Bengal was a region of great economic and political importance to the British empire in India. Calcutta, its main city was the capital of the British Indian empire until 1912. Bengali politicians also became leading critics of the empire, and played a key role in the movements demanding Indian independence from Britain in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In 1905, the British Viceroy (Governor of India) Lord Curzon divided Bengal, to make it easier to control and to cut down the influence of these Bengali politicians. In protest, nationalist Bengalis launched the 'Swadeshi (self-sufficiency) movement' to stop the purchase of British goods. The success of the movement forced the British to reunite the Bengali-speaking parts of the province in 1912. Although the new Bengal province was smaller than before, it was still the largest province in British India. At the same time the capital of British India was shifted to the new city of New Delhi.
Bengal remained an important place for nationalist politics until the 1920s. The non-cooperation movement led by Gandhi drew powerful support from Bengalis, Hindu and Muslim alike. But from the 1930s onwards, Hindu-Muslim relations in the region began to deteriorate for many reasons. These tensions fed into movements to divide Bengal in 1947, when the British decided to quit India and partition (divide) it into India and Pakistan.
Between 1947 and 1971, East Bengal (also called East Pakistan) was a province in Pakistan. Bengalis made up about 55% of Pakistan's population, but politically, they felt increasingly left out. The Awami League (AL), set up in 1948, became the party that expressed Bengali unhappiness with Pakistani policies. In 1966, it announced its Six Point Charter for greater independence from Pakistan. In 1970, the Awami League won a majority of votes in the elections held in Pakistan. This caused a crisis between East and West Pakistan, which led to the brutal violence by the Pakistan army on the Bengali population, civil war, and the creation of East Bengal as the independent state of Bangladesh.
Since its independence, Bangladesh has suffered much unrest and many changes. Its first Prime Minister, Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated in 1975, and since that period, the army has played a key role in Bangladesh's politics, first under General Ziaur Rahman (who founded the Bangladesh National Party, or the BNP) and then General Ershad. There are ongoing tensions between the army and groups who want a return to general elections, and also between the two chief parties, the Awami League and the BNP.
West Bengal, which became a state of India after Independence, has also had its own struggles with stability. A number of Communist parties launched struggles against the ruling Congress party and in 1969, several Communist parties joined together to capture power. The Communist party of India has dominated the 'Left Front', a union of political parties, which has ruled West Bengal since 1977. The Left Front has had some successes in the areas of land reforms, extending democracy to local councils (panchayats), preventing communal riots and promoting primary education for all. But in recent years, its hold over power has become increasingly fragile.
The Bengali community in Britain has been actively involved with politics in both Britain and Bangladesh from the days of the earliest settlers, although the form of that involvement has changed over time.
There are broadly three phases of political involvement amongst Bengalis in Britain:
First generation: the first generation of migrants were actively involved in the politics of the subcontinent through the 1960s and into the early 1970s, most particularly in the resistance leading to the War of Liberation and Bangladeshi independence in 1971. UK migrants mobilised in support of the freedom fighters and the Awami League through fundraising, public protests and lobbying the British government and media. By the 1980s, nearly all of Bangladesh's major political parties were represented in the UK. These networks continue to provide platforms for politicians from Bangladesh to come to the UK to raise campaign funds.
In Britain, this first generation also acted as go-betweens for the emerging Bengali community and local British government officials by, for example, setting up the Pakistan (later Bangladesh) Welfare Associations in places like Tower Hamlets, Oldham and Birmingham.
Second generation: From the 1970s onwards, a new generation of younger activists emerged, mainly young men who were either born or had grown up in the UK, and whose focus was on the struggles against racism in Britain. Many were involved in local Asian youth organisations, which had mobilised against the high levels of racist attacks and police harassment through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Though UK focused, this second generation sought to draw links between the struggles in Bangladesh and the anti-racist struggles in the UK. However, these second-generation activists also made alliances with left-wing and anti-racist movements in Britain to tackle local issues of discrimination in housing, education, employment, police-community relations etc. They also became active participants in local government throughout the 1980s, particularly in Tower Hamlets. This has provided a strong foundation for engagement with local politics that has continued until the present time.
Third generation: From the late 1980s and through the 1990s, there has been the growth of religiously oriented and Islamist groups, particularly engaging younger British-born Bengalis. Muslim organisations have been especially active at a local level through youth organisations such as the Young Muslim Organisation (YMO). These groups have been important in working with young people around a range of issues, including 'gangs' and drugs and have provided vital spaces too for young women - who have been missing from earlier forms of political activism - to organise.
Bengali Muslims in Britain have been highly effective in some areas, like Tower Hamlets, in organising in local politics. In Tower Hamlets, 32 of the 51 local councillors are of Bangladeshi descent, and the first Bangladeshi leader of the council, Lutfur Rahman, was elected in 2008. There is one Bangladeshi-descent member of the London Assembly, Murad Qureshi and one MP, Rushanara Ali in Tower Hamlets. There is also Bangladeshi member of the House of Lords, Baroness Pola Uddin. Muhammad Abdul Bari, a Bangladeshi, is currently leader of the Muslim Council of Britain.