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June 16, 2004

The fleeing social capital of Bangladesh

A quick look at the economic statistics of Bangladesh will tell you that it isn't the most prosperous of nations. A comparison to Malaysia is positively embarrassing. I bring this up because a cousin of mine asserted that many people in Bangladesh believed they needed their own Mahathir Mohammed to whip their country into shape. I pointed out though that Bangladesh does not have a productive and industrious minority that it can bleed to further the quality of life of the majority.

But this was not totally true 50 years ago. Just as individual humans display variance in abilities and inclinations, so do groups. For example, the taboos and restrictions placed upon Orthodox Jews by their religious beliefs created a situation where many became jewelers (the same can be said of Indian Jains). In 1947, eastern Bengal (what is today Bangladesh) was professionally and economically dominated by a minority group, Hindus. Today, Hindus form about ~10% of Bangladesh's population (down from 30% 50 years ago), and it is likely that this proportion will keep dropping in the near future.

The Hindu domination of the professions and trade was so great that 1947, marked by the partition that resulted in East Bengal becoming part of Pakistan, resulted in the decapitation of the educated elite of what would become Bangladesh, as prosperous Hindus streamed toward Calcutta (unrelated point, a large portion of the remnant Muslim intellectual class was killed by the Pakistanis during the 1971 rebellion). My father has noted when he was a student at Dhaka University about half the students in his classes were Hindu (Hindus were probably around 20% of the students in his age cohort). Additionally, a cousin of mine told my father that a famous business district in his home town, once dominated by Hindus, is now dominated by Muslims.

One uncle of mine has tied the public squalor dominant in much of Bangladesh to the decline in the Hindu population (his ideas are presented in a series of books, so I can repeat them easily). His reasons are two fold:

1) Since Hindus formed much of the "advanced" segment of the populace, their decline could only but result in a regression.

2) Hinduism by its nature, in contrast with Islam, fosters national pride and this-world-ness.

Point one seems trivially obvious, but point two is more contentious. From what I know of Bengali Muslims, I would say there is a tension in their mental life between being Bengali and being Muslim. I have noted before that my uncles who are the most thoroughgoing fundamentalists are the most open to rejecting traditional modes of Bengali life (whether that be arranged marriage or abandoning use of the language abroad). Bengali Muslims in many ways live a dual mental existence, on the one hand, proud of Hindu Bengali thinkers like Tagore, but on the other hand, enthusiastic members of the Dar-al-Islam. This sort of national schizophrenia can not but have serious consequences for nation building. In contrast, Hindus have no problem embracing Bengali culture, as by and large they are the creators of this culture, and Hinduism is open to regional variations and ways.

In addition, my uncle has tied the emigration of Hindus from certain deltic areas to erosion, arguing that Hindus have a mystical attachment to the land, while Muslims are more likely to think in the short term. I am inclined to dismiss such thinking out of hand, but, I do recall that one story that my father likes to tell is of the Bengali Muslim who goes to a Hindu area, and sits on a rock, at which point the local villagers attack him. The joke is this: they worship the rock! This sort of dismissal of nature worship is fine and good, but I can not but help think that without this sort of mentality the environmental situation in much of India would be even worse than it is, and the situation in Bangaldesh suffers from the lack of spiritual significance Muslim Bengalis see in their environment (American South Asians who are Hindu also have displayed and environmental awareness that I have found positively shocking for those who have immigrated from materially deprived Third World nations-the same sentiments are totally absent among immigrant Muslim South Asians).

Of course, Bangladesh has many Muslim professionals and business-people, aren't they as good as the Hindus? The economic statistics above speak for themselves. I don't doubt that many Muslims are sincere, but it may take generations for social capital to accumulate. The transfer of business to native Africans after the expulsion of Gujarati traders in the 1970s in Uganda is a reductio ad absurdum of the process that I'm referring to, that is, the emigration of a Hindu businessman with decades of international contacts is not going to be balanced by the emergence of a local entrepeneur in his place who takes over his property (often acquired through connections). The flight of the Hindus has resulted in more poverty for the people of Bangladesh.

So why do they flee? There are two primary causes:

1) external
2) internal

The external pull is Calcutta, or more broadly speaking, Hindu Bengali regions just across the border. Calcutta is the cultural mecca of Bengalis, as well as the commercial capital of eastern India. In West Bengal Hindus can live in an area where their temples are revered, and the old traditions of Bengali culture do not have to co-exist in a constant state of tension with the pull of international Islam. The fact is the only difference between a Hindu Bangladeshi and a Hindu West Bengali India is A) a difference of paper nationality B) locale. The latter might matter a lot to many individuals, as families might have resided in the same village or city for generations. But migration is part of human history, and after multiple generations, I find it implausible that a given Hindu family will not flee to the more congenial lands of India when given the chance.

The other push is internal. Bangladeshi Muslims obviously discriminate against Hindus (and then there are the occasionally violent outbursts). Knowing that Hindus are over-represented in urban areas, and disproportionately educated, I got the impression that they were rather non-existent in public life. Hindus are marked out by their names (which are Bengali rather than "Muslim," that is, Turkic, Persian or Arabic), and I noted that of the 17 bank directors at a local financial institution since 1871, all were Muslim. Though Bangaldesh is not an Islamic fundamentalist nation, expressions of Islamic brotherhood permeate everyday life. The newcasts end with "Allah Hafez." My cousin who is at the officer training school has to say "Salam, Sir." How would a Hindu offier-to-be deal with this? Well, I suspect they wouldn't think of joining the army. It seems that Hindu social networks are closed off from Muslim ones, if my family is any judge (note that the importance of family in delineating social networks makes this so). Bangladesh is a nation of Muslims, and it is clear that any non-Muslims have to deal with the reality that nods to Islam will soak their daily life.

So you get the tendency of Muslims who complain that their nation is filled will illiterate beggars, who simultaneously drive out a religious minority of co-ethnics who bring a fair amount of social capital to the table. These sort of paradoxes abound in Bangladeshi life (another common one is to bemoan nepotism while socializing only with your family).

The terrible economic situation in Bangladesh results in migration to India of Muslims. They go not for liberty, but for economic opportunity that is lacking in their homeland. So, the flight of the Hindus to India, which is a partial cause of the deprived economic situation in Bangladesh, results in Muslims fleeing to India!

Back to Malaysia. Thank god for the Malays that:

1) China is further away from Malaysia than West Bengal is from Bangladesh.
2) China has been a basket-case for much of the 20th century. Discouraging back-migration.
3) The Malay attempts at chauvanism have been mild enough to prevent the Chinese from fleeing.

As it is, the Malaysian state expelled Singapore in the 1960s to get rid of the spectre of Chinese demographic dominance, at the cost of losing a strategic port that brough a lot of economic benefits to the union.

Posted by razib at 06:08 PM