Bengali Hindu Migrant: Ashim Sen - Bradford
Ashim Sen is one of the relatively small number of Bangladeshi Hindus who have migrated to Britain (most Bangladeshi Hindus migrated to India at an earlier period). Ashim arrived in 1992 as a 'fiancé applicant' (marriage migrant) to join his future wife, also a Bengali Hindu. Many of her family left the country during 'Shangram' (the Liberation War). He told us:
Most of her family are scattered. During the Shangram some migrated to India, some migrated before the Shangram to India… But the majority are still living in Bangladesh. She grew up in Bangladesh. So her feelings are still for Bangladesh, her soul cries for Bangladesh.
Ashim has vivid memories of the 1971 War in Bangladesh:
I only have one story to tell – the great story, the Liberation War. One of my friends asked me, 'Brother, do you remember anything of '71?' I said, 'Yes, I do remember.' I was around eight years old… People used to say, 'The Punjabis are coming.' So many times, we would go and take shelter behind the bushes. Whenever anyone said, 'They are coming,' we would start running. Even if the Punjabis were 10 miles away from us - perhaps we would hear the sound of a bomb blast - we would think they were coming to kill us all, so we had to do something. We would hide in the jungle, we would hide our belongings and valuables in a hole covered by mud, we gave our domestic animals to reliable people in case we came back… Our boat was hidden in a nearby river bank, we would go to camp. We could not live there.
Many of Ashim's family also decided to go to India, but his family decided to remain in Bangladesh:
We didn't go to India in the end. Our relatives from other villages came to our village. Their villages were destroyed by the Pakistani military; their houses were burned to ashes, they did bad things... Then we were afraid to leave our village because we might lose our respect and status on the way. In our area, there were many people who were pro-Liberation – they said, 'Why do you want to leave? You might get caught on the way.' So we decided not to go.
Ashim studied and worked as a pharmacist until he migrated to Britain to get married. He told us:
I came here as a fiancé applicant – I told them I intended to get married here. The 'fiancé applicant' system means that you have to get married within six months. I had everything ready.
He initially found Bradford very cold and lonely because all the people he knew from Sylhet lived in London:
In the first year, it was difficult to adjust. It was very cold, I did not know anyone. The people I knew didn't live in this city. I didn't feel comfortable. So I went back home. After coming from home I felt much better, I adapted to the situation.
After a short visit home to Bangladesh, he returned and opened a small restaurant. Ashim notes that the Bengali Hindu community in Bradford is very small - 'about 20, 25 families, all of them from Sylhet' - but for him, being Bangladeshi is the most important connection:
In Sylhet, Hindus and Muslims lived together. In Bangladesh we lived together. We are so similar in our thinking that religion was not a problem in our relationships. That is why out of hundreds of my friends 99% are Muslims.
Because of the small numbers of Bengali Hindus, however – Ashim estimates that there are only about 125 Bengali Hindus in Bradford – religious worship takes place with other Hindu communities in the city:
Bengalis feel some frustration that Gujaratis, Sikhs, everyone has got their own temple, but we do not have any temple here. So, because we do not have our own temple, we usually give to the Gujarati temple. Bengalis give to the Gujarati temple. The Gujarati temple says that we are welcome at any time. They always welcome us.
There are also strong links with other Bengali communities across the UK through the Bangladeshi Hindu Association. Ashim commented:
In Oldham there are 20, 25 families. We know how many families are living around the UK and where they are living… 20-25 families live in Rochdale; 10-12 families in Leeds; in Greater London, there might be 200 families. I'm not counting Kolkata Bengalis, only Sylheti Bengalis… In Birmingham there are about 30 families… In Coventry there are 10-12 families, in Luton the number is few, only 5 or 6 families… In Manchester, maybe 4-5 families… In Brighton there are a few families, I know them, 4-5 families. In Liverpool there are 4-5 families. We keep a connection with those who are from Sylhet. Say puja comes, we send invitations to them. A new baby is born, they tell us. Somebody dies, then they let us know.
He notes, though, that the division between Bangladeshi Hindus and Muslims is growing, particularly amongst the second and third generations:
Now there's the third generation and a huge gap has grown between them. Now if you say 'Hindu' they don’t think you are from Bangladesh… A Muslim boy who is 10-15 thinks Hindus can't be from Bangladesh. Many of them ask me, 'You're Hindu, why do you speak Bengali?' I know where he is coming from. I don't blame him. I understand the reason. I know that in the environment he is coming from he didn't get the right lessons. Then I tell him, 'In Bangladesh there are Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians – they all live in Bangladesh.' They don't know that.