The Bengalis Of Karachi Are Losing Their Distinct Cultural Identity

The Bengalis Of Karachi Are Losing Their Distinct Cultural Identity
The Bengali-speaking community is one of the largest ethno-linguistic communities in the Indian subcontinent. They are settled across the world due to series of migration from Bengal to other parts of India and other countries since the advent of British rule.

Since Bengal came first under British colonial rule due to her flourishing pre-modern industrial and mercantile economy and lucrative geo-strategic location in the Indian subcontinent, the Bengalis were foremost in availing the opportunities offered by the imperialist British rulers. The Hindu upper caste Bengalis, who were historically educated and collectively quite brilliant to accept and utilise new opportunities, started to migrate to different cities and towns of India. This was why Hindu Bengali settlements were found from Peshawar to Rangoon and Karachi to Kanyakumari.

After the religion-based partition of 1947, the Hindu Bengalis left those cities and towns which became part of western Pakistan including Karachi, Quetta, Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Lahore, etc. But the brilliance of their renascent enlightenment has left a deep influence intellectual influence in the future life of Pakistan, the newly created Muslim homeland for Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. The Nobel Prize-winning world-famous physicist Dr Abdus Salam had credited his teacher Prof Anilendranath Ganguly of Lahore Government College for his stupendous achievement. This singular incident can be exemplified as an epitome of Hindu Bengali contribution in the intellectual development of Pakistani enlightened societal strata.

Muslim Bengalis started to arrive in Karachi during the British period when coastal city started to be developed as a centre of fishing and trade within the colonial province of Bombay. The fishermen from Noakhali, Chittagong and other impoverished districts of southern and Eastern Bengal came to Karachi for fishing and other laborious jobs.

Kazi Nazrul Islam, the most famous Muslim poet of Bengal, also lived in Karachi for a short period of time. During the first World War (1914-1918), he joined in British Indian Army and enlisted in 49 Bengal Regiment. As a soldier, he was posted in Karachi and lived in the city from 1917 to 1920. His first prose “Baunduler Atmokahini” which was published in Saogat in May 1929 and first poem “Mukti” published in Bangiya Musolman Sahitya Patrika in July 1919 were written in Karachi. Nazrul learnt Persian language from a Punjabi Islamic cleric in Karachi too. So, it can be opined that the city of Karachi had played a significant path-breaking role to evolve the rich and radiant literary production of Nazrul in Bengali literature and music. In 1940 the Bengali speaking Muslims living in Karachi had started to publish a Bengali newspaper called ‘Dainik Quami Bandhan’ but it stopped its publication in 1979 due to steady drop and decrease in readership. The main office of this newspaper was located at Chittagong Colony of the metropolis.

Pakistan was created in August 1947. Karachi was selected as the capital of Pakistan. In 1948 Karachi metropolitan area was declared as Federal Capital Territory. From 1948 to 1959 Karachi remained as national capital and main centre of trade, commerce and industry. Due to this reason people from East Pakistan came in droves to settle and work in the city.

The newly emerging Muslim Bengali middle class came to Karachi to work in different government offices including National Secretariat, Karachi Port Trust, State Bank of Pakistan, etc. Many more educated people came from eastern Bengal to work in the private sector as Karachi was the economic hub of the country. The two main thoroughfares in Karachi are named after two prominent Bengalis. These two roads are Zaibunessa Street and Maulavi Tamizuddin Khan Road. Begum Zaibunessa Hanidullah was the daughter of famous Bengali writer S Wajed Ali and herself a celebrated writer and socialite while Maulavi Tamizuddin Khan was a veteran Muslim League politician of colonial Bengal and as the President of first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan he legally challenged the decision of Governor- General Ghulam Mohammad to dissolve the Assembly in Sindh High Court in 1954. It will be worthwhile to mention here that the Elphinstone Street in Saddar area and Queen's Road in Lalazar area have been renamed as Zaibunessa Street and Maulavi Tamizuddin Khan Road, respectively.

Many poor people from the eastern wing of Pakistan came to Karachi to work in industrial and fishing sectors in large numbers.

After 1971, most of the educated Muslim had decided to go back to independent Bangladesh. The family of Runa Laila also migrated to Dhaka despite her highly successful career in the film industry of Lahore and Karachi and non-playback music industry of Karachi. In the early 1970s, her popularity was next to legendary Madam Noor Jahan and Mala as female playback singer. Not only Runa Laila but Shehnaz Begum also left Karachi for Dhaka. She also had a quite successful film and non-film musical career in Pakistan. She is still regarded as ‘Sohni Dharti Girl’ of the 1970s as her version of patriotic song “Sohni Dharti Allah Rakhe” composed by highly talented music director Sohail Rana. During the unprecedentedly intense political crisis and eventually civil war of 1971 in Pakistan which resulted in brutal destruction of life and property in East Bengal the then celebrated Bengali public figures based not only in Karachi like Runa Laila but also in Lahore like Shabnam and Robin Ghosh took a very indifferent stand on the gory stream of savage incidents which ravaged East Bengal but paved the political way for independent Bangladesh at the end through the disintegration of Pakistan.
After Kolkata, Dhaka and Chittagong the city of Karachi may be regarded as the fourth largest city of Bengali dwellers but unfortunately the Karachi Bengalis do not have much regard for their original language and culture

The creation of Bangladesh in the early 1970s did not stop the migration of poor and unskilled people coming to Karachi in search of livelihood. It is estimated that about 3 million Bengalis live in Karachi and nearly all of them are poor and unskilled.

These Muslim Bengalis have founded 132 colonies of their own for living. Most of them have little access to education and job-oriented skill development. They live in inhuman conditions with no availability of basic amenities of life like drinking water, sewerage system, etc. These basic amenities of life are a distant dream to them.

Karachi-based Bengalis are patriotic Pakistanis and stand for the ideals and objectives of the Pakistani state. They regard themselves as Muslims first and do not want to go back to Bangladesh, which was created by dividing their beloved Pakistan which they call in Urdu “Pyarey Pakistan” (Beloved Pakistan).

But they have a connection with Bangladesh. Many of them visit to their ancestral village in Bangladesh to spend some days or weeks with their relations. They use Bangladeshi products like pan, jarda, lungi, saree, etc. which are essential objects of the Bengali way of life. These Bengalis of Karachi also opened small shops in their colonies like Chittagong Colony and Machhar Colony to sell traditional Bangladeshi products and eateries across different parts of Karachi to offer popular Bangladeshi snacks like samosa, jilipi, peyaju, moya, etc. and cooked food items like bhat, different kinds of bharta, bhaji and fish.

Due to the nearly total emigration of educated Muslim Bengali middle class from Karachi, the cultural activities related to Bengali tradition and taste have wiped out completely from the city where stalwarts like Kazi Nazrul Islam, Syed Ali Ahsan, Syed Ali Ashraf, Timir Baran Bhattacharya, Deebo Bhattacharya, Altaf Mahmud, Runa Laila, Shehnaz Begum and Alamgir lived and created the finest of works on different fields of education and culture. The Dhaka-based famous music composer Samar Das, who directed the music of Mukh o Mukhosh, the first full-length Bengali feature film of East Bengal, released in 1956, lived in Karachi from the late 1950s to mid-1960s. Due to his distinguished musical accomplishments, he had been made the director of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) Music Academy. It is quite significant to mention here that Runa Laila, the diva of playback music in Pakistan, initiated her Bengali musical venture from Karachi in 1969. Some of the songs of Bengali modern genre, recorded in 1969-1970 period at the Karachi centre of Radio Pakistan are:

Aami nadir moto koto path ghurey.

Noton noton payrgulo

Aankhi tai toh emon korey bolechhey

Oi dulchhey dekho dolochapa dulchhey

Lyrics: Mashiul Alam

Music: Deebu Bhattacharya

Godhulir ranga meghey

Lyrics and music: Mashiul Alam

The Karachi station of Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television has an opulent collection of Bengali music and drama. There were innumerable Bengali songs which were recorded in these stations by both Bengali and non-Bengali artists. The HMV studio of Karachi recorded many Bengali patriotic songs like “Janmo amar dhonyo” (sung by Firoza Begum, Sabina Yasmin and others) in the lyrics and music of Naem Gauhar and Azad Rahman, respectively. This iconic song was recorded in 1970. One year before it, ie in 1969, a long play of Rabindrasangeet was recorded in same studio by Dhaka-based luminaries of this genre like Sanjida Khatun, Fahmida Khatun, Kalim Sharafi, Afsari Khanam and others. This long play of Rabindrasangeet was ceremonially released by the valorous Sheikh Mujib in the auditorium of Bangla Academy in December 1969. In that programme, he expressed his Bengali nationalistic emotions in most unequivocal terms.

Moreover, in 1953 the University of Karachi had founded a full-fledged Department of Bengali to offer undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral programmes in Bengali language and literature. To date, the Department is functioning, but at present it has become the smallest Department in the University of Karachi. Few students study in the Department, since there is no demand for graduates, postgraduates and PhD holders in Bengali in the employment market of Pakistan.

But in the 1950s and ‘60s, the Department was full of academic activities. Globally renowned academicians like Syed Ali Ahsan, his brother Syed Ali Ashraf and Mohammad Farooq headed the Department.

In the same year of 1953, the Nazrul Academy was established in Karachi. It is located at Block 35 of Pakistan Secretariat zone in the Saddar area of Karachi. The renowned legal luminary Allahbux Karimbux Brohi took the pivotal initiative to establish this cultural institution. It is certainly a matter of serious note that within one year of the State Language Movement of 1952 in East Bengal, an institution like Nazrul Academy had been founded in Karachi, the then bastion of political and economic power in Pakistan. It can be inferred that the ruling establishment of Pakistan was quite concerned to preserve the national unity between two wings through the promotion of Bengali language and culture.

In 1959, the federal government of Pakistan established the Central Board for the Development of Bengali. The main office was located in Karachi, while a branch office was opened at Bardhaman House, where the Bangla Academy under the then East Pakistan provincial government was housed. After 1971, the Dhaka branch of the Board was merged with the Bangla Academy in independent Bangladesh while the Board lost its importance in Pakistan as Bengali was no more the national language of Pakistan under 1973 constitution. A similar Board for Urdu was established in 1958 and it is still functioning, though the name has been changed to Urdu Dictionary Board in 1982. Both the Boards were established to develop the two languages as both Urdu and Bengali were recognised as national languages under the 1956 and 1962 constitutions of Pakistan.

The present-day Bengali origin people in Karachi do not have much flair or attachment with Bengali culture. It is due to their socio-economic backwardness and rising waves of Islamic radicalism. Moreover, the Bengali language is not recognised at any place or institution as a medium of communication or instruction. The children of Muslim Bengalis are not getting any scope or opportunity to learn or practice the language. Hence the usage of Bengali as a language has nearly diminished.

It is very sad and sorrowful to acknowledge this fact of the fast diminishing role of Bengali as language in a city where there are about 3 million people who are of Bengali origin. After Kolkata, Dhaka and Chittagong the city of Karachi may be regarded as the fourth largest city of Bengali dwellers but unfortunately the Karachi Bengalis do not have much regard for their original language and culture. They try to become more Muslim in order to be ‘true Pakistanis’ as the Muslim Bengali province of East Bengal dismembered the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1971 with direct aid, assistance and military intervention of ‘Hindu’ India. This inarguably indelible fact of history has created a deep psychological scar at the collective level in the minds and thoughts of the Bengali population living in Karachi and other cities and towns in Pakistan.

They are hapless inheritors of a downcast history which is hard to contemplate even after 50  years of disintegration of Pakistan, the Islamic ‘dreamland’ and homeland for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent.