Bangla mobilityFor many groups of migrants the motivations to move to a new location are mixed. Political but also environmental events may force them out, and the promise of a better life, offering work, wealth and security, may attract them. The people of Bengal in north-east India and what is now Bangladesh have experience of all these factors. Driven from home by the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and then in 1971 by the formation of Bangladesh, many sought refuge across the border or further afield. But natural changes to the landscape and ecology of the Ganges delta have also forced many to move.
The British established a base in Bengal from the late-1600s, and the region became important as a trading and administrative hub for the Empire. This colonial relationship opened up local opportunities, and Bengali seamen were one group whose lives changed significantly. Serving on British ships, they were the region's most active migrants until after 1947 when so many were displaced following Partition, when India split into two states: India and Pakistan.
© Annu Jalais
From the 1950s, many male migrants from this area travelled to Britain to work in trade and industry, with women and children joining them from the 1970s onwards.
Researchers from Cambridge University and the London School of Economics examined the migration of Bengali Muslims in depth to understand more about their histories, what factors influenced their movements, and what skills and resources they acquired from migrating and settling. Researching in eight locations (four in the UK, and four in India/Bangladesh), they explored archives, recorded interviews, used visual methods, and observed everyday life. Nearly 200 life histories of migrants were collected, and some of these can be read on their Bangla Stories website.
The different migrant locations are also described. One of these is Satkhira, a district in south-west Bangladesh, where refugee camps were established for Muslim migrants who fled riots in Indian West Bengal in the 1950s. Another is Oldham in north-west England which was settled by Bengalis who came to work in the textile industry in the 1960s. They adopted a small area now known as 'Bangla Para' where they had access to shops and services and could support one another when attacked or abused by racist members of the National Front and, more recently, the British National Party.
© Annu Jalais
For over a century Bengali Muslims have had mobile lifestyles. Many families have a history of migration, and have relatives in different parts of the world. They have 'mobility capital', those skills, resources and networks that they have acquired as a result of having to cope with displacement, difficult journeys, new living conditions and few material possessions.