West Bengal

West Bengal
a state in E India: formerly part of the province of Bengal. 50,900,000; 33,805 sq. mi. (87,555 sq. km). Cap.: Calcutta. Cf. Bengal (def. 1).

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State (pop., 2001 prelim.: 80,221,171), northeastern India.

It is bordered by Nepal and Bangladesh and the states of Orissa, Jharkhand, Bihar, Sikkim, Assam, and Meghalaya and has an area of 34,267 sq mi (88,752 sq km); the capital is Kolkata (Calcutta). It encompasses two broad natural regions, the Gangetic Plain in the south and the Himalayas in the north. From the 3rd century BC it formed part of Ashoka's empire. In the 4th century AD it was absorbed into the Gupta empire. From the 13th century it was under Muslim rule, until it came under the British in 1757. At Indian independence in 1947, it was partitioned, with the eastern sector becoming East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) and the western sector becoming India's West Bengal. The state is important for its mineral output, but agriculture is its main economic activity. It is noted for its artistic endeavours, including filmmaking.

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      state of India. It is located in the northeastern part of the country. It is bounded on the north by Bhutan and the state of Sikkim, on the east by Bangladesh, on the northeast by the state of Assam, on the south by the Bay of Bengal, on the southwest by the state of Orissa, on the northwest by Nepal, and on the west by the state of Bihār. Its area is 34,267 square miles (88,752 square kilometres). Although in area West Bengal ranks as one of the smaller states of India, it is one of the largest in population. The capital is Calcutta, India's second largest city.

      West Bengal has a peculiar configuration; its breadth varies from 200 miles (320 kilometres) at one point to hardly 10 miles at another. It is of particular strategic importance to India's defense. The 1,350-mile-long frontier with Bangladesh, neither natural nor well defined, is a perennial source of tension.

Physical and human geography

The land
Relief and drainage
      West Bengal may be broadly divided into two natural geographic divisions—the Gangetic Plain and the Himalayan (Himalayas) and sub-Himalayan area. The Ganges River, much of which lies now in Bangladesh, has for centuries been moving steadily eastward; very little of its water now goes to the sea via the western distributaries, of which the principal one is the Hugli. This part of the Gangetic Plain has numerous marshes and shallow lakes formed out of dead river courses. The entire area has deep alluvial soil suitable for agriculture. The elevation of the land increases slowly toward the west; the rise is most marked near the Chota Nāgpur (Chota Nagpur) Plateau of Bihār.

      The sub-Himalayan tract, known as Duārs (Duars) or Tarai and comprising the districts of Jalpāiguri and Koch Bihār, consists of lowland. Once unhealthy and infested with malaria, the area is now well-drained, healthy, and cultivated. Some of the finest tea plantations of India are situated there. From the Duārs, the Himalayan mountain ranges rise abruptly along the northern boundary of the state. Here the Dārjiling district is located near Sikkim. Mount Kānchenjunga, with adjacent high peaks in Sikkim, dominates the Dārjiling landscape, and Mount Everest can be seen in the distance on a clear day.

      West Bengal's climate is transitional between tropical savanna in the southern portions and humid subtropical in the north. Throughout West Bengal there is a pronounced seasonal disparity in rainfall. For example, Calcutta averages 65 inches (1,650 millimetres) per year, of which an average of 13 inches falls in August and only 0.1 inch in December. The state also is subject to considerable variability from year to year, as illustrated by a recent decade at Calcutta during which annual rainfall ranged from 53 inches to 89 inches. In the sub-Himalayan region, rainfall is considerably greater. Temperatures at Calcutta average 81° F (27° C) for the year and range from 67° F (19° C) in January to 88° F (31° C) in May.

      The year may broadly be divided into three marked seasons—the hot and dry season (March to early June), with dry sultry days and frequent thunderstorms; the hot and wet season (mid-June to September), when rain-bearing monsoon winds blow from the southwest; and the cold (cool) season (October to February), when days are dry and clear and stable atmospheric conditions prevail.

Plant and animal life
      Forests occupy about one-eighth of the total land, and the region as a whole has a rich and varied plant life. In the sub-Himalayan plains the principal forest trees include sal (a timber tree), sissoo (which yields a valuable wood), and sisum (Indian rosewood); the forests are interspersed with reeds and tall grasses. On the Himalayan heights vegetation varies according to the altitude, with coniferous belts occurring at higher levels. The delta of the Hugli constitutes the western end of the dense coastal mangrove forest called Sundarbans. A large portion of this unreclaimed and sparsely populated area bordering Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal has been set aside as a national park.

      The forests of the northern districts are inhabited by tigers, panthers, elephants, bison, and rhinoceroses, as well as by other animals of the Indian plain, large and small. Reptiles and birds comprise the same species as are common throughout the Indian subcontinent.

The people
      About three-quarters of the population live in villages; of the remaining quarter living in urban areas, more than half reside in greater Calcutta.

      Of the different religions, Hinduism, with its substrata of castes and aboriginal tribes, claims the adherence of more than three-fourths the population, most of the remainder being Muslim. The district of Murshidābād is unique in all of eastern and southern India in that Muslims form the majority of the population and Hindus are a minority. Throughout the state, Buddhists, Christians, Jainas, and Sikhs constitute small minority communities.

      Bengali (Bengali language) is the main language of the state, spoken by much of the population. Other languages include Hindi, Santhālī (a tribal dialect), Urdū (primarily the language of Muslims), and Nepālī. Small minorities speak Oraon (a tribal dialect) and English. English, together with Bengali, is the language of administration, and English serves as a lingua franca for business purposes.

The economy
      Despite its small size, West Bengal accounts for about one-sixth of India's net domestic product.

 Agriculture dominates both the landscape and the economy. West Bengal exceeds all other states in its proportion of agricultural land (65 percent). Rice, which requires extensive irrigation, is the leading crop in every district except Dārjiling, where it is surpassed by millet. Despite the small area of the state, West Bengal plants 14 percent of the nation's rice area and produces 16 percent of its harvest. This high yield is attributable to both intensive crop tending and relatively heavy application of fertilizer. Jute, the second leading crop, is especially prominent in the districts along the Bangladeshi border and south of the Ganges River. Wheat and potatoes are produced as winter crops throughout the southern districts. Dārjiling and Jalpāiguri have long been known for their production of high-quality tea. Dārjiling also produces oranges, apples, pineapple, ginger, and cardamom. Mango, jackfruit, and bananas are widely produced in the southern and central portions of the state.

      In the late 20th century the only mineral resource of West Bengal that sustained nationally significant exploitation was clay for brickmaking. The twin smokestacks of myriad coal-powered kilns characterize the landscape of Hugliside (a corridor extending from Calcutta some 30 miles north and 12 miles south along the Hugli River) and contribute to the region's oppressive atmospheric pollution. The key to the industrial development of Hugliside is its location, less than 200 miles east of the world-scale coal, iron-ore, and limestone deposits in the Chota Nāgpur region of Bihār. Steel and other heavy-metal products move through Calcutta and its downriver port facilities at Khidirpur (Kidderpore) and Baj Baj (Budge Budge), which also handle a major portion of the world's jute trade. Farther south on the west bank of the Hugli is Haldīa, the terminus of the oil pipeline from Assam and the site of eastern India's largest oil refinery. Other important industries are shipbuilding, automobile manufacture, and chemical and fertilizer production.

      In 1947 the state was faced with the necessity of restoring rail and river-transport services from southern West Bengal to the northern districts and Assam after these had been disrupted by the closure of the old routes through East Pakistan. By the late 20th century the challenge had been met.

      Heavy sedimentation in the western Ganges delta, causing a gradual shift in channel outflow toward the east, has severely reduced traffic on the Hugli. Water diverted from the Ganges via a 60-mile-long canal has proved insufficient to restore full navigability. Bangladesh blamed the canal for irrigation problems resulting from a decreased flow of Ganges water across that country.

      Of necessity, frequent air service connects the regions separated by Bangladesh. Calcutta possesses an international airport equipped to accommodate jet aircraft of the major international airlines. Calcutta harbour handles much of India's commerce.

Administration and social conditions
      Executive power in the state is vested in the governor and is exercised by him either directly or through subordinate officers. The governor is appointed by the president of India. The constitution provides for an elected Council of Ministers, with a chief minister at its head, to aid and advise the governor. The chief minister is appointed by the governor, and the other ministers are appointed by the governor on the advice of the chief minister. The Council of Ministers is collectively responsible to the legislature. The state legislature consists of a single house, the Legislative Assembly (Vidhān Sabhā); the legislative council was abolished in 1969.

      The constitution provides for a High Court, to which the chief justice and other judges are appointed by the president of India. District and sessions judges are appointed by the governor.

      The state is divided administratively into 17 districts: Bānkura, Barddhamān, Bīrbhūm, Calcutta, Dārjiling, Hooghly, Howrah, Jalpāiguri, Koch Bihār, Māldah, Medinīpur, Murshidābād, Nadia, North Twenty-four Parganas, Puruliya, South Twenty-four Parganas, and West Dinājpur. Each district except Calcutta is administered by a collector, who is also the district magistrate; and each district comprises a number of subdivisions, within which a subdivisional officer is the principal official. Units of police jurisdiction vary in area according to population, most encompassing several mawzas (villages).

      With the object of developing rural self-government, mawzas have been grouped together and a pañcāyat (panchayat)—an elected local authority established under the West Bengal Panchayat Act of 1956—entrusted with sanitary and conservation services and with the supervision of the village police and the development of cottage industries. A three-tiered pañcāyat system covers the rural area with some 3,300 grām (village) pañcāyats, about 300 intermediate-level pañcāyats, and 15 district level pañcāyats.

      The state has 10 degree-granting universities, as well as engineering and medical colleges; the universities of Calcutta, Jadavpur, and Rabindra Bharati are all located in the capital. There are also many technical institutes. More than 5,000 adult education centres exist for training in literacy. There is also a central library, together with a number of district, area, and rural libraries. The literacy rate—some three-fifths of the adult population—is one of the highest in India, and the disparity in the rate between men and women is less than the national average.

      Medical facilities include hospitals, clinics, health centres, and dispensaries. Family-planning services are available in district bureaus, as well as in urban and rural centres. An employees' state insurance scheme provides factory workers with health, employment, safety, and maternity insurance and also provides a free medical service.

      A social welfare directorate coordinates various welfare services dealing with orphans, destitute persons, vagrants, the mentally and physically handicapped, and child offenders. The government's social-welfare enterprises are supplemented by private agencies, of which the most prominent is the Ramakrishna Mission, founded by the Hindu reformer and teacher Vivekananda in 1897, and the Order of the Missionaries of Charity (1948), founded by Mother Teresa, recipient of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize.

Cultural life
      Bengalis have always fostered literature, art, music, and drama. Bengali literature dates to before the 12th century. The Caitanya (Caitanya sect) movement, an intensely emotional form of Hinduism inspired by the medieval saint Caitanya (1485–1533), shaped the subsequent development of Bengali poetry until the early 19th century, when contact with the West sparked a vigorous creative synthesis. The modern period has produced, among others, the Nobel prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore (Tagore, Rabindranath) (1861–1941), whose contribution still dominates the Indian literary scene.

      The theatre is popular, and performances—amateur as well as professional—are sophisticated. Yātrās, traditional open-air performances that are now changing from predominantly mythological and historical topics to contemporary themes, are popular both in the countryside and in urban areas. The kavi is an impromptu duel in musical verse between village poets. The kathakata, a religious recital, is another traditional form of rural entertainment, based on folklore.

      The film (motion picture) industry is a well-established modern form of popular entertainment. Bengali films have earned national and international awards for their delicate handling of Indian themes; the works of the directors Satyajit Ray, Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen, and Aparna Sen are particularly notable.

      Traditional music takes the form of devotional and cultural songs. Rabindra Sangeet, songs written and composed by Tagore, which draw on the pure Indian classical as well as traditional folk-music sources, exert a powerful influence in Bengali cultural life.

      The visual arts have, by tradition, been based mainly on clay modeling, terra-cotta work, and decorative painting. In Calcutta, the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, the Bose Research Institute, and the science laboratories of the University of Calcutta have made notable contributions to science. The Asiatic Society of Bengal, the best-known Indian historical-research body in the 19th century, is located in West Bengal. Viśva-Bhārati University, founded by Rabindranath Tagore in Śāntīniketan, is a world-famous centre for the study of Indology and international cultural relations.

D.M. Sen Robert E. Huke

      The name of Bengal, or Bānglā, is derived from the ancient kingdom of Vanga, or Banga. References to it occur in early Sanskrit literature, but its early history is obscure until the 3rd century BC, when it formed part of the extensive Mauryan empire inherited by Aśoka. With the decline of Mauryan power, anarchy once more supervened. In the 4th century AD the region was absorbed into the Gupta empire of Samudra Gupta. Later it came under Pāla rule. From the beginning of the 13th century to Robert Clive's conquest of the province in 1757, Bengal was under Muslim rule, at times under governors acknowledging the suzerainty of the Delhi sultans but mainly under independent rulers.

      In 1765 Shāh ʾAlam (Shāh ʿĀlam II), the Mughal emperor defeated by the British, granted to the East India Company the dīwānī of Bengal, Bihār, and Orissa—that is, the right to collect and administer the revenues of the area. By the Regulating Act of 1773, Warren Hastings, the governor of Bengal, became the first governor-general of Bengal, which was declared to be the supreme government with powers of superintendence over the other two presidencies of Madras and Bombay as well.

      Britain was not, however, the only European presence in Bengal. The town of Hugli, 19 miles north of Calcutta, was the location of a Portuguese factory (trading post) until 1632, the earliest of all European enclaves in India; Hugli-Chunchura (Chinsura), the next town south, was the Dutch post until 1825 and is today the location of one of India's premier rice research stations; the next town, Shrīrāmpur (Serampore), was the Danish post until 1845; and Chandarnagar ( Chandernagore) remained in French hands until 1949.

      In 1854 the governor-general was relieved of the direct administration of Bengal, which was placed under a lieutenant governor. Thenceforward, the government of India became entirely distinct from that of Bengal. In 1874 Assam was transferred from the charge of the lieutenant governor and placed under a separate chief commissioner. It was felt in 1905 that Bengal had become too unwieldy a charge for a single administration, and, in spite of violent Hindu protests, it was partitioned into two provinces, (1) Western Bengal, Bihār, and Orissa and (2) Eastern Bengal and Assam, each under a lieutenant governor. In 1912, because of continued opposition to partition, Bengal was placed under a governor, Bihār and Orissa under a lieutenant governor, and Assam once more under a chief commissioner. At the same time, Delhi became the capital of India in place of Calcutta. Under the Government of India Act (1935), Bengal was constituted an autonomous province in 1937. This was the situation until the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into the two dominions of Pakistan and India after the British withdrawal in 1947. The eastern sector of Bengal, largely Muslim, became East Pakistan (later Bangladesh); the western sector became India's West Bengal.

      The partition of Bengal left West Bengal with ill-defined boundaries and a constant inflow of non-Muslim, mostly Hindu, refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). More than seven million refugees entered the already densely populated state after 1947, and their rehabilitation placed an immense burden on the administration.

      In 1950 the princely state of Cooch Behar (present name Koch Bihār (Koch Bihar)) was integrated with West Bengal. After the linguistic and political reorganization of Indian states in 1956, West Bengal gained 3,157 square miles from Bihār; the additional land provided a link between the previously separated northern and southern parts of the state.

Robert E. Huke

Additional Reading
Sachindra Lal Ghosh, West Bengal (1978), provides an overview. S.N. Chatterjee, Poverty, Inequality, & Circulation of Agricultural Labour (1991); and Sachi G. Dastidar and Shefali S. Dastidar, Regional Disparities and Regional Development Planning of West Bengal (1991), examine the important theme of overcoming poverty through industrial and economic development. Morton Klass, From Field to Factory: Community Structure and Industrialization in West Bengal (1978); and Sukla Sen and Jyotirmoy Sen, Evolution of Rural Settlements in West Bengal, 1850–1985 (1989), are both sociological studies.Robert E. Huke

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Universalium. 2010.

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