West Bengal has shot up in the tourism sector based on Foreign Tourist Arrival (FTA) figures. While it is not apparent from consolidated numbers, an overwhelming proportion of them are arrivals from Bengal’s bigger eastern half. In fact, citizens of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh are hugely significant in terms of foreign citizens’ tourism in the Indian Union and especially West Bengal. The largest share (16% of the total tourist inflow) to India is from Bangladesh. While it may be true that on an average the Western foreign tourist might spend much more on tourism and services on a per capita basis, the citizens of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh more than make it up with numbers. They are one of the pillars of the mercantile economy of central Kolkata as well as in each of the border town and hinterland areas of West Bengal in which there is an Indo-Bangladesh checkpost. Medical visits are the largest sub-component of this tourism from Bangladesh, and their medical treatment expenses tend to be of significant amount – which may be at par with the spending of the Western tourists.
And yet, the Government of India takes no initiative in making the tourists from Bangladesh feel comfortable. In fact, they are made to feel unwelcome. It starts with the visa process where Indian consular authorities make Bangladeshi citizens feel like inferior beings by their tight rationing and very frequent refusal of visas. All citizens of Bangladesh must be aware exactly how the Government of India views them. The BJP constantly creates a fearful psychosis amongst citizens of the Indian Union by playing up fears about illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators who are poor and ready to cause crime and demographic shift in various border districts of the Indian Union. What is coolly forgotten is that Bangladesh actually tops the Indian Union in quite a few human development indicators, including something as basic as human life expectancy. Be that as it may, it historically has been the Government of West Bengal, including the present one, which has stood up against such fear-mongering. During the 2014 parliamentary election campaign, when Narendra Modi had given threats about making Bangladeshis pack their bags, Mamata Banerjee stood up against that challenge and had famously said that if anyone is harassed, she will not tolerate it.
There have to be services specific to that search for roots, that yearning for homeland
What Bengal’s western half shares with the eastern half – others cannot understand. The 1947 Partition was just the start of Partition. It has continued up until today through Hindu out-migration from the east. Muslim out migration from the west more or less stopped by 1965. The number of Hindu outmigrants also outnumbered the Muslim outmigrants by a huge margin, the ratio being 4:1 or even higher. Now these ex-East Bengalis and their descendants form a significant proportion of the population of West Bengal. Most of these families have stories of their homeland and homestead (bhita) from which they fled as refugees fearing or facing communal persecution. These stories are handed down across generations and are part of family folklore. Children know of small town names which exist only in the mind. Now that the 1947 generation is almost dead, many old people are making that last trip home, often after some 50 to 60 years, for that one last look at their real homeland from which they were removed without consent. This represents something magical and tragic but it also represents a pining that is also a business opportunity. In fact, the opportunity is wider. Co-writer Garga Chaterjee’s maternal uncle Biman Dasgupta, who he fondly calls Bacchu mama, currently based in Kolkata, was from Kaunia area of Barisal. Garga took his uncle to his ancestral home, which was more or less intact but occupied by others. He also took his father to Khulna to his paternal grandmother’s ancestral home – a grand mansion opposite the Khulna Club which is now the residence of the South-West General Manager of the Ispahani group. Both the visits were memorable and emotional. And this has tourism potential since the same people like his father, mother or Bacchu mama on other occasions have spent money to go to other places within the Indian Union while the trip to the east is comparatively cheaper. This represents a great business opportunity – this sector of ancestral tourism. But it can’t simply be advertisements. Things have to made welcoming. It all has to be sold right. There have to be services specific to that search for roots, that yearning for homeland.
A development strategy by different stakeholders and a policy prescription focusing on ancestral tourism may consist of the following issues for discussion.
Bangladesh already has special visa categories such as “tabliq visa” and visa free access for “person of Bangladeshi origin.” India, for example, provides automatic visa for elderly Bangladeshi applicants who are 60+ years old. India has also introduced a “Muktijuddha” visa category for corresponding Bangladeshi applicants. Bangladesh can reciprocate such measures by introducing a special visa category for people desirous of engaging in ancestral tourism and for people with familial ties in Bangladesh. On a broader note, a natural question may be raised whether Bangladesh should issue special visas for fellow native Bengali-speakers!
With a focus on the Deputy High Commission in Kolkata, the capacity for visa issuance has to be enhanced. Digitalising the visa application process, reducing long lines for submission for documents, “no waiting line” system for women and children, smoothening the process at the border controls by increasing booths, are some of the fast-track measures which can be undertaken.
In terms of connectivity, the two Bengals (Bangladesh and West Bengal, India) have come a long way. Whereas till the 1990s people could only travel via airplane, now multiple modes have been introduced and people are joyfully enjoying these facilities. In Bangladesh, infrastructure is at-large a crippling factor for development. However, the development priorities have finally refocused on infrastructure especially on megaprojects. The communications infrastructure planning (highways, railways or even inland waterways) can be oriented to provide better connectivity with West Bengal. West Bengal ought to reciprocate likewise.
Government-level action will be necessary. A Joint Tourism Board, with an outlined modus operandi, between the two Bengals would be a welcoming move to promote ancestral tourism. All intergovernmental initiatives have to take the West Bengal government into the equation.
Ancestral tourism offers Bangladesh a unique opportunity to develop its tourism sector, with well-supported backward linkage industries. Unlike in the case of Western tourists, the standards and the facilities needed for ancestral tourists need not be transformed drastically with massive investments.
In order for ancestral tourism to take a mature shape, the demand side has to be catalysed. Otherwise there is no point to enhancing the supply side. Kolkata in general is seen as a holiday destination for Bangladeshis. However, the opposite is not true. Strategic efforts can be made to change this.
Educational visits can be integrated with “development/NGO tourism,” which showcase the widespread socio-economic development progress in East Bengal, which the West Bengalis can surely take an interest in, given many developmental challenges are very similar. Countries around the world promote niche tourism, such as “Halal Tourism,” and Bangladesh should be bold enough to cash on its niches.
While working on demand side, other indirect issues need focus. A fear-factor, a sort of “don’t go there” mindset about Bangladesh, subtly fuelled by negative media (such as Anondo Bazar) in West Bengal, ought to be countered. The best way to do so is people-to-people contact. Simultaneously, avenues have to be explored to air Bangladeshi media and entertainment channels and TV programmes to West Bengalis. West Bengali channels and programmes are quite popular in Bangladesh, and the potential of Bangladeshi channels to gain popularity in West Bengal is promising.
Another factor that may boost the demand side is if there are West Bengali enclaves in Dhaka and Chittagong, which the West Bengali tourists can consider safe go-to areas. In Kolkata, the New Market and the Suddar Street area is one such place for Bangladeshi tourists who don’t have any family ties to Kolkata. Such enclaves are intense economic activity zones and are a common feature around the world: China towns, K-towns, Little India’s, Jackson Height in NYC, Brick Lane in London, etc. While such enclaves usually grow organically, in this case the process can be expiated with local community and policy support.
But when we speak of ancestral tourism, we cannot ignore the elephant in the room: Vested Property Act, commonly known as “Enemy Property Act.” The Enemy Property Act of the mid-1960s, which has been through various forms, has essentially been made void in 2011. The legal flaws, contentions and implementation failures of it are at the discretion of the government and the legal experts. However, the controversy and the fear of “Hindus returning” – in a country where property-related conflicts are way too common – is real. Any policy planning and development of ancestral tourism has to be sensitive to these real problems.
Cultural bonds, a shared history, rising incomes and socio-economic ties between the neighbouring Bengals: all combine to create a unique state of affairs. If Bangladesh keeps to its core spirit and ignites the Bengali tradition of welcoming guests, there is little doubt that a vibrant ancestral tourism sector can and will flourish. Following Bangladesh’s lead, similar initiatives to promote inter-Bengali ancestral tourism can be a blueprint for the West Bengali part of India to reciprocate.