Reimagining the Colonial Bengal Presidency Template (Part I) | 2017-04-11 |

Towards Sub-Regional Prosperity in South Asia

Reimagining the Colonial Bengal Presidency Template (Part I)

Tariq Karim     11th April, 2017 11:49:50 printer

Reimagining the Colonial Bengal Presidency Template (Part I)

The post-colonial “neo-Westphalian” nation states in South Asia that emerged on independence from British Colonial rule in 1947 have remained largely hostage since then to what I call the “Partition Syndrome”. The newly created borders that separated, and defined, their newly defined sovereign territorial spaces also progressively and effectively restricted free movement of people and goods across their hitherto integrated geographical space.


By the mid-1960’s, the new ruling dispensations had physically severed road, rail and river routes that had for long served as an organically integrated circulatory system of communication for them, most severely to the detriment particularly of the eastern part that was known as the Bengal Presidency under British colonial rule.


The Bengal Presidency, was the largest of the colonial administrative divisions of British India with its seat in Calcutta (now Kolkata). At its territorial peak in the 19th century extended from the present-day Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa of Pakistan in the west to Burma, Singapore and Penang in the east. Most of this Presidency’s extended territories were gradually incorporated into other British Indian provinces or crown colonies. With partition of Bengal on 1905, Dacca (now Dhaka) became the capital and Shillong the summer capital of the truncated province, but with the reorganisation of Bengal in 1912, the reorganised Presidency embraced initially the provinces of United Bengal, Bihar, Orissaand Assam.


Bernier, the seventeenth century physician and traveler, in his historiography of his travels had described Bengal not only as the granary of the east, but also the common storehouse cotton and silknot of “Hindoustan or the [British] Empire of the Great Mogol only, but of all the neighbouring kingdoms, and even of Europe”. Notably, Bengal alone accounted for one-third of the total population of British India at that time, and yielded over one-third of the aggregate revenues of the Indian Empire.


Before Partition/Independence in 1947, the Bengal Presidency had the highest GDP and Shillong, the summer capital, reportedly boasted the highest per capita GDP. But, following Partition of the Indian sub-continent on 14th August 1947, South Asia sub-continent transformed from having been the most integrated region for eons, overnight into arguably perhaps the least integrated region in the world.


If Trade and Connectivity are handmaidens to each other with the latter promoting actively exchange of ideas, goods and services, it follows axiomatically that disruption to connectivity will translate into disruption of trade and people-to-people exchanges. Land, rail and riverine connectivity continued to remain hostage to negative politics of the Partition Syndrome until very recently. Recognising that SAARC as originally conceived was going nowhere, Bangladesh took the initiative in 1996 to propose to the SAARC summit the adoption of Sub-regional approach towards moving forward gradually to embracing all other countries. The entire region could be conceived as comprising three sub-regions: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN) as the eastern sub-region; India, Maldives and Sri Lanka (IMS) as the southern sub-region, and Afghanistan, India and Pakistan (AIP) comprising the western sub-region. If one sub-region was ready to move forward together on some areas and demonstrate palpably successful model of cooperation in any given priority sector, it might attract other sub-regions to join or emulate. 


The Eastern sub-region had displayed inclination to move forward, following two treaties that were signed between Bangladesh and India in 1996-1997.


However, it became increasingly obvious that at least three (or four) contiguously located neighbours needed to first establish a modicum of good bilateral relations amongst themselves before those three (or four)sets of good bilateral relations could be triangulated (or quadrangulated) into a form of sub-regional cooperative grouping. This could expand through a process of accretion in specifically agreed areas at a pace deemed comfortable by the partner countries. In this schema, getting Bangladesh-India relations right was a sine qua non. 


The two countries set about determinedly attempting to do this, commencing in 2009.  The Joint Communiqué at the end of the visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister to India in January 2010 set out the roadmap for the two countries to follow, in their efforts to set right all that had been wrong earlier. India and Bangladesh relations forged forward steadily and remarkably, with the two countries amicably and peacefully finalising demarcation of their land and maritime boundaries, and signing and operationalising coastal shipping and maritime shipping agreements that have become operational, while the long-existing Inland Water Protocol has included additional ports of call, offering synergy between the new coastal and maritime shipping connectivity. The first deep water container vessel has carried goods from India across the coastal waters of the Bay of Bengal and travelled upstream to disgorge cargo at inland water port of Pangaon in Bangladesh. These are phenomenal developments, considering what had existed (or rather, not existed) less than a decade ago. Number of land customs stations have expanded, with three having been upgraded into Integrated Check Posts (ICPs). Electricity grids on bilateral basis have been connected between Bhutan and India, Bangladesh and India and Nepal and India, and power trade has commenced between the three countries (with Nepal and Bangladesh being power deficit countries at the moment). Talks are underway now for tri-nation joint venture cooperation between Bhutan, India and Bangladesh for hydro-electricity generation and shared distribution of power. Bangladesh is also sharing its surplus but fallow bandwidth for augmenting ICT capacity in North East India. 


The convincing rationale behind these initiatives was the deepening realisation that economic development was imperative for growth and for fending off and eradicating anti-state movements by radical/militant elements. For this, that there was an urgent need for creating new jobs every year, keeping foremost in mind the notorious impatience of youth who needed to be offered opportunities of positively channeling their energies. To be able to address these compelling challenges, leaders of the eastern sub-region (BBIN) realised, perhaps somewhat fuzzily still, the need to revive and reinstate the connectivity that had existed before the British left.


Ambassador Tariq Karim was Bangladesh’s immediate past High Commissioner to India from August 20019 until October 2014 (with the personal rank and status of a Minister of State). His earlier Ambassadorial assignments were in Washington, Pretoria and Tehran. He has served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Beijing and New Delhi, and in different diplomatic capacities earlier in Tehran, Bonn, Bangkok and London.