Reimagining the Colonial Bengal Presidency Template

Tariq Karim

31 October, 2017 12:00 AM printer

Reimagining the Colonial Bengal Presidency Template

Tariq Karim

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.  


While in most other regional groupings, whether European, Southern African or Southeast Asian models, motor vehicles of one member country can trundle across borders freely carrying goods, peoples and services, this was not so in the case of the SAARC countries.  The first concrete and, for the region, revolutionary breakthrough occurred when the BBIN sub-regional grouping, in early 2015, decided to sign onto the BBIN-MVA.
This seminally important document symbolises the beginning of the revival of historic connectivity corridors that had existed prior to 1947, albeit only partially. The BBIN MVA has been ratified by Bangladesh, India and Nepal and is pending final ratification by the Upper House of Bhutan’s Parliament before it becomes fully operational.

In the meantime, container trucks have made the trial run from Chittagong to Delhi carrying consignment of goods for the Indian market.

The existing relations of bonhomie between Bangladesh and India, if extended to embrace Myanmar in trilateral cooperation would induce the completion of much remaining work on  Asian Highway-2 linking NE India with Myanmar, and the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project that would reconnect Mizoram (Mobu) with Moreh (Myanmar).

The four BBIN countries have also commenced discussions on similar BBIN Rail Connectivity Agreement based on SAARC Regional Rail Agreement template, with the aim of reviving and activating rail routes that had existed and connected Bangladesh and India, and to some extent Nepal, until severed following the 1965 India-Pakistan war. Of eight rail links that had existed between Bangladesh and India but had been severed, three are in operation once again, and work is in progress for upgradation, unification of gauges and restoration of services on others.

The best, most efficient and most optimum way forward in restoring connectivity is to adopt an organic approach. The BBIN sub-region (more or less corresponding to the pre-Partition Bengal Presidency of British India) should consider reviving the connectivity in this sub-region which conforms best to the geo-morphology of the terrain.  Road, rail and riverine connectivity are best understood if analogously compared with the human body’s superbly efficient circulatory system. The arteries, veins and capillaries have their own respective clearly defined function.


The British colonial rulers had fully understood this. In the larger alluvial plains and region that is dominated by the waters of its innumerable mighty eastern Himalayan rivers, and where even the hills are essentially soft alluvial foothills of the higher Himalayan range, trying to build highways conforming to international transportation standards and maintaining them round-the-year posed a gigantic challenge. The monsoonal climate and geomorphology of terrain militated against these roads. Understanding these challenges, the British put in place a superb organic system of communications, synergising the advantages offered by the rivers as primary arterial waterways, and connecting with the railways that formed a network analogous to the human body’s venous system, linking with junctions that became hubs at major river points; while the roads comprised the capillaries that transported goods, services and peoples to and from the farthest nooks and crannies of the land. The efficient use of such a synergized and organically meshed communication system is what made the Bengal Presidency perhaps the richest in British India. In terms of fuel economy and carbon emission, river transportation is most efficient, reducing fuel costs by close to 60% and carbon-emissions by around 65% (of critical importance in the context of the global warming and climate change narrative today).

Tragically, following the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, the extensive river connectivity that had inseparably linked the peoples and lands of the erstwhile Bengal Presidency/now BBIN sub-region were grievously disrupted. The abrupt severance of the water links that inextricably and symbiotically bound them together transformed them into becoming land-locked from each other. With shipping services being stopped, the regular annual dredging that used to be done every year to maintain and keep the navigable channels open and usable also ceased. These mighty rivers effectively had become nationally segmented by the politics of Partition, for which the peoples of the sub-region are having to pay a burdensome cost today.  The flourishing river economy that had made this part of the subcontinent so famously prosperous wilted away, with upstream and downstream industries disappearing.  The dumping of vast amounts of industrial and human generated pollution, due to lack of effective regulatory or governance mechanisms in place, in combination with steady piling-up of river beds with silt not only narrowed and made very shallow the channels of the rivers but forced the waters to wrest their own passage, from the mountains to the Bay, by literally devouring land and expanding their shallower breadth.

Reviving the rivers, for connectivity as well as for restoring the river economy, will admittedly be a huge challenge because of the cumulative damage done to these rivers by over six decades of criminal neglect. It must necessarily involve engaging proactively with the people who inhabit the countless villages, towns and cities that dot both banks of each of these rivers, and restore to them a sense of ownership and pride in their shared commons.  If we wish to restore navigability of these rivers, we would need to undertake systematic dredging, perhaps initially on pilot basis along certain identified lengths of rivers, for enabling navigability, in the process also regaining land, lost over the years to erosion, for human habitation, agriculture and commerce. The dredging and reclamation process could well spawn a huge, river-wide cottage industry for peoples of the river who could use geo-bags to be filled by dredged-up silt and then use these bags to reclaim/buttress redefined embankments. For shoring up the embankments of these rivers, inhabitants of riverine villages would find employment and livelihood. In the process, they would become guardians of the river, monitoring the health of the river and the state its embankments, and acting as early-warning system for protecting these embankments from damage by sudden floods. Fishing and ancillary fisheries-related industry would also be revived massively.  

Reclamation of the rivers would also revive the ship-building industry that had existed since, and flourished in, ancient times in Bengal.


The great Moroccan scholar and traveller Ibn Batuta wrote about his visit to Bengal in the 14th century where he “saw numerous boats in the river carrying men and merchandise and testified to the existence of gigantic fleet of war-boats.” Chittagong was the centre of building ocean-going vessels. In the 17th century, the ship building institutions of Chittagong are reported to have built a complete fleet of war-boats for the Sultan of Turkey. During the Mughal period, Bengal is said to have taken the lead in building ships and boats.  The Mughal naval force had many ships built at Chittagong. The British Navy also used warships built at Chittagong, at least one of which reportedly comprised Nelson’s victorious fleet in the famous Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. During the first half of the 19th century, the shipyards at Chittagong built ships up to 1000 DWT.

Reclaiming the rivers could also see well-planned expansion of existing irrigation channels (that could also serve as overflow drainage channels during high season floods) and offset the current high dependency on tube-wells extracting, and grievously depleting, precious underground aquifers.  In a comprehensive approach to water management and fresh-water conservation, water conservation reservoirs / pondages could be created, where feasible, to augment fresh water access to people as well as for generation of run-of-the-river hydro-electricity projects.  Last, but not least, eco-tourism and cultural tourism along the rivers would be revived, reconnecting peoples with each other to rediscover their rich common, but forgotten, heritage.

Given the growing consonance of political will now prevailing, these are goals now well within the realm of the imaginable and doable, provided leaders stay the course that their vision has charted and their mandarins do their bidding with alacrity. Regional connectivity now under process of resuscitation within the BBIN sub-region could well serve as the operationalising pathway to larger trans-regional connectivity, between South Asia and Southeast and East Asia. Even within the South Asian configuration, Sri Lanka and Maldives could join the current Coastal shipping template inaugurated bilaterally between Bangladesh and India. This could be expanded to include Myanmar and Thailand as well, giving heft to the now-somnolent BIMSTEC, invigorating a Bay of Bengal community linked together symbiotically by the Bay that laps their shores. 


Instead of relying solely on one mode of connectivity, all these countries could optimise limited resources, by coordinating collaborative actions and deriving synergy, from the various modes available currently to them: on land by road and rail and on waters via rivers and the Bay of Bengal.


We could conceivably envision this sub-region, and beyond to the east, once more reclaiming its great reputation of prosperity that it had enjoyed as the Bengal Presidency, this time not for any foreign power coming from distant shores to colonize and extract for its own gain but for the shared and even greater prosperity of the peoples who are inhabitants of the region now. Without in any way surrendering their recently defined sovereign, independent national status, these entities do well to reintegrate ecologically and environmentally, for the greater and collective good of their respective peoples.


Ambassador Tariq Karim was Bangladesh’s immediate past High Commissioner to India from August 2009 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 had served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Beijing and New Delhi, and in different diplomatic capacities earlier in Tehran, Bonn, Bangkok and London.