably in the support for the football clubs of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan respectively.HistoryAncient periodIn the ancient times, the Bengali Hindus were a seafaring people as evident from Vijay Singha’s naval conquest of Lanka, the tales of merchants like Chand Sadagar and Dhanapati Saudagor whose ships sailed to far off places for trade and establishment of colonies in South East Asia. By the 3rd century B.C.E. they were united into a powerful state, known to the Greeks as Gangaridai, whose military prowess demoralized Alexander from further expedition to the east. later the region of Bengal came under Maurya, Sunga and Gupta rule. In the 7th century, Shashanka became the independent Bengali Hindu ruler of Gauda. He successfully fought against his adversaries Harshavardhana and Bhaskaravarmana and protected the sovereignty of the people.Medieval periodIn 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 scriptures in Bengali “Charjapada” 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 castes and orthodox institutions like kulinism.The Mohammedan invasions from North India began in the early 13th century, which was followed by a period of darkness. Even though the Bengali Hindu ruling class resisted the invaders, Gauda, the centre of Bengal polity, fell to the Mohammedans.

During this period hundreds of Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries were desecrated. The next attack on the Bengali Hindu society came from the Islamic missionaries. These missions which were often militant in nature were resisted tooth and nail, as evident from the stories of Akananda, Dakshin Ray and Mukut Ray.The Pathan occupation of Bengal was limited to the region of Gauda, the rest of which was held in sway by different Bengali Hindu ruling dynasties. In the early 15th century, the Pathan rule was overthrown by the Bengali Hindu nobility under the leadership of Ganesha. By the early 16th century, the Pathans declined and the Bengali Hindu chiefs became independent. These chieftains were xollectively known as the “Baro Bhuiyan” (Twelve Rulers). When the Mughals invaded Bengal, the small Bengali Hindu states combined into confederacies and put up a brave against the Mughals. After the fall of the confederacies, the Mughals consolidated the control over the Pathan held areas and constituted them into a subah. Notwithstanding the Mughals occupation, independent Bengali Hindu kingdoms not only continued to maintain their sovereignty outside the pale of Mughal occupied Bengal, some of them even attempted to liberate Bengal from the Mughal rule. Early Modern PeriodAfter 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.Renaissance PeriodIn 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.Inter-partition PeriodThe 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 Sylhet and 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.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,[N 1] 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.[N 2] 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 Pakistan, the Bengali Hindus voted for the Partition of Bengal.[19] On 23 April 1947, the Amrita Bazar Patrika published the results of an opinion poll, in which 98.3% of the Bengali Hindus favoured 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 favour of the Partition with two members abstaining. [N 3] 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 Pakistan. The Bengali Hindus were in further jeopardy when Sylhet, the Bengali Hindu majority district of Assam was also awarded to Pakistan after a disputed plebiscite.

Post-partition Period

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 Bangladesh became an Islamic Republic, 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 Pakistan, 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. 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, prompting the latter to form the Bengali Tiger Force.Discrimination against Bengali Hindu population is not limited to the North East. In Jharkhand, the Bengali Hindu demand of
making Bengali the second official language hasn’t been met, in spite of the fact that the Bengali Hindu population forms the second largest linguistic group in the state. In Bihar, the Bengali Hindu refugees are denied land owning rights and caste certificates. In Orissa, the Bengali Hindu refugees are served quit India notices in spite of having valid documents. 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.



Bengali is the most richest language in terms of literature and literary history in India. The proper Bengali literary history begins with the early Vaishnava literature like the Shreekrishna Kirtana and the Vaishnava padavalis followed by translation literatures like Ramayana and Srikrishna Vijaya. In the medieval period literary works on the life and teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu were composed. This period saw the emergence of Shakta padavalis. The characteristic feature of Bengali Hindu literature in the middle age are the mangalkavyas, that glorify various Hindu gods and goddesses often using folkloristic backgrounds. The early modern period saw a flurry in the literary activity especially after the emergence of the Bengali press. The first Bengali prose Raja Pratapaditya Charitra was written during this time. The Renaissance saw a rapid development in modern Bengali literature. Most of the epics, poems, novels, short stories and dramas of the modern classical literature were written during this period. The Bengal Literary Society that later came to be known as Bangiya Sahitya Parishad was founded.

The literary development during the Renaissance culminated in Rabindranath’s Nobel prize for literature.In the Post-Partition period, the Bengali Hindus pioneered the Hungry generation, Natun Kabita and the little magazine movements. Of late, some of them have made their mark in contemporary English literature.ArtThe Kalighat school of painting flourished in Bengal in the early modern period, and especially after the first paper mill was set up in 1809. During the rise of nationalism in the early 20th century, the Bengali Hindus pioneered the Bengal school of art. It provided the artistic medium of expression to the Hindu nationalist movement. Though the Bengal school later gave way to modernist ideas, it left a enduring legacy.FestivalsAccording to a famous Bengali proverb, there are thirteen festivals in twelve months. The year begins with the Bengali New Year’s Day or Paila Baishakh, which usually falls on 15 April. Traditional business establishment commence their fiscal year on this day, with the worship of Lakshmi and Ganesha and inauguration of the halkhata. People dress in ethnic wear and enjoy ethnic food. Paila Baishakh is followed by Rabindra Jayanti, Rathyatra and Janmashtami before the commencement of the pujas. The puja season begins with the Vishwakarma Puja and is followed up by Durga Puja, the greatest Bengali Hindu festival. It is commemoration of the victory of the good over the evil. According to Chandi Purana, goddess Durga killed Mahishasura, the evil demon and saved the devas. Rama the prince of Ayodhya invoked the blessings of goddess Durga in a battle against Ravana of Lanka. Durga Puja is the commemoration of Rama’s victory over Ravana. Durga Puja is followed by Kojagari Lakshmi Puja, Kali Puja, Bhai Phonta and Jagaddhatri puja.The winter solstice is celebrated a Paush Sankranti in mid January, followed by Netaji Jayanti and Saraswati Puja. The spring is celebrated in the form of Dolyatra. The year ends with Charak Puja and Gajan.ReligionThe Bengali Hindus generally follow the beliefs and practices that fall under the broad umbrella of Hinduism.

Majority of them follow either the Shakta or the Vaishnava traditions, or even sometimes a synthesis of the two. The minor traditions include Shaiva, Bauddha, Brahmo. A significant minority is atheist.Apart of the parent tradition, the Bengali Hindus usually affiliate themselves to one of the many sects that have come to be established as institutionalized forms of the ancient guru-shishya traditions. Major amongst them include the Ramakrishna Mission, Bharat Sevashram Sangha, Anukul Thakur, Matua, ISKCON, Gaudiya Math, Ananda Marga etc.Notes^ There were no separate electorates for Hindus, in spite of them being minorities in the province.^ The Caste Hindus were supposed to contest in the 70 General seats. However as per the Poona Pact between Gandhi and Ambedkar, 20 General seats were reserved for Scheduled Castes.^ Rup Narayan Roy and Jyoti Basu, the two Communist Party MLAs abstained.

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