Book review: A History of Bangladesh, by William Van Schendel, Cambridge University Press

William Van Schendel’s ‘A History of Bangladesh’ is not, as the title suggests, confined to events surrounding the birth of an independent state 40 years ago. Rather, it is a fascinating and highly readable account of life in the Bengal delta over the last two millennia.

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Published in Contemporary South Asia

Sadarghat boat terminal, Dhaka
Sadarghat boat terminal, Dhaka
William Van Schendel’s ‘A History of Bangladesh’ is not, as the title suggests, confined to events surrounding the birth of an independent state 40 years ago. Rather, it is a fascinating and highly readable account of life in the Bengal delta over the last two millennia. Van Schendel posits his work as an introductory history for students and general readers and acknowledges that he has greatly compressed the story: ‘Each page stands for about a million people who have historically lived in what is now Bangladesh.’ (xxv)

Bangladesh is currently one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and also one of the least developed. It occupies just 144,000 square kilometres, yet with 160 million inhabitants, it has a population larger than Russia’s. Van Schendel explains the impact of accelerated population growth for current and future generations: ‘Today each Bangladeshi has less than a quarter of the space that his or her forbears enjoyed 100 years ago; by 2050 [when, according to predictions, there will be 250 million Bangladeshis] it is likely to be one tenth.’(71) The obvious result, he states, is ‘tremendously decreased access to space and resources,’(71) which can be deemed a positive only insofar as it has created a magnificent and flexible resilience within its citizens. However Van Schendel points out in concluding chapters that despite possessing a shaky grip on democracy and an enduring appetite for corruption, ‘[Bangladesh] has developed a political system that has proved remarkably crisis resistant and increasingly able to deliver services to citizens.’ (218) The rise of the ready-made garments sector is another signal of increasing economic growth, as is the transition from a dependency (or even, an ‘addiction’ (221)) on foreign aid to migrant remittances.

Full to the brim - Buriganga River boat
Full to the brim - Buriganga River boat
Van Schendel also eloquently describes the lesser-known outcomes of relatively familiar political upheavals in the Bengal delta over the last century. The separation of Bengal by the British in 1905, for example, is commonly thought to have split the region in two, but it was in reality a 201-piece division. The most far-reaching consequence, writes Van Schendel, was the splitting of Muslims and Hindus into separate political groups. Van Schendel also peppers his text with case studies to illustrate the often heartbreaking and bewildering impacts such political upheavals had on individuals, as opposed to the nation states. Perhaps most striking of these is Intaz Ali, ‘the fivefold citizen,’(102) who was unlucky enough to live along one of the sub-continents’ border areas. Born on the south of the Ganges in 1947, Intaz was originally a British Indian, but subsequently became a Pakistani, then an Indian, again a Pakistani – and ultimately a Bangladeshi following the Liberation War of 1971. Like countless others, he spent his life in limbo.

Panum Nagar
Panum Nagar
And yet despite such frequent upheavals, Van Schendel also points out that there remain many consistencies across time in the Bengal delta, especially in terms of cultural norms and practices. As Van Schendel writes, ‘The miracle of sustained rice cultivation over millennia is perhaps the greatest feat of Bangladesh’s history.’(13) When the British left in 1947, 95 percent of the population lived and worked in the countryside. Today, 60 percent of Bangladeshis earn a livelihood from agriculture, but as Van Schendel explains, the poor returns have intensified the nation’s economic stagnation. Just as the ‘zamindar’ or landlords refused to invest in agricultural technology during the days of British rule, today, agriculture accounts for just one fifth of Bangladesh’s gross domestic products. As of the year 2000, four fifths of Bangladesh’s population of 160 million lived on US$2 a day and a third on less than a dollar.

Keraniganj brick factory
Keraniganj brick factory
The predominance of Islam has also been steady since its arrival in two separate waves. Islam first reached Bangladesh as a by-product of seaborne trade between the eighth and twelfth centuries, and in the early thirteenth century it entered by land: ‘this time as the religion of powerful invaders.’(27) One of the book’s most fascinating chapters, ‘A national culture?’ describes the ‘spectacular cultural innovation’(251) of post independence Bangladesh and the ensuing clash between liberal segments of society with regimented Islamic beliefs. As Van Schendel suggests, ‘The further Islamisation, or secularisation, of Bangladesh society is by no means a foregone conclusion.’(263) One hopes that scholars such as Van Schendel will continue to pay attention.

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