In the spring of 2004, following the British Broadcasting Company’s naming of Winston Churchill as the greatest Briton of all time, the BBC Bengali Language Service conducted a survey of its twelve million listeners to determine the greatest Bengali of all time (BBC, 2004).2 Respondents were asked to rank their top five choices and in the end more than one hundred individuals received votes. The top twenty were announced one name per day beginning on the 26th of March, Bangladesh’s Independence Day, and ending on the 15th of April, the Bengali New Year’s Day, with the naming of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the greatest Bengali of all time. Sheikh Mujib, a leader of the Bangladeshi independence movement and the first prime minister of Bangladesh, easily beat out the second place finisher Rabindranath Tagore, the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 and the author of both Bangladesh’s and India’s national anthems. Even before the voting was over, however, questions were raised about precisely who was eligible to be considered for the honour of being named the greatest Bengali of all time. At the centre of the controversy were questions about how ethnic, national and communal identities are defined; essentially, ‘who is a Bengali’? In recent years the answer to this seemingly simple question has become

quite complicated. In academia, scholars across a range of disciplines have become interested in the changing role particular places – states, regions, cities, ‘homelands’ and borders – play in the development, maintenance and contestation of ethnic and national identity categories in everyday life’ (Billig 1996; Brubaker 1996; Edensor 2002; Kaiser 2002; Kaiser and Nikiforova 2006). The discourse of ‘globalization’, which describes a world of ‘unprecedented porosity’ of borders where populations and cultural ideas are moving across political boundaries at levels unseen in history, has provided a sustained challenge to the popular notion that place-based identity categories are fixed and eternal (Shaffer 2003: 22; Newman 1999). These movements of populations have resulted in what some scholars have termed a ‘deterritorialization’, or the end of place-based identities, in what is becoming a borderless world (Appadurai 1996; Mlinar 1992; Ohmae 1990, 1996). These changes brought about by the processes of globalization have called

into question the ‘nation’ and other place-based forms of identification as political organizing units. As Appadurai succinctly puts it, ‘[w]e need to think ourselves beyond the nation’ (Appadurai 1996: 158). But do we? Despite all of the pronouncements of their death, the resonance

of discourses that appeal to place-based group identity categories does not appear to be waning in the contemporary world. In many places, political borders and social boundaries often appear to be growing stronger rather than disappearing (Newman 2005; Newman and Paasi 1998). Individuals around the world, from Palestine to Sri Lanka, are heeding the call to defend their ‘homelands’ from outside influence and many people even appear willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause (Anderson 1991; Flint 2005; Jones 2006; Kaiser 2002; Pape 2003). These processes are further complicated in Bengal because communal

religious distinctions are laid over narratives that link categories like ethnicity and nation to particular places. While a small minority of scholars have argued that communalism in South Asia is based on primordial differences between Hindus and Muslims (Kamra 2000), most accounts point to a unique set of social processes that have emerged out of the divide and rule tactics of the British or have been created as modern politics were practiced in South Asia (Datta 1999; Gossman 1999; Freitag 1989; Pandey 1991). This chapter argues instead that communalism, and the notion of communal identity categories, should not be understood as a unique phenomenon but rather as the result of a similar set of bounding processes that create and institutionalize all types of categories that order the modern world (Chakrabarty 1995; Foucault 1971; Jones 2009). As Barth argued decades ago, scholars should focus on the ‘boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses’ (Barth 1969: 10). Just as narratives about ethnic categories describe the boundaries of a group of people that share a common linguistic or cultural heritage and narratives about national categories describe the boundaries of a group that shares a common political heritage, narratives about communal categories describe the boundaries of a group that shares a common religious heritage. Consequently, rather than considering communalism as a process unique to South Asia, it should be seen as another example of the bounding narratives and practices that create group identity categories and link them to places. In this chapter the changing role of places in contemporary ethnic, national

and communal social affiliations will be investigated by analyzing the controversy over the meaning of the category Bengali that was generated by the BBC’s naming of the greatest Bengali of all time. The conflicting and disparate views expressed about the meaning of the term ‘Bengali’ reveal the imprecise and flexible nature of socially constructed categories. It is argued, following Brubaker, that instead of understanding ethnicities and nations as things-in-the-world they should be thought of as perspectives-on-theworld that are constantly in the process of becoming (Brubaker 1996 and 2002; Brubaker, Loveman and Stamanov 2004; Hage 1996; Rose 2002).

These categories are narrated, performed and enacted in daily life as they are contested, redefined and subverted (Kaiser and Nikiforova 2006). At the same time, however, this chapter argues that even while the specific appeals to place-based identity categories change over time, the need to anchor these social affiliations in places appears to be constant. The next section will introduce the main questions about ethnicity

and nation that emerged in response to the BBC’s list and then will provide geographical and historical context to the debate. The third section will investigate the contemporary controversy more thoroughly by analyzing several aspects of the debate that were raised in opinion columns, articles and letters-to-the-editor from English language regional newspapers and letters posted in online discussion forums.3 In the fourth section, writings and speeches of individuals who were honoured by the BBC as the greatest Bengalis of all time will be considered in order to map out the multiple and contradictory ways the term ‘Bengali’ has been used historically.4 In the conclusion, rather than imagining, as Appadurai and others have, a future when identity is completely de-territorialized and place-based attachments will cease to be important, it is argued that the conflicting and multiple roles place plays in the meanings of the term ‘Bengali’ demonstrates that people will continue to identify strongly with places, but in ways that can be contested, shifted and redefined over time.