Land of Two Rivers – A History of Bengal From the Mahabharata to Mujib-Nitish Sengupta

Book excerpt



“This is by far the only book that covers the history of Bengal from the earliest times until the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 as an independent country. Bengal, or ‘Bangla Desh’, as it is called by all Bengalis in the cultural sense (as distinct from the post-1971 country of Bangladesh in the political sense), has gone through many changes across centuries. There was the first partition of Bengal in 1905 by Lord Curzon which was resisted by the majority of the people. There was also the second partition in 1947 when a majority of the people called for a partition of the province into a Hindu-majority segment and the Muslim-majority segment, the former going to India and the latter going to Pakistan. From that point the two Bengals ceased to share a common political history and the Bengali-speaking people were split between the province of EastBengal (known as East Pakistan from 1956 till 1971) and the Indian state of Wiest Bengal. In 1971 East Pakistan revolted against West Pakistan and seceded to create a new nation-state known as Bangladesh.During the last four decades, I have been known as an author on management, economics and related subjects. It will surprise many friends to know that I majored in history and started my career by teaching history in PresidencyCollege, Calcutta, in 1956–57 before I joined the Indian Administrative Services(IAS). I was then gradually sucked into the world of management science and applied economics and took a PhD in management from the University of Delhi”.

“The present work was completed during the last seventeen years after I retired from government, in the midst of political and academic preoccupations. This is my ‘private sector’ effort outside my ‘public sector’ activities in management and in politics. I shall consider my labour amply rewarded if those who speak Bengali, about 250 their common political history, their shared composite culture and, above all, the common language they take pride in. The study starts with the geographical background of Bengal’s history, the origin of the Bengalee race and the growth of the Bengali language. The unity of language was a major factor in the emergence of Bengal as a distinct political and cultural entity. The history of Bengal is sketched right from the days of the Mahabharata, through the Maurya, Gupta, Pala, and Sen dynasties, the Turkish conquest and the Turkish phase of medieval Bengal, the Mughal period and the British conquest of this province in the eighteenth century. Thereafter, it sketches the Bengal Renaissance, the growth of nationalism, the growth of Muslim separatist politics, the attempts at forging a united Bengali nation and eventually the failure of these efforts leading to Partition. It especially analyses the factors that created misunderstanding among the Muslim Bengalees and the Hindu Bengalees despite a lot of goodwill and commonality between the two which made Bengal’s second partition in 1947 unavoidable.Following Partition, the study traces the history of East Bengal through various phases, in the course of which the East Bengalees felt humiliated and economically exploited under Pakistani rule. They eventually revolted against Pakistan’s dictatorship, struggled for a rightful place for their mother tongue and for a fair deal, under the charismatic leadership of ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and formed an independent nation, Bangladesh. Bangladesh now occupies the driver’s seat in the matters of promotion and propagation of Bengali language and culture. This was climaxed recently by Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina formally seeking UN status for the Bengali language in a statement before the UN General Assembly. She said, ‘Bangla [Bengali language] is spoken by over 250 million people worldwide, primarily in Bangladesh and West Bengal … Given the rich heritage of Bangla and its singular place as a symbol of people’s faith in the power of languages to sustain cultures and indeed the identity of nations, I seek support of the membership of UN, General Assembly, for its acceptance as an official language of the United Nations.’ Long ago, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee expressed his sadness at the fact that the Bengalees were a nation who had forgotten their past. The credit goes to the University of Dhaka for bringing out the two-volume History of Bengal, with the first volume on the region’s ancient history edited by R.C. Majumdar and the second volume on the medieval period edited by J.N. Sarkar. Unfortunately, the partition of 1947 intervened and the third volume on modern Bengal never came out. Dr. Nihar Ranjan Ray’s seminal work Bangalir Itihas in Bengali deals with the evolution of Bengal’s culture, bringing the story up to AD 1000 when neither the name ‘Banga’ or ‘Bengal’, nor the name ‘Bengali’ had appeared in popular parlance. The only work that covers the entire story of Bengal is R.C.Majumdar’s masterly three-volume work, History of Bengal, but it suffers from being too subjective and shaped by prejudices brought on through personal experiences of the author.The present study essentially centres on the political history and does not dwell upon the cultural, linguistic, literary or social aspects of Bengal’sdevelopment, except where these had a direct impact on political developments. It is based on both secondary and primary sources. The epilogue attempts to sum up the main events since 1971 in both the Bengals and give a perspective on the present and the future”.

History of Bengal


1. Bengal or Bangla: Land of Two Rivers

2. Prehistoric and Ancient Bengal

3. The FirstGaur Kingdom under Sasanka

4. The Imperial Palas

5. The Sen Dynasty


6. Turkish Invasion: The Kingdom of Gaur under Early Turkish Rulers

7. Ilyas Shahi Dynasty

8. The Short-lived Dynasty of Raja Ganesh and Other Rulers


10. The Golden Age of Hussain Shah

11. Origin and Growth of Bengali

12. Shri Chaitanya and Bengali Vaishnavism


  1. The Pathans and Mughals Fight over Bengal

14. Bengal Becomes a Province of the Mughal Empire

15. Appearance of Europeans

16. Era of Independent Nawabs of Bengal

17. The Battle of Plassey

18. End of Independent Nawabs of Bengal

19. Era of Warren Hastings


20. Agrarian, Industrial and Economic Changes

21. Anti-Government Popular Disturbances

22. Bengal Renaissance

23. Hindu Religious Reform Movements

24. Beginnings of Political Awareness: Towards a Nation in the Making

25. Growth of Muslim Separatism

26. First Partition of Bengal

27. Armed Revolutionary Movement or Agni Yug: First Phase

28. Over a Decade of Hindu–Muslim Camaraderie

29. Agni Yug, Second Phase

30. Unmaking of a Nation

31. Parting of Ways

32. Rise and Fall of Netaji Subhas Bose

33. The Last Hour of United Bengal

34. Second Partition of Bengal


35. The Decimation of the Muslim League

36. The Power Struggle between East Bengal and West Pakistan
37. Crystallization of the Bangladesh Concept

38. Pakistan’s Second Martial Law

39. Bangladesh’s War of Independence


40. The West Bengal Story

Nitish Sengupta studied presidency College, Kolkata, winning a gold medal for his master’s in history. He began his career as an assistant professor of history and joined the IndianAdministrative Service (IAS) in 1957.