The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim migration

Author:   Claire Alexander, Joya Chatterji, Annu Jalais
Publisher:   GRFDT
Reviewer:   Laila Tasmia

Claire Alexander, Joya Chatterji and Annu Jalais (2016). The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim migration. ISBN: 978-0-415-53073-6 (hbk); ISBN: 978-1-315-66006-6 (ebk)

The 20th century, in other words the ‘age of migration’, have witnessed a wide range of migration inside and from Indian Subcontinent, especially on conflicting events, like 1947’s division of continent to India and Pakistan and 1971’s independence war of Bangladesh from being East Pakistan. Only the recorded statistics shows migration of 20 million Hindu and Muslim people in 1947 which is one-third of its population. This migration pattern and its diaspora is not only related with fleeing from a conflict situation. It is rooted in the historical events, religious believes and its identical politics, the ‘being Bengal’ identity politics, the societal transitions and cultural experiences and still lives in waves of lives among these diaspora communities. Thus, the underexplored Bengal diaspora has a separate story and analytical area from other migratory events, even within the Indian Subcontinent. It goes beyond a single framing of nationalist questions- are they Indian diaspora? Or, are they Bangladeshi diaspora?.‘The Bengal Diaspora’ book provides a picture of some substantial features of theseBengal Diaspora, focusing on Bengal Muslim migrants. It covered their rangesfrom societal, to national and cultural experiences, which beautifully linked with interlinked agendas of history, displacement, resettlement and psychological fluctuations. It also provided its arguments from anthropological, sociological and gender lens to provide a holistic observation of this undervalued group of diasporas in the world scholarship.The book provided a starting point of being ‘Bengal migrants’ by taking back to the 20th century. It has provided thehistorical aspects of geographical partition of eastern side of Indian Subcontinent and how it is related with the lives of its people till the present contexts. The book has the focus on Muslim migrants and refugees as well as Hindu community (while linking with the cultural experiences) and how it can be placed in the studies on migration and diaspora. With an interdisciplinary approach and interview of more than 200 people in Britain, India and Bangladesh this bookhas unfolded the hidden migration stories of women, refugees and displaced people and found their similarities, differences and contextualised untold issues.

The introductory chapter starts with presenting three facts of Indian Subcontinent’s partition in 1947 when British quit their empire: a) the eastern part of continent were fractured with parts- one side were in control of India and the other was known as East Pakistan and later is known as Bangladesh after the war in 1971; b) in a rough manner 20 million Muslims and Hindus fled from their origin areas to resettle themselves to the ‘right’ places; ended up being in Bengal delta or internally displaced or moving overseas (about 2%) to Middle East and mostly to Europe; c) studies on this particular migration were largely ignored in the large scale of scholars of global migration- particularly Muslim internally displaced people. Among these self-driven migrants, whether in South Asia or in Britain, some had been on the category of new arrivals in their destination and had the commonalities on the growing object of the political intent, popular anxiety anduncertaintieson citizenship. This migration flow has surely contributed in the growing interest on the studies around migration from Global South to North in terms of understanding the historical drives and assessing the multicultural implications. The writers also cleared the fact that South Asia had not only been the source area of migration, but also been a prominent area for destination, especially in internal migration.

The methodological consideration of this book is interesting. It was basically an outcome of the Bengal Diaspora Project- a study project that used a multidisciplinary approach for understanding the global pattern in the distinctive phenomenon of the Bengal diaspora within and outside of South Asia (mainly, the Britain).The project began with four aims- a) testing the key concepts of  downplayed migration agency by ‘forced migration’ and ‘economic migration’; b) examining the historical circumstances and patterns of Bengali Muslims’ migration and resettlement in South Asia and Britain; c) how national or local place shaped experiences of settlement and identity; and, d) how those experiences are affected or transformed with the historical, structural, social and cultural layers, which might consider both ‘sameness’ and ‘differences’. A unique feature of this book is, it tried to refine the concepts around migration, diaspora and identity of the underexplored ‘Bengal Diaspora’ with national and local context. This book clarified their positions and considerations in this aspect. It took the period of 1947 to 2007 for its time coverage and interviewed a total of 227 people in South Asia and United Kingdom (UK). The birth of Bangladesh in 1971 is a crucial caesura in its consideration of Bengal Muslim diaspora. In its fieldwork between 2008 and 2014’ it selected four typical sites in South Asia (urban, rural, borderland and camps for stateless people) as ‘primary settlement’ for settlement of Muslim migrants’, internally displaced people’s (IDPs), cluster migrants in borderland and, stateless people. In the case of Britain,it covered only Bengali Muslim settlement in urban, suburban, deindustrialised small-town communities and dispersed network across the country. For the need to in-depth analysis the project took seven longer ‘life history’ interview in South Asia.

The book is divided in 8 chapters that takes the readers to the journey on three parts. Firstly, in chapter 1 and 2, the book takes the readers to the histories of mobility of Bengal delta related with fracture and violent dislocation in the 1947 and 1971 events. Secondly, it processes the displaced Muslim migrants’ arrival in destination (Bihari Muslims to Bangladesh and Banglades his to UK), their place-claiming strategies in settlement and their claiming of ‘homeland’. Chapter 3 and 4 covers this section of analysis. It stimulates the wider definition of ‘community’ and how the members of these community are influenced and sometimes marginalised by historically formatted identity politics and hierarchical social relations among diaspora. Chapter 5 specifically focuses its analysis on the gender aspect of diaspora. It shed the light of a cultural aspects of history in Bengali marriage migration and how women have been in this picture. Finally, it focuses on the psychologicalpart of the Bengal diaspora- the belonging of ties, the original ‘homeland’ invoked by imagination, the ‘myth of return’ and the negotiations for belongings in the places of arrival- these were visible in this section. Where chapter 6 is more focused on religious toolsin these emotional strategies and its impact, chapter 7 is more focused on the cultural tools. For example, in religious tools, ‘Muharram’[1] is a tool where its celebration in Bangladesh shows the multiple displacement and fractures of ‘Urdu speaking Bihari migrants’ who have complex history of their ‘real belonging’. On the other hand, the celebration of Ekushe February[2] creates a sensitivity as well as contestation within Bengali Muslim Diaspora for their location, diaspora identity (Bangladeshi Muslim or Bihari Muslim). After these specifications this book put other interlinked areas like political aspects or nationalism thoughts in diaspora context in its following chapter.

Some areas of consideration of this book makes itself unique. Firstly, it has provided some alternative knowledge of the perceived narratives towards the Bengal diaspora and their source area. For example, it shared how proximity may not necessarily breed belonging; the distance can create new form of community (Banglatown in London); and, the source areas of Bangla language speaking migrants are both migration source and destination areas. b) it deliberately focused Muslim migrants to showcase their identity in the global patterns of Islamophobia; c) it provided the ‘Bengal Model’ of migratory flow and diaspora engagements that, according to the assumption of writers can be helpful for the literature to explain similar patterns in other parts of the world; d) it provided a lens of ‘Mobility Capital’. It shares how the networks and possessions of materials in the mobilities within and from Bengal region worked like asset in patterns of migration and settlement. At the same time the book has sharedit is actually grounded in the class aspiration and tied with emotional, religious and family obligations. It is also a fluctuated issue because the networks are historically fragile; and, d) the most striking point of analysis in this book is the interlinkage among migration, marriage and women in chapter 5. Marriage has alwaysbeen culturally an important factor for the mobility Bengal women (alike Indian Subcontinent) as they ‘ideally’ have to move to the house or location of groom. This book provides how this culturally important aspect not only shaped the additional contexts for the migration and diasporas, it also provided how women are affected by immigration rules, traditional social norms, uncertainties of their identities and belongings and vice versa. Although the book can be criticised with its binary-gender-analysis, it provides the specific features of Bengali marriage factors in the concept of marriage migration. However, there are some areas that could be more strengthened with in-depth analysis. The chapter 5 provided a generalised view on gendered experienced which could give more focus on how the gendered experiences are different in terms of women migrants of Muslim or Hindu religion.

The Bengal Diaspora created its significant by stretching the knowledge of migration and diaspora to a chart of spider web, which is consisted of multidisciplinary lens, actors and situations. With the strong qualitative evidences from stories, it fragmentated the singular narrative of Bengal Muslim migrants to the historical, sociological, political and anthropological arguments.The book considered both the migrants who migrated within India and Bangladesh and within India and Pakistan as well as the migration between the Bangla speaking locations and United Kingdom. It sheds the light of transnationalism alongside theoretical understandings of diaspora, Bengali, community, routes and belonging. The Bengal Diaspora surely contributes a new lens on traditionally established analysis in the migration and diaspora studies by relating it with undervalued South Asian events like partition, identity politics, nationalism and considerations of both arrival and departure aspects in the same place. While there are very few analyses on this specific diaspora group, this book is definitely a crucial addition to that as well as in the studies around South Asia, Migration, Diaspora, Displacement and Cultural Studies. It is not just an academic book. It is rather a story that links the roots tragic aspects of migration which is still related with the present context of Bangla speaking migrants and diaspora communities in Bangladesh, India and United Kingdom.

Laila Tasmia is a Sustainable Development practitioner, currently obtaining her master’s on Sustainable Development Management at Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences under DAAD scholarship as well as doing research internship at GRFDT. Email: [email protected]



[1] Muharram, is the first month of Lunar year where in the tenth day the Muslim people, especially under Shia followers of Muslim community, observed this day with rituals. It does not only separate them from Sunni followers, it creates fracture in the identical debates of being Muslim.  (p. 161)

[2] The celebration of 21st February is mainly for observing the International Mother Language day. It is a significant for Bangladesh and Bangladeshi people for their relevance to its origin. (UNESCO)


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